In a few days, or nights, we will be sitting by the Seder, going through the various time-honored rituals, from the wine spilling on the table, to the way-too-long-oh-so-cute renditions of “Mah Nishtanah,” to the slight giggling heard after the second cup of wine, to the munch-munch-munch of how-much-is-a-kezayis-anyway matzah, to the cough-cough-coughing of real he-man marror and the gulping down of shulchan oreich, wrangling over the afikoman (something I’ve never had time to do; I capitulate immediately, as I have three or four afikomans to contend with, bli ayin hara) to the off-tune singing of Hallel and “Chad Gadya,” and maybe Shir Hashirim if it all works out.
(I think I will have the Mah Nishtanah recited this year while the men are in shul davening ma’ariv. But I guess the readership of this article is relatively young, and doesn’t yet have the interminable sing-song to contend with as the clock races towards that Shulchan Aruch-decreed deadline of chatzos. I sometimes wonder why the Litvishe fate, or at least my fate, is to dread that tick-tock towards chatzos on the fifteenth of Nissan.)
But what are we doing? Shouldn’t we know?
Well, the main mitzvah focused on this evening is, of course, the mitzvah of sipur Yetzias Mitzrayim, the telling of the story of Bnei Yisroel being freed from slavery in Mitzrayim. Since very often having an ordered text such as we do can actually be an impediment to realization and comprehension of what we are saying, here is a list of the most basic requirements to perform this mitzvah, and then a list of purposes and goals of the mitzvah. Please read the list slowly and carefully, as much is packed into a small space.
A. The technicalities. The mitzvah is to tell the story: the full story, i.e., the basic story, together with the miracles that occurred, the punishments meted out to the Egyptians, the earlier degradation of Am Yisroel (both physical and spiritual), and their ultimate triumph; different aspects of the miracles; enumerating also the mitzvos that we do this night commemorating all of the above (Pesach, matzah, marror, and more), and explaining their reasons and symbolisms (those mitzvos, you see, tell the story, too). And saying Hallel, praising Hashem for all of this.
The ideal way the Torah would like this mitzvah to be done is to tell it to one’s children (v’higadeta l’vinchah), thus accomplishing the purposes of this mitzvah in an educational, mesorah-preserving way. And to tell it to each child on the level that he or she will comprehend (that’s the idea of the “four sons”). But one tells the story in any event, as learn from the possuk, “Zachor es hayom hazeh,” telling it even to oneself. And the mitzvah exists even though we, and our children, know the story already (va’afilu kulanu…). Also ideal is to tell it in Q and A form, even if one is not fulfilling the mitzvah with one’s children, i.e., even to oneself! And of course the people you are telling it to must understand what you are saying (e.g., in a language they understand). The time to perform this mitzvah is the night of the day we went out (fifteenth of Nissan), and when we have the mitzvos of that night set down in front of us. Some say this mitzvah extends all night (or until one falls asleep), while others say the countdown to chatzos affects all of these mitzvos, including the mitzvah of sipur itself! Though many hold that in any event, the mitzvah, at least m’derabanan, continues till sleep overtakes.
An interesting aspect of this mitzvah is to imagine oneself going out of Mitzrayim, or, as some understand it, feeling as if he or she indeed left Mitzrayim.
B. Of course, understanding what we are doing, and why, is the inner soul of any mitzvah.
A not-exhaustive list:
- Developing emunah and bitachon. Internalizing that Hashem exists, that He intervenes in history; that he is Almighty, omniscient and omnipotent. Yetzias Mitzrayim is, in fact, the cornerstone and fountainhead of this emunah.
- Everyone, in every single generation since that first one (do you realize that?), telling the story, passing it on to the next generation, is the greatest preservation of our mesorah possible, guarding against all scoffers and deniers.
- An important aspect of the mitzvah (according to some, the main one!) is expressing gratitude to Hashem for these events, praising Him, acknowledging Him. And part of that hoda’ah is a realization that b’chol dor v’dor… v’Hakadosh Baruch Hu matzileinu miyadam.
- The acceptance that you are no longer avdei Par’oh — you, as a Jew, are avdei Hashem (see Chadash issues 622 and 623, where this is elaborated upon and explained); in short, the quintessential kabbalas ol malchus Shamayim, an aspect of this which some stress is the fundamental hashkafa of s’char v’onesh, reward to the good, and punishment to the wicked, one of the Thirteen Principles of our faith.
- The very creation, and existence, of the Jewish Nation (us!) as Hashem’s people, representing Him, maintaining essential spirituality in this world by performing His will. Our spiritual release from Egypt and all that it represented and represents. “I am your G-d, Hashem, who has taken you out of Mitzrayim to be unto you a G-d, I am Hashem your G-d.”
A Chag Kasher V’Same’ach To All!