You Shall Explain to Your Child When S/He Asks ...
Rabbis Eleazar, Yehoshua, Elazar ben Azariah, Akiva, Tarphon, and ben Zoma: five of the most famous Tannaim, discuss all night the Exodus from Egypt
The seder, as we have seen, is our response to the command that we personally dramatize freedom from Egypt’s physical slavery. Now come two tales of early Rabbis (tannaitic Rabbis – first 2 centuries c.e.) who spent the entire night until dawn recounting among themselves exodus stories. The Torah calls the seder night a “Night of Watching.” (Exodus 12:42) Just as at the first Passover in Egypt they performed the biblical ritual and then fled Egypt en masse, so the Rabbis duplicated that so-called “Night of Watching” in their own way. The first part of the night, they lived the seder ritual: consuming matzah and bitter herbs, eating a meal, reciting kiddush, and discussing the laws of Passover.
The remainder of the night they retold stories of that exodus night. The previous reading, “We were slaves,” Avadim Hayinu, declares, “even if all of us were wise, discerning and knowledgeable in Torah, itwould still be incumbent upon us to recite the story of the exodus from Egypt; and the more we recite the more praiseworthy we are.” These Rabbis are just such sages. They too must retell the story year after year.
At our seder tables we read tales of Rabbis who nearly 2,000 years ago held their own seders. They celebrated their meals until midnight. Then, unlike us, from midnight until dawn they retold stories of the exodus. Elazar ben Azariah thought he should tell the stories only during the day, until ben Zoma taught otherwise through a biblical interpretation. Ben Zoma taught that the exodus experience would be retold even after the messiah arrived.
Why might Jews speak of the past redemption after the future redemption arrives? Why would it be necessary? Because the Exodus from Egypt engraved in our souls God’s ability to redeem. It strengthened our faith and demonstrated God’s goodness. We, too, tell the story of the Exodus, just as these Rabbis, far more knowledgeable than we, told one another stories all night to relive God’s power to redeem our lives.
These most learned rabbis sat all night exchanging exodus stories because stories animate our personal realities. Verbalized stories share imaginings, and through sharing create a common reality, a more unified vision in a community with a common history and destiny. As such, the exodus as envisioned by each Rabbi approaches a more united and nuanced recitation when shared out loud. But beyond that, shared stories create bonds of admiration and affection among the story tellers. Just as Israel emerged from Egypt together, so these colleagues created a web of relationships envisioning a common experience, with newly conceived images of not only the events of the exodus but with a shared redemptive meaning as well.
When we share our stories, we can do the same. That’s the goal of the seder.