(Pre-Script: After I wrote this, I discovered that the core idea is actually offered by Ramban….)
You know that brief, glorious and incredibly annoying phase in a young child’s life when they keep asking “why?” drilling down past parental layers of knowledge, guesswork and ignorance until they reach the rock bottom of “Because!”
Jews love questions. It is part of our annoying DNA. We like to question everything. One could even suggest that we create anti-semitism in part because we instinctively doubt whomever is in charge. But even Jews rarely go as far as I am about to….
I’d like to try the “WHY?” game with the Torah, for a simple reason: if we refuse to accept “because” as the answer, a lot of interesting things can be discovered.
So here goes… Famous Jewish Question: Why do we have a Passover Seder?
Famous Answer… our forefathers were slaves to Pharaoh, and G-d took us out with a mighty hand…. just as it appears in the Haggadah.
But why were we slaves in Egypt?
Answer: Um… because Pharaoh enslaved us.
OK. But why did G-d allow it?
Answer: He told Avraham that we were going to be slaves to a foreign power.
Why would G-d do such a thing like that?
Well… let’s see… we know from the war of the Five Kings and the Four Kings (Genesis 14) that G-d provided a miracle by making Avram victorious, and …. nobody noticed. Soon after, G-d promised a much more dramatic miracle, something that the rest of the nations could not pretend they did not see – the Exodus. So maybe that explains why we had to be a slave people whose deity overpowered the most advanced and powerful nation in the world at that time.
OK. But why did the Jewish people have to go through this experience? Why were we enslaved? Why did we have to wonder if G-d had abandoned us?
Here is an answer that surprised me: Avraham had been promised that we would be servants to a foreign land, so it means that G-d decided on our slavery generations beforehand! What did Avraham do so that his descendants had to be slaves?
I think the Torah tells us, in Genesis 12: 10-20
10 Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. 11 When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance,12 and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.”
Is the Torah telling us that Avraham tried to pass off his wife as his sister? Yes, it is. And it gets worse.
14 When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. 15 And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. 16 And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels.
Can you imagine your husband pretending he is not married to you, and then accepting payment for you from another man without a peep of complaint? (Mind you, this is the Avram who refused to take even a shoelace from another man as spoils of war.)
It sounds crazy. It is crazy.
But think through the logic, because it is actually much worse than this: Avram knew the Egyptians would take her. Which means that Avram SOLD HIS WIFE OFF. For food during a famine. For his own survival. He just cut her loose.
Can you imagine how Sarai must have felt at that moment? She would have felt totally abandoned, and alone. The future looked dark indeed – was she really supposed to end up as nothing more than a harem-slave to a foreign king?
This, I think, is why G-d wanted us to feel the same thing when we were in Egypt, alone, oppressed, and seemingly abandoned by our G-d – the same way that Sarai must have felt about her husband, and perhaps even about G-d as well.
If this is right, then we were enslaved in Egypt so that we would learn how NOT to treat people – that we should feel the same way Sarai did. The Torah is full of commandments that explain themselves “because you were slaves in Egypt.” The experience of being in Egypt taught us the very same thing Sarai was feeling: understanding what sheer terror and despair feel like.
What happened next? G-d sent plagues against the Egyptian king in both cases –for Avram and Sarai, as well as for the Jewish people in Exodus. In both cases, Sarai and the Jewish people left Egypt, aided by those plagues, much enriched in material wealth, but profoundly emotionally bruised by the experience.
17 But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. 18 So Pharaoh called Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? 19 Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and go.” 20 And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him, and they sent him away with his wife and all that he had.
But there is a key, huge difference between the parallel exodus stories: When Sarai and Avram leave Egypt, they never look back. They don’t commemorate the day G-d saved Sarai from the Egyptians. They don’t even (at least in the text) say, “Thank you,” to G-d.
So perhaps, going back to our very first question:
Why do we have a Passover Seder?
And we have a different answer: Every year we remember the exodus from Egypt because Avram and Sarai did not recognize theirs. We must commemorate and show appreciation because otherwise the event is lost and forgotten.
Note, of course, that Avram’s motivation for lying about Sarai’s relationship was entirely unfounded: Pharaoh did not kill Avram to keep her. On the contrary, Avram and Sarai were sent out with increased wealth, basically an apology. So if G-d was prepared to extract Sarai from a harem, why would he not have been willing to keep them both alive, and free, in any case? This was the G-d who had delivered Avram in a miraculous battle, after all.
Yet Avram did not learn from his exodus from Egypt – he tries to pass his wife off as his sister another time (with Avimelech). Which means not commemorating the first exodus led to Avram not learning from the experience – he failed to understand that his wife should not be sold as chattel, to understand that G-d cares about what happens to both sexes.
So perhaps this is the reason we have a seder, why we were in Egypt, why we were enslaved and gave up hope. Without the benefit of experiencing these things, we lacked the perspective to understand how much people suffer and need kindness and love and respect. Avram did not understand it the easy way, so we, as a people, had to learn it the hard way.
The entire arc of Jewish history may have been determined by the way one man treated his wife, coupled with G-d’s determination to make sure we never do it again.
[Another iWe and @susanquinn production]