"Has any god ever tried to take for himself one nation out of another nation, by trials, by signs and wonders, by war, a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, or by great and awesome deeds, like all the things the Lord, your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?” (Deuteronomy 4:34).
With these words, God puts the Exodus in the “impressively hard” basket. It took signs, wonders, plagues (but no indicative votes) to enable one nation to extricate itself from another.
From the verses (Exodus 6:6-7), our sages identify four expressions of redemption, which they correspond to the Seder’s four cups of wine. “I shall bring you out” (vehotzeiti); “I shall rescue you” (vehitzalti);, “I shall redeem you” (vega’alti); and “I will take you to me as a people” (velekachti li le’am).
These are gradations of separation, not in a “soft” to “hard” sense, because each transpires; Exodus does actually mean Exodus. As the Maharal of Prague (1520-1609) establishes in his Gevurot Hashem, they reflect stages of physical, emotional and spiritual detachment, diminished dependence and a progression to autonomy.
“I shall bring you out”. The first priority in escaping subjugation is throwing off physical fetters. Through the signs, wonders and plagues, the Children of Israel were released from the hardship of Egyptian servitude. Though physically out, while they had pursuers behind them and the sea in front, they were not truly free. “Rescue” means the removal of threat and apprehension; it is independence.
In the wilderness, life could not be a permanent Pesach, driving ahead but looking only in the rear-view mirror of traumatic experience and past enemies. Having established “freedom from”, the next two expressions progress “freedom to”. Though manna was a miraculous daily welfare hand-out from God, gathering it for ourselves was the beginning of acquiring responsibility.
Further, keeping Shabbat (where we restrained ourselves from foraging) expressed confidence, vision beyond subsistence. With Shabbat, we set limits in our lives. We experience pleasure, bonding as families and people.
Monty Python suggests, “For millions this life is a sad vale of tears, sitting round with nothing to say,/ While scientists say we’re just simply spiralling coils, of self-replicating DNA” (The Meaning of Life). Our life can be more! It can be imbued with purpose and meaning beyond propagating just more of the same.
The fourth transition is to be taken to God. This is life with direction and hope. We are established around the constitution of the Torah. We head towards the land of Israel. We build an edifice celebrating spiritual loyalties. How far we have come from building store-cities for oppressive task masters!
In explaining his model, the Maharal notes that we begin trapped in the dominion of the Egyptians, move into empty space, where we come to ourselves. There, we are initially wholly dependent on Hashem before being able to choose to follow the Divine Way. True freedom is the capacity to make the hard choices between right and wrong, rather than existential choices between survival and demise.
Some see Seder in purely Jewish historical terms. Others consider wider messages of liberation. The Maharal reminds us that Seder challenges us to look at growth on the macro and the micro level. Within the great miracles of history, God sought to teach us about responsibility and accountability.
Though mentions of Brexit evoke an exasperated “Dayeynu! Enough already!” and the Seder, itself, calls “Order! Order!”, it is precisely with reference to Dayeynu that the Maharal makes these observations. He traces the fifteen stages of Dayeynu, demonstrating that they are not just a sequence of happenings, joined to each other by an incongruous refrain. Dayeynu maps a paradigm of liberation.
Whether it is our own history, others’ experience of subjugation, or being a victim of abuse, there is a journey, not a single step to freedom. This is not a journey that we readily start on our own. It begins with chinks in the oppressive armour and with help from outside. Once begun, it takes a while till we can stand up for ourselves and even longer till we can look more forward than back.
From our vantage point of freedom, to be trapped between Egypt and the sea or to remain in the wilderness eating manna would not satisfy. We look back at the fifteen milestones and need to have passed them all. As such, Dayeynu, “It would have been sufficient” seems perplexing. Could we say that partial liberation would suffice? Freedom in name only? “Dayey-no”?
On Pesach, we dare not phrase the question whether “half a loaf is better than no bread at all.” From the perspective of a person embarking on a journey to freedom, each incremental change, each augmentation of empowerment might seem a worthy end.
What wonderful miracles have underpinned our survival and regeneration in recent years. As a Jewish world we should not stagnate nor become complacent with our situation. Our Seder steers us forwards in our mission to live by high standards and infuse the world with higher purpose. “Ba’avor zeh” : it is for this that Hashem rescued me from Egypt.
Jeremy Lawrence is senior rabbi of Finchley United Synagogue