An Unbreakable Promise

BY RABBI DANIEL FRIDMAN

The pogrom of Simchat Torah, followed by the explosion of vicious hatred we have endured in these last six months, bring renewed and intense focus to a celebrated, if somewhat enigmatic, element of Maggid.

Immediately after recounting the Divine promise to Avraham issued in the Brit Bein HaBetarim, and just prior to commencing the core section of sippur yetziat Mitzrayim, Arami oved avi, the Haggadah introduces the passage of Vehi She’amda.  

The common practice of covering the matzot during this paragraph is replete with halachic significance. The mitzvah of sippur yetziat Mitzrayim must be conducted while the matzah and maror are placed before us. As such, this passage constitutes a break from the mitzvah of sippur yetziat Mitzrayim, necessarily raising the question of its inclusion in the Haggadah altogether. Moreover, a slight variation in the proper text of this passage, whether or not it opens with the conjunctive vav, which is absent in the text of Rambam and Abudraham, but present in that of Kol Bo and Tashbetz, further highlights the extent to which this section is meant to be integrated into the recitation of Maggid.

Ritva argues that the opening element of the passage, Vehi She’amda, is a reference to the Divine promise itself. Drawing upon earlier insights of Ramban, Ritva argues that the terrifying experience which Avraham had during the Brit Bein HaBetarim, as he was enveloped in a deep and profound darkness, foretold the future suffering of the Jewish people in subsequent generations.  

And yet, much as Avraham viscerally experienced the future suffering of his children, he was assured that Hashem would never abandon his descendents. In a parallel formulation of the Kol Bo, “For we find with our forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov, that they suffered many kinds of sufferings and were saved, and so too our forefathers in Egypt and they were also saved, and so do we experience the same today.” Our present travails place us in a long arc of Jewish history.  

This, I believe, must be the primary focus of our Seder experience this year. The horrors that the Jewish people have experienced, unseen since the Holocaust, certainly evoke feelings of deep vulnerability. We have witnessed, in the words of Vehi She’amda itself, those who rise against us with the unapologetic intent of total annihilation. And yet, this very experience compels us to revisit our history and recognize both the remarkable resilience of our people as well as the unbreakable nature of Hashem’s promise to us.

In this respect, the inclusion of Vehi She’amda in Maggid becomes self-explanatory. If the essential aspect of the mitzvah of sippur yetziat Mitzrayim is to conceptualize oneself as if one had literally left Egypt – “In every generation one is obligated to view himself as though he came out of Egypt” – the full measure of that awareness is actualized only when we recognize that our salvation from Egypt is a paradigm for all future generations in their moments of peril.

This understanding is reinforced by the specific inclusion of Vehi She’amda immediately prior to the recitation of Arami oved avi. Just before we revisit the historical trajectory of our people, the moments of great triumph but also profound tribulation, we explicitly and unequivocally declare that Jewish history speaks directly to us, reminding us of our unbreakable bond with our Redeemer. While the momentary departure from the immediate theme of Egyptian slavery necessitates that we cover the matzot, there can be little doubt that the recitation is certainly worthy of inclusion, as it extrapolates the particular suffering we endured in Egypt to every subsequent national crisis.

Indeed, this precise sentiment is conveyed by Chazal in a remarkable aggadah concerning an early conversation between Moshe and Hashem, before Moshe had commenced his historic mission:

“‘I Am that I Am.’ The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moshe: Go and say to Israel: I was with you in this servitude, and I shall be with you in the servitude of the other kingdoms. He said to Him: L-rd of the Universe, sufficient is the evil in the time thereof! Thereupon the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: Go and tell them: ‘I Am’ has sent me unto you” (Berachot 9b).

In this stunning scene, Hashem tells Moshe to convey to the Jewish people that their salvation in Egypt is paradigmatic for all future crises. While Moshe, wisely, notes that the Jewish people, in their present desperation, could not bear to hear of future suffering, the message for us is unmistakable. Our renewed encounter with the worst forms of antisemitism, however painful, carries along with it a clear message of ultimate deliverance: “I shall be with you in the servitude of the other kingdoms.” As He always was, Hashem remains with His People, and full redemption beckons us all.

 

Rabbi Daniel Fridman has served as Rabbi of the Jewish Center of Teaneck since 2016, and serves as Director and Maggid Shiur of Beit Midrash of Teaneck and Senior Rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County. He is a proud talmid of Yeshivat Har Etzion and Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. Over five thousand of his Torah shiurim are available on yutorah.org.

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