Continuing from the Avadim Hayinnu paragraph, we move on to the second part:
Even if we were all wise etc. we would still be obligated to discuss the exodus..."
The second paragraph talks about a group of Rabbis at a Seder in which stay up all night telling the story.
This is the only time the rabbis feel it's necessary to back up a statement in the Haggadah with a story about the rabbis. This is their proof of the validity of the principle the discussing the Seder all night is praiseworthy.
If this statement needed a anecdote by way of proof, there's a better story in Talmud which proves out the point:
When the Talmud was closed, Rav (the compiler of the Talmud) added quotes of Rabbi Yehudah which were not included in the Mishnah (Tosephta contains these sayings at the end of each Gemorah). Rebbe in the Tosephta on Pesachim says that Rabban Gamliel and the elders were reclining at the house of Bitos ben Zonin discussing the laws of Passover the entire first night until dawn. When it came dawn, they removed the table, and the owner asked them to leave. So they continued talking as they gathered and went to the house of study where they continued their discussion.
Isn't this a better story? These guys didn't even stop at dawn! They just kept right on going.
Clearly there’s something else in this paragraph that we’re supposed to derive. What else is going on here?
Going back to the text, we make the assumption that we're all wise, knowledgeable, and experienced in Torah, but still we're required to repeat the story tonight, and to discuss it at length in order to be praiseworthy.
The Haggadah is creating a 3 tier person:
First, one already knows the story
Second, one tells the story
And third, one elaborates the story, sitting the whole night to tell the story.
What are these three tiers of people?
When you talk about elaboration, it’s a form of excess. Is that normally considered a good thing?
You have the example of someone who gives charity. It’s a good thing, right? But what if you give so much charity, that you can't hold onto your house, your business, etc, you literally put your life in jeopardy to help others. Jewish law says you're not allowed to bankrupt yourself to do charity. It’s excessive. Excessive behavior is dangerous, often harmful.
Should a person pray the whole day? Or study the whole day? Even good things to excess are wrong.
What about Praising G-d? Can that be excessive? Can't we embellish prayers, to beyond the narrow confines of the defined and codified prayers?
In most religions this is considered virtuous. The more prayer you give to G-d, the greater. People who speak in tongues, who get up before congregations and testify to G-d in their lives, all these are accounted praiseworthy in their various religions.
But Judaism has a codified prayer format which we neither add to, nor subtract from. Doesn't that take away from the fervor? The emotional connection to G-d?
[Doesn't the Mishnah say you can't add or subtract from a Mitzvah?]
The Shema Esray (18 blessings that form the cornerstone of the prayer service) was established by the 120 scholars of the great Assembly (including Mordechai from the Book of Esther.), but Shimon Hapakuli is credited with creating the Siddur, Why is this since it was originated before? Because the oral tradition was being lost, and he wrote it back in the proper sequence. After that work of compiling the Siddur had been completed, they didn't modify it again. The Talmud from tractate Megillah says why this form shouldn’t be changed. It cites Psalms where, David says "Who is worthy to praise G-d? He who completely understands him." Since we, in this time, don't have that connection and that understanding, we have to trust the rabbis of the great assembly to provide a way to praise G-d appropriately.
The Talmud goes on to say: "who relates the praises of G-d to excess will be uprooted from the world.” And it explains that if you praise G-d from a position of limited understanding, it might be for the wrong thing and could potentially be an insult. For instance, if you met Albert Einstein for the first time, and you don’t know who he is, so you say “Nice suit,” it could be considered an insult. The suit is not the extraordinary thing about Albert Einstein.
So, with that understanding, excessive praise might become a problem.
But yet on the night of Passover, we become praiseworthy for our excess in our retelling. Why is there no problem here?
Because it's the story that’s being told.
How do you get excessive about the story? A story is a story. Wouldn't it almost make more sense to get excessive about G-d? G-d is infinitely multifaceted, there’s a lot to gush about. The story is a story. It has a beginning, some things happen, and it ends.
Rambam says in Mishnah Torah, his book detailing the laws presented in Torah, that the Talit (prayer shawl) is not required in the evening, except on Yom Kippur. Nevertheless, everyone should still recite the section of the Shema (3rd paragraph) that talks about the Talit because it mentions the exodus from Egypt, and one is commanded to remember the exodus every day and night.
So on Passover, this is nothing special to tell the story of Egypt. We do this all the time.
However, Rambam has a second book, Sefer Mitzvot which lists the 613 commandments of the Torah. And this book, the Rebbe (z’l) points out does NOT mention that recounting the Exodus from Egypt is a commandment. However, recounting the Exodus on Passover is. [There was something in the text about how it’s not separate commandment, it’s an inference: You will do x, and you will remember that I took you out of Egypt]
One way to differentiate between the two Mitzvot is that daily we have to think about it, we do not necessarily have to mention it, but on Passover, we must actual recount the story. The obligation is in the telling.
On Passover, to break with the usual, emphasize the difference between this and other times, we not only tell the story out loud, which is normally not required, but we are excessive in the telling.
The Malbim (a leader of the Jewish community in Poland 200 years ago) points out that since we're wise, knowledgeable, and understanding, we don't personally gain from telling the story at length, but the people who HEAR the story we tell, they gain. And we pass the story on to them, so that the story will never be forgotten, and our children, and their children, and their children will learn the story and internalize it, and pass it on to their turn and therefore the knowledge will continue.
Continuing in that line, in Psalm 78, David says that G-d established a testimony in Jacob, and a emplaced a Torah in Israel.
This means that, for the generation that experienced it, it is a testimony, and for the later generation, it is a study in Torah, So we teach our children. There's first a point of testimony, which is your identity, and then there's a point of study, which is where you teach who you are to the children.
So this embellishment isn't for you. It isn't your obligation that's being fulfilled by excess, you're creating a mitzvah for others, by expanding their knowledge and their understanding, and that is an extra, praiseworthy act.
There's another element, brought out in Midrash Barrah on Numbers: There is a characteristic of bashfulness that leads people to not sin. This is an inherent quality of the people who came out of Egypt and saw revealed G-dliness. [And there’s argument about this Midrash, given that that 3 days after this, we built the golden calf, etc.]
But this Midrash believes that because the Jewish community stood at Mt. Sinai, we should all feel, even now, the effects of that exodus, which awakens in us a fear of sin, a bashfulness, a sense of humility, that is still with us.
So you might be wise, you might know the story, but can you tell the story? Can you bring it out of you, to show how it's effected you, that it deeply rooted inside you? Have you inherited that feeling that reflects how our parents came out of Egypt?
When we relate the story, it is as real to you as the Holocaust is to those people who survived it and their children? Does it have that real, strong, connected feeling that comes from being emotionally attached to the events? A child who is third generation American doesn’t generally feel that same immediate loss of the Holocaust. It’s history. We need to feel the immediacy of the Exodus and the redemption and bring it out in the story, to make the story excessive, and personal rather than simply relating a dry history of something that happened to people who are long dead and have no connection to us.
There’s a saying that "You shall pursue righteousness". The Talmud comments on this saying: this teaches that you should go after (literally pursue) the scholar who can teach you and don't settle for something of lesser quality. It goes through a whole list of scholars, Go after R. Eliezer, he lived in Lod, and last on the list the Talmud urges you go to Rabbi Akiva, in B'nai Brak.
Our story in the Haggadah takes place in B'nai Brak. So these Rabbis had gone to Rabbi Akiva's table, to his home turf. The righteousness they pursued was Rabbi Akiva. They wanted to hear his story of the Seder.
What makes Rabbi Akiva so special? What can we learn from the other Rabbis, all great Rabbis in their own right, going to Rabbi Akiva?
Rabbi Akiva was unique in his time. The Talmud relates a story of four great scholars seeking spiritual enlightmentment. They studied hard, and they unlocked the gates, and ascended to the spiritual orchard (there’s commentaries on this. Separate topic. Long story, short). Of the four scholars, this is what happened. Ben Azi died instantly. Ben Zoma became insane. Acher (who had been a Rabbi, but had become a heretic) perverted what he saw, and Rabbi Akiva came in peace, and left in peace. He was the only one who was able to go beyond the intellectual, into the spiritual realm, and come back with his whole mind intact, a synthesis of mind and body, spirit and intellect.
So why does the Haggadah tell this story, instead of another? Because it wants to teach you that the story of Passover must be more than just the intellectual exercise of telling the story, but the soul needs to experience the story as well, like Rabbi Akiva who was able to experience the spirituality of G-d and bring it back down and express it in a healthy manner. The other rabbis crowded around Rabbi Akiva so they could experience the spirituality of the Passover. At Ben Zonin’s table, the Rabbis intellectualized the experience; they studied it. At Rabbi Akiva’s table, they both studied and experienced it.