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This article has been expanded and improved in my new book, now at the publishers:
The Beginner's Guide to Making the Seder
It all began when Abraham realized that there is a Creator Who directs the entire universe. Abraham set about teaching the world that the Creator wants everyone to do acts of charity and loving kindness to everyone else in the world. Abraham dedicated himself entirely to the service of G-d, and he elevated himself to an unprecedented level of holiness. G-d therefore granted Abraham divine experiences and prophecy.
On the fifteenth day of the month that was later to be called Nisan, in the year 2018 after Creation, G-d made a covenant, an agreement, with Abraham, called the Convenant Between the Parts (see Genesis 15:1-19). In this agreement G-d promised Abraham that he would father a new nation that would continue Abraham's work, and that eventually he would have so many descendants they would be uncountable. However, they would have to undergo many hardships, including exile, slavery, and oppression. Eventually, his descendants would be rescued from slavery, on that very same day of the year--the fifteenth of Nisan--and G-d would bring them to the Land of Israel.
After the Flood, Noah had divided up all the land between his three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Canaan, son of Ham, along with other descendants of Ham, stole the choice land that came to be known as Canaan. It was Shem's property, and belonged to his children. Three-hundred-sixty-two years later, G-d promised Abraham, a descendant of Shem, that some day the land would be given back to his descendants.
Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. Only Isaac obeyed G-d, and so G-d chose Isaac to continue Abraham's Tradition. Isaac also had two sons: Jacob (also called Israel) and Esau. Only Jacob obeyed G-d, and so Jacob was chosen. All of Jacob's children were righteous, and they obeyed G-d.
G-d caused a famine in the land they were occupying (Canaan), so they would move down to Egypt. They settled in the district known as Goshen. Being descended from Jacob, who was also called Israel, they called themselves the Children of Israel. The Children of Israel numbered only seventy men and women at the time they entered Egypt. In just a few generations they increased until they became a vast nation.
They were recognizably a different nation because they lived a distinctly different life. They labored hard to retain their national identity so that they would not assimilate. They did this in three primary ways: They spoke their own language, they wore distinctively Jewish clothing, and they gave their children only Jewish names. And of course, they never married a non-Jew.
The Children of Israel had not intended to stay in Egypt very long, but before long the Egyptians enslaved most of them. Many harsh and horrible decrees were passed against the Children of Israel in that time.
When astrologers told the Pharaoh that an Israelite male child born at that time would grow up to overthrow Pharaoh, Pharaoh decided to kill all the male children born to the Israelites. He ordered them thrown into the Nile River.
Pharaoh was stricken with a skin disease. His doctors told him that only baths of blood could cure his disease. So Pharaoh bathed in the blood of Israelite babies.
When the subjugation was at its worst, the Egyptians forced upon the Israelites an unreasonable quota of bricks. If the Israelites failed to fill the quota of bricks, their children were killed in front of them, and the bodies were mixed into the brick-mortar.
This is but a small sampling of the horrors perpetrated against the Israelites in Egypt.
Finally, G-d spoke to Moses and told him to bring the good news to the Children of Israel that G-d was ready to take them out of Egypt. "I am G-d, and I will take you away from the oppression of Egypt, I will free you from their slavery..." G-d referred to the Children of Israel as "My son, My firstborn, Israel." G-d told Moses to tell Pharaoh to allow the Children of Israel to leave Egypt. If Pharaoh refused, G-d would punish him and all recalcitrant Egyptians.
Pharaoh refused to listen to Moses' warnings, and so G-d sent the Plague of Blood. All the water belonging to the Egyptians turned into blood, and the Egyptians had to buy water from the Israelites if they did not want to die of thirst. Pharaoh still refused to release the Israelites. So G-d sent them the Plague of Frogs. Frogs overran Egypt, and their incessant croaking drove the Egyptians mad. This was worse than the frogs' annoying habit of getting into everything. Pharaoh still refused to release the Israelites. So G-d sent more plagues.
After the ninth plague, the Plague of Darkness, G-d gave the Israelites two Commandments: Circumcision, and the Passover Sacrifice. Both symbolized complete loyalty to G-d. Circumcision signifies that a man will so devote himself to G-d that he holds even his strongest physical desires in check (though does not deny its needs). Circumcision is a sign one makes on one's body, signifying that one will use one's body only in such a manner as G-d allows.
The Passover Sacrifice was also a great act of devotion. The Passover Sacrifice was brought from lambs or goats, animals worshiped by the Egyptians. The lamb was one of the Egyptian deities. To kill and eat the oppressor's G-d was the greatest act of devotion to the True G-d, the Creator of heaven and earth. It showed that the Israelites repudiated any association with false G-ds. It showed that they were willing to risk their lives to obey G-d, despite the fear that the Egyptians might get angry and take revenge.
To highlight this, the Children of Israel were commanded to keep the body of the Passover lamb intact. They were forbidden to break any of the bones. The next morning they were required to place their lamb skeletons -- intact -- on display in the public marketplace, so the Egyptians would see what they had done.
Some of the Egyptians did indeed get angry, but they were afraid to take revenge against the Israelites.
G-d commanded the Children of Israel to eat the Passover Sacrifice on the fifteenth night of the month of Nisan. (Since in Judaism the night precedes the day, this is the night before the fifteenth day of Nisan. The fifteenth of Nisan therefore starts at the beginning of the night, and ends at nightfall around twenty-four hours later.) The Children of Israel were commanded to do a number of things that night: to eat the Passover sacrifice, to eat matzah and bitter herbs, and to tell their children the miracles G-d had performed for them. This was the Passover Seder --the same Seder Jews have performed every year since then. In addition, the Israelites were forbidden to have any leavened bread in their possession or on their property for the entire Holiday of Passover.
Just before the tenth plague, the Plague of the Firstborn, many firstborn Egyptians rose up in rebellion, insisting that Pharaoh release the Israelites. They had heard Moses warn Pharaoh and the Egyptians of the Plague that was to come, the Slaying of the Firstborn, and they were frightened. Pharaoh refused to release the Israelites, and the firstborn took their swords and began to kill everyone they met. Eventually, Pharaoh put down the rebellion with his army.
At exactly midnight, at the night of the fifteenth of Nisan, G-d passed through Egypt, killing all the firstborn and oldest in each and every household, except those of the Israelites who had prepared and eaten the Passover Sacrifice. G-d "passed over" the houses of the Israelites, and thus we call this Holiday "Passover."
Not only the firstborn were struck. Every idol in Egypt was disintegrated as well. Not a single idol remained intact, with the exception of the idol known as Ba'al Tzefon, because it stood just outside the borders of Egypt. This idol was allowed to continue to exist so that the Egyptians would have the free choice to choose between G-d and an idol.
Only after the Plague of the Firstborn began did Pharaoh agree to let the Israelites leave Egypt. Pharaoh was also a firstborn, and he suddenly feared death. Pharaoh begged the Israelites to leave immediately, during the night, while the firstborn were still dying.
Moses told him that they refused to leave in the dead of night, like thieves, or like escaped slaves. The Children of Israel would leave during the day, and everyone would know they were being released.
The next morning, on the fifteenth day of Nisan, Pharaoh ordered the Israelites to immediately leave Egypt. Moses told the Children of Israel to call upon all the Egyptians they knew and ask them for their gold and jewelry. The Children of Israel obeyed, and the Egyptians hurriedly gave them their valuables.
Rushed as they were, the Israelites did not have time to prepare food, and the dough they kneaded did not have time to rise. So, they were forced to bake them as matzos--unleavened (i.e., unrisen) bread. This little bit of matzah miraculously lasted them thirty-one days.
The Children of Israel wrapped up their matzah and bitter herbs in their clothing, placed the bundles over their shoulders, and walked joyfully out of the land of Egypt. They trusted in G-d, and they obeyed G-d's orders and walked into the desert without sufficient provisions. Though they took along with them many animals, they carried the matzah on their own shoulders; they cherished G-d's Commandment so much that they would not allow their donkeys to carry the matzah.
This took place on the fifteenth day of the month of Nisan--the first day of Passover. It was precisely four-hundred-thirty years to the day since G-d had promised Abraham his children would be released from Egypt. G-d had said that the descendants of Abraham would be in exile for four hundred years. G-d had mercy and counted the exile from the birth of Isaac, the son of Abraham, who lived in exile all his life. The Israelites were in the Land of Egypt for only two hundred ten years.
The next day, on the sixteenth of Nisan, G-d told Moses to inform the Israelites that they would soon be receiving the Torah: G-d's Commandments and the wisdom with which they would live their lives. In excitement, they began counting the days until they would be at Mount Sinai and receive the Torah from G-d. Because of that reaction, G-d granted the Children of Israel yet another Commandment: each year we count from the second day of Passover until Shavuos, the day we received the Torah. This counting later came to be called Sefiras Ha'Omer.
Very soon thereafter, Pharaoh regretted his decision to release the Israelites. He gathered his army and they began chasing the Israelites through the desert. They chased them until the Sea of Suf, the Sea of Reeds. G-d split and dried the Reed Sea so that the Israelites could walk through it on dry land. The Israelites did not cross to the other side, but circled around and came back to the same side further along the shore. When the Egyptians attempted to follow, G-d sent the sea back to drown them. This took place on the seventh day after the Children of Israel left Egypt, the twenty-first of Nisan, the seventh day of Passover.
The death of the Egyptians was not a simple drowning. The Egyptians were paid back in full for all the horrors they had perpetrated upon the Children of Israel. The worst Egyptians were tossed up and down like straw, and suffered many punishments while drowning. Some sank like stones, and experienced some extra punishments. The best of the Egyptians, those that inflicted less pain on the Israelites, sank like lead and were drowned almost immediately.
The Egyptians were punished with many more plagues at the sea than they received in Egypt.
When the Israelites saw the magnitude of their rescue, they were catapulted into an elevated state of holiness, and each and every one of them began to prophesy. Together they sang the "Song at the Sea," in which they praised G-d for all the might and power He had shown them.
The Exodus therefore did more than simply release the Israelites from slavery. It also brought them into an exalted level of holiness. To be sure, they did not remain at that extremely high state of prophecy, but the Exodus gave to the Children of Israel the special status of G-d's Chosen People and G-d's holy nation of priests. From then on the Children of Israel have been a holy people, special to G-d.
Why were the Israelites chosen by G-d? Because of the great merit of the three Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This merit, the Torah declares, will last us forever.
G-d promised us that we would always be the Chosen People, and that no matter how badly we sinned, no matter how badly we would be punished, we would never be rejected or forsaken by G-d. After all, we were not chosen in our own merit, so our sins cannot lose us that status.
G-d warned us that we might have to undergo many exiles, and many troubles, but we would always be G-d's People.
A number of nations have been freed from slavery. None have been freed from slavery with overt miracles, signs and wonders performed by visitations of G-d. No other nation has ever witnessed en masse miracles that declared them the chosen of G-d. This has happened only for the Children of Israel.
It was necessary, however, for the Children of Israel to raise themselves up by their own efforts, so that they could receive the ultimate treasure--the Torah. They used the counting of the Omer to lift themselves up step by step until they were ready to receive the Torah.
On their way to Mount Sinai, they stopped over at a place called Marah, where G-d taught them some of the Commandments, such as the Sabbath, honoring of one's parents, and various civil laws, including the humane treatment of slaves. G-d promised the Children of Israel, "If you observe My Commandments, you will be spared from the diseases I visited upon the Egyptians."
They left Marah, and reached Ailam on the fifteenth of Iyar, exactly one month after they had left Egypt. At that time, the matzah they had brought with them from Egypt, which had miraculously lasted them until then, came to an end. The next day, G-d gave them Manna to eat. The Manna fell from heaven every day except on the Sabbath. On Friday, twice as much Manna fell. The people would then collect twice as much Manna, so that they would not have to violate the Sabbath by collecting the Manna during the Sabbath. The Children of Israel ate Manna for all the forty years they were in the Sinai Desert.
The Children of Israel continued to count the days until the receiving of the Torah. On the fiftieth day after they began counting the Omer--that is, fifty-one days after the Exodus, all of the Children of Israel, men, women and children, over two million people, stood at Mount Sinai and received the Torah amidst great miracles and heavenly fire. They saw no form or picture of G-d, but they saw many miracles that proved that G-d is the Creator of heaven and earth. They heard G-d's voice speak and command Moses to instruct the Children of Israel on how to prepare to receive the Torah. Then they heard G-d speaking directly to them, the Children of Israel, and commanding them to keep the Torah. The Children of Israel accepted the Torah and all its Commandments, and they said: "We agree to obey, even before we hear the actual Commandments."
At Mount Sinai, G-d gave us all of the Torah, with six hundred thirteen Commandments. Ten of them, the basic ten categories of the Commandments, were written on the Two Tablets. (These "Ten Statements" are often mistakenly called the "Ten Commandments.")
G-d also commanded the Children of Israel to build the Tabernacle. That was the Sanctuary, the place where G-d showed His Holy Presence daily, and to where everyone had to bring all their sacrifices. There were also daily sacrifices brought there by the priests on behalf of the Children of Israel. The Tabernacle was a sort of mobile Sanctuary, which the Levites took apart whenever Israel traveled, and reassembled whenever the people camped.
The Children of Israel were in the Sinai desert for forty years. At the end of the forty years, Moses and most of that generation passed away. Joshua the son of Nun was now the leader, and he took them into the land of Canaan and took back the land from the descendants of Ham. They renamed the land "Israel."
Almost five hundred years later, they built the Holy Temple, the stationary Sanctuary. Unfortunately, it was destroyed by the Babylonians when the Israelites sinned four hundred ten years later. The Children of Israel went into exile in Babylon for seventy years. Afterwards, many returned and rebuilt the Holy Temple. This time it stood for four hundred twenty years, until it was again destroyed, this time by the Romans, when the Israelites sinned.
Now that we have no Holy Temple in Jerusalem, we are forbidden to make a Passover Sacrifice. Yet G-d had promised us that though we would experience many exiles, we would always be G-d's Chosen People, and we would never be rejected or forsaken by G-d. G-d has promised us the Messiah, who will come and reinstate the Kingdom of Israel. Then we will all go to the rebuilt Jerusalem and offer the Passover Sacrifice and hold the Seder as we really should.
Thus, in past, present, and future, the story of the Exodus is one of special relationship between G-d and His people. Throughout the Hagadah, no mention is made of the role of any individual human being on behalf of the Children of Israel. Therefore, it is a mistake to place any importance on any personalities during the Seder, as important as they were. The Redemption was G-d's doing, and solely G-d's doing.