The four verses that form the core of Haggadah, read as follows:
‘An Aramean misplaced my ancestor, and he went down to Egypt, where he became a great, powerful and numerous people. The Egyptians acted badly to us, afflicting us and oppressing us with hard labour. We cried out to Hashem, God of our ancestors, and Hashem heard our voice, and saw our affliction, our labour and the pressure we were under. Hashem brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand, an outstretched arm, great acts of awe, signs and wonders...’
Together they weave together a tapestry that depicts the journey of Seder night…
Why did we need to go into Egypt?
Lurking in the background throughout Seder night lies an obvious challenge. We are gathered to thank God for deliverance from Egypt, but who got us there in the first place? As the Haggadah itself declares, God’s covenant with Abraham was predicated upon not only one emergence from Egypt, but on going down there in the first place!
It turns out that in Egypt we lost forever the ability to accept the world based on paganism, power and oppression. We gained a depth of commitment to something far greater. It is this journey that the four verses focus us on.
In the retelling of the Haggadah, there are four stages. Each is expressed by one of the verses from the farmer’s declaration. The first stage was the effort of the first three generations who collectively helped develop the family of Egypt. Together they developed the spiritual equivalent of a gene - something that could be inherited and passed on.
The second stage was the planting of the family into Egypt. Like a seed that decomposes before sprouting, in Egypt they lost all ability to exist. Physically, an enslaved Semitic group would never emerge from Egypt as an independent, recognisable entity. But they lost something far deeper. According to the Talmud, they lost any right to exist to the point where the angels could not discern a spiritual distinction between Egypt and Israel. In Kabbalistic language they sank to the forty-ninth level of spiritual impurity. No laws that govern the world could have allowed for the possibility of the emergence of Israel. The seed had utterly decomposed.
But there was a third stage, and it is expressed in the third verse. When the physical and spiritual laws tell us we will not exist, the only hope is to reach for something greater than both. ‘We cried out to Hashem, God of our ancestors’. The ancestral gene, the ability to leap to the Source of all creation, came to the fore.
Citizens of the Future
It is easy to miss the significance of the three steps. The net result is that what was created in Egypt was not like any other polity, not even with the addition of a covenant. What is created in Egypt is a people whose existence cannot be supported by the world as the world is now. In a sense a people who do not belong fully to the world, but exist within the world solely through a relationship with the Creator of the world. The Creator of the world had a dream for the world. That dream is the way the world will be in the future. In the depth of slavery in Egypt, Israel became a people who simply could not exist in the world as it was then, nor even the world as it is now. In calling out to God, we asked to become citizens of the world that He dreams of; the world that will be. We became citizens of the future.
It is the ability to visualise a world of possibilities different to those that seem achievable today that is the secret of true freedom. Political liberty frees us from the shackles of another to pursue the desires of the self; but true liberty frees us from the shackles of ourselves to pursue the possibilities that lie beyond the self.
But the leap from us to God is only one part of the story. God’s response forms the fourth stage. It was the ten strikes (or plagues) that set us free. That is where the Haggadah turns to next…
Rabbi Daniel Rowe is the Executive Director of Aish UK. He holds a BA in Philosophy from University College London and an MPhil in Philosophy from Birkbeck College. He studied for a decade in Israel in various Talmudic institutes and is considered one of the most dynamic Jewish speakers in the UK, teaching in campuses, communities and schools across the country.
Rabbi Rowe is known for his ability to tackle difficult topics and has numerous videos and articles online. In 2016, Rabbi Rowe took part in a live televised debate with a leading atheist, dubbed "The God Debate".
Rabbi Rowe has played an instrumental role in the creation and development of many organisations and initiatives such as the Forum for Jewish Leadership, the Aleinu Conference and Shabbat UK.