Between the Lines—Tzav

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Abigail Treu

סדר רב עמרם גאון סדר פסח ד"ה ומתחיל בגנות

ויוציאנו ה' ממצרים, לא על ידי מלאך ולא על ידי שרף ולא על ידי שליח, אלא הקב"ה בכבודו ובעצמו. שנאמר ועברתי בארץ מצרים...ועברתי בארץ מצרים, אני ולא מלאך. והכיתי כל בכור, אני ולא שרף. ובכל אלהי מצרים אעשה שפטים, אני ולא שליח. אני ה', אני הוא ולא אחר.

"And the Lord brought us out of Egypt": not by the hands of an angel, and not by the hands of a seraph, and not by the hands of a messenger, but the Holy One, blessed be he, himself, in his own glory and in his own person. As it is said: 'For I will go through the land of Egypt in that night' (Exod. 12:12) . . . 'For I will go through the land of Egypt in that night': I, and not an angel. 'I will smite all the first-born in the land of Egypt': I, and not a seraph. 'And against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments': I, and not a messenger. 'I am the Lord': I am He, and no other. (Seder Rav Amram Gaon on Pesah, Passover Haggadah)

It is often noted that Moses is absent from the Haggadah. The passage chosen to answer the famous Four Questions is from Deuteronomy. It is appropriately succinct and does the job of encapsulating in just a few short verses the Exodus story. It also avoids mention of Moses, Aaron, Miriam, or any human actors. The midrash of the Haggadah reinforces this theme, as evidenced in the selection above: Moses might have been chief negotiator with Pharaoh and leader of the people across the Red Sea and beyond, but God Is The One Who Freed Us From Egypt.

On one level, the point made with such a selection is theological. God intervenes in human history and is particularly interested in the Jewish people, who are the heirs to the Covenant. Just as God heard our cries in Egypt, so God will hear our cry in every generation and in every land; just as God rescued us "himself, in his own glory and in his own person," so too each of us can be rescued and redeemed by this very personal God in our lives.

On another level, the point made is about our community. On all other nights, we have leaders and followers; on this night, we have a community gathered in celebration of a shared history. As Baruch Bokser notes in his seminal work The Origins of the Seder, citing the anthropologist Victor Turner (p. 81): "The structure of the Seder permits, indeed requires, each person to join the ritual whatever his or her degree of learning, belief, social status, or ritual participation at other times. 'Society' is defined in its widest sense, as opposed to many other ritual procedures in Jewish culture that exclude people because of their age or sex. All communication that takes place at the Seder must be available to everyone." In order for each of us to feel as if we personally were freed from Egypt, normal social divisions are erased and the emphasis is placed on the building of a community through shared history and a shared present. Or, as Bokser says of our midrash (above, p. 79): "While Moses had a role in the Egyptian liberation, he does not figure in any of the later instances of redemption. It is God who repeatedly intervened for Israel, and it is His historical record that assures the people of hope."