Trading Pharaoh for God?

Bo | Pesah By :  Eliezer B. Diamond Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics Posted On Jan 31, 1998 / 5758 | Torah Commentary | Holidays

Everyone knows that four children are mentioned in the Passover Haggadah and that one of them is the evil child. Probably fewer of us are aware that the question attributed to this child is a biblical verse found in this week’s Torah portion, “What do you mean by this rite [avodah]? (Exodus 12:26). The verse in context is as follows:

And when you enter the land that the Lord will give you as he has promised, you shall observe this rite. And when your children ask you, “What do you mean by this rite?” you shall say, “It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, because he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when he smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses” (Exodus 12:25-27).

It has been noted quite often that there is nothing inherently evil in the question being asked. Why, then, is this question attributed to the evil child? Of course, the authors of the Haggadah address this question itself. “‘You – and not him,” say the Haggadah’s authors; “he has removed himself from the community.” Later traditional commentaries provide even more ingenious (and less convincing) evidence that this question is that of an evil child. Some modern scholars opine, on the other hand, that the creator of the midrash of the four children needed biblical pegs on which to hang his creation and that he chose his verses arbitrarily.

What interests me is a corollary of the Haggadah’s exegetical efforts. Regardless of the way in which it intends to link the verse in Exodus with the evil child, by doing so it gives that question some legitimacy; at the very least, by identifying the evil child’s question with one recorded in the Torah it implies that the question ought to be taken with utmost seriousness.

To do this, however, we must understand the intent of the question. Here we are helped, I believe, by the Jerusalem Talmud. In a passage parallel to, but significantly different from the one in our Haggadah, we find the evil child’s question formulated and expanded upon as follows:

What does the evil child say? “‘What do you mean by this rite (avodah)?’ [That is to say] what is this burden which you place upon us each year?”

What is the connection between the verse and the evil child’s question/complaint? The Jerusalem Talmud apparently is playing on the ambiguous word “avodah” which can mean both “rite” (prayer, for example is called avodat ha-lev, “service of the heart”) and servitude. In the mouth of the evil child, according to the Jerusalem Talmud, the verse becomes a sharp critique of the entire Exodus experience: “You claim,” says the child, “that God, through the agency of Moses, took us out of bondage. But this is a lie! We have simply exchanged one bondage for another. Before, our master was Pharaoh, forcing us to make bricks and build pyramids. Now our master is God, who rules over every aspect of our existence from morning until night. This very Passover celebration is part of the servitude foisted upon us. What is there to celebrate?”

A good question indeed, especially for ourselves and our children who live in a society in which autonomy and freedom are watchwords. A good question especially for us as members of a halakhic movement, a movement that affirms the authority of Torah and our religious obligation to study and live by its teachings. Do we not subscribe to a form of servitude, one in conflict with the norms and values of American culture — and, more fundamentally, which contradicts our celebration of liberation?

In a sense the Torah itself is aware of this difficulty and it addresses this challenge. The Torah goes to great length throughout the description of the ten plagues to describe Pharaoh’s behavior. One of the functions served by this description is to contrast Pharaoh with God. Pharaoh is a destroyer of the Israelite family. First he exhausts the men by forcing them to engage in backbreaking labor. Later, after Moses’ first unsuccessful plea to him, Pharaoh in effect plays a cruel joke on the Israelites; he responds to the reports that their labor is difficult by refusing to give them straw any longer, and thereby making their difficult task impossible. Finally, even this is not enough for Pharaoh; all the male children of Israel must be destroyed. The Israelite family, and therefore the Israelite nation, will no longer exist.

God understands Pharaoh’s plan, and therefore his first commandment to the Israelites involves lifting Israel out of bondage by restoring the dignity and integrity of the Israelite family. God gives the Israelites a calendar, telling them from when to count the first month. That is to say, he returns the meaningfulness of time to them. A slave has no control over time; his time is not his own. The commandment of “this month shall mark for you the beginning of months” (Exodus 12:1) restores to the Israelites the gift of time. The Passover ceremony itself restores family in at least two senses. First, the paschal lamb is to be eaten by the household. Second, the bond between parent and child is strengthened as one generation tells the story of the Exodus to the next.

It can be said, therefore, that the Torah takes the evil child’s question seriously and that it responds in a thoughtful fashion. Structures and authority are not inherently bad, says the Torah. The question is: who is commanding, and why? Pharaoh is the archetype of self-centered, destructive authority. Living in the twentieth century we need no one to tell us where such tyranny may lead. If we confuse all authority with the authority of tyranny, however, we are immeasurably impoverished thereby. God’s voice, as embodied in Torah, also speaks to us in the voice of authority; but the intended goal is diametrically opposed to that of tyranny. This authority wishes to awaken in us the forces of good, of conscience. It calls upon us to serve God so that we may find all that is good within ourselves. Indeed, only by doing so can we, when faced with tyranny, find the strength to withstand it.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Eliezer Diamond