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You Can Say That Again (Shavuot)

We usually associate the “haggadah” with the holiday of Pesach. But is there such a thing as a “Shavuot haggadah?” You bet! In fact, its text appears in the Torah itself–and we actually recite it on Pesach night. Read more, here, in this brief thought for Shavuot:

The mitzvah of maggid–“telling over” the story of the exodus from Egypt–is most naturally associated with the haggadah recited on Pesach night, per the Torah’s injunction of והגדת לבנך ביום ההוא: “and you shall tell it to your child on that day:”

Image result for haggadahThe Lord said to Moses: Consecrate to me all the firstborn; whatever is the first to open the womb among the Israelites, of human beings and animals, shall be for me. Moses said to the people, “Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, because the Lord brought you out from there by strength of hand; no leavened bread shall be eaten.  Today, in the month of Abib, you are going out. When the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, which he swore to your ancestors to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall keep this observance in this month. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a festival to the Lord. Unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days; no leavened bread shall be seen in your possession, and no leaven shall be seen among you in all your territory. You shall tell your child on that day [והגדת לבנך ביום ההוא], ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt…’ And when the Lord has brought you into the land of the Canaanites, as he swore to you and your ancestors, and has given it to you, you shall set apart to the Lord all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your livestock that are males shall be the Lord’s…  And when in the future your child asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall answer, ‘By strength of hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery…’ (Exod. 13:1-14).

Yet, aside from the mitzvah to recount the story of the exodus to our children, there is actually another mitzvah of maggid recorded in the Torah. This second maggid is fulfilled seven weeks later, during the annual presentation of first fruits which begins on Shavuot. In the course of that ceremony, one is commanded to once again proclaim the history of the exodus: הגדתי היום לפני ה’ אלוקיך: “I tell today, before Hashem your God…”:

And it shall be, when you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I tell, the Lord your God [הגדתי היום לפני ה’ אלוקיך] that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.  The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house…  (Deut. 26:1-11).

Careful comparison of these two “maggids”–the first in parshas Bo, the second, in parshas Ki Savo–leaves it clear that they are connected. Both mandate retelling the story of the exodus, in the form of haggadah–הגדה. Both occur as part of presenting one’s “firstlings” to Hashem–firstborn offspring, in the case of parshas Bo (בכור בנים/בכור בהמה); first fruits, in the case of parshas Ki Savo (ביכורי אדמה). Both involve extensive reflection upon the process of leaving Egypt and arriving in the land of Canaan, through specific terminology repeated on both occasions (“leaving” Egypt through “God’s mighty hand;” “arriving” to “the land God has granted you;” to “the land of milk and honey;” to “the land He swore to your forefathers;” etc). And both explicitly tie this history to the firstlings ritual which it accompanies.

Once we realize this, we may begin to appreciate more fully Chazal’s otherwise enigmatic decision to place the declaration of the first fruits ceremony–and a lengthy exposition of that declaration–at the center of the haggadah which we recite on Pesach night. For–as demonstrated by the literary links that tie them together–the mitzvah of “והגדת” and the mitzvah of “והגדתי” are, in some sense, complimentary mitzvahs. We begin the process of maggid on Pesach, but the maggid we perform on Pesach night is not sufficient; to achieve its purpose, Chazal understood, it must aspire towards the maggid of Shavuot.  

Why?

Well, there are several key differences between these two maggids; but the most salient of them all, it would seem, concerns their intended audiences. The haggadah of Pesach is driven by, and directed towards, the children. It is sparked by the natural curiosity exhibited by the newest members of any society as they contemplate the origins of the the customs and conventions which govern their participation within it.

Far removed from this is the haggadah of Shavuot. For whereas the Pesach haggadah both originates and aims itself outwards, this latter haggadah originates inwards–and it aims itself upwards. When the farmer, on Shavuot, engages in the act of “וענית” (Deut. 26:5), it is not to explain to others the gratitude he owes God, but rather, to exclaim it, in the presence of the Kohen, directly to God Himself; the farmer “responds,” in this context, not to an external cue, but to the overwhelming sense of gratitude stirring within him–a sense which was stimulated by the inquiry of his child on Pesach night, and which reaches its boiling point nearly two months later, as he surveys the agricultural bounty with which God has blessed him, and connects this blessing to the blessings of pasture and progeny which he had celebrated previously.  

One of the great ironies of Jewish education is that the passion we so naturally cultivate when we want to impart our traditions to the next generation often feels difficult to access when it comes time for us to take part in those traditions ourselves. By coupling the haggadah of Pesach with that of Shavuot, we remind ourselves, as we endeavor to pass down to our children the heritage of our parents, that we must never allow the meaning or the relevance of this heritage to “pass over” us in the process.  Prompted, at first, by the interest of our children, we are ultimately moved, over the course of the next forty-nine days, to investigate and reflect ourselves upon the story we have told, and to personalize it more deeply, so that by the end of this period, we view ourselves not primarily as its narrators, but, most of all, as the actors within it. In this way, sippur yetziat mitzrayim transforms from history into liturgy; from parental obligation into personal inspiration; from “v’higaddeta” into “higaddeti.”

Chag sameach!


Post-script: On the theme of Jewish journeys, personal connection with one’s tradition, and, of course, “maggid,” please enjoy the following, brief book review, prepared by a reader of What’s Pshat? in conjunction with Maggid Press: 

In Jewish Law as a Journey, Rabbi David Silverstein guides readers through daily mitzvos that are fundamental to Jewish practice, such as reciting Birkas Hamazon, praying with a minyan, and donning tefillin. Each chapter covers a different mitzvah, explaining both its rational and symbolic significance. The summaries at the conclusion of each chapter make the book clear and easy to follow.

Image result for jewish law as a journeyRabbi Silverstein not only provides a thorough introduction to the daily mitzvos for those who are newly religious, but he also provides those who have performed these mitzvos countless times with new perspectives to ponder, as he sources a range of both traditional and more modern commentaries. For example, in chapter 1, Rabbi Silverstein discusses the prayer of Modeh Ani. Many of us perform this mitzvah every day and are aware that it is meant to remind us of the gift God has given us by allowing us to wake up and live yet another day. Yet we may not have considered why we must say it immediately upon waking up. On this point, Rabbi Silverstein offers a penetrating insight: he suggests that that we recite it at a time when we are still “groggy” because it “captures the more organic and intrinsic connection we have with God… [At this time], we are tired and certainly not in an intellectual space to engage in intense dialogue. Nonetheless, we recite Modeh Ani precisely at this moment in order to acknowledge that our connection to God is not dependent on the philosophical proofs of His existence. (9)” Other intriguing  interpretations which Rabbi Silverstein advances include the notion that washing our hands in the morning constitutes an affirmation of God’s covenant with Avraham; that wearing tefillin symbolizes a range of both spiritual and educational ideals; and that we refrain from reciting brachos on interpersonal mitzvos because invoking religious duty in this context could in fact undermine the essence of the very mitzvos we intend to fulfill.

The well-organized and concise structure of the book offers readers a quick and easy way to infuse meaning into every part of their day, from the moment they wake up, to the time they go to sleep and recite the Bedtime Shema. Overall, readers will find themselves both illuminated and inspired by this scholarly work. It makes a fitting, contemporary addition to the timeless genre of “taamei hamitzvot” literature.


1 Comment

  1. Ephrayim Naiman says:

    2 Haggadot – can’t wait to tell our children! 🙂

    Chag Sameach!

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