18th April 2019 • Simon Eder • Steven Pinker’s recent book, Enlightenment Now urges us to step back from the prophecies of doom and negative headlines plaguing the world and to a realisation that this is in fact the best time in human history to be alive – that health, prosperity, peace, knowledge and happiness are on the rise across the planet. This belief that progress is indeed not obsolete has a remarkable echo in the Hagaddah which is a book like no other, that charts a trajectory of hope. It reminds us throughout of Judaism’s insistence that history and the socio-economic political reality will eventually be perfected.
There are two songs that we sing during the seder where this is felt perhaps most powerfully. The first is Dayenu with its 15 stanzas representing the gifts that God bestowed and that may be grouped in three sections – the freedom from slavery, the miracles and the way that He offered the opportunity to draw close to Him. It presents God as involved in history, demonstrates His concern for human suffering and above all that the arena in which His focus lies is the physical world.
The second song which similarly progresses towards an idealistic ending is the final one of the evening – Chad Gadya. Its first occurrence was in a Hagaddah printed in Prague in 1590, making it the most recent inclusion in the traditional seder liturgy. It appears to be a light-hearted nursery rhyme but is commonly interpreted as an historical allegory of the Jewish people. Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschuetz (1690-1764) for example viewed it as an abbreviated history of Israel from the Covenant of the Two Pieces recorded in Genesis 15 (the two zuzim), to slavery in Egypt (the cat), the staff of Moses (the stick) and ending with the Roman conqueror Titus (the Angel of Death). It is the final verse which has The Holy One come to smite the Angel of Death that is a messianic hope right at the end of the seder and again highlights the triumph of hope over tragedy.
God’s role in this story of hope is of course central. The contrast with the Book of Esther where He is missing from the action, at least directly, could not be more striking. What is perhaps most remarkable is that this story has given birth to so many other instances of humanity’s quest for freedom. The Professor of Social Science at Princeton, Michael Walzer reminds us that the Exodus is not a story of universal liberation as it is only the Israelites who are saved but it has nonetheless invited other peoples to imitate it again and again. It provided the template for the liberation movements of South America for example and inspired the civil rights movement of the Sixties whose mantra was “Let my people go”. Indeed, as Rabbi Louis Jacobs once said “today as always freedom speaks with Hebrew accents”.
There is also a more personal hope that the Hagaddah offers the potential to explore. This is the opportunity to reconnect to our roots and is perhaps encapsulated best in the teachings that the French writer and poet Edmond Jabès shares in the name of Reb Zale who says, “You think that it is the bird who is free. You are deceived; it is the flower…” and Reb Lima who says, “Freedom is awakened little by little, in the extent to which we become aware of our ties, like the sleeper of his senses then our acts finally have a name”. The Hagaddah, its accompanying ritual and culinary elements is designed to transmit a vital past from one generation to the next. As it stirs not just recollection but reactualisation we in turn connect to all those who have come before and who have also shared in the journey from slavery to freedom.
Modern botany has shown that roots are not only anchors through which nourishment is drawn but that they produce hormones too. So too with us – our roots are not merely a source of stability but key to our entire being. When we read the central Talmudic dictum that is at the very heart of the Hagaddah – “In each and every generation let each person regards himself as though he had emerged from Egypt” at our family seder we use it as the opportunity to dwell not just on our national collective myth but also to share more immediately of how we have come to be here.
The Hagaddah then is a manifesto for a belief in progress. It also offers the ingredients for all those seeking the path of freedom. With its structure centred around the emergence from slavery, deliverance and finally the promise of ultimate redemption, it is from beginning to end an affirmation of hope. As Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi put it both its language and gestures “are geared to spur, not so much a leap of memory as a fusion of past and present.” It is that fusion, the connection to all that has come before that indeed gives our acts meaning in the present and inspires an eternal well of hope!
 Irving Greenberg, The Jewish Way, (Simon and Schuster, 1988), p. 34
 Michael Walzer, Religion and Ethics News Weekly, Passover’s Exodus Story, 3 April 2009
 Louis Jacobs, Freedom in Hebrew Accent, (The Jewish Chronicle, 24 March 1972)
 Edmund Jabès, The Book of Questions, (Paris, Gallimard, 1963) p. 124
 Mishnah Pesachim, 10:5
 Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Zakor Jewish History and Jewish Memory (University of Washington Press, 1982) p.44