Why “Been There, Done That” Has No Place at the Seder*
It seems that they have it all--smarts, wisdom and understanding. In Sefer Devarim (1:13), when Moshe can’t do it alone, he is told to take אֲנָשִׁים חֲכָמִים וּנְבֹנִים, וִידֻעִים, “men of wisdom, understanding and knowledge” to help out. People with all of that on their side have the goods to make a just society.
Furthermore, when God wanted to appoint artists to design the mishkan, these characteristics were also enough. We are told that God commanded to take Betsalel, because he was filled with בְּחָכְמָה וּבִתְבוּנָה וּבְדַעַת wisdom, understanding, and knowledge.” (Exodus 31:3)
These types of people are ones that already know the ways of Hashem, know the purpose of mitzvot, and also know what is going to come in the next pasuk. (Avudraham). Their attendance at the Seder could possible be a disaster. I could just see trying to tell these people the story of Pesach. I could just imagine asking one of them to recite “Avadim Hayinu” and their “been there done that” facial expressions. Yet, the Haggadah tells us:
וַאֲפִילוּ כֻּלָּנוּ חֲכָמִים כֻּלָּנוּ נְבוֹנִים כֻּלָּנוּ זְקֵנִים כֻּלָּנוּ יוֹדְעִים אֶת הַתּוֹרָה מִצְוָה עָלֵינוּ לְסַפֵּר בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם. וְכָל הַמַּרְבֶּה לְסַפֵּר בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם הֲרֵי זֶה מְשֻׁבָּח.
And even if we were all sages, all discerning, all elders, all knowledgeable about the Torah, it would be a commandment upon us to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt. And anyone who adds [and spends extra time] in telling the story of the exodus from Egypt, behold he is praiseworthy.
While there is often a value on reviewing texts, here it seems that there is much more going on. What is it about the Pesach story, that it is the only one that we are commanded not only to tell, but to describe in great detail, even if we know the Hagaddah and the mitzvot like the back of our hands? A few possible answers:
First, even with knowledge, kavod doesn’t come easy. The Machzor Vitry (Simhah ben Samuel of Vitry 1105) tells us that when we retell the story, we gain more כבוד המקום , honor for God. Getting toward true honor is a challenge. Honor is not achieved solely by learning, it is achieved through humility, through understanding the limits of human capacity and our place in the world. Recounting the story of Egypt and the describing of God’s powers leads to humility, to the understanding of our limitations and God’s limitlessness. Even the brightest and most knowledgable need to find more ways to give honor and learn about God’s power.
Second, even with understanding, compassion and empathy are not guaranteed. Wisdom and knowledge often dwell too much in the head. Even if one knows all the verses and laws, when one reads the story and tells it, they must do so not as an intellectual exercise, but it must be done with the goal of truly internalizing the cries of the slaves. Seeing oneself as one left mitzrayim, or even as one who crossed the sea, cannot be done with wisdom, understanding, and knowledge alone. It is only achieved when one works to go beyond the texts and to listen to stories of oppression and suffering. Allowing oneself to go beyond the head and straight into the heart is critical for compassion and empathy.
Finally, Rabbi Sacks tells us that we still tell the story because “each year adds its own insights and interpretations…..and since the present always changes, there is always a new...facet of the story.” Each year, even if we know the facts, our life facts change. Our personal experiences have changed. Even if we are not different people intellectually, we are different people in heart and spirit than we were last year. At Pesach, we must ask ourselves how we are different and what that newness brings to the our relationship to the Pesach narrative.
This year, as we sit down, books in hand, at our seder tables, let’s bring not just our heads, but our hearts and souls. In this way, we will be able not only to fulfill the commandment of סיפור יציאת מצרים telling the story, but we will be more humble, more compassionate and truly better, more מְשֻׁבָּח praiseworthy versions of ourselves.