Laughing at Foxes and Gratitude for the Holiday of Redemption
by Rabbanit Naama Frankel, Rosh Beit Midrash of Midreshet Lindenbaum-Lod
The Maggid is a key part of the Seder, reasserting the importance of recounting the story of the exodus from Egypt to future generations.
What story do we tell? How do we pass on the story of the exodus from Egypt so that our children will listen?
Tractate Pesachim, chapter 10 in the Mishna offers us some guidance: “A father teaches his son in accordance with the son’s knowledge, starting with censure, and ending with praise…” Each parent must think about his children and contemplate how to convey the story of the exodus to them.
The Gemara discusses a dispute regarding the “censure” a parent is supposed to begin with. Should we begin with “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt?” – a reference to physical bondage, or should we begin with “… at first, our ancestors were idolators…” – alluding to a “spiritual bondage”?
Ultimately, both approaches are discussed in the Haggada, in chronological order. Physical bondage appears first, and within this bondage, we can identify our spiritual bondage.
Many have wondered why we begin with censure. By preceding praise with censure, what have we enabled? The Slonimer Rebbe proposes a different interpretation of the word “censure”. He views it not as an admonishment of the people of Israel for the sin they had committed, but rather as a state of baseness a person is in. He writes there that the greatest miracle isn’t the splitting of the Red Sea or the ten plagues. Rather, it’s the miracle of Hashem’s love of the Jewish people. Even though they seemed “base”, and had stooped to the lowliest spiritual level, Hashem chose them as His people. Had Hashem chosen the people of Israel at its spiritual heyday, we might suspect that His love for us is contingent on what we do, and that once we fall out of favor with him, He will abandon us. Knowing this allows us to feel secure, just like a couple that decides to marry does so not only because of their mutual esteem, but also because both are aware of each other’s shortcomings and flaws.
So much for the beginning of Maggid. How are we supposed to end it?
The Mishnah, Tractate Pesachim chapter 10, discusses this issue:
Up until when does he recount [the exodus]? “Beit Shamai… [says] until “as a happy mother of children”, [while] Beit Hillel… [states that we should read until]: “the flint into a fountain of water”. Rabbi Tarfon says [to read until]: “who redeemed us and our forefathers from Egypt”, and Rabbi Akiva states: “So Lord our God and God of our ancestors, let us come to reach other seasons and festivals in peace, joyful in the rebuilding of Your city, and jubilant in Your Temple service, where we will eat from the offerings and Pesach sacrifices etc.’…
This text describes a dispute between the disciples of Shammai and the disciples of Hillel over whether the Maggid should end with the first chapter of Hallel or the second. When reading this for the first time, this strikes us as a surprise. Usually, the disciples of Shammai are more stringent. Their philosophy was based on their belief that the heavens were created first, and they have high demands of us. Conversely, the disciples of Hillel often adapt themselves to reality, following the philosophy of “the Earth was created first”. If so, why would the disciples of Shammai opt to take a “more lenient” approach by shortening the reading, while the disciples of Hillel take a more stringent approach by extending it?
Some might suggest that the disciples of Shammai opt to shorten the reading, since they feel that the evening centers on the children, and fear that if the reading is too long, we’ll lose the children’s attention. This view is buttressed by a Mishnaic text recounting how Shammai the Elder would take special care to have newborn babies sleep in the Sukkah, since for Shammai, the children’s presence in the observance of these commandments is paramount.
However, this explanation raises certain difficulties. First, were the disciples of Shammai so concerned about just one more chapter being included in the reading? Second, wouldn’t the disciples of Hillel have been equally concerned about the children’s needs?
Seemingly, a different interpretation could be offered for this dispute. We could say that the disciples of Shammai, based on their worldview, which stems from the belief that the heavens are Hashem’s, would choose to end Maggid, the most important part of the Seder night, with general verses of praise: “the name of Hashem is praised… Above all nations is Hashem”. This is the sentence that, in their view, with which we should end the Seder.
The disciples of Hillel, however, base their philosophy on the idea that “the land is for human beings”. Accordingly, they choose to end the Seder with statements of gratitude to Hashem for splitting the Red Sea and allowing the people of Israel to enter the Holy Land (“the Jordan ran backward”), for the water that gushed from the rock, and for the giving of the Torah (“mountains skipped like rams”). This is because they believe that it is best to end the Seder night not merely with a general expression of gratitude, but rather with our appreciation of our exodus from Egypt, which led to the giving of the Torah, to our right to settle the land, and ultimately, to the way we coalesced into a nation. It was thanks to close divine oversight that we had reached this point.
This line of reasoning can also be used to interpret the dispute between Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva, described later.
Should the Seder end with a blessing offering gratitude solely for our exodus from Egypt? Or should it be the prayer of Rabbi Akiva, who saw foxes emerging from the area of the Holy of Holies (Makkot 24a), and held a prayer in his heart, that we should merit not only to thank Hashem for the Passover in Egypt, but also for the Passovers of generations to come. Our thanks to Hashem is for giving us a holiday of redemption which resulted in our becoming a “treasured people”, and brought us to the Holy Land even while acknowledging that the road is long. The faith created by the exodus from Egypt is what gives us and the generations to follow us strength and faith to withstand those who rise up against us to destroy us – so that we can remember that full redemption will, only day, truly come.
We are living in a generation in which Am Yisrael has merited to witness the Redemption which is unfolding before us. We have merited to experience the in-gathering of the exiles, and an tremendous activity and progress. An abundance of rain in Eretz Yisrael, Torah, creativity, achievements, a spacecraft making its way to the moon and even, as we just experienced, an opportunity to choose who will lead the Israeli government. That is Redemption.
Rabbi Akiva’s prayer gives strength to all generations: Rabbi Akiva – who knew to laugh when he saw the foxes because he believed with all his might that it was part of the process that Am Yisrael must pass through in order to grow and attain redemption. He prayed this wonderful prayer that we should merit to eat from the Pesachim and the Zevachim, that we should merit both personally and nationally to see the light of the Redemption and live the coveted dream even if the road is sometimes foggy.