A. Recounting from "A Wandering Aramean was My Father..."
The crux of the Haggada which we read on the Seder night revolves around "mikra bikkurim" (the recitation made when bringing first fruits to the Temple, as prescribed in Parashat Ki Tavo) and commentary to it: "One must expound from 'A wandering Aramean was my father' until the end of the entire portion" (Mishna Pesachim 10:4).
Rambam understands the mishna as praising one who devotes extensive time to this parasha: "...That requires that he expound from 'A wandering Aramean...' until the end of the entire parasha. And anyone who draws out and expounds excessively on this parasha is to be praised" (Laws of Chametz and Matza 7:4).
At first glance, this seems surprising. Rather than elaborating with exegetical reconstruction upon these four verses, would it not be preferable to read other passages - those directly connected with the exodus from Egypt, describing the miraculous events surrounding our liberation? Would not the parashiot of Shemot, Va'era, Bo and Beshalach serve as more suitable subjects of discussion for the Seder night?
B. Beginning with Shame
The answer may lie in the dual nature of the story which is recounted in the Haggada. The Mishna (10:4) teaches, "We begin with shame and end with praise, expounding from 'A wandering Aramean' until concluding the entire parasha." What is the "shame" with which we open our account? The Amora'im were divided on this issue (Pesachim 117a): "Rav said: [The shameful account begins] 'In the beginning our forefathers were idol-worshippers.' Shmuel said: [The shameful account begins] 'We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.'"
In other words, Shmuel understands that we should discuss the narrower sphere of the story: the slavery in Egypt and the exodus to freedom. Rav maintains that we occupy ourselves with a broader discussion of our history, from the very start of our existence: how our forefathers originally worshipped idols, etc. It would seem that Rav bases this opinion on the fact that the requirement to repeat the 'wandering Aramean' recitation appears in the Mishna immediately after the instruction to "begin with shame." The opening verse of this account, "A wandering Aramean was my father," deals with events which took place long before the descent to Egypt. The parashot from Shemot to Beshalach, on the other hand, deal directly with the shame and praise involved in our sojourn in Egypt and our liberation from it.
C. One Must See Himself as Though He Had Left Egypt
Every Jew is required not only to recount the story of what happened in the past, but also to relive the experience, as if the exodus from slavery to freedom were taking place in the present. "In each generation the individual is obligated to see himself (lir'ot et atzmo) as though he [himself] left Egypt, as it is written: 'And you shall tell your son on that day, saying, For this God did for ME, when I left Egypt'" (Mishna Pesachim 9:5).
The Rambam reads it slightly differently: "In every generation the individual is obligated to show himself (le-hera'ot et atzmo) as though he himself had just now come out of Egyptian slavery, as it is written, 'And He took US out from there.' And based on this, God commanded, 'And you shall remember that YOU were a slave' - in other words, it is as though you yourself were a slave and came out to freedom and were redeemed" (Laws of Chametz and Matza 7:6).
It seems that the authors of the Haggada specifically searched for pesukim which are recited by a person who was not physically present at the time of the exodus from slavery to freedom, but who nevertheless feels these events alive within him and who relives them in his account. What they found were the pesukim recited by the bearer of the bikkurim. And this is what the farmer, laden with his basket of first fruits, declares:
"I declare TODAY to the Lord your God that I HAVE COME to the land which God promised to our forefathers that He would give us... A wandering Aramean was my father, and he descended to Egypt... and the Egyptians were evil towards US and they afflicted us and put hard labor upon us, and WE cried out to the Lord, God of our fathers, and God heard OUR voices and He saw OUR affliction and OUR labor and OUR pressure and He took US out of Egypt with a strong hand... and He brought US to this place...."
He recounts the entire story in the first person plural. The Egyptians made his life a misery, they afflicted him, and he cried out. God heard his voice and took him out of Egypt, and brought him to the land flowing with milk and honey. And now, holding his first fruits at the entrance to the Beit HaMikdash, he recognizes and declares, "I have come to the land."
This is the declaration of someone who has been firmly established in the land for many generations. His is an expression and fulfillment of the reliving of the experience, "as though he himself came out of Egypt." The pesukim of this parasha, starting with "I declare today...," are indeed most suitable to serve as the skeleton around which the Haggada is built and upon which the leader of the Seder will expound and explain at length.
D. A Double Exodus
There are two facets to the redemption of Israel from Egypt. This duality finds expression in the first of the ten commandments conveyed during God's revelation on Har Sinai: "I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery." There is a dual exodus here: from the land of Egypt, and from the house of slavery. The first represents a move from exile to redemption (as happened later on again, for instance in the second redemption: the nation left their exile in Babylon and went to the land of their redemption, Eretz Yisrael).
The second represents the move from slavery to freedom. Chronologically this aspect is mentioned second, but on the Seder night this aspect is in fact the principal one. What is its significance?
E. The Essential Nature of Slavery
We can achieve a better understanding of what slavery really means by examining the first time that mention is made of this concept in the Torah: in Noah's curse to his grandson (Bereishit 9:25). "And he said, Cursed is Kena'an; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers."
For what reason was Kena'an given this extreme curse of slavery? Because he lacked respect for his grandfather and exposed his nakedness (see other opinions in Bereishit Rabba ad. loc., and Pirkei de-Rebbe Eliezer, chapter 23).
What is the connection between the sin and the curse? This may hold the key to our understanding of the story. If we try to define the essence of a slave's status from a halakhic point of view, it appears that the definition lies in his lack of lineage. "All agree that a slave has no lineage" (Yevamot 62a). Rashi explains, "Lineage - i.e. that one's genealogy is traced back to one's father."
However, the lack of lineage is not only in the direction of the fathers but also in the opposite direction - that of children: "A slave has no lineage; neither backwards (i.e. the previous generation) nor forwards (i.e. the next generation)" (Bava Kama 88a).
Each generation of slaves stands alone. There is no chain of generations, there is no family development. Children are not called by the name of their fathers, and so they do not represent their continuation. Someone who lacks respect for his progenitors, someone who blocks the possibility of a next generation, cuts the dynastic chain. He has no lineage or link to his roots, his background, his family; he tears apart the fabric of his tribe. He stands as an isolated unit with neither past nor future, having no purpose but to serve someone else. He is forever defined as "the servant of so-and-so."
F. Redemption - Continuous Chain of Fathers and Sons
In the ten commandments, we see the negative pole - that of slavery - in the first commandment. Where do we find the positive pole, that of redemption? Where is there any mention or hint of the promised land?
In the fifth commandment (20:12): "Honor your father and your mother, in order that your days be lengthened on the land which the Lord your God gives to you." This concludes the first tablet, and if we read the whole tablet at once, we find the continuum presented quite clearly: "I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery... in order that your days may be lengthened on the land which the Lord your God gives you."
Long life on the land, which is an expression of liberation and freedom, is the result of honoring parents. If slavery means the severance from one's family roots, then the establishment of such roots is the essence of freedom. This is the prelude and key to permanence in the land and possession of it.
The individual who brings his bikkurim and announces, "I declare this day that I have come to the land..." sees himself as a link in the chain of the generations. His roots go back to his earliest forbears - those who were nearly destroyed by the Aramean, those who were tortured in Egypt, those who cried out and were redeemed. Someone who perceives himself thus is truly to be called a son.
Someone who lives only in the present and is cut off from the roots of the past is a slave, and he has no future.
G. "You are Sons, For You Belong to the Lord Your God"
Let us turn to the family aspect of the pesach sacrifice: "A sheep for each household, a sheep for each house" (Shemot 13:3), and the emphasis on the children on the seder night: "The Torah addresses itself to four sons...." They are the center of attention; it is to them that the father turns and recounts the story of the Exodus. In this way he establishes a new link in the chain of the generations; a chain in which all the children are related and belong to one another, and none have any master other than God.
H. Recounting from the Beginning to the End
There is another lesson to be learned from the introduction of the recitation over the bikkurim at the seder table.
Like the successive levels of "dayenu" which are recited at the seder, the bikkurim recitation mentions first the Exodus and eventually reaches the ultimate level of the building of the Beit HaMikdash. In the parasha of the bikkurim, the beginning and end of the circle meet. The individual, bringing his bikkurim to the Beit HaMikdash, has himself realized the final purpose of the whole story, and in his recitation he reaches back and relives the tale from the beginning. We, sitting at the seder and experiencing the Exodus for ourselves, recount the story forwards. And, together with the pesukim, we construct step by step the successive levels, aiming eventually to reach the ultimate goal: the ascent to the Beit HaMikdash, bringing with us the first fruits of the land which God has given us.
(Translated by Kaeren Fish. The original hebrew appears in Daf Kesher #83.)