1. The trauma
Historically, the people of Israel experienced times that were much worse than the life in Egypt. There were times that were more stressful, more violent, dangerous and much more threatening. Yet Passover is the most meaningful Jewish holiday of them all.
It’s because there isn’t a sadder experience than occupation, and no stronger memory. It wasn’t important to them that they were better off economically under the Egyptians. The Israelites arrived in Egypt because of the ongoing famine – Jacob and his sons traveled to the New York of Pharonic times in order to scrape the sides of the fleshpots.
Two hundred and ten years afterwards, they left Egypt because they understood that the will to be free is a stronger drive than hunger. They understood – maybe at the last minute – that foreign occupation eats away at one’s soul. The Egyptians for their part took too long to understand how strong was our will to be independent. The occupier never understands that the occupied will decide to stop at nothing to be free.
2. Golden calf
Contrary to what we learned in school, the Israelites did not build the golden calf to replace the God of the Jews. The Ramban, one of the most revered Torah commentators, says that no where does it indicate that Israel wanted to engage in idolatry.
Moses was on the mountain for a very long time and the people did not know how to worship God in the absence of their full-time guide. So they invented a huge mezuzah for themselves so they would have something to kiss.
It’s easy to get confused by an invisible God who expects you first and foremost to be a moral person. It’s a lot more convenient to search for something symbolic like a bypass road on which to prostrate oneself, or to wear a red string on one’s wrist, to convert God into a bottle of olive oil that has been blessed by some Jewish holy man and put on the window sill to catch some sun.
Jewish history is full of calves such as these, some made of gold and some made of lead and blood. It’s just that this is not even close to a remote substitute for the real thing.
3. Dad’s coming
It’s probably my favorite episode in the Bible. Moses descends Mt Sinai with the stone tablets and discovers the golden calf. He goes berserk. After his fit of rage when he smashes the stone tablets, he sets up a tent outside of the Israelites camp, where he remains, refusing to come out.
The nation watches from a distance and refuses to draw near. He is alone there with the feeling of an irreconcilable rift that cannot be mended. Instead of returning to the mountain, he lays in his tent under a blanket and like depressed people, he does nothing. But then father appears. A cloud of smoke descends upon the tent, leaving only the two of them.
“And God spoke to Moshe face to face, as a man would speak with his fellow; then he would return to the camp.”
This is the first and last time in the Bible that God appears not because he has something historic to say and not because he needs to move the plot along or create signs and wonders. He appears for only one reason: To comfort the child.
Why not allow yourselves a Haggadah translated into Hebrew? Nothing's wrong with that. The ‘shonra’ in 'Had Gadya' is a cat in every language. Aramaic has no religious significance. It was the official language of the Persian Empire, something like computer English today. The educated of that era used it for commerce and for the politics of diplomacy.
Over the years it mixed a bit with Hebrew (Just like our ‘bye’ and ‘yalla’). In any case you already know the important stuff. Maybe this sounds like a joke but the Hebrew word for joke is actually Aramaic. The almost untranslatable colloquial ‘davka’ is Aramaic, as are the words for scarecrow, salesperson and buttocks.
A number of particularly successful translated Haggadahs have been published over the last year. I intend to buy one of them. Whoever wishes to perform the commandment of retelling the story of the exodus from Egypt needs to do it in a language the children can understand.
There is a feminist heroine in the story of the exodus from Egypt. It’s hard to protect her because men wrote the story, but she is present. Miriam, sister to Moses, seems to have been one of the strongest women in our history. She is so dominant that the prophet Micha mentions her as part of the leadership triumvirate: Moshe-Aaron-Miriam.
She was responsible for the most important commodity in the desert – water. The Haggadah mentions ‘Miriam’s Well’, a kind of wondrous water source that goes everywhere with her.
When the people of Israel camp, the well floats behind her and settles among the people. Miriam is the only one who scolds Moses when he has a relationship with a Cushite woman.
God, who isn’t thrilled that someone is yelling at his favored son, strikes her with leprosy for seven days. The important thing is that the Israelites – at a time when they were scared to death of leprosy – refused to continue without her. “And the people did not start out again until she was brought back.”
They sat and waited for her in the sweltering heat of the desert thick with flies until she regained her health. It seems they appreciated women much more than those who afterwards pretended to speak on their behalf.