This is the first new installment in this series since March 17 (sorry). Still, at least 50% of my posts since then have all been about the Haggadah. It’s just that I should finish what I started. In parts 3 and 4 began elucidating the Maggid section of the Haggadah (which is its heart). I got as far as the Laban the Aramean section in part 4, so I will continue from there.
By the way, I hope all of this has whetted your appetite to make Haggadah study a yearly ritual. Your first two steps should be to get a traditional Haggadah (the Artscroll version called The Family Haggadah is an easy to follow, simple, affordable choice) and My People’s Passover Haggadah edited by Lawrence Hoffman and David Arnow. There is a world of learning here.
The Egyptians Did Evil to Us . . . We Cried to the Lord
The Laban the Aramean section, which I commented on in the last part of this series, was the beginning of a midrashic explanation of Deuteronomy 26:5-8. Laban the Aramean figures prominently in the midrash on Deuteronomy 26:5 and so now, I am continuing from the midrash on Deuteronomy 26:6, “The Egyptians did evil to us…”
Most of the rabbinic commentary here is relatively unremarkable. They tend to comment in ways that bring out the meaning of the text without too many surprises or scriptural gymnastics. Yet there are a few places in this extended explanation of Deuteronomy 26:6-8 that are intriguing puzzles calling for questioning and reflection.
Regarding Deuteronomy 26:6 (And the Egyptians treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage), the commentary of the Haggadah is simple. The sages use Exodus 1:10, 11, and 13 to remind us of the roots of Israel’s slavery. The Egyptians enslaved Israel to keep us down, to keep us from coming to power, and to keep us from becoming a threat to their own power. The reason for this comment becomes apparent in the explanation of 26:7.
Regarding Deuteronomy 26:7 (Then we cried to the Lord the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice, and saw our affliction, our burden, and our oppression), the Haggadah commentary leads in a specific direction: the affliction of Israel was about the killing of the male children and inhibiting the growth of the incipient nation. Through a series of references (Exodus 2:23-25; 1:22; and 3:9), the rabbis focus the issue of suffering on the slaughtering of the children. The affliction is identified as disruption of family life. The burden is the casting of infant sons into the Nile. And the oppression is the groaning of Israel. These comments are surprising, perhaps, in emphasizing the killing of children above the pains of slave labor.
It is in their explanation of Deuteronomy 26:8 that the sages introduce the largest puzzle of all, a puzzle worthy of its own section in this article.
Hashem Brought Us Out of Egypt
Deuteronomy 26:8 is straightforward: and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders. The explanation in the Haggadah is not so straightforward: …not through an angel…but through the Holy One…I and no angel…I and no other.
Reading it the obvious question is, “What are you arguing against?” Clearly the point that it is God who rescued Israel is being made from Deuteronomy 26:8, “the Lord brought us out of Egypt.” But why deny the involvement of angels? There is a long history of texts from the apocalyptic writings, the New Testament, and various rabbinic texts discussing the mediation of angels at Mt. Sinai (see Acts 7:53 and Gal. 3:19, for example).
In My People’s Passover Haggadah, Vol. 2, Marc Brettler (who comments on the Biblical background of the Haggadah) sees this as another example of the rabbis giving priority to one Biblical text over another. Specifically the rabbis give priority to the first of these two references:
Exodus 12:12, I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will smite all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast.
Exodus 12:23, …the Lord will pass over the door, and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to slay you.
Brettler shares the commonly held view of critical scholars that the Torah is a composite of several sources written in different eras and pasted together with some contradictions left intact. He sees these two verses as irreconcilable and the rabbis are choosing one over the other in order to hold a consistent theology of the Passover story.
Lawrence Hoffman, on the other hand, gives what is likely the real reason for the strange commentary of the Haggadah on this verse:
This is almost certainly a polemic against Christianity. Origen of Alexandria (185-c. 254) . . . engaged in controversy with Rabbi Yochanan, the most significant rabbi in the Palestinian Talmud, on precisely this point. Origen claimed that the Christian “second” covenant through Jesus surpassed the Jewish “original” one through Moses, because Jesus was the Christ, a part of God, whereas Moses was merely a human agent or messenger.
If you know that the word “angel” is the same as the word “messenger,” then you understand how this Haggadah commentary might be a response to a Christian triumphalism over Judaism. The rabbis here are not necessarily denying Exodus 12:23, as Brettler claims, but emphasizing the direct role of Israel’s God in the Passover. They wish to emphasize this so no one can claim the Jewish story is inferior to the Christian story.
Note: How Yeshua-followers Should Use This Section
Is it a problem for Yeshua-followers, then, to recite from the Haggadah when it says, “It was I and no angel”?
The answer is decidedly no, it is not a problem. Origen had his good points, but his triumphalist attitude toward Jews and Judaism was not one of them. Origen’s attack on Judaism is without merit and perhaps reveals some of early Christianity’s sense of inferiority to Judaism rather than the reverse. There is no need to denigrate Moses or Mt. Sinai or the Torah to exalt Christ. Christ would never share in such attacks. The God who gave Torah is the God of Christ. Origen and many leaders throughout Church history have failed to see this.
It is fitting, then, for Yeshua-followers to insert a note in the Haggadah and explain at this point in the service, why the sages used such an explanation.