Reading Lawrence Hoffman’s historical commentary on the Haggadah in My People’s Passover Haggadah is always a joy. My People’s Passover Haggadah (MPPH) has commentary from many angles by different contributors: biblical, theological, midrashic, medieval commentators, modern haggadot, feminist, spirituality, and issues of translation. But I nearly always find that Lawrence Hoffman’s historical commentary teaches me the most.
In the maggid section of the Haggadah, the part where the story is told, though in a fashion that is far from straightforward, there are quite a few hidden meanings. Many of these midrashim are obscure now, hard to read and discern what their original intent might be.
One of the main sections speaks about Laban the Aramean. It references Deuteronomy 26:5.
But how should it be translated? Is it a wandering Aramean was my father or an Aramean destroyed my father? There is a verb here which usually means ‘destroy’, but which, due to context, is generally taken to have an uncommon meaning, ‘wander’. Sadly, none of the commentators in MPPH explain to us how the ‘wandering’ translation is possible or where else the word is used to mean ‘wander’.
But the thing is, an ancient midrash was developed on the literal meaning of this sentence from Deuteronomy 26:5, “An Aramean destroyed [or sought to destroy] my father.” Who would the Aramean be that tried to destroy one of the Fathers? The midrash says it was Laban who tried to destroy Jacob.
Now the way the Haggadah tells the story is in tension with many points of the story in the Bible. In fact, we could say that the midrash is at pains to twist the Biblical story to its own ends. Hoffman notes a few oddities that stand out in this midrash and which must be seen as central to its purpose and origin:
(1) Laban was worse than Pharaoh. As Hoffman says, this is weird in a book for a holiday remembering the evils of Egyptian slavery.
(2) That Jacob did not want to go down to Egypt but was commanded to do so by God. And once there, Jacob did not wish to remain, but wanted to return to Israel. But in the Biblical story, Jacob is happy to go down and to receive a valuable grant of land in Egypt.
(3) That in Egypt the Israelites became distinct (separate from Egyptian culture and religion). Hoffman says we should note that the Haggadah emphasizes the distinctness of Israel in Egypt.
When is there a time period in which the author of a midrash might want to downplay the advantage of going down into Egypt? Perhaps in such a period we might theorize the origin of this story in the Haggadah.
Hoffman points out that after the Temple’s destruction (70 C.E.), many Jews migrated to Egypt. The Egyptian Jewish community was already massive (Alexandria was close to majority Jewish and was one of the largest cities of its time). Meanwhile, leaders in the land of Israel, such as Gamaliel II sought to retain a large Jewish presence in the land and restore Israel.
Hoffman says this story in the Haggadah gives a hidden message to the Jewish people after the Temple destruction. Don’t migrate to Egypt unless God tells you to. If you do migrate, don’t plan to stay, but return and help us rebuild.
And there is another twist as well. The word Aramean is arami, which can also be read ‘midrashically’ as romi or Roman. Who is worse than Pharaoh? Who tried to destroy Israel? Maybe the Haggadah is telling us in hidden words that it was Rome.