The Gemara in Masekhet Pesachim (116a) establishes that the mitzva of sippur yetziat Mitzrayim – telling about the Exodus from the Egypt on the first night of Pesach – should be fulfilled through the process of asking and answering. Children are to be encouraged to pose questions to their parents, who are then to answer by explaining to them the story of the Exodus which is commemorated through the special practices observed at the seder. This is based on the Biblical sources for this mitzva, where the Torah speaks of children asking their parents to explain the observances of Pesach night, and the parents explaining their significance as commemorative acts to recall the miracles of the Exodus (Shemot 12:26-27; 13:14-15; Devarim 6:20-25).
The Gemara adds that if one does not have children posing these questions, then his wife asks, and if he is alone, then he asks himself. This halakha, which is codified in the Shulchan Arukh (O.C. 473:7), clearly indicates that the purpose of the question-and-answer format extends beyond the interest in intergenerational dialogue. While this interaction may indeed be an important element of the seder experience, Chazal evidently wanted that we ourselves remember the miracles of the Exodus on this night specifically in the manner of answering questions, by asking and then explaining.
Rav Tzadok of Lublin, in his Peri Tzadik (Pesach, 2), explains that we are to recall the story of the Exodus in this manner because “on this night, a person must feel newness within himself.” The format of questions and answer highlights the experience of “newness,” the process of discovery, of obtaining new knowledge and arriving at a new understanding. When we introduce information by first posing a question, we not only gain knowledge, but appreciate its novelty, because we first put ourselves in the position of taking that information. And this experience of novelty, Rav Tzadok writes, is a vital component of the Pesach celebration. Rav Tzadok likewise explains on this basis the practice of karpas – dipping a vegetable in liquid – which the Gemara explains as intended to introduce something new and different at the seder for the purpose of arousing the children’s interest (Pesachim 114b). This practice, Rav Tzadok writes, underscores the theme of change and novelty. The point is not merely to draw the children’s interest as a practical matter, but also to highlight the theme of novelty, that things on this night are different than they normally are.
Rav Tzadok explains that as we celebrate our ancestors’ emergence from slavery to freedom, we are to acknowledge our own ability to “free” ourselves from our perceived constraints, to recognize and truly believe that we can change and be different from the way we are now. Just as there did not seem to be any possible way for Benei Yisrael to change their condition of slavery, we, too, often feel trapped in our circumstances and at our present level of achievement. The transformation undergone by our ancestors, from lowly slaves to a proud, free nation, and from people submerged in the pagan culture of ancient Egypt to faithful, obedient, devoted servants of God, must awaken us to our own ability to transform ourselves. The mitzva of sippur yetziat Mitzrayim is thus designed in such a way that we experience “newness,” novelty and change, because one of the primary goals of the seder is to realize our capacity to change ourselves and our lives. And we present information as solutions to vexing questions to assure ourselves that we are capable of finding solutions to at least some of our own vexing problems, that our undesirable conditions do not have to remain permanent. As we reflect on the drastic transformation undergone by our ancestors under circumstances which seemed unalterable, we are to feel encouraged and driven to initiate our own personal transformations and break free of our imaginary chains which we too often allow to hold us back.
The second paragraph of the hallel text, which is taken from Tehillim (chapter 104), briefly describes the miracle of the splitting of the sea, stating how at the time of the Exodus, “ha-yam ra’a va-yanas” – “the sea saw and fled.” The Midrash (Midrash Tehillim) famously comments that when the verse speaks of the sea “seeing,” it means that it “saw” Yosef’s coffin, which Benei Yisrael brought with them out of Egypt, whereupon it split to allow Benei Yisrael to cross and escape the pursuing Egyptian army. This association between the splitting of the sea and Yosef is based on the word “va-yanas,” which is used in reference to the sea’s splitting and also in describing Yosef’s fleeing from Potifar’s wife when she grabbed his garment in an attempt to lure him to a forbidden relationship (“va-yanas vayeitzei ha-chutza” – Bereishit 39:12). The Midrash viewed this textual parallel as signifying a link between the miracle of the sea and Yosef’s resisting Potifar’s wife’s advances, that, in some sense, the latter facilitated the former. Many different explanations have been offered for the precise point of connection between this miracle and Yosef’s “flight” from Potifar’s home.
Rav Tzadok Ha-kohen of Lublin, in Takanat Ha-shavin (6), explains that the ocean symbolizes the lack of satiation and contentment. As a well-known verse in Kohelet (1:7) says, “All the streams go to the sea, yet the sea is not full.” Rivers and streams continuously flow into the ocean, yet the ocean never becomes full to the point where it can stop receiving more water. Rav Tzadok thus suggests that the Midrash here contrasts the ocean, the symbol of unsatiable desire, with Yosef, who embodied self-discipline and restraint, resisting a woman’s advances as a seventeen-year-old boy. Yosef represents the force which opposes the sea, the symbol of perennial discontent. The contrast to the constant quest for enjoyment is the self-control embodied by Yosef.
Rav Tzadok further notes in this context that Chazal speak of sea travel as a tense, anxiety-ridden experience. Especially in ancient times, oceans were dangerous, and embarking on a voyage meant subjecting oneself to danger. Rav Tzadok writes that living like the ocean, with a constant need for more, breeds anxiety. If we cannot feel satisfied and content, we live in a constant state of worry, of concern whether our endless desires and wishes will be fulfilled. The antidote to the uneasiness and anxiousness symbolized by the ocean is Yosef, the quality of self-restraint, which enables us to live at ease with whatever we have despite our unfulfilled wishes. We avoid the stormy, unstable waters of the “ocean,” of the endless, frantic pursuit of physical enjoyment and material comforts, by following Yosef’s example of self-control, through which we can experience true inner peace and serenity.
The second chapter of hallel (Tehillim 114) begins, “When Israel left Egypt, the house of Yaakov from a foreign land, Yehuda became His sacred one; Yisrael, His dominion.”
The Radak explains this verse as underscoring the transformation wrought by the event of the Exodus. Benei Yisrael had spent hundreds of years in Egypt, which at that time was overrun by paganism and immorality, and yet, “hayeta Yehuda le-kodsho” – they emerged as a “sacred” nation. Despite having been submerged for so long in a corrupt, decadent society, they left as a people proudly and fervently committed to God. Moreover, “Yisrael mamshelotav” – they went from being subjugated to Pharaoh, to being subjugated to only the Almighty. After having lived under the dominion of Egypt and its tyrannical monarchy, they now lived under God’s dominion, bound exclusively to His rule and subjected exclusively to His authority.
Rav Moshe Chaim Litch-Rosenbaum of Kisvarda, in his Lechem Rav commentary to the siddur, adds that this verse speaks in praise of Benei Yisrael. The fact that this transformation was made demonstrates that the only hindrance had been their state of enslavement in Egypt. Once they were freed from bondage, they committed themselves to the ideals of kedusha and to the service of the Almighty – showing that this had been their desire and wish all along. And thus the verse here lauds Benei Yisrael for the fact that as soon as they left Egypt, “hayeta Yehuda le-kodsho, Yisrael mamshelotav” – they became a sacred, religiously-devoted people, because this had always been their aspiration, which had gone unfulfilled only because of their condition of exile and oppression.
This interpretation brings to mind the Midrash’s comment (Yalkut Shimoni, Beshalach, 234) that when Benei Yisrael found themselves trapped against the sea, the prosecuting angel came before God to argue against their miraculous salvation. The angel noted that Benei Yisrael had worshipped idols in Egypt just like the native Egyptians, and so they did not deserve to be miraculously saved. In the Midrash’s words, “Master of the world! Did Israel not worship a foreign deity in Egypt? And You are going to perform miracles for them?!” The Midrash proceeds to relate that God responded to the angel, “Fool! Did they worship it willfully? Did they not worship it due to subjugation and insanity?! You are comparing the unintentional to the intentional, and [an act committed] under duress to a willful [act]?!” God Himself testified that Benei Yisrael’s genuine desire even in Egypt was to faithfully serve Him, but the grueling conditions they suffered led them to worship idols. Indeed, once Benei Yisrael were released and left Egypt, they devoted themselves to His service.
The Gemara in Masekhet Berakhot (17a) presents various supplications which different sages would recite after their standard prayer, one of which, recited by Rabbi Alexandri, was, “Master of the worlds! It is revealed and known to You that our will is to fulfill Your will. But what stops us? The ‘yeast in the dough’ and the subjugation of the [foreign] kingdoms. May it be Your will that You save us from their hands, that we may return to wholeheartedly perform the statutes that You willed.” What prevents us from acting as we should, from living lives of sanctity and genuine devotion to God, is “the yeast in the dough” – a euphemistic reference to our sinful impulses – and foreign influences. On Pesach, when we celebrate our freedom from foreign rule, we refrain from the “yeast of the dough,” from leaven, the symbol of our evil inclinations. We are to demonstrate – and, perhaps, ensure – that our innermost wish is to faithfully serve God. We express our wish to be freed from these two forces – external pressures, and our natural weaknesses – so that we can “wholeheartedly perform the statutes that You willed,” which is to be our primary objective and aspiration in life.