After Moshe presented to Benei Yisrael the instructions concerning the pesach sacrifice which they were to offer on the night before the Exodus, he concluded by foreseeing the time when their children will ask, “Ma ha-avoda ha-zot lakhem” – “What is this service for you?” (12:26), inquiring about the meaning of the annual pesach sacrifice. The Pesach Haggadah famously asserts that Moshe here foresees the question posed by the “rasha” – the “wicked” son, who asks it sneeringly, and not in a sincere desire to learn and understand. The Haggadah instructs parents to answer this question with the response presented later in Parashat Bo: “It is because of this that the Lord acted for me when I left Egypt” (13:8).
Ketav Sofer explains the son’s question by focusing on the word “avoda,” which literally means “work,” or “labor.” This son does not ridicule mitzva observance per se, but rather questions why the parents invested so much time, work and effort for the sake of the pesach offering. Moshe here foresees the child watching his parents not just enjoying the pesach feast, but exerting great effort in preparing for the celebration, and so he asks, “Ma ha-avoda ha-zot lakhem” – “Why are you working so hard?”
The Haggadah instructs parents to respond, “It is because of this that the Lord acted for me when I left Egypt.” Ketav Sofer explains this response by noting the Midrash’s famous comment (cited by Rashi to 12:6) that God commanded Benei Yisrael to perform the pesach offering so that they could earn merits through which they would be worthy of redemption. The prophet Yechezkel (16:8), as the Midrash cites, compares God’s redemption of Benei Yisrael from Egypt to a man who finds an abandoned infant whom he then adopts, and Yechezkel describes how the infant was “naked and exposed” (“eirom ve-erya”). The Midrash explains that Benei Yisrael were “naked” in the sense that they had no mitzvot in the merit of which they could be worthy of being miraculously rescued. And so God gave them the mitzvot associated with the pesach sacrifice through which they would earn redemption. Thus, Ketav Sofer writes, in response to the question, “Ma ha-avoda ha-zot lakhem,” parents are to explain to their children that it was through the performance of mitzvot that our ancestors were deemed worthy of being freed. We invest immense effort and vast amounts of time into observing mitzvot because they are valuable and precious. It is through the performance of mitzvot that we become worthy of God’s special protection and assistance, and so each and every one is to be cherished, and is worth every ounce of effort and hard work entailed.
This response to the question of “Ma ha-avoda ha-zot lakhem” is relevant to all the mitzvot we perform. Each mitzva offers us the opportunity to “leave Egypt,” to “free” ourselves from our current standing and rise higher. We should joyously embrace every such opportunity, and be prepared to invest the time and effort needed to properly fulfill every mitzva that comes our way, recognizing that each one brings us higher and closer to the Almighty, and worthier of His grace and kindness.