Pesach begins next Friday night, and with it comes the longest mitzvah we can fulfill, the telling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt. In Maimonides’ count it is positive mitzvah 157. In Sefer Hachinukh it is mitzvah 21, and it is fulfilled through reading the Haggadah or through a dialogue with another person, whether a child or anyone else.
Maimonides notes the verse of “When your child will ask,” which indicates that the telling of the story might have to be triggered by a question. More likely, the verse of “and you shell tell your child on that day” is the source for the need to relate the story.
Baal Halakhot Gedolot (Baha”g) does not include the telling of the story in the list of mitzvoth, suggesting that the telling is included in the general mitzvah to remember the Exodus, which is daily throughout the year.
The story in the Haggadah of the five rabbis in Beni Brak has their students stopping their discussion because it is time to say Shema. Were the principle of “One who is involved in a mitzvah is exempt from a different mitzvah” put into play, they wouldn’t have to say Shema! The Haggadah leaves this question open, but the implication is that they stopped in order to fulfill the mitzvah of Shema, which would indicates they were not in the middle of a mitzvah!
Rav Zylberstein was asked why no blessing is recited on the fulfillment of telling over the story of the Exodus (the question opens the door to the obligation not being an actual mitzvah). He argues that a blessing is only recited on a very specific action, such as blowing shofar, sitting in the sukkah, shaking the lulav, lighting candles, eating a matzah, etc. But fulfilling telling the story is dependent on how the story-telling moves a person! At what point in the telling of the story do we get the feeling we’re supposed to have? We can’t be sure, and so there is no good time to make the blessing. The Beha’gists will argue that there isn’t an actual specific mitzvah anyway!
In his Mishneh Halachot (13:68) Rabbi Menashe Klein gives four reasons for why there is no blessing, all while maintaining that the telling of the story is actually a mitzvah. It’s one of the only areas in a Jewish life when we say “V’khol hamarbeh, harei zeh meshubach” (the more you do, the more you are praised).
So which is it? A mitzvah, not a mitzvah; is it something we do out of a sense of responsibility but not obligation?
I think we go about telling the story wrong. We tend to think that we must focus on the role G-d plays in the Exodus. But the promise to Abraham was that “Your children will be strangers in a strange land … where they will be enslaved and made to suffer [a period of] 400 years. And the nation which they serve will be judged by Me.”
How much can we talk about slavery? Slavery, day in and day out, is the same. The slave goes to work, works hard, is perhaps beaten, and drops down exhausted at the end of the day, only to repeat the following day.
But suffering is something we can spend a lot of time discussing. We can get into the mind of the tormentor. We can get into the mind of the slave. We can discuss the depths of cruelty, the lengths to which evil can extend, the legitimacy that Egypt gave to its depraved methods of torture, both physical and emotional, and how they reveled in crushing the Israelite spirit on a regular basis.
This will also help us relate and identify with two significant portions of the Haggadah.
•First is the requirement to feel and identify with the concept of our own redemption, to feel as if we too are leaving Egypt.
•The second is the reminder that in every generation there are evil people or nations who would like to destroy us. In the 1930s and 40s, it was the Nazis. In the 1950s through 80s, under Communists in the Soviet Union, the aim was to destroy the Jewish heart and soul. Nowadays, fascistic Islamic regimes and terrorists made from the same ilk would like to see Israel and the Jewish people wiped off the face of the globe.
When we can identify with being the victims of evil we can appreciate so much better what freedom is. When we feel the Exodus and the role G-d played in it, we will have done our part in telling over the story. We will have ingrained in the hearts and in the minds of the next generation who we are, and why we continue to tell this story.
It’s not about a mitzvah as much as it is about a sense of obligation that we owe to ourselves to remember our history. Our history determined who we are. And if we are to remain a distinct people, we must never forget.