The Passover Paradox
Why do we spend so much time talking about slavery at the Passover Seder?
The Mishnah (Pesachim 10:4) tells us that we tell the Passover story by “beginning with humiliation and ending with praise”. In other words, we need to start with the tragic days of slavery, and then conclude with the redemption from Egypt.
This is an understandable way to present the Exodus story. Good dramatic structure requires a conflict and struggle before the joy of redemption. It makes sense to begin with slavery in order to facilitate a discussion of the joys of freedom.
But the ritual symbols at the Seder do not follow a straight linear path from slavery to joy. Indeed, there seems to be a weird mixing of symbols, were most ritual items at the Seder symbolize both slavery and freedom. For example:
Matzah: Mentioned in Exodus 12 as a symbol of freedom, reminding us of the hasty exodus from Egypt. Yet in Deuteronomy 16, Matzah is called a bread of affliction, which is understood by several medieval commentators as a reference to the fact that slaves eat a simple quickly baked bread like Matzah. So Matzah was also eaten by the Jews when they were slaves!
Matzah is now a symbol of both slavery and freedom.
Passover Sacrifice and Bitter Herbs: The Passover sacrifice is there to remind us of the salvation on the night of the Exodus. The bitter herbs, according to the Mishnah in Pesachim (10:5) is there to remind us of the bitterness of slavery. Yet according to Hillel, we eat bitter herbs and the Passover sacrifice wrapped together!
We insist on mixing the symbol of freedom and the symbol of slavery.
Charoset: This food, warranted by the Mishnah, is also a dual symbol. According to the Talmud (116a), it is either a symbol of the remarkable ability of the Jews to survive and even grow in population during slavery, or a bitter reminder of the straw and mud the Jews used in their construction work in Egypt. Again, another dual symbol!
Four Cups of Wine: The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 6:26) says the four cups symbolize a variety of things. One is the “four languages of redemption” used by God to describe the redemption. Another is that the four cups symbolize the four different exiles predicted by Daniel. Again, another ritual that represents both exile and redemption!
There are multiple other examples of this as well. Red wine can represent the blood of the children killed by Pharaoh, or the redemptive blood of the Passover sacrifice painted on the doorposts. Eggs can be a symbol of mourning for the destruction of the Temple, or they can be a "round" reminder that the circle of history can swing from exile to redemption very quickly. And such is the case with nearly every ritual at the Seder. Years of interpretation have embedded each ritual with a dual nature, and virtually everything we do is a reminder of both slavery and redemption.
So what is the meaning of this paradox? Well, all good paradoxes don’t have a “solution”. They are meant to encourage ongoing thought, to force us to come up with new insights year after year.
So instead of offering my own interpretation, I leave you with this paradox, and hope it gives you some food for thought at the Seder.