The Main Character of the Haggadah
By Natasha Mann
In the Torah’s narrative, Moses is the central character around which the liberation from Egypt occurs. It is Moses who returns to Egypt to relay God’s messages to the Children of Israel. It is Moses who argues with Pharaoh over the slavery of his people. It is Moses who is pulled in multiple directions by the demands of the Egyptians, the needs of the Israelites, and the commands of the God of Israel. Moses is the main character of the narrative, and yet when the Haggadah retells the story, Moses is almost entirely absent.
One traditional response to the issue of Moses’s suspicious absence from the Haggadah comes from the Maggid, the section of the Haggadah in which we retell the story of leaving Egypt:
And the Lord took us out from Egypt’ – not through an angel, nor through a seraph, nor through a messenger; rather, the Holy One, Blessed be He, did it in His glory and by Himself.
If we take our answer from this section, it seems that Moses is absent from the Haggadah to remind us that it was God and not Moses who liberated us from Egypt. And it isn’t absurd that we should be confused about who liberated us; the Children of Israel incorrectly attribute liberation from Egypt several times throughout the Bible (usually to various golden calves). Furthermore, it isn’t absurd that we should attribute liberation from Egypt to human power, and thank Moses himself for leading us out of bondage, or our ancestors for having the courage to wander into the wilderness when slavery in Egypt was all they had ever known. Therefore, the traditional response to Moses’s absence from the Haggadah is that it comes to remind us that it is God who liberated us.
However, I think that the Haggadah is making a much deeper argument through the deliberate removal of Moses. As I said earlier, Moses is the central character of the Torah narrative. It is difficult to read the Exodus story without seeing it through Moses’s perspective. And that, I think, is why Moses is absent from the Haggadah. Later in the Maggid, we are told:
In each generation, a person is obligated to regard himself as if he had been liberated from Egypt, as it is said: ‘You shall tell your child on that day, “It is because of this that the Lord did for me when I left Egypt.”’
The Holy One, Blessed be He, did not only redeem our fathers; rather, He redeemed us with them, as it is said: ‘It was us that He brought out from there, so that He might bring us to give us to us the land which he swore to our fathers.’
Freedom is not something that we attained once some 3,000 years ago and have been celebrating ever since. This is neither accurate to the history of our people, who have seen many oppressors since Pharaoh, nor is it the story that the Haggadah is trying to tell. Rather, the Haggadah’s project is one of ongoing liberation; every year, you and I celebrate our own liberation from Egypt, not only that of our ancestors. Doing this every year turns liberation from Egypt from a historical event into an ongoing saga, over 3,000 years in the making, starring each and every one of the Jewish people.
Moses is the main character of the Torah’s liberation narrative, which I think is precisely why he cannot be the main character of the Haggadah’s narrative. The festival of Passover is not only about one specific historical moment; it is also about the last 3,000 years on ongoing liberation, and, more importantly, your liberation. Moses cannot be the main character of the Haggadah because you are the main character of the Haggadah.
So what does it mean for you to be leaving Egypt this year?
Pesach kasher v’sameach.
Natasha Mann is a member of New London Synagogue and a rabbinical student at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in LA, California.