If one were to ask a student in A Jewish school what the Pesach Seder is about, the answer would center on the Exodus from Egypt. After all, everyone knows that Pesach celebrates the deliverance of the Israelite people from Egyptian bondage, via direct Divine intervention, performed by G-d’s agent, Moses. Probe a little deeper, and that student might tell you that Pesach marks the birth of the Jewish nation; the first event leading up to the Revelation at Sinai; the first watershed event in Jewish history.
That student, if s/he’s paid a little attention in class, might also inform us that so significant was the Exodus from Egypt that the Seder is designed to impel each and everyone of us to see himself as s/he himself were liberated from Egyptian servitude, a requirement of the Seder night’s ritual. Or as set forth by Maimonides, we are required to display ourselves as if we were liberated from Egypt.
But ask that student if s/he ever considered the theodicy inherent in the Pesach Seder, and I’m pretty sure you’ll be met with a blank stare. And the Seder is jam packed with it. “Vehi Sheamdah Lavoteinu velanu. . .elah shebechol dor vador omdim aleinu lechaloteinu vHakadush Baruch Hu matzileinu m’yadam.” “And this which stood by our forefathers and us. . .in every generation they arise to annihilate us, and the Holy One blessed be He saves us from their hands.” And the Haggadah, the retelling of our foundational story, goes on to couch the salvation from Egypt as Divine response to Lavan’s desire to annihilate us. Indeed, our history has arguably been a series of devastating persecutions, Inquisition, Cossack rebellions, pogroms, Holocaust and unceasing terror in our homeland. And every turn, when we are on the brink of despair, it miraculously ends and we rebuild and emerge stronger for having survived. Is that what we are celebrating on Pesach, the cycle of persecution that begets salvation, which in turn leads to new persecution. . .?
Of course not. As any school child knows, we’re celebrating our birth as a nation, our acceptance of G-d’s bestowed choseness. But why, then is V’hi Sheamdah in the Haggadah? Granted, it’s part of our historic belief, and arguably our history unfolds according to the formula. But why would we cast the entire Seder in its shadow? This is festive? What are we celebrating? And if in fact the Seder is actually ritualized theodicy, where is the promised salvation to be found in the ritual?
I believe an answer to this problem lies in the Halachik literature describing the Seder ritual, and the text to be recited. At the end of the Maggid section, right before the recitation of the first two chapters of Hallel, which are the start of a liturgy referred to as the Hallel Mitzrayim, the Egyptian Hallel, there is a paragraph starting with the word “Lefifach anchnu chayavim . . .” and therefore we are obligated. It states our obligation to thank G-d for all the good He has bestowed upon us, in the same theme and tenor of the Dayeinu song. There is a three way dispute regarding how the passage ends: A) . . .venomar lefanav shira chadashah Hallelujah, and we shall sing a new song before Him, Hallelujah; B) . . .v’ene’emar lefanav shira chadashah Hallelujah, and a new song was sang before Him; Hallelujah; C) . . . venomar lefanav Hallelujah, and we shall say Hallelujah before Him. The main difference between the versions is the verb tense, venomar being future tense, and v’ne’emar being past tense. If we use the future tense, we refer to a future song of praise to be sung to G-d, or perhaps the Hallel we are about to start. If we use the past, we refer to the praise given Him upon the Exodus.
The term “shira chadashah” is cast in the feminine gender. That is not arbitrary. The Midrash, as recorded in the Mordechai, (a 13th century Halachik work by Mordechai b. Hillel Ashkenazi) and later in the Tosafists and finally codified in the Arbah Turim of Yaccov ben Asher (14th century Germany) states that all references to shira, sung praise, that are cast in feminine refer to praise sung in the past. Only the final Hallel to be sung upon the advent of Messianic redemption is referred to in the masculine construction of “shir chadash.” Hence, option A above, which is the generally accepted text of the Haggadah, makes no sense; as we cannot in the future sing the praise we already sang in the past. Option B is factually correct. But it is not the accepted version. Moreover, as the Drisha (part of a two part commentary entitled Beit Yisrael on the Arbah Turim by Joshua Falk, 16th century Poland) points out, the shira sung at the Exodus and the splitting of the sea was not Hallel, but the Az Yashir song of Moses, which is not recited at the Seder. Option C, the compromise version, is in all probability the original language to be said and is the text recorded in the Mishnah. But it fell into desuetude for unknown reasons. And as such, it is unclear if the two chapters of Hallel Mitzraim we recite before the meal hearken back to the praise given G-d in Sinai, or to our future eschatological dreams. This tension in the text is resolved by the text of the final blessing, which places the Hallel of the Seder into the future, with the words “. . .v’nodeh Lecha shir chadash. . .” and we shall thank You with a new song (in masculine). As such the Hallels recited at the Seder refer to our ultimate redemption. The two chapters recited before the blessing do not refer to the praise sung in the past. Rather they are there in order to append praise to G-d at each of the four cups of wine consumed at the Seder. (Based on this, one might want to consider emending the text of the Lefifach paragraph to “. . . v’nomar Lecha shir chadash. . .,” something I’m tempted to do. But before doing so, consult with your local rabbinic authority as there are Halachik issues involved in doing so)
If Vehi Sheamdah introduces theodicy into our Passover celebration, Lefichach and the final blessing before the meal justify G-d’s actions. They liturgically inform us of the Seder’s true purpose. Yetziat Mitzrayim was the start of a process that culminates in our national redemption, and initiation of the messianic era. And as such, it is not merely the Exodus we celebrate at the Seder. Rather it is the entirety of Jewish history and destiny which we commemorate. Given the obligation to consider ourselves as if we personally were redeemed from bondage in Egypt, we therefore ultimately portray ourselves as the ones to be finally redeemed. Pesach is THE holiday which celebrates the entirety of the Jews’ existence. And indeed there is no surfeit of persecution in our history and into our future there may well be further atrocities. But just as the sage Akiva comforted his friends by observing that the fact that the prophecies foretelling of persecution and destruction and exile have come to be, one can deduce that the prophecies promising our redemption will likewise come true, the Seder, with its ritual and high ceremony, physically brings us to actualization of that promised future. And so, let’s all nostalgically remember the Shira Chadashah we once sang, and eagerly look forward to singing the Shir Chadash. Happy Pesach to one and all.