| Pesach

“Go out and learn what Lavan the Aramean sought to do to Yaakov, our father. Pharaoh only decreed on the males but Lavan sought to uproot everything. As it is stated, 'An Aramean was destroying my father and he went down to Egypt'” (Devarim 26:5).

So begins the primary section of Maggid, the Biblical obligation to tell the story of the Exodus. Up until this point at the seder, we have made kiddush, had a bite to eat, invited (last minute) guests, asked the four question, spoken about the four children and the five rabbis in Bnai Brak, debated whether we should say the third paragraph of the shema at night, explained why we can only fulfil this mitzva on this night i.e. “when there is matza and marror before us”, noted how our forefathers were idol worshippers, thanked G-d for keeping His promise to us, but we have not actually told the story of the founding of our nation. With those very long introductory pieces behind us we can finally begin to tell the foundational story of the Jewish people, that of the Exodus from Egypt.

Where to begin? One might begin with the Avraham’s original descent to Egypt – one the Ramban notes foreshadows the descent of the Jewish people to Egypt – or with G-d’s covenant with Avraham that foretold the slavery and redemption[1]. Or one might have begun with Yosef – who does not even garner a mention in the Haggadah – whose sale to Egypt led his family, and eventually a nation, to Egypt. Or perhaps begin with Yaakov who actually brought the family to Egypt and whose descent to Egypt marked the beginning of the 210 years our Sages assert the Jewish people actually sojourned in Egypt.

Surely no one would think to start the story with Lavan if for no other reason than there is seemingly no relationship between Lavan and Yaakov going to Egypt. Nonetheless the Haggadah claims that Lavan’s treatment of Yaakov was the immediate cause of Yaakov’s descent to Egypt. Because “an Aramean”, i.e. Lavan tried to “destroy my father” i.e. Yaakov, Yaakov “went down to Egypt”. Yet it was many years between Yaakov leaving Lavan’s employ and going to Egypt. While the Haggadah quotes a Biblical verse as support of this assertion, this proof text just compounds the question. Most commentaries understand the phrase “Arami oved avi” to mean a wandering Aramean was my father, and hence a reference not to Lavan but to Yaakov (or even Avraham), who was forced to wander from place to place. Yaakov had to flee home, run away from Lavan, escape from Shechem, and having returned home was once again forced, “anus al pi hadibur", by divine decree, to go down to Egypt returning to Israel only in a coffin.

Why then would the Haggadah stray from this much simpler interpretation – one favoured by Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, Shadal and others who seek the plain meaning of the text – thereby radically changing the meaning of the verse?

As is often the case, it is the derashot, the additional layers of meaning between the lines of the text, that capture ideas that the pshat, the plain meaning, cannot. The authors of the Haggadah – and the interpretation favoured by Rashi – saw a deep link between Lavan, Yaakov and Egypt. Yaakov’s sojourn in Lavan’s home was the precursor to Bnei Yisrael’s – literally the children of Yaakov – exile to Egypt. Yaakov was forced to flee to a strange land, was welcomed at first with open arms, was deceitfully tricked and finally enslaved. Yet despite the slavery he “multiplied” greatly. At the brink of assimilation, he escaped, fleeing at night with his taskmaster chasing afterward. What a familiar story.

After leaving Lavan’s home, Yaakov is told that Eisav, accompanied with an army of 400[2] men, is coming towards Yaakov. And after the encounter – which went better that he could have hoped for – Yaakov travels to the city of Sukkot, so named because of the structure he built there for his cattle. Rather fascinatingly, the first place the Jewish people travel as they leave Egypt is Sukkot[3], and it was in Sukkot – the place and perhaps (but not necessarily) the hut – where they first ate matza.

The parallels between the story of Yakaov, Lavan and Bnei Yaakov, better known as Bnei Yisrael and Egypt are so strong that one might argue that Yaakov’s sojourn with Lavan's was the fulfilment of G-d’s covenant with Avraham, that “your seed will be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed… and they shall return here in the fourth generation[4]” (Breisheet 15:13,15). When Yaakov returns home with his children – they being the fourth generation from Avraham, he sees this as the fulfilment of G-d’s covenant. In other words, there would be no need for the Egyptian exile. Hence Yaakov could "dwell in the land of his fathers” secure and confident in the future. As Rashi notes, “Yaakov sought to dwell in peace”.

Yet things did not quite work out that way. “This trouble in connection with Yosef suddenly came upon him. When the righteous wish to live at ease, the Holy one, blessed be He, says to them: ‘Are not the righteous satisfied with what is stored up for them in the World to Come that they wish to live at ease in this world too!” With Yosef presumed dead, Shimon missing in Egypt and famine in the land, seeds of doubt were likely planted as to whether this truly was the redemption. And when Yaakov, “anus al pi hadibur – forced against his will, to go to Egypt – it dawned upon him that perhaps his sojourn under Lavan was little more than practice for the actual exile, not just of Yaakov but of Bnei Yisrael. No wonder Yaakov was afraid. Despite yearning to see Yosef, he was not sure he wanted to go to Egypt, to begin the process of the exile. He did so only because G-d told him, “Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation”. May we fulfil G-d’s promise.


[1] Mention of the covenant does appear almost immediately prior in the Haggadah though it is not told as part of the story, but rather as thanksgiving to G-d for having kept His promise. Even if one argues this is the beginning of the story the question of why Lavan remains.

[2] On this detail the two stories part ways. Pharaoh chases after Bnei Yisrael with 600 chariots. We might explain that 400 corresponds to the 400 years of servitude that G-d had foretold Avraham. And the 600 chariots correspond to the 600,000 males who left Egypt. Despite outnumbering their former masters 1,000 to 1 the Jewish people were terrified upon seeing the Egyptians coming.

To take the analogy one step further: Even after escaping from Lavan, Yaakov had to prepare to battle with Eisav (though thankfully none took place). And “400” years later the nation founded by Eisav’s grandson Amalek, did attack Bnei Yisrael soon after they had left Egypt.

[3] The fact that the Torah identifies these two different places with the same name of Sukkot, makes the connection between the two even more significant. It is for this same reason that so many towns in America are named for those in Europe. 

[4] As to G-d’s assertion that the return would happen only after 400 years, presumably Yaakov assumed that G-d, in His kindness, shortened the exile, a concept our rabbis specifically assert when they claim the Jewish people were in Egypt for only 210 years. Despite G-d promising Yaakov – on the run from Eisav - that he would return home in peace Yaakov feared that might not happen. He was, as our Sages note, afraid “sin may cause” the promise to be nullified. Surely, if G-d could “renege” on a positive promise”, He could do the same for a negative one.