Avadim Hayinu: Framing the Seder Experience

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Mar 2, 2021

Following the Ma Nishtana, the four questions that launch the Maggid section of the Haggadah, the Haggadah responds with Avadim Hayinu. Commentators raise many textual questions on this short paragraph. 

1) We declare that we were slaves in Mitzrayim and Hashem took us out. How does that answer the four questions concerning the mitzvos of the evening posed in the Ma Nishtana?

2) The Haggadah first states we were avadim, slaves, to Paroh in Egypt and then later says, if Hashem hadn’t taken us out, we would still be meshubadim, beholden, to Paroh. Why the change in language from עבד to משעובד? 

3) How can the Haggadah state unequivocally that had Hashem not taken us out at that time we would still be slaves in Egypt until this very day? We know from major historical trends that many factors throughout history could have led to our freedom. Powers rise and fall, cultures change, political attitudes shift, and at any given point we may have left Egypt through so-called natural forces. 

The commentators grapple with these questions and offer different answers. A look at two of these approaches reveals a couple of larger themes that frame our Seder night experience. 

The Maaseh Nissim by Rabbi Yaakov from Lisa, 1760–1832, explains that the author of the Hagaddah is not trying to directly answer the four questions. Instead, he is positing a fundamental belief. We, the Jewish people, were slaves in Egypt and we served Paroh. As slaves, we did not have the luxury of questioning our duties or negotiating our terms. We obeyed without understanding or comprehending the purpose of our jobs or the relevance of the tasks. Such is the life of a slave; he faithfully carries out his duties to his master and such was our life under Paroh’s rule. But as the Jewish people transition into freedom, we have questions about the meaning of our jobs, the mitzvos and their import. We are even encouraged to ask questions and as such, we begin the Haggadah with the four questions. But before the Haggadah begins to explore the depth of the mitzvos, thereby giving the commandments more richness, the author of the Haggadah pauses to teach a critical lesson: Even though we are transitioning to freedom, we accept that we are committed servants of Hashem. Just as we served Paroh without question, so too our service of Hashem is not predicated upon understanding the mitzovs. We begin our Pesach Seder with Avadim Hayinu to fundamentally frame our relationship with Hashem as humble, grateful servants who recognize Hashem’s goodness and we submit unconditionally to His will. Only after firmly establishing this belief do we then begin to uncover more meaning behind the mitzvos. What emerges from the Maaseh Nissim is that our first experience of the Seder night is to recognize that through the process of yetzias Mitzrayim and reenacting that event, we reaffirm our total, unequivocal loyalty to Hashem.

Rav Yitzchak Hutner, in a beautiful piece in Pachad Yitzchak (Pesach Maamar 42), elaborates on this point. Rav Hutner explains that every action a Jew does to serve Hashem constitutes avodas Hashem. This includes explicit mitzvos from the Torah, as well as seemingly mundane actions that are performed with the intention of being better able to serve Hashem. For example, the explicit mitzvah of keeping Shabbos is clearly part of our avodas Hashem. But it is also true that eating a healthy diet so that we have energy to serve Hashem better is also fulfilling our avodas Hashem (Rambam, Hilchos Deios 3:2–3). Since this is the case, the Torah avoids the term avodah when describing mitzvos in favor of labeling mitzvos individually. The one exception to the rule is Pesach night. The mitzvos of Pesach night —  matzah, karbon Pesach, etc. — are referred to broadly as ve’avadeta es ha’avodah hazos (Shemos 13:5). Why use the broad terminology of avodah to describe the mitzvos of the night? Rav Hutner bases his answer on a halacha regarding becoming an eved, a servant. When a master acquires an eved, he commands the servant to perform an act of servitude for the master. By responding to that command, the servant cements his relationship with his master as an eved. What emerges from this halacha is that while a person who is already an eved may perform the very same service as the person who is just becoming an eved, the function of that service is fundamentally different. In the former, the servant is fulfilling the responsibilities of his position, while in the latter, the service functions as kinyan avdus, concretizing the servant master-relationship. On Pesach night, reenacting yetzias Mitzrayim, we enter into a bond and relationship with Hashem as faithful servants to our master. The significance of the mitzvos of the night are not individual commandments that we practice because we are servants of Hashem. Rather, these mitzvos represent, in a broader way, the cementing of our relationship to Hashem. Hashem commands us this night to eat matza and a korban Pesach, and we react not out of prior loyalty to serve Hashem but as a response to Hashem beckoning us to enter into a sacred relationship of eved to Adon (Master). As such, the Torah uses the broad term avodah to describe the night’s activities, because the individual mitzvos unite under one umbrella of entering into our relationship with Hashem. This is one dominant theme of the Seder night: our total commitment to serving Hashem who freed us from bondage, becoming avdei Hashem. 

The Maaseh Hashem, Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi, takes a different approach to answer our initial questions. Avadim Hayinu, he says, is picking up on the last of the four questions, which is: Why do we lean at the Seder, which symbolizes and demonstrates our complete freedom from bondage? The answer is that Hashem alone, through the might of His hand, took us out of Egypt and freed us from Paroh. The significance of that statement cannot be underestimated, explains the Maaseh Hashem. Hashem had many means at His disposal to free us from Paroh. He could simply have planted the thought in Paroh’s mind to let the Jewish people go. However, had the Jewish people exited Egypt through more natural means, had Paroh simply let us go out of the goodness of his heart, the Jewish people would have been indebted forever to Paroh for their freedom. The message conveyed by the words “Hashem took us out of Egypt with a strong outstretched hand” is that we owe thanks and allegiance only to Hashem and to no one else, not Paroh and not Egypt. This further explains why the author of the Haggadah uses the language of meshubad, beholden. Had Hashem, Himself, not taken us out of Mitztrayim, the Jewish people would still be meshubad, beholden, to Paroh even if we were no longer slaves. We would forever owe hakaras hatov to Paroh or whoever ultimately provided our freedom. Hence, we lean on the Seder night to demonstrate our complete freedom from all peoples, and Avadim Hayinu articulates our hakaras hatov to Hashem for personally taking us out of Mitztrayim. 

We see from the Maaseh Hashem that hakaras hatov is understood as a real shibud, almost like a contractual obligation upon a Jew to return the favor to one who has helped him. Rav Hershel Schachter in B’ikvei Hatzon 16:7) quotes Rav Soloveitchik’s peshat on the following pasuk:

 כִּי לֹא יֶחְדַּל אֶבְיוֹן מִקֶּרֶב הָאָרֶץ עַל כֵּן אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ לֵאמֹר פָּתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת יָדְךָ לְאָחִיךָ לַעֲנִיֶּךָ וּלְאֶבְיֹנְךָ בְּאַרְצֶךָ

For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.

Devarim 15:11

Poverty always exists and it is a moving target. Sometimes a person is in the position to give and other times that very same person may need to receive. As such, the Torah understands that giving tzedakah is an obligation and the recipient is beholden or has a shibud to pay back that kindness. We may all find ourselves on different sides of that coin at some point in our lives. 

At the Seder night, this powerful theme of hakaras hatov emerges. The Rambam in Sefer HaMitzvos (mitzvah 157) states that an integral part of the mitzvah to tell over the story of yetzias Mitzrayim is to give thanksgiving to Hashem for all his kindness that He bestowed upon us. 

As we begin our journey on the Seder night, we reinforce these two salient themes that inform the Pesach experience in particular, as well as our broader Jewish identity. We affirm our fidelity to Hashem whom we serve with complete faith, and we express our unbridled hakaras hatov to Hashem. Furthermore, by realizing hakaras hatov is a shibud, we commit to inculcating that middah into our very beings so that we are always expressing thanksgiving to all those who show us kindness. 


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