At first glance, the Haggadah appears to be a random collection of verses, stories, and statements. However, upon further reflection we come to understand the intentional, yet nuanced structure of this ancient script. The Talmud (Pesachim 115) explains: maschil b’genus u’misayem b’shevach — we begin with degradation and conclude with praise. We begin the seder by discussing the “low points” or disparaging chapters of our national existence. The sages disagree as to which “low point” we should begin with. Shmuel explains that we begin with, “Avadim hayinu,” — we were slaves. We acknowledge that we did not begin as a nation of free men and women. We were slaves who served a human master. Rav states, “Mitchila ovdei avoda zara hayu avoseinu,” — in the beginning our forefathers were idolaters. We were not always monotheists, we did not always pledge our allegiance to God, we served and paid homage to other gods. According to Shmuel, over the course of the Pesach seder, we work our way to celebrating our physical freedom. According to Rav, the seder is the opportunity to celebrate our newfound spiritual emancipation. Rav and Shmuel may disagree on the specific beginning and end points, but do agree on the overall structure of the seder night.
What is the meaning of this Rabbinic framework? Why must we start with the negative or disparaging chapters of our national existence? Why not begin and end with our freedom, emancipation, and positive identity as the nation of God?
The commentaries on the Haggadah share many approaches and answers. First, the Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush, 1809-1879) explains that the best way to make a dramatic point is through contrast. Only when we remember our past can we truly appreciate our future.
Second, the great Maggid of Kozhnitz (Rav Yisroel Hopstein, 1737-1814) explains that the greatest danger we face is believing we are beyond salvation. A person may think to himself, “I have done so many terrible things, I have tarnished my soul, I have sullied my reputation, I have failed to actualize my potential; what hope is there for me?” Maschil b’genus, even if the beginning is degrading, even if the beginning is stunted and handicapped, misayem b’shevach, I choose how the story ends, I can change, I can live better, do better, and create a beautiful future.
Perhaps there is a third lesson as well. Life requires patience. Events occur and we search for answers. Situations unfold and we try desperately to understand their deeper meaning. We want insight and clarity and we want it now. Clarity will come but it requires the passage of time. Maschil b’genus u’misayem b’shevach — the difficult life situations will have a positive resolution (not necessarily the resolution we desire, but positive nevertheless). However, just as it takes time to reach the shevach (praise) contained within the Haggadah, it takes time to see our personal praise and resolution as well. It will come — we just have to be patient.
Maschil b’genus u’misayem b’shevach — the rabbis were not simply giving us a format for the Haggadah, they were providing us with a format for life. To actualize our freedom and maximize our ability to shape our personal and national destiny, we must internalize the messages of the Haggadah. We must remember that while building our future, we must reflect on the events and messages of our past. No matter how far we have wandered, no matter how estranged we have become from God, ourselves and one another — no person is beyond salvation. We must bear in mind that resolution, understanding, and happiness will come to those who are patient enough to wait.