Between sets of arm curls, Nahum walks over to me and says, “You’re familiar with the disagreement between Rav and Shmuel about the way the Seder should begin?”
Nahum doesn’t look like the kind who works on his biceps—he’s a slender guy in his mid-thirties who wears a black kipah and glasses. He resembles a teacher at a religious high school here in Jerusalem, which in fact he is.
But Nahum, like me, is a regular at the small weight room at the Jerusalem Pool on Emek Refa’im Street. We get a diverse crowd—men and women, jocks and schoolteachers, retired people and teenagers, Jews and Arabs, religious and non-religious; there’s even a macho ultra-Orthodox guy who lets out whoops when he lifts—but I’ll save him for another story.
The conversation, like the crowd, can come from all directions. Nahum is referring to the two leading Babylonian rabbis of the third century CE, whose disputes form part of the first layer of the Gemara, the Talmudic discussions of the laws laid down in the earlier Mishna. The Torah commands the Jews to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt at a discussion-meal conducted by families on the first night of Pesach (Passover). Rav and Shmuel disagreed on how to begin telling the story, and their disagreement is recorded in the Haggadah, the book forms the framework of the Seder night.
The Mishna rules that the story should begin by telling of the dishonorable events and end with the honorable ones. The two sages differed on which dishonorable event begins the story of the liberation from slavery and the formation of the Israelite nation.
I’m doing leg stretches, so I hace to crane my neck to look at Nahum.
“Rav says we should begin with ‘Our forefathers were idolaters,’” he reminds me, “and Shmuel says we should begin with ‘We were slaves in Egypt.’”
“Yes, I remember,” I say, wiping my face with my towel. “So, like usual, we do both.”
“But Shmuel actually won,” Nahum points out, beginning another set of curls. “We say both, but we say Shmuel’s first. Now, what do you think they were arguing about?”
I’m grabbing on to the bottom of one of the elliptical machines with my legs spread apart as far as I can, trying to force my tight leg muscles into some semblance of flexibility.
“I guess Rav is saying that slavery didn’t begin with physical slavery in Egypt,” I suggest. “There was also the intellectual slavery of worshiping false gods, generations before Pharaoh enslaved us.”
“Think of it this way,” Nahum says. “If God saved us because we were slaves in Egypt, that means he saw us suffering, had pity on us, and freed us. That’s a God who hears the cries of the oppressed and comes to their aid. Whoever is oppressed can count on God’s help. That’s why the black slaves in the U.S. sang spirituals about Moses and Pharaoh.”
“Okay,” I grunt.
“But if the story of our freedom begins with the fact that we were idol worshipers, then it means that God didn’t save us because we were oppressed. And he didn’t save us because we were any better than anyone else. Everyone worshiped idols back then. God chose us simply because he chose us, and he took us out of Egypt for his own purposes, not because we were oppressed. He saved us, but he wouldn’t save other slaves.”
By this time, we’ve stopped our respective lifting and stretching.
“That’s jives with something else I think of every year when I’m preparing for the Seder,” I tell Nahum. “Every year I’m struck by the fact that the passage ‘our fathers were idolaters’ is followed by one in which we, following the sages, deliberately misread a passage from the Torah. I mean the one that begins Arami oved Avi. In the Haggadah, we read it as a reference to Laban, the father of Leah and Rachel who cheats Jacob by forcing him to work for him for twenty years in order to receive Rachel as his wife. But the verse obviously doesn’t refer to Laban the Aramean. The grammar and the syntax are such that it must mean ‘my father was a wandering Aramean.’ In other words, it refers to Abraham, who was in Aram when God first spoke to him. Abraham was originally an idolater. That’s what the verse tells us to remember.”
“How does that fit in?” Nahum asks.
“It tells us that Abraham wasn’t chosen by God because he was intrinsically better than the other people of his time. He proved himself to God by his actions, not because he was born better or born with some special gift from God. It’s a message a lot of religious Jews today seem to forget. Why do we deliberately misread the passage?”
“Maybe the Jews needed to hear about Laban oppressing Jacob more than they needed to hear about Abraham beginning life as an idolater,” Nahum suggests. “After all, in Babylonia they were a minority and often oppressed. The same for generations and generations afterwards.”
“Maybe that’s why Shmuel’s opinion got accepted,” I say. “His message resonated better with reality.”
“We were slaves in Egypt and we were like slaves in the Exile,” Nahum agrees.
“But maybe that’s the wrong way to begin today,” I muse. “Today, here in Israel, we’re not oppressed. In fact, harping on our past oppression can blind us to the fact that we’re a majority here and that we haven’t proven ourselves to be much better than other majority peoples in other places. We’ve done our own share of oppressing.”
“Well, if you want to get political about it…” Nahum says warily.
“Today we need to be told that we’re not intrinsically any better than any other people. We need to be reminded that God measures us by our actions, not our origins. And maybe that’s why both opinions got preserved in the Haggadah. Shmuel’s version is for the Exile, and Rav’s for the Jewish polity. Don’t forget that you, too, were idolaters—no different from Laban, no different from Pharaoh.”
“Okay, I see it,” Nahum says.
“I think I’ll use that at my Seder,” I tell Nahum. “If you don’t mind me plagiarizing you. And if I can get a word in edgewise.”
Nahum goes to do some bench presses. I head for the shower. I’ve done my daily workout.