New Perspectives on the Haggadah
This year, in response to the pandemic, Koren Publishers offered a free download of their Haggadah with the commentary of the former Chief Rabbi of the UK, Lord Jonathan Sacks. But they didn’t offer the other half of the book — the one that opens from the left-to-right side. I didn’t even realize that this Haggadah had such an extensive set of essays — nearly 190 pages, which is pretty much book-length itself.
I love Sacks’ writings and his weekly divrei Torah. He has an astonishing ability to notice things that others have not. And his essays on Passover truly shine.
Sacks’ fluency with a wide range of sources, whether they be ancient or modern, history or poetry, sacred or ordinary, allows him to come up with startling conclusions that strike you with the dual realizations that no one ever seems to have made these points before, and that they seem to be correct. Here is an enthusiastic celebration of the Torah and specifically the Exodus as not only a story, but as a work of philosophy, history, and morality that predates all others, and that was far ahead of its time and had unparalleled influence on modern Western civilization.
Just one stunning example: Up until World War II, the concept that one is obligated to adhere to higher standards, and to disobey — if necessary — one’s own leaders was hardly considered mainstream. Only after the Holocaust was the defense of “just following orders” no longer considered valid.
Everyone is expected to disobey commands, even at the risk of one’s life, that violate the higher values of human rights — but that is a relatively new concept.
Or is it? More than 3,000 years ago, two women named Shifra and Puah — who according to the literal text seem to have been Egyptian, not Jewish — refused to obey Pharaoh’s direct orders to murder all Jewish males upon birth. To them, there was a moral imperative that outweighed the demands of a deity/king.
This was, Rabbi Sacks notes, the first known example of civil disobedience, and one that was thousands of years ahead of modern times and completely alien to all peoples before. (Sacks argues that the example in the Greek tragedy of Antigone is in fact not based on a higher moral code, but on family loyalty.)
That one insight alone would be enough to make a book notable, but these essays are filled with them. Sacks’ essay on antisemitism is as good a treatment of the topic as any, and better than most. He also shows how the Exodus story influenced the founding fathers of the US to build a completely new type of nation, based on a Biblical-style covenant and concepts of inalienable rights that were most definitely not self-evident in 1776, but were first written in the Torah.
Other essays and insights are equally dazzling, from noticing that the first speech Moses gives to the people on the cusp of freedom is an exhortation to teach their children, to brilliantly pinpointing the exact time-frame of the rabbis’ seder in Bnei Brak, and the importance of the anecdote to Jewish history.
You do not have to wait until next Pesach to enjoy these insights from Rabbi Sacks.
Elder of Ziyon has been blogging about Israel and the Arab world for a really long time now. He also controls the world, but deep down, you already knew that.