This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Seder Swordplay*

The core of the Passover Haggadah consists of interpretations by the ancient rabbis of biblical passages that relate the story of the exodus. Instead of adopting the most obvious strategy, of reading the story straight out of the first half of the book of Exodus, the rabbis who compiled the Haggadah ordained that we should focus our attention on the passage in Deuteronomy 26 (5-9) that was recited by the pilgrims to Jerusalem as they carried their first fruits up to the Temple. The most common strategy in this exposition is to elucidate the words of the first-fruits declaration by matching them with relevant expressions in Exodus.

It is not immediately obvious why our sages preferred this roundabout approach to telling the tale. It might have something to do with the simple fact that the Deuteronomy text is more compact, and therefore lends itself more efficiently to recitation at the seder. At any rate, the practice of eliciting explanations by comparing passages from different parts of Scripture is a familiar one in rabbinic discourse, and it served as the basis for many of the sermons that are preserved in midrashic literature. If nothing else, it helped reinforce the perception that the diverse corpus of the Bible constitutes a homogeneous totality in which each unit sheds interpretative light on the rest.

One of the pivotal verses in Haggadah narration is Deuteronomy 26:8: And the Lord brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm... The vague metaphor outstretched arm invites a more precise definition; and in keeping with the aforementioned exegetical method, the Haggadah tried to clarify its meaning by matching it up with another biblical text in which the word outstretched appears. For that purpose it chose a passage in 1 Chronicles that recounts an ill-fated census that was conducted by King David. The illicit act provoked a deadly retribution from the Almighty, who initially sent an angel into Jerusalem to destroy the city, but in the end held back from carrying out that catastrophic sentence. In connection with this story, the Bible relates And David lifted up his eyes, and saw the angel of the Lord standing between the earth and the heaven, having a drawn sword in his hand stretched out over Jerusalem.

At least one interpreter understood that this supernatural sword is mentioned in the Haggadah because it was also brandished at the Israelites at the time of the Exodus. According to this reading, the sword accompanied an admonition to the Hebrews to never forget that the only reason they were being taken out from Egypt was in order to receive the Torah and accept its commandments. If, however, they should prove unfaithful to their sacred duty, then they must beware of the menacing sword suspended over their heads.

Nevertheless, in keeping with the main thrust of the Passover story, most authorities understood that the weapon in question was aimed at the story's villains, the Egyptians. The problem, of course, is that among all the plagues and torments that were inflicted on Pharaoh and his hosts, it is hard to locate an instance in which swords or sabres played any part in the exodus story. The traditional commentators rallied to find solutions to that puzzle.

The Spanish commentator Rabbi Yom Tov Ishbili (Ritva) offered a simple solution. He proposed that this sword should not be construed as a literal weapon, but rather as a metaphor for the power of divine retribution. The Maharal of Prague developed this theme in a more systematic manner, observing that the sword symbolizes God's active involvement in the world, as distinct from the passive withdrawal of his providence, which was embodied in the ten plagues.

It appears, however, that most of the commentators were determined to locate an actual sword somewhere in the Exodus narrative. Rabbi Simeon ben Zemah Duran pointed out that there is only one incidental mention of swords in the Torah's account of the liberation from Egypt, and it does not refer to punishment of the Egyptians. It occurs in the passage that describes Moses' and Aaron's first confrontation with Pharaoh, when they implored the monarch to allow the Hebrews to worship their God in the wilderness lest he [God] fall upon us with pestilence, or with the sword. Rabbi Duran suggested that the verse should not be understood literally as expressing what would befall the Hebrews if they failed to worship their Lord in the proper manner--in fact, they had no real reason to fear that God would harm them if they were not allowed to offer their sacrifices. That threat was in reality directed against Pharaoh, only it was formulated euphemistically in deference to the honour due to royalty. Thus, when the Haggadah mentioned the sword, it had in mind the ultimatum that had been made to Pharaoh in his first encounter with Moses.

Exegetes of a more mystical inclination asserted that the Haggadah's sword was an allusion to the secret magical name of God that had been revealed to Moses, and which enabled him to perform great wonders and exploits in Egypt. Treatises about the mysterious Sword of Moses were in wide circulation during the Middle Ages.

Several of the commentators who dealt with this question claimed that literal swords were unsheathed during the final plague, the slaying of the first-born. This interpretation required them to creatively introduce new details into the narrative by appealing to obscure midrashic traditions.

One such tale described how the Egyptian first-borns, realizing that they were doomed by their monarch's stubborn defiance of God's demands, pleaded with Pharaoh and with their parents to save their lives by capitulating and freeing the Israelites. However, Pharaoh was so obsessed with his personal vendetta against Moses that he disregarded their pleas and persisted in his intransigence, writing off the deaths of the first-borns as an acceptable price to pay for the continued subjugation of the Hebrews. The first-born Egyptians were therefore left with no alternative but to rise up in an armed insurrection that left a toll of six hundred thousand deaths.

In support of this legend, the Midrash cited the words of Palms 136:10 that give thanks to Him that smote Egypt in their first-born. The rabbis pointed out that the Hebrew wording of this passage can be read as if it were saying that the Egyptians were smitten by their firstborns.

Some interpreters cited Exodus 12:33, which describes the panicked reaction of Pharaoh's subjects: And the Egyptians were pressing the people, to send them out of the land in haste; for they said: We are all dead men; as if to say: even those who were not firstborns recognized that they were destined for destruction at the Red Sea. This realization, it was argued, took the same form that it did for King David: a vision of an angel wielding a sword in his outstretched hand.

The preceding is just one example of the lively debates that can be inspired by the familiar words of our Passover Haggadah. Ideally, your own seders will contribute to the ongoing multi-generational conversation, and each new interpretation will be incisively argued and sharply honed.

This article and many others are now included in the book

For Signs and for Seasons

For Signs and for Seasons

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