The old “Baskin” Haggadah, advertised the Passover message as “From Degradation to Dignity,” a brilliant alliteration by Editor Herb Bronstein (it should really be called the “Bronstein” Haggadah). The idea came from a close reading of the Mishnah (circa 200 CE) the earliest rabbinic account of the seder. It is the most basic summary of the seder’s message: namely, matchil big’nut um’sayem b’shevach — in Bronstein’s terms, “begin with degradation and conclude with dignity.”
The alliteration took some poetic license, however. A more faithful translation would be, “begin with degradation and conclude with praise.” The seder begins with Israel’s degradation and concludes with praise [to God] for delivering us from it. And there is more to it than that!
The Hebrew style of the verbs and their objects, matchil … um’sayem (literally, “The [the seder leader] begins with X and concludes with Y”) is telling. Several paragraphs later, the advice continues: v’chotem big’ullah, “and he [still the seder leader] seals [the whole thing] with redemption.” “Degradation” and “praise” are just two-thirds of the recipe for seder success. There is “redemption” as well.
Once you put them all together, you see the parallelism. In Hebrew: 1. matchil big’nut 2. um’sayem b’shevach3. v’chotem big’ullah. And in English: 1. We begin by remembering Israel’s degradation. 2. We then praise God for delivering us from it. 3. And we sum up the evening’s message by naming the miracle involved: Redemption.
Redemption is a fancy theological word that encompasses deliverance from disaster, freedom from plague, new-found liberty, a new beginning, a fresh start. It is the love and nurture, the dignity and integrity, for which human beings naturally yearn, but then despair of finding, only to find they are possible after all.
The Talmud discusses “degradation.” In one opinion, degradation came from slavery in Egypt: it was externally enforced. There are degrees of enslavement however: not just actual slavery, as in America until the Civil War, but a modified form of terror under Jim Crow afterward – and still going on today. People worldwide are oppressed from without, victimized by the color of their skin, by their gender, their tribe, their immigrant status, their caste, their religion. Others are externally oppressed by disease that weighs them down; and, for mental illness, say, they are further oppressed by society’s attitude toward them.
But there is also the second opinion: degradation from self-imposed attachment to idolatry: degradation, that is, that we bring upon ourselves. Even those of us who are externally free, may be internally enslaved: by addictions, unhealthy relationships, wanting always to please others, and uncritically believing of ourselves whatever others say about us.
The point of redemption is that we all need it, from one thing or another, and the older I get, the more I recognize this escape from degradation (external and internal) is what we mean by the word “miracle.” The odds that America will come to grips with its inherent racism are not very high; the chances that society will embrace those who are mentally ill are not much better. How many people celebrating a seder feel the crush of old age or chronic illness, as if they will open the door for Elijah and admit the angel of death instead. Overcoming poverty, racism, prejudice, illness, addiction, traumatic relationships, or the bleakness of a life that seems to be going nowhere, are not run-of-the-mill probabilities. When, in fact, we do rise above such circumstances, it is a miracle. And the point of Passover is that such miracles do happen.
Miracles are not exceptions to nature’s certainties; they are unusual combinations of those certainties that somehow work for us rather than against us. A crippling disease suddenly turns around; out of nowhere, we discover a way out of financial crisis; we end an abusive marriage; find a new job, wake up one fresh morning and feel empowered rather than beaten down.
It is the possibility of redemption that ultimately prompts hope when all seems hopeless. That is why we need to reclaim the last third of the rabbinic recipe for a successful seder: Yes, start with degradation, Israel’s of old, and your own and others’ today; let your lips form the natural response to seeing freedom’s possibilities, praiseful gratitude; and sum it all up with the acknowledgement that redemption is possible. It happened once; it can happen again.
This year, especially, don’t feel you have to say every last prayer in a Haggadah that is already too long: that would be enslavement to the very ritual that celebrates freedom. Don’t obsess over when you wash, how you break the matzah, how much wine you need, whether to sit or stand. These are minutiae. And don’t lose your own opportunity to find the seder’s hope because you feel obliged to entertain little children every spare moment while you are on the screen. Focus instead on the message of redemptive miracles; and when little children ask what you are doing, give them a hug and a smile, and tell them you are celebrating the most important miracle in the world: the miracle of hope. The best Seder gift you can give them is the model of the adults they love most taking redemption’s promise seriously; and knowing that they can aspire to be like you.