One question I’ve always had in regard to the Seder: where is the blessing? We make a blessing before virtually every mitzvah in the Torah. Before we put on our Tefilin, before we shake the Lulav, before we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanna, there’s always a blessing, except it seems for the mitzvah we perform on the Seder night. The Torah tells us in four places: vhigadeta l’bincha bayom hahu- “and you shall relate (the story of the Exodus) to your sons on this night”, so the Seder clearly fulfills a Biblical command and yet no blessing! Where is the blessing for the Seder?
One suggestion offered is that the blessing is the Kiddush that we recite in the beginning of the Seder. Another answer offered is that the command to relate the Exodus has no limit. As we say in the Hagadah: vechol hamabeh harei ze meshubach- “whoever increases in telling over the story is praiseworthy” and generally we don’t recite blessings over things without a limit like Charity or Torah study.
The medieval commentator, the Rashba, suggests that there is in fact a blessing on the Seder, namely the blessing we recite right before we drink the second cup: Asher Ga’alnu, v’ga’l avoteinu – “God who has redeemed us and redeemed our forefathers”. However blessings are supposed to be recited before the mitzvah activity and the blessing of asher g’aalnu is said after most of the Exodus story has already been
told! And so if the Rashba is correct then why is the blessing of asher ga’alnu not said in the beginning of the Hagadah, before the mitzvah, why is it said so late in the Seder, after much of the mitzvah has already been completed?
There is one mitzvah in which the blessing is said after the mitzvah is completed, namely, conversion. The prospective convert says the blessing only after he or she immerses in the Mikvah (ritual bath) because beforehand they cannot say the classic mitzvah blessing formula: asher kidishanu b’miztvotav v’tzivanu – “who has sanctified and commanded me” since the person isn’t Jewish yet!
So too with the mitzvah of relating the Exodus at the Seder.
The mitzvah of the Seder is not simply telling over the story of what once was but to actually feel that we ourselves were slaves and that on the Seder night we are being freed. That is why the language of the blessing is “asher ga’alnu” – that we were redeemed, not simply our ancestors. And that, suggests the Chasam Sofer (great Chasidic Rabbi), cannot be said until you have experienced, until you have begun to tell over the story, to reference the Marror and the Matzah, to feel a sense of servitude and then freedom. We need to first go through the story so we ourselves can feel as much of this as possible, as if this were all happening to us now, and then, and only then, can we recite the blessing.
But how can we really feel this? We weren’t there, we didn’t experience the Exodus ourselves.
The answer I believe is by recognizing that redemption is not something of the past but a repetitive theme in Jewish history. The Exodus was just the first time the Jewish people were redeemed from an oppressive situation, but it certainly wasn’t the last and we should be speaking about the many other instances when this happened, certainly in modern times.
One great example: Our generation is witness to over a million Jews leaving the former Soviet Union and coming back to Israel. Growing up I was deeply impacted by the Soviet Jewry movement in which my family was involved. I remember when I was in College, my father, an immigration attorney, secured a 6 month visa for a woman by the name of Carmella Raiz to come to the United States and plead the case on behalf of her husband, Vladamir, a long term Refusnik in the former Soviet Union. Vladamir had been denied the right to emigrate and Carmella came to America with one of her two sons to lobby Congress to help free her husband and other Refusniks.
The Raiz family lived in Vilna, Lithuania and had become staunch Zionists and eventually ba’alei teshuva (returnees to the Jewish faith). Carmella, a Cellist for the Lithuanian philharmonic, traveled 15 hours each month to the closest mikvah which was in Moscow. While in New York, my father was able to arrange a press conference at Gracie Mansion with former Mayor Ed Koch.
Picture the scene: Dozens of reporters, photographers and there was Koch sitting at a table with Carmella and her ten year old son, wearing a big black velvet yarmulke. Koch began to ask the little boy some questions: “Tell me young man, what’s your name?” The young boy answered: “Moshe”. “Moshe”, responded Koch, “that’s a Hebrew name, what’s your Russian name?”. The boy simply answered: “Moshe”. Koch continued: “Y’know, I also have a Hebrew name, it’s Isaac, but my English name is Edward, what’s your Russian name?” “Moshe, my only name is Moshe”, said the boy. “OK Moshe, what’s your favorite subject you most enjoy studying? “Torah”, answered the boy. “Torah, do you study Torah in school? asks Koch. “No”, responds Moshe, “were not allowed to study Torah in school but my father teaches me”. “Y’know , Moses was a great Jewish leader”, Koch continues, “how did you come to be called after him?” Then Carmella, Moshe’s mother chimed in: “Mr. Mayor, with your permission, I’d like to answer that question on behalf of my son: “When Vladamir and I were married 13 years ago, we promised each other that if God blessed us with a son we were going to name him Moshe and he will take us out of this Egypt”.
With that statement the press conference ended.
The Exodus happens in every generation. In our time, the redemption took place from Mother Russia and it was no less of a miracle then the redemption from Egypt that we celebrate on the Seder night.
And the redemption from Russia wasn’t just a physical one, it was also a spiritual one. In the Hagadah we answer the child’s ma- nishtana questions, not only by saying Avadim hayinu, that we were once slaves and now we are free, but we also say mitchilah ovdei avodah zarah- that originally our ancestors worshipped idols but then ultimately came to follow God and His Torah. Virtually the same thing is happening today with the next generation of Russian Jews. Whereas the first generation of Russian immigrants in the 1970’s and 80’s were quite wary of religious life, themselves products of communism and atheism, their children, today in their 20’s, 30’s are much more open to Judaism. At virtually every MJE Shabbat Dinner, class or event there are numerous young Jewish professionals whose parents emigrated from the Soviet Union. These young people are open and hungry to learn about Judaism and they don’t have the same negative associations their parents possessed.
And so as we sit down to our Seders this Passover, let us reflect on some of the modern day redemptions and miracles. Be it the Exodus from Russia or Israel’s continued survival in the face of constant threats and attacks. Bring up those miracles at your Seder. Discuss those extraordinary parts of our history because by doing so you will be in a better position to fulfill the Hagadah’s mandate of keilu hu yazta mimitzrayim, to feel as though we ourselves, in our generation, were also redeemed from Egypt.