We spend many hours over Pesach singing Hallel, ostensibly thanking God for taking us out of Egypt. Yet we must ask ourselves whether thanks is really what Pesach is about. Surely an Almighty God has no special need for our thanks and, while it is true that we gain much by inculcating a sense of appreciation, it is hard to imagine that the goal of Pesach ends there.
The epitomy of questions on Pesach is, of course, the mah nishtana, so let us look there for a clue – the first question, regarding chametz and matzah is given a novel twist by the Abarbanel, a 15th Century Portuguese commentator. On all other nights, when one wants to give thanks to G-d there is a special sacrifice we bring called a Korban Todah – a thanksgiving offering. This offering consists primarily of large amounts of bread and matzah which are supposed to be shared at a meal so that one can tell others of the goodness that Hashem has done. This, says the Abarbanel, is the meaning of “chametz u’matzah” – it is referring to the ingredients of the thanksgiving offering. The question being asked is why can’t we bring a regular thanksgiving offering? After all, G-d saved us in a spectacular way – there should be no more appropriate time to bring this offering and yet we are forbidden because of the chametz included.
As with all the questions of the mah nishtanah, we give the answer through the Seder itself but the Abarbanel does not explain what part of the Seder actually addresses this question. At first glance it is difficult to find an answer to this – how can such a night of thanksgiving like Seder night lack a full thanksgiving offering?
While the Abarbanel may not have given us an answer, the Chatam Sofer, in the 18th Century, does suggest a solution, with brilliant insight. Although the thanksgiving offering is a combination of both chametz and matzah, there is an offering that uses only matzah – that of the Korban Milu’im, the dedication offering which was brought whenever there was an inauguration, such as when the Temple was completed. The Chatam Sofer suggests that this is the Korban of Seder night – a recognition of our initiation as a nation of servants of God. Our offering on Seder night acknowledges the fundamental shift in our history as we moved from servants of Pharoah to servants of the Almighty.
That is the story told by the Hagaddah – once upon a time we were idol worshippers and now we have the opportunity to live lives that touch the Divine.
This insight actually goes further than just adding a new dimension to our Seder, it shifts the entire perspective of Pesach. What it tells us is that this festival is much more than just thanksgiving – we don’t have a thanksgiving offering at all because it is secondary to the real essence. Pesach, and Seder night specifically, is about recognising that we have been chosen as delegates of the Almighty. The thanks we give for the salvation we received is only meaningful if we know how to make the most of our redemption. The Mah Nishtana is teaching us that if we think the Exodus was just about the miracles in Egypt, we’re missing the point – we must realise that the miracles were there to dedicate us for a higher purpose.
Consider the feeling of a parent who gives endlessly to their child. They spend hours thinking about their child, spend tens of thousands of pounds on their child and nurture them carefully from morning to night – more than a child could ever imagine. Yet as lovely as it may be for the parent to get thanked by the child (even just occasionally!) for all their efforts, the biggest appreciation the child can show is by using the life their parents helped them build wisely. A parent wishes their child to be successful more than they wish for gratitude. Their true hope is that their child uses their life to achieve their potential, harnessing the results of all their parents’ time, money and effort.
The same is true of our relationship with God. He gives us more than we can imagine. And it’s essential for us to show gratitude. But that is not the main goal. What God really wants is for us to recognise that the goodness He gives us – our health, wealth, talents, etc. – are tools to be used in our life’s mission.