Pesach is a holiday of contradictions. The karpas represents both an appetizer for a fancy meal and a reminder of the back breaking work in Egypt. The charoset symbolizes the faithfulness of the Jewish women in enticing their husbands to have children, and the mortar used in hard labor. Even marror is supposed to be both sweet and bitter representing the various stages of our sojourn in Egypt. The key ingredient at the seder, the matza is both the bread of freedom made in haste as we departed from Egypt, as well as the bread of affliction served to us as slaves.
This dichotomy serves as the basis for the four questions. Is the matza the food of slavery or freedom? Do we dip food because we are at a banquet with all kinds of spreads or to remind us of the tears that were shed over so many years? How can one at the same meal sit back and relax while being served marror?
The same experience can both afflict and redeem. When marror is used to justify our feelings of victimhood then they are just bitter herbs. But if we can learn from our affliction so that we do not bring bitterness to others, the marror is transformed to a stepping stone towards redemption.
Our Sages "debate" whether the Egyptian exile was a punishment for our sins or a precondition to forming a nation. Actually both can be and most likely are true. The "sins" committed by our ancestors, (be it Abraham leaving the land of Israel in time of famine or the selling of Joseph to name two suggestions of our commentators) demonstrated that we were not yet ready to form a nation. We needed to be "punished" in order to for spiritual roots to take root and develop. Enduring 210 years in Egypt was deemed to be the appropriate measure that would ensure that we would constantly "remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt " and act accordingly.
Even the slavery in Egypt was of a dual nature. "I remember the kindness of your youth that you followed Me into a desert" (Yirmiyahu 2:2). If Egypt was so terrible why praise those who were willing to escape. The Torah records over and over again the refrain of the Jewish people that life was better in Egypt than with Moshe and Aharon. There was free fish and fruit for all. The Rabbis, echoing this theme, record that only one in five Jews actually left Egypt. Apparently life was not so bad in Egypt.
Yet what of the back breaking work, the mortar, the tears, the suffering of the children which is constantly stressed as we recite the Hagadah?
Though there is much history in Torah, the Torah is not a history book. It offers editorial comments (and more) instructing and inspiring us to make better life style choices. "Like the actions of the Egyptians, where you dwelt, you shall not do" (Vayikra 18:3) is both a command and a worldview.
The Hagadah is no different. While it has elements of a story it is much more. It is the mechanism by which we are inspired and inspire our children to experience the joys and pain of being Jewish. The Hagadah thus contains much more than the story of the exodus. In its pages appear Terach, Abraham, Yaakov, Hillel, Rabbi Akiva, even Eliyahu and the city of Bnei Brak. At the same time Moshe, Aharon and Miriam are missing from its pages. Surely this is no recounting of the exodus story. The "story itself" is actually told through the mitzva of bikurim (Arami oved avi), through the perspective of the farmer living in Israel long after the exodus.
Yes life in Egypt for many was good. Culture, science, religion(s), wealth, they had it all. Yes it took hard work to get ahead but the "slaves" were happy to comply. In every generation there are those who emulate their ancestors and work long hard hours. And they may have big homes, fancy cars and exotic vacations. But in the editorial stance of the Hagadah they are no more than enlightened slaves. Without Shabbat, the holidays, integrity in business, sensitivity to others - all mitzvoth recorded in connection to the exodus - one is never truly free. Modern, successful man is so often caught up in a web of obligations, making it difficult to see beyond the here and now.
Hard work is great. The Hagadah just asks that we keep life in perspective. That we are able, when the time comes, to move on to greater things. Let us pray we will have the wisdom to do so. Chag Sameach