Retelling the Story of the Exodus
Aside from the many mitzvot involved in the holiday of Pesach, such as korban Pesach, eating matzah and maror, etc., there is another mitzvah, which is particular to this holiday. It is the mitzvah of retelling the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim. The pasuk (Shemot 13:8) states, “You shall tell your son on that day, saying, ‘It is because of this that Hashem acted on my behalf when I left Egypt.’” Rashi explains that one tells over the story “in order to fulfill Hashem’s mitzvot, such as Pesach, matzah, and maror.” Why don’t any of the other holidays carry the directive to discuss the reason for the festival?
All of the holidays which we commemorate are connected to Yetziat Mitzrayim. For, had we not been redeemed from Egypt, we would not merit celebrating any of the festivals. Nisan is the first of the months (Shemot 12:2), and Pesach is the head of all festivals. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to retell the story of the Exodus on Pesach.
Moreover, the Torah enjoins us to narrate the events of the Exodus in detail. In this manner, we will imagine as though the episode were taking place before our very eyes. We will truly feel as if we are being liberated here and now. This is, in fact, our obligation (Zevachim 116a).
There is good reason for placing remembrances of the korban Pesach, matzah, and maror on the Seder plate. It is so that when we tell over the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim, we literally feel as though we are at this very moment being redeemed from Egypt. The story was not a legend of the past, but is unfolding right now, and we are a part of it.
Rambam writes (Sefer Hamitzvot, Mitzvah 157), “We are commanded to retell the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim on the eve of the fifteenth of Nisan, at the beginning of the night, each according to his ability. Whoever adds and expounds on the miracles that Hashem did for us, describing the horrors which the Egyptians inflicted on our nation, and glorifying Hashem Who avenged His people, is praised. Our Sages state, ‘Whoever increases his narrative of Yetziat Mitzrayim is praiseworthy.’”
The Minchat Chinuch finds this difficult to understand. For, every night, we remember the Exodus from Egypt, in the tefillah of Ma’ariv (Berachot 1:5). How is the mitzvah to retell the story of the Exodus on the night of Pesach different from stating it on every other night of the year, to the extent that the Rambam enumerates the narration on the night of Pesach as a separate mitzvah?
On every night of the year, the mitzvah is to merely mention Yetziat Mitzrayim. A short statement in the evening prayer suffices. Conversely, on the night of Pesach, there is a special commandment to recount the entire episode, from its beginning to its conclusion. Therefore, one who speaks at length about Yetziat Mitzrayim on the night of Pesach is praiseworthy, for he embellishes this most important mitzvah.
There is an additional difference between retelling the story of the Exodus at the Seder and remembering the Exodus on all other nights of the year. Throughout the year, a person is instructed to remember Yetziat Mitzrayim. On the night of Pesach, though, the mitzvah is to tell others what took place, as the pasuk states (Shemot 13:8), “You shall tell your son.” The intention is to share the story with those who do not know it. Rabbi Yishmael Hakohen writes this in his sefer Hegyonei Halachah. Rabbi Avraham ben HaGra also mentions this.
In light of this, it is understandable why the Rambam considers the retelling of the Pesach story as a mitzvah in its own right, separate from the mitzvah of remembering Yetziat Mitzrayim every night of the year in the Evening Prayers. When Pesach, matzah, and maror are lying in front of a person, the feeling of liberation is much more tangible. Then, one will tell over the events of Yetziat Mitzrayim in an entirely different manner.
The Admor MiLelov, zt”l, and others, would carry sacks on their shoulders on Seder Night, to demonstrate how Bnei Yisrael left with (Shemot 12:34) “their leftovers bound up in their garments upon their shoulders.”
Rabban Gamliel states (Pesachim 10:5), “Whoever did not say these three things on Pesach, has not fulfilled his obligation. They are: Pesach, matzah, and maror.” This is difficult to understand. These items are mentioned in the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim. Why do they need to be mentioned separately, to the degree that one who does not do so, has not fulfilled his obligation?
The Maharsha, the Tzalach, and the Aruch L’ner strengthen this question. We do not find that any mitzvah must be explained before one performs it. It is sufficient to make a berachah before doing so. Yet, before eating the korban Pesach, matzah, and maror, apart from making the berachah, we must explain why we do each mitzvah. (Nowadays, we are unable to eat the korban Pesach, since we do not yet have the Beit Hamikdash. Instead, we explain the reasoning behind the mitzvah and point to the shank-bone, which is a remembrance of the korban Pesach.)
Rabban Gamliel’s perspective explains these difficulties. He is of the opinion that even if someone describes the events of Yetziat Mitzrayim in detail, all night long (as we do when reciting the Haggadah), he is still obligated to mention these three items at the Seder table. One who did not manage to discuss the entire story of the Exodus from Egypt can fulfill his obligation by mentioning these three items, and explain why we eat them. This is because these items contain both elements of bondage and elements of freedom.
Furthermore, when one lifts these items into the air, he reaches the level of a truly free man, as though Yetziat Mitzrayim were happening at this moment, before his eyes. He is an active partner in it, with all his organs.
The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 477:1) rules that one should be careful to eat the afikoman before chatzot. The Mishnah Berurah (4) explains that this is because it commemorates the korban Pesach, which was consumed before chatzot (Zevachim 5:8). One should ensure that at least the first kezayit of matzah, which we make a berachah on, should be eaten by chatzot.
The reasoning behind this is clear. In order to feel the imminence of the geulah, as if it were taking place here and now, one must perform the mitzvah at the same time that our ancestors did it in Egypt, as they were rushing to leave. This will help him feel as though he himself is going out of Egypt.
Based on this, we can settle the difficulties of the Maharsha, the Tzelach, and the Aruch L’ner. The mitzvah of retelling the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim is fundamentally different from other mitzvot. Regarding other mitzvot, the objective is the act of performing the mitzvah, rendering a berachah over the mitzvah and its performance adequate. However, when we recount the details of the Exodus, each part of it requires explanations and reasons in order that we should experience the redemption ourselves. The explanations are an intrinsic part of fulfilling the mitzvah. Thus, before eating the korban Pesach (see note above), matzah, and maror, we must explain what each of them signifies. This is the way to physically feel the geulah.