Enlarging the Story – Pesah 5781

D'var Torah | Holidays

The Passover Haggadah assures us that “all who enlarge upon the telling of the exodus from Egypt is praiseworthy.” But how one “enlarges” upon the story is unspecified. An early Midrash (Mekhilta, Bo, end) reports that Rabbi Eliezer ruled that a company of scholars should study the laws of Passover until midnight. In other words, to enlarge on the story means to elongate the seder. The Tosefta (Pesahim 10:8) agrees though extending the time to the entire night. And indeed, this view is supported by the story in the Haggadah itself regarding the five scholars who celebrated the seder in B’nei Brak.


Maimonides takes a different approach (Laws of Hametz and Matzah 1:4). To enlarge on the story means to elaborate on the events that transpired. Rabbi Joseph Karo (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 481:2) actually incorporates Maimonides’ view with the Midrash and the Tosefta, ruling that a celebrant should engage in the study of the laws of Passover and also retell the miracles and wonders that God performed for our ancestors until sleep overcomes him. Similarly, the Rabbi Elijah of Vilna rules that celebrant should, as best as he can, go beyond the text of the Haggadah.


The Haggadah also gives a third possibility. To enlarge upon the story means to exaggerate the events, amplifying the significance of each element of the Exodus. Thus, for example, Rabbi Yossi the Galilean begins a discussion of how many miracles were performed for the Israelites, claiming that ten were performed in Egypt and fifty at the Read Sea. That number increases to two hundred and then two hundred fifty.


Whether the story is elongated, elaborated, or exaggerated, one thing is true. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out, “we do not tell the narrative of the exodus to know what happened in the past. We do so because each telling engraves that event even more thoroughly in the memory…” And with every passing year comes a new facet of the story with some novel insight. And the enlarging of the story continues throughout the festival.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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