Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed on the Seder Night

A shiur on Passover with Maimonides

One of Judaism’s greatest Sages, Rambam (Maimonides) offers us a deeply meaningful insight into the nature of the Seder night. In showing us the difference between how we are supposed to understand Seder night, first as children and then as adults, he teaches us a crucial lesson which we can all apply in our daily life.

Wishing you all a Chag Kasher v’Sameach!

What I’d like to do in this shiur is to take a look at the unique approach that the Rambam (Moses Maimonides) takes to what we’re actually doing when we conduct a Seder, when we tell the story of the going out of Egypt. What is it that we are doing?

Now, let’s begin first of all by reminding ourselves who the Rambam was. The Rambam was, and remains, a unique voice within Judaism. He was born in 1135, probably, in Cordoba in Spain, under that relatively benign rule of the Almoravids, who created a relatively tolerant atmosphere that became known in retrospect from Jewish perspective as the Golden Age of Spain. In 1148, when he was thirteen years old, the fanatical sect of the Almohadis took over. Jews were really faced with a threat: either convert to Islam or undergo exile or die. And, of course, the Rambam (together with his family) moved into exile. They wandered around the Mediterranean for something like ten years. The Rambam actually during that time visited Jerusalem, prayed on the Temple Mountain, spoke of it as one of the great spiritual experiences of his life, and eventually the family settled in Vorstadt, a little village outside Cairo. Now it’s part of the suburbs of Cairo.

Maimonides’ father had been a judge, Maimon, and Maimonides himself was an absolute prodigy, the greatest Jewish mind of the Middle Ages, and had an extraordinary breadth of interest and expertise and wisdom because he wrote one of the great commentaries to the Mishnah. He wrote the Mishnah Torah, an extraordinary work, the greatest code of Jewish law ever written. It took him ten years day and night. And then of course, towards the end of his life, he wrote The Guide for the Perplexed, one of the deepest and in some ways most perplexing of all works of Jewish philosophy.

In addition though, he was an expert in every other field. He wrote textbooks on logic, astronomy and several medical texts. For a while he was supported by his younger brother David who was a merchant, but he, on one of his business travels, drowned at sea, and Maimonides subsequently trained himself as a physician and earned a living as, among other things, physician to the Sultan in Cairo.

So we’re dealing with a towering mind, one of the great minds of all in the Middle Ages, whose influence went way, way beyond the Jewish community. But what makes Maimonides unusual, spectacular really, is that he is one end of this spectrum within Judaism. He was a rationalist as opposed to a mystic, but, in particular, he was what I would call a natural as opposed to a supernatural Jew.

There are Jews for whom the most stunning proof of God’s existence is miracles that change the order of nature, whereas for the naturalist, the biggest miracle of all is that God created the laws of nature. As Einstein put it, God doesn’t play dice with the universe.

And this split between the natural and supernatural Jew goes way back. We can find it already in the Gemara in Shabbat 53b, which speaks about a man whose wife died in childbirth. He was very poor and he had to bring up this baby on his own, and he could not afford a wet nurse. And the Gemara says a miracle was done for him, and his own breasts started sprouting milk, something called technically ‘male lactation’.

Now the Gemara quotes two absolutely opposed opinions. ‘Amar Rav Yosef’, Rabbi Yosef said, Bo ur’eh kamah gadol adam zeh shena’aseh lo ness kazeh…  Come and see how great was this man for whom this incredible miracle was done. And Abaye said: on the contrary, see how lowly was this man who needed a miracle. (Shabbat 53b, paraphrased). I mean, if he had been wise he probably would have had health insurance, he would have created a livelihood, he would have protected himself against that eventuality. So, Rav Yosef is impressed by miracles and Abaye says that miracles only happen when we desperately need them and that shows that there may be something wrong with us. So Rav Yosef is the supernatural Jew, and Abaye, the natural Jew.

Now the Rambam was pretty extreme in this, and he lays down as an absolutely axiom of Judaism that – here it is in Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah, Chapter 8, halacha 1: Moshe Rabbeinu lo h’iminu bo Yisrael mipnei ha’ottot she’assah. People didn’t believe in Moses because he did miracles, because anyone who performs miracles, there’s always room for scepticism. To ask was it really a miracle, was it magic, was it an optical illusion, was it some random circumstance, was it just good luck? No, says the Rambam, Moses was believed in by the Israelites because of Mount Sinai where they heard and witnessed God speaking directly to Moses and through Moses. So, why then did Moses perform all those miracles? Answer, says the Rambam, because the Israelites happened to need them. They were thirsty so he gave them water from a rock. They were hungry so he brought about manna from heaven. Why did Moses divide the Red Sea? Because the Israelites needed it to get to the other side. The fact that a miracle was needed is neither here nor there, it’s just that they happened to need that. So since there was no other way, God sent miracles. But miracles aren’t proof of anything, according to the Rambam. They aren’t proof that Moses was the greatest of the Prophets. They aren’t really proof that you are a genuine Prophet at all.

So here was the anti-supernaturalist Rambam saying that miracles are really marginal in their importance in Judaism, and the question really is: what does the Rambam do with the Seder night?

After all the Seder night is all about miracles; the mighty hand, the outstretched arm, the signs, the wonders, the plagues and so on. Much of the evening is devoted just to being in awe of all those miracles. We count them one by one and say, if God had only done this and not that, Dayeinu; the Rabbis start arguing about how many plagues the Egyptians actually suffered – if they suffered ten plagues in Egypt, then they suffered fifty at the sea, every plague had four or five different plagues within it, and so on and so forth… It’s a night of miracles. So what does the Rambam, who doesn’t believe miracles are central to Judaism, do with the Seder service?

To understand this, we have to go back to a Mishnah in the tenth chapter of Pesachim and to the commentary of the Gemara on that Mishnah. The Mishnah tells us something exceptionally important, something fundamental. It tells us the Jewish way of telling a story. Specifically, the story of the Exodus. The Mishnah tells us a element of the structure using just four words, an axiom of Jewish narrative: Matchil bignut umessayim beshevach – you begin with the bad news and end with the good news (Mishnah Pesachim 10:4). You begin with the shame, and you end with the pride, the triumph, the victory, the redemption.

And that is, for me, the essence of a Jewish story. A Jewish story is always a story of hope. We don’t see the world through rose-tinted lenses. Yes, there is bad news in the world. There’s the violence, the injustice, the oppression. But that’s only the beginning of the story, not the end. Because the end always culminates in some redemption, some deliverance. In this case, freedom itself and the Promised Land.

Now, the Talmud then moves to the third century, to the first generation of Amoraim and to two great Masters who established academies in Babylon, Rav and Shmuel. And they disagree as to what that actually means; begin with the bad news, end with the good news. And here is their disagreement: Mai Bignut – what is the shameful bit, the bad news? Rav amar m’techila ovdey avodat gillulim hayu avoteinu – Rav says the bad news was: originally in the days of Terach, Abraham’s father, Jews were idolaters, and now God has drawn us near to His service. And Shmuel says, no, the bignut is, the bad news is avadim hayinu l’Pharoah b’Mitzrayim – we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and when God brought us out with yad chazakah uvisroah netuya ve’otot vemoasim – and He brought us out with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and signs and wonders.

So there is a fundamental disagreement between them as to how we tell this story, and there are different ways of seeing their disagreement. One way is to say that Shmuel is giving us close-up focus on the actual events in the days of Moses itself; the slavery and then the liberation, whereas Rav is taking a wide-angled lens to the full drama and panoply of Jewish history, beginning with Abraham and Abraham’s father Terach and extending all the way to Mount Sinai and the Giving of the Torah.

Alternatively, it could be that Shmuel sees physical liberation as fundamental, whereas Rav sees spiritual liberation as fundamental. You know, Shmuel says that the important thing is, our bodies are free, we got out of Egypt, whereas Rav says, no, our minds and our souls also have to be free, and that only happened at Mount Sinai.

It may be that Rav and Shmuel are going according to their very different opinions as to what the ultimate good, the Messianic Age is. Because Shmuel says, ‘Ein ben olam hazeh limmot HaMoshiach rashibut malchiut bilvad.’ Shmuel holds the only difference between now and the Messianic Age is that now Jews are under the rule of foreign powers, but in the Messianic Age they will rule themselves. According to which Shmuel would, had he lived today, have said that Yom Ha’atzmaut, 1948 was the beginning of the Messianic Age. atchalte di ge’ulah. Whereas Rav held, no, in the Messianic Age, the whole world will change.

So Shmuel believes that what really matters is simply having the freedom to rule yourselves, but Rav holds that it’s much deeper and more spiritual than that. Or, finally, it could be that Shmuel is simply looking in the Torah. If you actually look in the Torah in parshat Va’etchanan it says, ‘Ki-yishalcha bincha machar lemor’ , ‘When your child asks you tomorrow saying’, ‘Mah ha’edut vehachukim vehamishpatim asher tzivah Hashem Elokeinu etchem? – (That’s the ‘Wise Child) ‘What are all these testimonies and statues and laws that God has commanded you?’ ‘Ve’amarta levincha’, ‘and you shall say to your child,’ ‘Avadim hayinu l’Pharoah bemitzrayim’ , ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt’ – ‘veyotzi’einu Hashem mimitzrayim b’yad chazakah’ – ‘and God took us out of Egypt with a strong hand/ with a strong arm.’ (Exodus 13:14)

Shmuel is looking at the answer given in the Torah. That’s how you answer the Wise Child, whereas Rav is quoting a verse from the book of Joshua which says: ‘be’eiver hanahar yashvu avoteichem mei’olam Terach avi Avraham v’avi Nachor v’ya’avdu elokim acherim.’ (Joshua 24:2) Rav is saying: no, you’ve got to look to the book of Joshua because don’t think the Exodus ended in the days of Moses. When Moses died, the Israelites still hadn’t crossed the Jordan and built their free society.

So there are all sorts of different ways of explaining the difference between Rav and Shmuel. But what they all have in common is that, according to any interpretation, Rav and Shmuel disagreed. It’s clear they disagreed, and what do we do to make peace between two disagreeing Rabbis? (Rabbis can always disagree but must never be disagreeable) One way or another, we do both. After Ma Nishtanah we say Avadim Hayinu – that’s the answer according to Shmuel, and later on in the Haggadah, we say Mitechillah ovdei avodah zara hayu avoteinu, ve’achsav kirvanu hamakum la’avodato. We give Shmuel’s answer originally – our ancestors were idolaters.

What the Rambam does here is unique. He says, in effect, that Rav and Shmuel weren’t arguing at all. They agreed! They were just talking about two different things.

In Chapter Seven of his Hilchot Chametz U’matzah, the Rambam uniquely tells us that there are two separate mitzvot that we do on Seder night when we tell the story of the going out of Egypt. Here they are: mitzvah one, the Rambam says mitzvat asseh shel torah lesaper bnisim veniflaot sh’na’asu l’avoteinu b’Mitzrayim – it’s a positive mitzvah to tell the story of all the good things, the wondrous things done for our ancestors when they left Egypt. Lesaper. And he says that is a mitzvah regardless of whether you have children, afillu hachamim, afillu nevonim, we know the story already but we still have to do that mitzvah and it’s got nothing to do with children. It’s about telling the story to ourselves. And then in the next halachah, the Rambam says there’s an additional mitzvah, mitzvah lehodiyah lebanim – it is a command to teach the story to our children, even though they didn’t ask a question. As it says, ‘v’yigadata l’bincha b’yom hahu’, ‘you shall teach your child on that day.’

So we have two different mitzvahs according to the Rambam. One is to just relate the story to ourselves; an act of commemoration, and the second is to teach the story to the next generation; an act of education. The first mitzvah applies to adults. The second mitzvah applies to children.

And what the Rambam does in halachah four of the same chapter is he says: vetzarich lechatchil bignut velassayim beshevach – you have to begin with the bad news, end with the good news. Keytzud – how? Matchil u’mesaper shevatchilah hayu avoteinu biymey Terach umilphanav kophrim veto’in acher hahevel – You begin by telling the story that originally our ancestors were idolaters and now God has brought us close to His truth, and then vechein matchil – and similarly you begin u’modiya and make known, and make known sh’avadim hayyinu l’Pharo b’Mitzrayim – you make known to the children that our ancestors were slaves in Egypt.

In other words the Rambam is saying that Rav and Shmuel aren’t disagreeing at all. Shmuel is telling us how to fulfil the mitzvah of education. Rav is telling us how to fulfil the mitzvah of commemoration. Rav is talking about adults. Shmuel is talking about how you teach your children.

And if that is so, that explains exactly why we do what we do, because immediately after the youngest child (or the youngest child who can ask) has asked Ma Nishtanah, we give Shmuel’s answer Avadim Hayinu l’pharoah b’mitzrayim, and then once we’ve answered the child, we give as it were, the adult reply which is Rav’s view, which is that the real liberation was from idolatry to monotheism, from worshipping many gods to worshipping one God, from worshipping the gods of power to worshipping the one God of freedom. So the Rambam has really done something extraordinary. He’s telling us that Rav and Shmuel weren’t disagreeing, they were just giving us each one half of the mitzvah, or one of the two mitzvot.

And now we can begin to understand the Rambam’s approach to the signs, the miracles, the wonders, all that stuff that magnifies the miraculous in the Exodus is part of the story we tell our children. Because that really excites them. We can visualise it, almost imagine it as an epic movie. It’s not quite Harry Potter and it’s not quite Star Wars, but you get the point. There is a subjugated slave nation, there are heavenly signs and wonders, all the special effects, open miracles, transformations, the whole works. And that excites children.

But the Rambam is telling us that that is the first level of our understanding. When we’re kids that’s how we think freedom is won. God does it all for us. With all the fireworks and all the wondrous special effects. God does it for us. But there inevitably comes a time when we grow up and, according to Rav, that is the real story. Not the physical journey from Egypt to the wilderness, but the spiritual journey that took generations to realise. From the days of Terach, the father of Abraham, when Jews were sunk in idolatry, to that long, slow process of coming to believe in the one God, Creator of heaven and earth, who endowed us with freedom and asked us to create a free society.

Now, that is really remarkable. And it takes us to the heart of one of the most profound statements of the Rambam. You will find it in book three, chapter thirty-two of his great philosophical masterwork, The Guide for the Perplexed. In it he asks a simple question. If God can do miracles, if God can change nature, if He can bring water from a rock and food from Heaven and divide the Red Sea itself, if God can change nature, why can’t He change human nature? Why not make us people who are naturally lovers of freedom, of justice, of compassion, of order? Why doesn’t God change us?

And the Rambam’s answer is incredible. He says, of course God can change us. But if He were to do so, He would take away the one greatest gift that He gave us: freedom itself. We’d become robots, programmed by God. We’d have no free will whatsoever. And therefore, although it would be easy for God to change human nature, God will never do so because to be free we have to make that journey ourselves. And it’s a long journey, because as the Rambam says, people don’t change from being slaves to being free human beings overnight. It may take generations.The Rambam is telling us something that I think is so important in the world today. Let’s me just restate it, if I may. It isn’t what God does for us that changes us. It’s what we do for God.

The real wonder, the real hard task of freedom was not the signs, the wonders and the miracles. For the kids that’s the main thing. But for adults the main thing is that long journey that the Israelites had to take before they understood what freedom is and the responsibilities it brings with it, and that took a very long time indeed. And that is what we do for God. Or as John F. Kennedy famously said at the beginning of his inaugural address, the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe, the belief that the rights of humanity come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God. In other words, a free society is something we create for God. It’s not something He creates for us. He gives us the template, the destination but we have to make the journey.

Now, I can’t think of any story more relevant to the twenty-first century, because we have seen that great free societies, for instance in the Middle East, it’s not enough to take people out from under the hand of a tyrant, just to schlep people out from under Pharaoh, get rid of Saddam Hussein, get rid of Gaddafi. You don’t instantly create a free society. In fact, you create what has happened today, something pretty much like chaos. What Thomas Hobbes called the ‘state of nature in which life is nasty, brutish and short.’

You create free societies by educating people in the demands of freedom. And education is what God wants of us. He doesn’t want us to take away people’s freedom. He wants us to create freedom, and God can only take us so far, the rest is up to us.

According to the Rambam, there’s a very exciting thrill-packed story that we tell to our children, but below the thrills there is also a tougher story that we teach to ourselves, which is that God can change nature but He can’t change human nature and that is something we have to do for ourselves. Inspired by God, given strength by God, given courage and hope by God, but still, we have to do it for ourselves.

I think that this year, which is the hundredth anniversary of the Balfour Declaration and the fiftieth anniversary of the Six Day War, we should give thanks that the people of Israel and the State of Israel, the ones who built it, the ones who sustain it today, have in a strange way done just that. Yes, they are given strength by God and no doubt that they have created in a place that knew only tyranny and terror and the pursuit of power and the rule of force, they have created for the first time, a genuinely free society in our ancestral lands, in the land to which Abraham and then Moses and the Israelites journeyed. They’ve created and sustained a free society, and whether they consciously did so for religious reasons or not at all, but somehow the spirit of our ancestors lived on in them and somehow or other they did it nonetheless. And thus showed what the Jewish people is all about. That somehow or other, we are the people who, in ourselves, give testimony to something bigger than ourselves. And the State of Israel daily gives testimony to the fact that the God of freedom seeks the free worship of free human beings, who together create a free society.

So giving thanks for Israel, giving thanks to God for taking us there and bringing us back to there, that is the adult story of the Exodus, and one the world still needs to learn.

Chag kasher v’sameach to all of you.