Haggadah nostalgia

April 2022
Rabbi Aaron Kutnowski

As we gear up for Pesach and the seder night, many of us fall into our own unique preparatory routines and patterns. At our home, the cabinets are cleaned, cleared, and prepared for the Pesach kitchenware. I take out my white kittel and check to make sure last year’s wine stains have been bleached clean. And, lastly, taking out the various haggadot, dusting them off and allocating time for their perusal. The haggadah is quite the discussed topic around the Pesach season and many works have been written on exploring its text. Even though it is recited annually, and the seder is accomplished through this same text, rituals, and songs each year, it never seems to fail to surprise many of us with at least a small quiet nuance. 

I generally conclude preparations with reviewing the haggadah I used as a youth at my parents’ home: the Passover Haggadah by Rabbi Nathan Goldberg. For whatever reason, this book has found a special place in my heart. It’s somewhat surprising since it is rather plain in comparison to other ones I own. But nostalgia has taken hold of this book and caused me to have an irrational fondness towards this edition. At the end of the day, whichever one chooses to use, sometimes keeping it simple really is optimum.

This year, I noticed something that I hadn’t given much thought to in the past. In the haggadah’s maggid section, which begins with the phrase, “Tzei Ulemad,” or “Go and Learn,” discusses how Laban sought to uproot Jacob’s family completely, while Pharaoh only wanted to kill the males. In this context, even going down to Egypt which led to the national enslavement of the Jewish people was a decent alternative to complete annihilation. The text continues to state: “And he went down to Egypt” - Jacob was forced by the word of God. But how exactly was Jacob forced down to Egypt? Did he really have another viable choice? Should he have stuck around and been killed by Laban? After a bit of thought on the matter, it seems that if God had not commanded Jacob to go down to Egypt, Jacob would not have gone down to Egypt (see Bereishis 46:1-4). And why would Jacob have placed himself in such a risky situation? It seems that he did not want to leave Eretz Yisrael, the land promised to him and his offspring. It was only the command of God to go down to Egypt that compelled him to leave the land of Israel, leaving the land abandoned by her people for many centuries before being united at the time of Joshua, the prophet. 

The phrase, “The medium is the message” coined by the Canadian communication theorist Marshall McLuhan suggests that the chosen medium of communication, itself, should be a primary focus of stud. McLuhan stated, “Indeed, it is only too typical that the ‘content’ of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium itself. Therefore, we must analyze the medium as well and extract its unique message.”

 The message that I take from the medium of the haggadah, is that the foundations of our relationship with God stems from cherishing and appreciating our vibrant family traditions. By allowing ourselves to have a positive emotional connection with our past, we will properly hold dear the texts that preserve and record our heritage.

Rabbi Nachum Aaron Kutnowski is currently a Judaic Studies Teacher at the Hamilton Hebrew Academy, as well as at the Hamilton Kollel.