I. Two Exodus Stories
Everyone likes a story of an underdog succeeding, a happy ending after a difficult struggle. There are usually two variations on the theme. One is that of personal transformation, overcoming personal difficulties and becoming a better individual. Another is salvation from a bad situation. The former is about personal change and the latter is about a person emerging from suffering.
The Talmud (Pesachim 116a) prescribes that the beginning of the magid (story) section of the Haggadah begin with negative historical facts about the Jewish people. The sages Rav and Shmuel debate with which story we must begin. Rav states that we must start by telling how our forefathers were idolators while Shmuel holds that we begin by stating that we were slaves in Egypt. In practice, we follow both. After the four questions we say “Avadim hayinu — we were slaves” and then we subsequently say “Mi-techilah ovdei avodah zarah — our forefathers were idolators.”
The differing visions between these two rabbis of the Haggadah plot seem to reflect the types discussed above. Rav sees it as a tale of transformation. We were originally idolators and through the long period of enslavement and Exodus we changed into monotheists. In this vision, the turning point is “Va-nitzak” — and we cried out to God from the difficulties of the slavery. Rather than turning to idols, the enslaved Jews prayed to the one, true God.
Shmuel, however, sees the story as one of salvation. The Jews were slaves and God freed them. In this telling, the turning point is “Va-yotzi’enu” — and God took us out of Egypt. Occurring twice in the Haggadah — once in “Avadim hayinu” and again in “Arami oved avi” — this passage marks God’s physical redemption of the Jews from slavery.
II. Theological Salvation
However, Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Chametz U-Matzah 7:4) interprets Rav’s dictum in a way that reconciles the two approaches. Maimonides describes the ancestral idolators as “Deniers, mistakenly following nonsense and fervent idolators.” First they denied God’s existence; then in their disbelief they were confused by faulty thinking, which led them into idolatry. While Rambam is certainly not excusing their disastrous theological error, he is explaining that the process which brought the forefathers to idolatry was one of coercion. They fell into idolatry. It was not a choice but an external circumstance. In this interpretation, the Exodus story is one of salvation from a situation of idolatry into monotheism.
According to the Rambam, the turning point in the Haggadah remains “Va-nitzak.” However, rather than serving as a a sign of communal growth away from idolatry, it shows the theological salvation from the errors of idolatry. God redeems the Jews from idolatry into the path of monotheism.
According to both the plots of transformation and theological salvation, the story’s ending seems less than happy. Not long after leaving Egypt, the Jews reverted to idolatry with the Golden Calf episode and continued to periodically return to this ancestral sin. However, a similar objection can be raised to the salvation plot. Throughout the centuries, Jews were exiled and conquered. The seder of a Jew in Auschwitz or Siberia was certainly ironic, in some ways similar to that of an idolatrous Jew. While we tell the Exodus story as a single unit, the plot continues throughout the ages until the time when we no longer need to say “Next year in a rebuilt Jerusalem.”