Kollel Graduate, Memphis Kollel, 2007
“It is good to praise God, to sing hymns to Your name, Most High. To proclaim Your kindness in the morning, and Your faithfulness at night” (Psalms 92:2-3).
In order to understand how these verses are expressed in the Pesach Haggadah, we will first explain them.
“It is good to praise God.” This speaks of an absolute and unchanging good. Similarly, it says, “For I have given you good instruction; do not forsake my Torah” (Proverbs 4:2). The Torah is absolute good. The name of God used here is the shem havayah (the letters yud, heh, vav, heh), referring to God as He manifests Himself in our reality.
“To sing hymns to Your name, Most High.” Here the name used for God is Elyon (Most High), referring to a more inner dimension of God. Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook uses this distinction to explain the words of the kabbalistic prayer: “For the sake of the uniting of the Holy One, Blessed be He, and His Shekhinah (Divine presence).” Rav Kook suggests that “Holy One, Blessed Be He” is the same as Elyon, God Most High. “Shekhinah,” similar to the shemhavayah, is how God manifests Himself in our reality.
The first phrase of the verses above, “It is good to praise God (shemhavayah),” corresponds to the fourth phrase, “Your faithfulness at night.” The second phrase, “To sing hymns to Your name, Most High (Elyon),” corresponds to the third phrase, “To proclaim Your kindness in the morning.” Based on the above, we can understand the dictum that “Just as we bless God for the good, so must we bless Him for the evil” (Mishnah, Berakhot 54a). It means that “It is good to praise God” under all circumstances, whether things seem to be the darkness of night or the light of morning, whether God seems manifest or not.
Now I will explain how the message of these verses appears in the Haggadah.
The mitzvah on seder night is “Tell your children” (Exodus 13:8). It is not for nothing that our Sages chose to feature children who question. For the question – the darkness – is important. It allows us to understand the answer – the light. The Maharal in his work Netzach Yisrael writes, “Exile itself is a clear proof and confirmation that the redemption will come. . . .”
The Haggadah consistently presents these two poles. According to the Gemara (Pesachim 116a), we start the story of the Exodus with disparagement and end with praise. According to Rav, we begin with the negative, “Originally our ancestors were idol-worshippers,” and conclude with praise, “Now God has brought us close to His service.” According to Shmuel, we begin with the negative, “We were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt,” and conclude with praise, “The Lord our God took us out of there.”
The seder emphasizes questions and answers. This includes the questions of the four children and the answers given to them. Additionally, all the unusual things which we do at the seder are in order to lead our children to question.
The message about accepting the bad with the good and recognizing that the first leads to the second can also be found in the Dayeinu song, which includes the refrain, “Even if God had not . . . it would have been enough.” Similarly, the Haggadah continues, “Therefore we are obligated to praise and thank God. . . . He took us from slavery to freedom, from anguish to happiness, from mourning to celebration, from dark to light, from enslavement to redemption. And we will give praise before Him.” As a result of these realizations, the good – the light – will be inscribed upon our hearts. As a result of these questions, we will deeply internalize the answers.
“It is the foundation of foundations and the pillar of all wisdom to know that there is a Prime Mover who created all” (Rambam, beginning of Mishneh Torah). It is a foundation of belief in God that we must thank God even when things look bad, and even when it seems as if God has left us.
We can see examples of this throughout the Torah. I will cite just one story. When Joseph comes to check on his brothers, they grab him, and without much discussion strip him and throw him into a pit. Joseph cries and pleads with them to take him out of the pit (which according to the midrash contains snakes and scorpions), but the brothers ignore him. After a while, they do take Joseph out. He thinks his brothers have repented, but then they sell him. Joseph is all by himself, but he finds a place with an important Egyptian dignitary. Once again things take a turn for the worse. The dignitary’s wife libels him, and Joseph is thrown into jail again. Yet again they free him, shave him . . . and he becomes the second in command to Pharaoh. Nevertheless, Joseph is still sad because he is far from home. (Think about the names he gives his children.) But we, who are aware of God’s promise to Abraham, understand why Joseph and afterwards Jacob descend to Egypt.
Having faith that there is a big picture is not an easy path; actually, it is very difficult. Nevertheless, it is important to remember always the quote from the Haggadah: “Blessed is He who keeps his promise to Israel, Blessed is He. For God calculated the end. . . .” God calculated the entire process of redemption, whose end we await.
It is all written in our holy Torah and foretold by our prophets. We simply must study and live the words of the Torah and Prophets. We must live an all-encompassing life of Torah and mitzvah observance. We must live holy lives in the Holy Land. And we must do all this while waiting to see how the words of the prophets will come true in our times.
Let us hope that, with the help of God, the entire Jewish people will merit to live in the land of Israel in accordance with the Torah of Israel, and to participate in the ongoing redemption, even if sometimes things look dark to us. It is our job to illuminate the darkness!
This year in a rebuilt Jerusalem.