Hide and Seek at Pesach
By Jean Gerber
Our last column dealt with slavery—avadim hayinu. Now we may move on to look at another theme implicit in the story. What is hidden in that history?
In order to conclude the seder it is the custom that the youngest hide and then ransom the afikomen. This little piece of matzah has been taken during the ceremony and meal and now must be recovered in order to conclude the meal. What are we hiding? Or hiding from? What has been hidden during the course of the storytelling?
The Pharaoh, who knew all that Joseph did for him and Egypt, dies. The new Pharaoh does not remember Joseph and imposes harsh labour on the Israelites. It is then that the Israelites cry out and that God “remembers,” or “takes note” of his people.
Tradition teaches that the Israelites spent 400 years as slaves, but a more realistic estimate indicates about 250 years. However long, it was enough for them to forget the promises made in the Torah that God will ultimately redeem them and return them to their homeland, Canaan (Israel).
So what had God been doing for all those years while Israel floundered in the depths of despair?
The Bratslaver Rebbi taught that over those centuries, Israel went through 38 downward steps to the edge of despair. Only before they slipped into the ultimate well of despair—the 39th step—did God act, using Moses to reverse course just in time.
Robert Alter, the penetrating literary critic of Bible argues that stories in the Torah are “a discourse on God’s purpose in history.” What is the purpose, then of all those years of misery? The Midrash teaches that the Israelites were near to giving up having children until Miriam led the women in enticing their husbands back to the marital bed, at which time Moses was conceived.
Perhaps the Haggadah has an answer. We begin the seder in poverty and despair at ever being freed from slavery. But soon we ask questions or, more properly, insist that our children ask them. We examine reactions to the Exodus, embodied in the story of the four sons and their differing perspectives. Four answers from the Torah itself show how God promises release, freedom, and redemption.
Freedom and its responsibilities take time to get used to. Miracles, embodied in the plagues, shake us up but when they stop, we need to take matters into our own hands. And on the seder night, we insert ourselves into the drama in order to understand what is happening.
We can wonder why it takes so long for the hidden God to become visible in history. There really is no single answer to this question. Nor does Professor Alter give us an answer. Maybe the afikomen, hidden in playfulness, provides a hint that while God may act in history, God can still be pretty hidden. It takes effort on our part to find the answers. So don’t just sit there – go search!