We spend most of the Seder night talking about the Exodus story. But right towards the beginning of the Haggadah, we say something that almost casually dismisses the central theme of the night, the Exodus:
צֵא וּלְמַד מַה בִּקֵּשׁ לָבָן הָאֲרַמִּי לַעֲשׂוֹת לְיַעֲקֹב אָבִינוּ: שֶׁפַּרְעֹה לֹא גָזַר אֶלָּא עַל הַזְּכָרִים, וְלָבָן בִּקֵּשׁ לַעֲקֹר אֶת־הַכֹּל – Go learn what Lavan from Aramean sought to do to our father Yakov; Pharaoh only oppressed the males, whereas Lavan tried to destroy it all!
But it doesn’t quite resonate.
Pharaoh was a genocidal despot who cruelly enslaved an entire race and murdered children indiscriminately – לֹא גָזַר אֶלָּא עַל הַזְּכָרִים. He ticks every box on the villain archetype bingo card, which is, in large part, why the Exodus was such a big deal.
Our ancestor Lavan is characterized as a tricky swindler who provides refuge and safe harbor when Yakov is on the run with nowhere to go. Over time, Lavan gives him his family, a home, and tremendous wealth and resources.
In what universe can we plausibly say that Lavan was worse than Pharaoh? Moreover, doesn’t that undermine Pharaoh’s atrocities and perhaps the entire Seder?
R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that the Haggadah reminds us of Lavan as a warning that threats don’t always look like the atrocities of Pharaoh; sometimes, they appear in the form of the kind person who took you in and gave you so much.
Nothing is surprising about our response to imminent danger. When calamity strikes in the form of a Pharaoh-type villain, we know what to do; across the ages, in the face of adversity, Jews have been resilient, doubling down on study, prayer, repentance, and enhanced observance – וְכַאֲשֶׁר יְעַנּוּ אֹתוֹ כֵּן יִרְבֶּה וְכֵן יִפְרֹץ.
The danger Lavan poses is far more insidious. Lavan doesn’t hurt Yakov in the physical world; he hurts Yakov in the world of spirit, making Yakov forget who he was – לַעֲקֹר אֶת־הַכֹּל. Affluence, no less than genocide or slavery, threatens Jewish continuity by making us forget who we are.
For the many souls lost to pogroms, Crusades, the Inquisition, or the Holocaust, there are memorials and prayers, history books, and proclamations of “Never Again.” But, in the words of R’ Noach Weinberg, there is a spiritual Holocaust with no memorials or monuments; how many souls have been lost, assimilated to an open society that so warmly invites us in?
Before Moshe’s death, he warned of precisely this pitfall because humans are consistently prone to falling in:
הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ, פֶּן-תִּשְׁכַּח אֶת-ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ, לְבִלְתִּי שְׁמֹר מִצְותָיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו וְחֻקֹּתָיו, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם. פֶּן-תֹּאכַל, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ; וּבָתִּים טֹבִים תִּבְנֶה, וְיָשָׁבְתָּ.וּבְקָרְךָ וְצֹאנְךָ יִרְבְּיֻן, וְכֶסֶף וְזָהָב יִרְבֶּה-לָּךְ; וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר-לְךָ, יִרְבֶּה.וְרָם, לְבָבֶךָ; וְשָׁכַחְתָּ אֶת-ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ, הַמּוֹצִיאֲךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים – Take care that you don’t forget the Lord your God and fail to keep His commandments, rules, and laws, which I instruct you today: when you have eaten, and you are satisfied and built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, be careful that your heart does not grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God—who freed you from the land of Egypt, home of slaves… (8:10-14)
The Beis Halevi highlights that Yakov prayed for God to save him from the hand of his brother, the hand of Esau – מִיַּד אָחִי מִיַּד עֵשָׂו – because each strategy requires different treatment – the destructive capacity for violence – מִיַּד עֵשָׂו – but also the warm embrace of brotherhood that is no less of a threat – מִיַּד אָחִי.
Perhaps that’s why the Haggadah reminds us that Lavan might be worse than Pharaoh. Faced with Lavan, people are oblivious to the threat, invisibly slipping away, silent, and without putting up a fight.
It is one thing to believe in God when you need His help. It is another thing entirely when you have already received it and are in a comfortable position.
The Haggadah and the Seder provide us the antidote – צֵא וּלְמַד. Hold on to your identity, your history, and where you come from.
When you know who you are, it’s harder to get lost.