Maggid: The First Passover Story AVIVAH GOTTLIEB ZORNBERG

The Exodus, according to a profound midrashic tradition, is best understood as the release from a constricted world of the soul: in Hebrew, Egypt is mitzrayim, which evokes meitzarim, narrow places, straits from which one cannot at first even cry to God.

Passover celebrates such a release; but the exodus from Egypt—yetziat mitzrayim—takes place in Egypt. At the seder table, we thank God for taking us out from slavery to freedom, from misery to joy, from mourning to celebration, from deep darkness to great light, and from bondage to redemption. This kind of release, we say, requires a new song. The birth begins in and through contraction. The first matzah is eaten under house arrest, in Egypt. What characterizes the moment of redemption?

Even in Egypt, among all the many calamities of slavery, there are moments of celebration. But these moments have an excessive, frenetic quality. Six births at a time—or is it twelve, or six hundred thousand?1 — the raucous cries of a baby in a brick,2 the emergence of a free nation of 600,000 families into a wilderness where all adults will die…What does it mean to celebrate when each birth is a dark reminder of before and after?

Perhaps Egypt represents not simply death but a disturbing surplus animation, a sense of being rigid with energy. Egyptomania, the Egyptian sickness,3 then, would be the experience of being undead, neither alive nor properly dead.4 And yetziat mitzrayim—the Exodus, the birth from such a place—would have to be a genuinely enlivening experience. Can such a moment of shocking release be found in the biblical narrative?

I’d like to suggest that the word ḥipazon—panic haste—goes some way towards evoking this sense of explosive spontaneity. “You shall eat it [the paschal offering] in haste” (Exodus 13:11); “in haste you left the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 16:5). Birth, or redemption, occurs as a pure event—something else, that arises incomprehensibly from a world complete in itself, surprising both redeemer and redeemed. The French philosopher, Alain Badiou, gives the example of Haydn’s emergence from within a situation governed by the baroque style. With Haydn came the classical style. But “what this event was to authorize in terms of musical configurations was not comprehensible from within the plenitude achieved by the baroque style; it really was a matter of something else.”5 In a moment, a complex series of subtle interactions comes together and the child is born. Crying and laughing, a nation comes prematurely to life.6 At this moment, there can be no narrative, no celebration. The aftershock of release still reverberates. Later, there will be stories, versions of the event.

Looking for the history of such moments of paroxysm, we remember the laughter in which Abraham and Sarah gave birth to their son Isaac. Both father and mother of this miracle child laugh when told of his imminent birth. Abraham “fell on his face and he laughed, saying to himself, ‘Can a child be born be born to a man a hundred years old, or can Sarah bear a child at ninety?’” (Genesis 17:17). Sarah is in her tent, listening to the conversation between her husband and the mysterious “man:”

(יא) וְאַבְרָהָ֤ם וְשָׂרָה֙ זְקֵנִ֔ים בָּאִ֖ים בַּיָּמִ֑ים חָדַל֙ לִהְי֣וֹת לְשָׂרָ֔ה אֹ֖רַח כַּנָּשִֽׁים׃ (יב) וַתִּצְחַ֥ק שָׂרָ֖ה בְּקִרְבָּ֣הּ לֵאמֹ֑ר אַחֲרֵ֤י בְלֹתִי֙ הָֽיְתָה־לִּ֣י עֶדְנָ֔ה וַֽאדֹנִ֖י זָקֵֽן׃ (יג) וַיֹּ֥אמֶר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֑ם לָ֣מָּה זֶּה֩ צָחֲקָ֨ה שָׂרָ֜ה לֵאמֹ֗ר הַאַ֥ף אֻמְנָ֛ם אֵלֵ֖ד וַאֲנִ֥י זָקַֽנְתִּי׃ (יד) הֲיִפָּלֵ֥א מֵיְהוָ֖ה דָּבָ֑ר לַמּוֹעֵ֞ד אָשׁ֥וּב אֵלֶ֛יךָ כָּעֵ֥ת חַיָּ֖ה וּלְשָׂרָ֥ה בֵֽן׃ (טו) וַתְּכַחֵ֨שׁ שָׂרָ֧ה ׀ לֵאמֹ֛ר לֹ֥א צָחַ֖קְתִּי כִּ֣י ׀ יָרֵ֑אָה וַיֹּ֥אמֶר ׀ לֹ֖א כִּ֥י צָחָֽקְתְּ׃
(11) Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years; Sarah had stopped having the periods of women. (12) And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment—with my husband so old?” (13) Then the LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’ (14) Is anything too wondrous for the LORD? I will return to you at the same season next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” (15) Sarah lied, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was frightened. But He replied, “You did laugh.”

Sarah, within herself, is preoccupied by absence, loss, the lack of pleasure. She is strangely animated in her inner accounting of the failure of the life-force. And she laughs; out of her “undeadness,” her state of uncanny surplus animation, something explodes. Is this a skeptical laugh, as some have suggested? The man/angel then interrogates her laughter, affirming that nothing is too wondrous for God—or perhaps that nothing is hidden from God, who sees her through and through. In fear, she denies, “No, I did not laugh.” And he re-affirms, “No, but you did laugh.” This cryptic scene, ending with the man/angel’s apparent reproof of Sarah’s laughter, leaves the reader baffled at his insistence—an almost comic verbal tussle between him and Sarah—and at the sudden ending of the story.

According to midrashic tradition, this moment takes place on Passover, and the birth of Isaac will happen on Passover—“the time of new life,” ka-et ḥayah.7 If Passover is to be the time of new life, then perhaps laughter is essential. Sarah’s laugh, a different midrash suggests, celebrates a new fact—she has suddenly gotten her period: “Now that I am withered, I have become menstrual!”8 Suddenly, her body opens up. She laughs—not skeptically, not forgetting her history of long dry seasons— but in baffled joy, out of a complex sense that “this is incredible.”

Or perhaps the very idea of such rejuvenation—its absurdity within the closed system of her body and Abraham’s—suddenly releases her into the spasm of laughter, which means overflow, excess;9 and the blood begins to flow. She has cracked up, and at first she is afraid, ashamed. But the man-angel insists, ‘No, you really did laugh!’ The words are left hanging in the air, insisting that Sarah own her laughter and the rupture it has made.

This, then, is the first Passover story: a barren body and the shocking moment of transformation that triggers laughter and is triggered by it. Did she feel her body opening and laugh in incredulous joy? Or did her spontaneous laugh at the very idea of a child break her open and place her suddenly in the very midst of life?

All Passover stories celebrate an awakening to unimagined life, a personal paroxysm of redemption within the calamities of a life: “In every generation, a person should see himself as though he had left Egypt” (B. Pesaḥim 116b). One is obliged to see oneself, whenever one lives, as having experienced exodus.

But the event of redemption would not have been comprehensible as it was happening. Leaving Egypt in ḥipazon, eating the paschal sacrifice in ḥipazon, has the power—like Sarah’s spasm of laughter—to break us open and transform a known reality. It is only afterwards that the event can be rounded out into a story. Only then can one see oneself, or—according to another tradition10 —perhaps even show oneself as though one had left Egypt. Only now, and here, in the midst of life, can some fragment of the story be told. “Then our mouths shall be full of laughter” (Psalms 126:2).

1Tanhuma Pekudei 9.

2Moses is placed in a caulked and upholstered box that from the outside must look like a brick— the material of slavery.

3See Exodus 15:26.

4See Eric Santner, On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life (London and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 19, 64.

5Alain Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, trans. Peter Hallward (New York and London: Verso, 2012), 68.

6See Song of Songs Rabbah 2:19 on the words, “The voice of my beloved, here he comes, leaping over the mountains…” In his desire to redeem, God pays no heed to calendar-time

7See Rashi to Genesis 18:10

8See Rashi to Genesis 18:12; and B. Baba Metzia 87a.

9I am grateful to Adina Roth who pointed out that in the Quran, laughter and menstruation in Arabic are both indicated by the same root, va-daḥikat, which is analogous to tzaḥak, and which signifies excess, overflow.

10The Sephardi haggadah, following Rambam, has this version.