In one of the climactic parts of the hagada, we cite the Mishna ( Pesachim 117B): “Therefore we are obligated to thank and praise G-d for what He did to our fathers and us” – all the wonders and miracles that accompanied the Exodus , and we begin the recitation of Hallel . But then in the blessing that follows, we reverse the order, thanking G-d who ” redeemed us and our fathers from Egypt. ” Why the change – first, “our fathers and us” and then “to us and our fathers.” Why the change?
There is a beautiful story in the fascinating hagada of Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon about Rav Yona Emanuel, late editor of Hamaayan and long-time teacher of Torah in Israel. At his grandson’s brit milah in 1985, he related a story that he said he had never told anyone before, not even his wife or children.
Forty years earlier , he said, it was Pesach Eve 1945, and a young Yona Emanuel was imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen. He had been forced for a long period of time to rise early and spend his day at hard labor. He came back exhausted, just like every day, broken already by two years of maltreatment. He was 19 years old. His father was already dead, his older and younger brothers were dead, and his little sister was dead. His mother was barely clinging to life, lying ill in her barracks. In that time, days before liberation, Jews were dying by the hundreds every day of starvation and disease.
That night – Pesach night – he sat at her bedside and recited the hagada. Of course he had no wine and no matzot. All he and everyone around him had – in abundance – wa s maror. Life itself was bitter. He whispered the hagada to his mother – he didn’t know whether or not she heard it – until he came to th e blessing cited above. And he said, “Who redeemed us and redeemed our fathers,” and when he came to these words, the prayer in the blessing, “just like He redeemed us and our forefathers from Egypt, so too He will bring us to other holidays and festivals that will come upon us in peace, rejoicing in the rebuilding of Your city and joyous in Your service,” he suddenly stopped.
He could not say the words. For the first time, he didn’t believe what he was saying. And he thought to himself: Will any of us live to see “other holidays and festivals?” Will anyone here see the holy city of Yerushalayim? Can anyone even expect to be happy again? He burst out crying, and stopped saying the hagada. Soon after, his mother died.
But now, forty years later, he continued: that night, if only I could have even imagined that I would live to see the land of Israel, together with one sister and two brothers; if only I could have imagined that I would eventually live in a Jewish state, marry and have my own children; if only I could have imagined that forty years later, I would be the sandak at my grandson’s brit in Yerushalayim; if I could have imagined any of that, I would have been able to finish the hagada that night.
Why in the text do we first say “our fathers and then ourselves” – and then switch the order in the blessing to “Who redeemed us and our fathers ?” When it comes to offering praise to G-d, everything starts wit h the Exodus from Egypt. Because our fathers were liberated, so in essence were we. But when it comes to offering thanks to G-d, that has to come from us first – “Who redeemed us and our fathers . ” In every generation, we have to find the opportunities to thank G-d – for our lives and our families, for our bounty and our freedom, for Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel, and for being given the opportunities to live full, productive, peaceful and prosperous lives.
To all but the most pessimistic and dour, we are living in one of the golden ages of Jewish history. We are not without problems – and the world is becoming increasingly more dangerous – but our problems pale before our advantages, our gifts and our blessings – from the ingathering of the exiles occurring before our eyes, to Jewish statehood , to peace and prosperity almost everywhere in the exile , even considering the recent tribulations .
It is that gratitude that should overwhelm us this Pesach, and fill us with a yearning to better ourselves, to enhance our observance of Mitzvot, our service of G-d, and study of Torah. It should encourage us to say again and again, with feeling and sincerity, “therefore we are obligated to thank and praise G-d for all the miracles down to our ancestors and to us; He who took us from slavery to freedom, from agony to joy, from darkness to a great light.” May He once again – as He did then – take us from servitude to redemption so we may merit in our day the complete fulfillment of the vision of our prophets, speedily and in our days.
A kosher and happy Pesach to all!