In doing a little research on the Talmudic origins of what we now consider to be the highlight of Pesach — the Seder — I came across an aspect of the commandment to re-tell the story of the Exodus that I had never heard before, but one that is engrained in the very structure of the Seder. The Mishna (tenth chapter of Pesachim) states that, in re-telling the story in order to fulfill the obligation on Pesach, we must “begin with degradation*, and end with praise” (matchil b’gnut u’mesayem be’shevach).
While the ‘body’ of the Seder is definitely structured so that the stories that the text tells begin with the slavery (or ever earlier) and only end with the freedom and praise, I think that the importance the Mishna places on this dual aspect of the re-telling needs to be stressed. While where the gnut begins exactly is a matter of rabbinic debate, it is clear that simply telling a story of how the Israelites were freed and are now free is considered hollow, almost a lie.
I think that this becomes clear once you consider why this story is so important to tell each year. This is hinted at when we start the Seder by proclaiming, in Ha Lachma: “Kol dichphin yetei ve’yichol” — let all who are hungry come and eat. The Seder, apart from being about celebrating our own freedom, is about doing our part to ensure that others come to be free as well. Thus, to simply tell the Exodus story from the time of the splitting of the Sea of Reeds (for instance) would not capture the ~500 year history that led to that point. And if you only re-tell the climax of the freedom story, taking that as motivation to change the world we live in today is much harder. By remembering the historical context of our own slavery, we can come to see others who are at the lowest point in that narrative today not as Others, but as fellow human beings that need our help to become free. Beginning the holiday which celebrates our freedom each year by remembering just how low we were, we can better appreciate the work required to go from that point to the point that Ha Lachma ends with: “L’shana Haba’ah, B’nei Chorin” — next year, [let us all celebrate Pesach] as free people.
*Translation is a very tricky thing, and while I believe that gnut translates to something roughly similar to ‘degradation,’ don’t quote me on it.