Parshat Pesach I: Exodus 12:21-51; Numbers 28:16-25; Joshua 3:5-7, 5:2-6:1, 27.
By Rabbi Aura Ahuvia
It is interesting that our portion for Shabbat of Passover, Exodus. 12:21-51, concludes with the making of matzah, and its Haftarah, from the Book of Joshua, concludes with eating it. The apparent progression — from making matzah to eating it — is linked through an upward trajectory. This sense of upward trajectory is also a leitmotif of the seder itself.
The Mishnah offered an instruction for leading the seder. Mishnah Pesachim 10:4, as translated by the popular website Sefaria, reads: “He begins [instructing him about the Exodus story] with [the account of Israel’s] shame and concludes with [Israel’s] praise (glory) …” If you look in your family’s Haggadah, you’re likely to find some variant of the above. Many modern Haggadot reference this general concept when they use phrases like “from slavery to freedom,” “from degradation to dignity” or “from catastrophe to consolation.”
We commonly presume today that this upward trajectory refers to us — the Jewish people — and, indeed, this is one valid interpretation. We prove this, in part, by referring to the above translation, “[… Israel’s] shame and [Israel’s] praise.” If you look closely, however, you’ll see that the word “Israel” is only in brackets. This indicates that it is an interpretation of the original Mishnah. Not surprisingly, there are others.
What was Mishnah’s original intent? To understand this better, let us turn to the original Hebrew, matchil bi’g’nut, u’m’sayeim b’shevach, which means, “Begin with genut and conclude with shevach.” What are genut and shevach? Rather than “shame” and “glory,” as common translations suggest, rabbinic literature understands the word genut to mean “shortcomings” or “disgrace,” and shevach as “praiseworthiness.” In our example, a better definition of genut would be “unseemly behavior deserving censure,” and shevach as “worthy acts deserving praise.”
In Beyond the Text: A Holistic Approach to Liturgy, liturgical scholar Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman posits that within its historical context, the Mishnah was offering guidance in table leadership skills: To achieve an overall mood of uplift, begin with the somber material and end with the celebratory. Thus, a second interpretation of “from genut to shevach” has to do with the emotional feeling of the seder.
Yet a third interpretation is that we refer to God’s own genut and shevach. As is commonly known, the Passover seder is modeled on the Greco-Roman symposium, which was, in part, believed to be underwritten by the gods. There, the format would be to first “roast” the gods and then to end the evening with their praise. Similarly today, we might open a wedding toast with an embarrassing story but conclude with heartfelt praise for bride and groom. In other words, we begin by daring to hold God to account for the fact of our slavery, but in keeping with an upward trajectory, conclude with words of praise for the fact of our freedom and redemption.
May we all enjoy a Passover filled with deep questions, satisfying answers and great joy.
Aura Ahuvia is rabbi at Congregation Shir Tikvah in Troy.