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This Shabbat is Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat preceding the holiday of Pesach. In that spirit, we offer a Rashi – Ramban dispute regarding the verse in Parashas Bo that is the basis for our telling over- the haggadah - the Pesach story on Pesach night.
"And you shall tell your son on that day saying: For the sake of this, Hashem acted on my behalf when I went out of Egypt."
For the sake of this - RASHI: For the sake that I should carry out His commandments, such as the Passover offering, the unleavened bread and these bitter herbs.
WHAT IS RASHI SAYING?
The verse says: The father is telling his son: "For the sake of "this," ('zeh,') Hashem acted on my behalf when I went out of Egypt." Rashi bases his comment on the meaning of the word "this.". According to Rashi, the word zeh, "this," always designates something visible (see Rashi's comments on Exodus 12:2, "This month is for you the first of the months..." and Exodus 15:2, "This is my God and I will glorify Him...").
Note that the beginning of this verse says, "And you will tell your son on that day..." Which day is referred to here?
An Answer: "That day" is Passover when the Jew sits down with his children and recounts the story of the Exodus from Egypt. He does this at the Passover Seder when the matzah, bitter herbs and Pascal lamb are in front of him. Thus Rashi concludes that when the father tells his son: "It is for the sake of this...," the word "this" refers to something visible, i.e., the matzah, bitter herbs and Pascal lamb.
In light of this, Rashi explains this verse: It tells us that we should tell our sons "it is because of 'this' ('zeh'). i.e. the matzot (and associated commandments like bitter herbs and Passover offering) which we are commanded to eat on Passover, that God took us out of Egypt."
Having understood what he said, we can now question Rashi.
A Question: Isn't this a strange comment? How could the purpose of the Exodus and the attendant miracles done for the Israelites when they left Egypt be in order that they keep the commandments of bitter herbs, unleavened bread etc.? These mitzvot are symbolic of what happened to us in Egypt. Common sense would lead to the opposite conclusion - that we keep these mitzvot in order to commemorate the events in the Egypt. Rashi seems to have it all backwards!
What's bothering Rashi?
WHAT IS BOTHERING RASHI?
An Answer: The Hebrew word "ba'avur" means "in order to" or "for the sake of." It does not mean, as we might have expected here, "because of." The word "ba'avur" is used to tell us the goal of an action. If, on the other hand, the Torah wanted to tell us the cause that led to these mitzvot, it should have used the word "biglal," which means "because of." Then the verse would imply: I eat matzot, the Pascal lamb and bitter herbs, "because of what Hashem did for me when I left Egypt."
A fine example of the difference between these two words can be found in Genesis 12:13, where Avram asks Sarai, his wife, to say she is his sister (and not his wife). There it says:
"Please say that you are my sister so that it will go well with me for your sake, (Hebrew: 'ba'avureich') and my life will be spared because of you (Hebrew: 'biglaleich')."
But our verse has "ba'avur" and not "biglal"; thus Rashi must interpret it as he does. With this understanding of the correct meaning of the word "ba'avur" we can understand Rashi's unusual comment.
By translating this verse correctly, Rashi is forced to look for the purpose of the Exodus (and not the cause of the commandments of Passover). The word "this," "zeh," directs our attention to the mitzvot which are right in front of us as we speak these words.
Nevertheless it does seem strange to conclude that we were subjected to the bitter enslavement in Egypt in order that we may, one day, be commanded to eat bitter herbs! But if we look closely at Rashi's words we can understand his intention more correctly. Rashi adds one word which clarifies the matter. Can you see which word he adds?
An Answer: Rashi says "k'gon," "for example matzot, bitter herbs, etc." We see that he means all the mitzvot; matzot, bitter herbs and the Pascal offering are just examples of all the commandments which Hashem gave us. Of course, these specific mitzvot are cited because these are what the father points to when he answers his son's question at the Seder.
THE RAMBAN'S ARGUMENT WITH RASHI
The Ramban takes issue with Rashi's view. He quotes the Ibn Ezra, whose interpretation is the same as Rashi's. (For some reason the Ramban does not mention Rashi in his comment.) The Ramban offers his own interpretation of these words. He adds just one letter to this verse and in so doing he changes its whole meaning and avoids the awkwardness of Rashi's interpretation. The Ramban writes:
It is because of this which Hashem did for me when I went out of Egypt.... The father is thus saying [to his son]: It is because of that which Hashem did for me when I came forth from Egypt that I observe this service.... The intent of the word "this," "zeh," is: "to tell him 'that' which you yourself see, i.e. what Hashem did for you when you went out of Egypt.
What letter did he add?
Answer: He added the letter "shin" and placed it before the word "asa." The translation then becomes: "which Hashem did for me, etc." The verse now means:
"And you shall tell your son on that day saying: [I do all these commandments] because of that which Hashem for me when I went out of Egypt."
The Ramban goes on to say:
Rabbi Abraham [Ibn Ezra] said the meaning of the verse is : Because of that which I do and worship Him by eating the Passover-offering and the unleavened bread, Hashem did for me wonders until He brought me out of Egypt. But [says the Ramban] this is not correct.
The meaning of the Ibn Ezra's interpretation, which is similar to Rashi's,is: The only reason I was taken out of Egypt was in order to worship Hashem,with these (and other) mitzvot.
The difference between Rashi and Ibn Ezra, on the one hand, and the Ramban, on the other,is in the meaning they give to the word "this," "zeh."
(1) For Rashi and Ibn Ezra, "this," "zeh," refers to:
(2) For the Ramban, "zeh," "this," refers to:
1) For Rashi, "zeh," "this," refers to the father's mitzvot, the example being those in front of him, matzot, bitter herbs etc.
2) For the Ramban, "this," "zeh," refers to Hashem's miracles.
Rashi and Ibn Ezra say: We were taken out of Egypt in order to keep these mitzvot.
The Ramban says: We keep these mitzvot because of all which Hashem did for us when He took us out of Egypt.
These different interpretations reflect different attitudes towards the purpose of the mitzvot in general. What basic difference do you see between these two views?
THE PURPOSE OF THE MITZVOT: RASHI (IBN EZRA) VS. RAMBAN
An Answer: It would seem that there is a fundamental difference in viewpoints regarding the philosophy of mitzvot.
If these mitzvot are done to remember the Exodus from Egypt, as the Ramban would have it, then this means that mitzvot have a purpose beyond themselves; they are a means either to commemorate (as here), to instruct or to improve one in some way.
If, on the other hand, fulfilling these (and all other mitzvot was the goal of the redemption from Egypt, as Rashi and Ibn Ezra would have it, this means that mitzvot are their own justification. Their performance is the ultimate goal of our existence. The fact that they may signify something beyond themselves (like remembering the Exodus) or may serve another purpose (such as self-improvement) is secondary to their own inherent value, of doing God's will. In short, mitzvot are their own justification. This is a major difference in our understanding of the essential purpose of God's commandments.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Somayach,