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The Foundation Stone Haggadah: Karpas 4

In his Haggadah Simchat HaRegel, Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (or, Chidah) quotes Rabbeinu Manoah who wrote a commentary on Rambam. In it, Chidah says that Karpas is a mneumonic of Ketonet Pasim, the coat of many colors, given to Joseph by his father Jacob. If you contract the letters of Ketonet Pasim, you get Karpas. That is to say, when you eat Karpas, you are reminded of the coat of many colors. You remember how the whole story began, how the brothers sold Joseph, leading to our going down to Egypt.

The ramifications of this are incredible. When the brothers sold Joseph, were they thinking, “Well, we know we have to go down to Egypt, and if we sell him to the Midianites, and then to the Arabs, and then to the Egyptians, then one day there will be a famine…” Is this what happened? No, they hated the kid! They hated his coat of many colors. So what did they do? They decided to sell him into slavery! No more problems!

When Jacob gave him the coat, did he give it to him because he thought, “Ah! I’m such a genius! If I give this coat to Joseph, the brothers will be jealous of Joseph. Then they are going to try to kill Joseph. But no, they’ll sell him, dip the coat into blood, and Joseph will go down to Egypt. There he’ll become viceroy, and we’ll all go down to Egypt. Then everything will be as God wanted it.” Is that why Jacob gave Joseph the coat of many colors? No! Jacob gave Joseph the coat because he loved him!

So what you have is Jacob doing what he wanted to do, and you have the brothers doing what they wanted to do. As they say in Yiddish, “A man thinks, and God laughs!” God says, “You guys are so smart! Just watch what’s going to happen! You think you’re going to prevent his dreams from coming true? You’re making sure his dreams will come true!” So who’s the guiding hand behind all of this? – God! And who recognizes this more than anyone else? – Joseph! Later, when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, they say to themselves, “Oh my gosh, we’re in big trouble now!” Joseph replies, “Don’t worry about it. Listen, it all worked out. It wasn’t you who sent me down here, it was God!” The brothers can’t believe this guy. They are convinced that the only reason he’s not chopping them to pieces is so he won’t get their father Jacob angry.

When Jacob dies, what do the brothers do? “You know Joe, we want you to know that we had a prior conversation with Jacob before he died, and he said you shouldn’t punish us for what we did to you!” So Joseph replies, “Listen, it’s not a problem. I know that it wasn’t you who did it, it was God.” In telling this story, Chidah presents the issue of free choice. Here you have the brothers doing what they wanted to do, and you have Jacob doing what he wanted to do. While everyone is doing what they want to do, thinking that they are in control of the situation, what’s really happening? They are doing exactly what God wants them to do – to get the Jews down to Egypt.

We find the issue of free choice in the story of Pharaoh. First Pharaoh hardens his heart so that he won’t let the Jews leave Egypt. But after several plagues, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart so that he will have to endure the rest of the ten plagues. In this way, God takes away Pharaoh’s free choice. This story raises some really serious issues, like what does it mean that we have free choice? What does it meant that God could take it away? Rambam asks how God could punish the Egyptians , after all, they were tzaddikim! In the end, they were doing only what God wanted them to do!

So why is the issue of free choice important in the Pesach story? Because the greatest freedom that God can give me is to give me free choice and then show me clearly the implications of the choices that I have made. That is the greatest freedom because God gets a very clear point across. (“You make choices? Watch what happens with your choices.”) You feel it in a real way.

On Seder night, we celebrate freedom and free choice. We have to reach the point at which we can say that God’s control over us does not contradict our free choice. As long as we live thinking that God’s control over us doesn’t matter, we are not free. Therefore, on Seder night we must deal with free choice. That’s why we eat Karpas. Chidah is saying that the Karpas is going to force us to confront the most fundamental issue of freedom.

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