The Farmer's Declaration and the Seder: A New Approach

Many have posed the classic question: in selecting a biblical passage to analyze in the Hagadah, why do we choose the Mikra Bikkurim, the farmer's declaration upon bringing the First Fruits to the Temple, in lieu of discussing the passage from Parshat Bo that details the Exodus proper? Why quote from a second-hand source, when the original text is readily available, not to mention chock-full of rich opportunities for discussion at the Seder table?

As discussed briefly in Rabbi David Silber's Hagadah, scholars have offered a number of proposals. Hagadah scholar Daniel Goldshmidt has suggested that the passage from Ki Tavo was chosen as a throwback to the Temple era, either because the section had been etched into the Jewish people's consciousness, or because the rabbis sought to hearken back to Temple times. The provocative Hebrew University professor Yisrael Yuval argues that the rabbis canonizing the Hagdah sought to distance themselves from the early Church Fathers who focused their Easter homilies on Exodus Chapter 12. Others have claimed that the farmer's words were chosen for their brevity, allowing for deeper analysis, which, at least for Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, constitutes an essential medium through which we fulfill the obligation of Sippur Yetziat Mitzrayim.

I'd like to suggest an alternative. Ironically, precisely because of the farmer's distance from the Exodus, he is especially well-positioned to serve as a model for us on the Seder night. Out goal this evening, after all, appears to many of us like Mission Impossible; we seek to imagine as if we ourselves had been redeemed from Egypt. This is, of course, a rather tall order, for which the farmer is an impressive model. Here is an individual who has only heard of the Exodus second-hand - the first generation, we recall, did not enter the Land - and nonetheless manages to movingly recount God's kindness in having delivered us. Not only does he meaningfully connect with what might seem like a distant event, he even expresses genuine appreciation to God for His divine intervention.

The farmer's impressive appreciation of God's gifts can be even more fully appreciated in light of Ki Tavo's extensive textual parallels to the episode of the spies in Parshat Shelakh, as noted by R' Elchanan Samet (for a summary of some of these parallels, see here). Presumably picking up on these striking similarities, R. Menakhem Zemba cites the Arizal as having suggested that bikkurim are a tikkun, antidote, to the sin of the spies. If the spies were unable to appreciate the uniqueness of God's gift that is the Land of Israel, the farmer celebrates precisely this kindness. If the spies' spiteful report was the ultimate biblical act of ingratitude, then the farmer’s heartfelt appreciation is the perfect paradigm for the praise we are charged to offer on the Seder night.

The choice of Mikra Bikkurim as the central biblical account in the Hagadah, then, might be best understood not as a quirk of history, but as an intentional decision on the part of the Hagadah's editors. In considering the impressive model of the thankful farmer, may we in turn push ourselves to more fully identify with - and develop a deep appreciation for - formative events that transpired throughout our rich and textured history.