Did you ever hear a child musing "If Daddy had not married Mommy, where would I be?--Who would I be?"
It is just this kind of speculation which the author of our Haggadah stimulates when he poses the question almost at the very outset of the seder: Ilu lo hotzi hakadosh baruch hu et avotenu mi-mitzrayim, harei anu uvaneinu uvnei baneinu hayinu meshubadim l'pharoh b'mitzrayim.
"If the Holy One Blessed Be He had not taken our fathers out of Egypt, then we, our children and our grandchildren would still be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt."
History permits no ifs--occurrences are irreversible and remain realities. Nevertheless man broods over alternative possibilities. We do this personally in our lives. "If I had been a lawyer instead of a Rabbi, wouldn't I have had a greater financial success?" "Would I have found more gratification?" or "Had I attained my suppressed ambition of being something else, would I not have found greater happiness?" In unguarded moments men and women reflect "Had I married another than the one who is my wife or husband, would I have enjoyed greater married bliss?"
Philosophic minded historians allow their thoughts to drift on the "Ifs" in history. If Napoleon had won at Waterloo, would the world be different now--perhaps a united Europe--perhaps a denuded British Empire and no colonialism--possibly no World War I or II or the threat of a third war!!
If Abraham Lincoln had not been assassinated but had lived to the end of his administration, would the United States have experienced the dark episodes of the carpetbaggers, and the Ku Klux Klan in the days of reconstruction following the Civil War? If Germany had won World War I instead of the Allies, what would the complexion of the world be today? If John Foster Dulles and Dwight Eisenhower had not been so zealously "moral" in 1957 during the Israel Sinai Campaign, would the Middle East picture be different today? Had they not forced England and France to withdraw, would the power structure in the mideast be different now? If John Fitzergald Kennedy had not been assassinated in Dallas, Texas, would the Vietnam adventure have escalated as far as it did?
All these are gigantic "Ifs" but sink into insignificance when compared to the hypothetical proposition which the Haggadah presents: "Had God not delivered our ancestors from Egyptian bondage"--Where would we be today? It would certainly be a different world, surely a world much the worse!!
The wise son, the chacham about whom the Haggadah speaks, contemplates the consequences:
1) There would probably be no God idea--neither Judaism nor its daughter religions--Christianity and Islam--would be known. The world would still be steeped in the corroding immorality of paganism and intellectually stunting polytheism.
2) We would be missing the Jewish ideals of morality, justice, mercy, human equality and democracy, which are the motivating forces in our civilization.
3) There would be no hope of a better tomorrow nor a vision of universal peace and the establishment of a kingdom of God.
The cynic, characterized by the rasha, the wicked son in our Haggadah, can easily counter these assumptions with some of his own--"We and our children and our grandchildren would still be slaves to Pharaoh," the author of the Haggadah asserts. "But how do we know," the cynic says, "that we still would be slaves?" In all this time we could have become assimilated in Egypt. He proves it by quoting the Midrash that at the Red Sea, when the Egyptians were drowning and the Israelites were singing, the angles were protesting "these are idol worshippers and so are these, then why should the Egyptians drown and the Jews sing?"
"Had we not left Egypt," the cynic continues, we would not have been wanderers in the wilderness for 40 years. "Ma ha'avoda hazot lachem?" "Wherefore all of these tragedies?" Had we not the exodus, we would not have suffered the destruction of our Temples and the two thousand year exile. Our people would not have been thrown to the wild beasts in the Roman arena or burned at the stake by the auto-da-fe. There would have been no six million dead to mourn nor a Jewish problem. We would have been Egyptian effendis, the cynic gloats, or at worse Egyptian fellahin.
What is the good of all this religious morality? What good has it brought to the world, the cynic challenges. Has it really been worthwhile?
How shall we evaluate these two opinions? Did our ancestors make the wiser choice if we assume that there was a choice? The Haggadah certainly assumes that they did. So do we, by the very fact that we celebrate the Passover, but is there a counter-argument to the cynic? On what grounds do we assume positive Judaism to be the preferred course?
The choice of assimilation was offered many times in Jewish History and positive Judaism was preferred.
1) Hellenism in 365 B.C.E. offered a choice whether to follow the Greek Assyrian depraved culture or Judaism, but the Maccabean revolt chose the latter.
2) The Romans asked for the Jews merely to permit the statue of the Emperor Hadrian on Temple precincts, thus compromising their objection to graven images. The Romans forbade the study of Torah, the practice of circumcision, the observance of the Sabbath, in order that the Jews should become more closely identified with the Romans, but the Rabbi Akivas and the Rabbi T'radyons resisted.
During the Middle Ages, Jews had an alternative--if they hadn't accepted Christianity, they would have escaped the scourge of persecution. Just a sprinkling of a little "holy" water and no further questions would be asked--but the Jews preferred death, even at their own hands, to life in the church.
Some did choose the easier path; some Jews did become Hellenists and did adopt the depraved morality as their own; many were baptized and followed the teachings of the Church. The majority chose to resist!
Why should we in this day and age continue to be Jews? Most of us accept our Judaism as part of our being--as breathing. However, we live in an open society; we have the choice "to be or not to be" a Jew. Isn't the problem of mixed marriages and assimilation the most vexing challenge today? Whether or not our ancestors were aware of it, or whether we are conscious of what is involved, there are reasons to prefer wild adventure on the stormy seas rather than comfort and safety in the port of self-abasement and spiritual bankruptcy.
Life is judged by the good that emerges, not by the cost in pain and suffering. The Jews as a people represent a set of beliefs and ideals which are especially imperative in the atomic world of our day. We offer hope to a world in distress. Judaism teaches "there is always a rainbow behind the darkest cloud." This world was not created by God to be destroyed by man. We believe that tomorrow will dawn a better day. The Jew looks forward not to a doomsday, but to a God's day. Ve-haya Hashem l'melech al kol ha'aretz. "On that day will God be King over all the earth--God will be One and His name One.
"Was the effort worthwhile?" the cynic asked a moment ago. "Is it advisable to continue?" Sad if were not! So today it depends on us.
If we decide to abandon Judaism, "La Comedia e Finita"--then the play is done.
If we preserve it, if we transmit the faith, morality, observance, and culture, the better tomorrow will dawn.
This is the challenge! This is the task! We dare not fail!