Talmud Bavli, Mesechet Pesachim Daf 116a "'One must start with disgrace and end with praise': What is 'with disgrace'? Rav says, 'In the beginning our forefathers were idol worshippers...' And Shmuel says, 'We were slaves ...' "
The above law and dispute has been understood 1 to be based on the principle that one must first show his low state so that he can then paint his ensuing salvation is stark contrast. The salvation is better appreciated if one understands the prior degradation. Then the disagreement between Rav and Shmuel is understood to be about what was the greater or true degradation of the Isralites, a spiritual one (being idolators) or physical one (being enslaved). And so too what was the essence of their redemption. More generally, is man's spiritual liberation more or less important than his physical one?2
While this explanation is poetic and moving one may wonder, Surely both degradations are equally significant? Can't Rav and Shmuel agree to that? Can't we discuss both issues in the Haggaddah? Why the argument?
On a practical and more basic level the dipute is also a dispute as to where to start the story of the Exodus. Do we start with Terach the idoloator as Rav says or do we start the story with the suffering Israelites in Egypt, 400 years later? The question is, When does this narrative begin? In 1969 William Buckley, Jr. debated Professor Noam Chomsky on the moral basis of the Vietnam war.3 At one point in the debate, Buckley tells Chomsky that he is choosing where to start the story of American intervention for his own purposes and by so doing determining its moral validity. "You start you line of discussion at a moment that is historically useful for you."4 If the discussion starts with North Vietnamese terrorist infiltration into the South in 1959, then US military support of the South is justified, but if it starts earlier, in 1956, with the South's comando invasion of the North, then US intervention on behalf of the South seems less justified. (In the end, I think Chomsky won the debate.) Where we start a story often changes our moral assessment of the players. In a similar way, where we start the Exodus story changes its ethical implications.
Rav feels the story should begin with Terach the idolator. That is the beginning of G-d's intervention, the beginning of His choosing to have a special relationship with the Jewish people. In fact, the Jewish people did not yet exist. They were destined to come from Terach's son Abraham. What was the nature of G-d choice? Rav U. Milevsky, z"l says that for a choice to really be a choice, there must be no obvious distinction between the things being chosen. When a students gets all the answers right on a test, we don't say that the teacher chose to give the student an A, the student earned an A. For G-d's choice of the Jewish people to really be a choice, then there must have been no reason for the choice, the Jewish people must have been no different from any other. To emphasize this point, Rav says G-d chose the Jewish people well before they even existed. And the progenator was no better than anyone else, Terach was an idolator just like everyone else, yet G-d chose his descendents to represent Truth to the world. Thus, G-d entered into a particular relationship with the Jews which no other nation can have. It is an unconditional relationship, since it was not based on any particular merit. It is akin to the relationship between a father and a son. The father loves and protects his son not because of anything the son has done to earn that love, it is an unconditional love. For Rav, G-d's relation to the Jewish people is highly particularistic. No other nation has or can have such a close relationship.
Shmuel says the story of G-d's redemption should start with our suffering at the hands of the Egyptians. This implies that G-d chose to help us because we were suffering. This is then a choice to help based on circumstances. Had another nation been enslaved, G-d would have saved them. Thus the story of redemption has a universal nature. All oppressed people can seek reasurance from this story. G-d is the saviour of the oppressed. Significantly, by starting the story in Egypt, Shmuel skips the pact between Abraham and G-d, the Brit Bein HaBetarim, which arguably was the primary reasons for G-d's intervention, G-d's promise to Abraham. But Shmuel intentionally skips this part of the story. Shmuel wants to emphasize the universal element of the story. It is a story of G-d saving the oppressed.
We can learn from this what is G-d's relatioinship to the Jewish people. Rav says He loves us no matter what, like a father loves his child. "My country right or wrong." G-d protects us because we are His people, we represent Him in the world and so He cannot let us suffer or die out, that would disgrace His Name, h"v. Shmuel says, No, G-d's love and protection of us stems from His basic nature of being merciful and protective of all mankind. He loves us because we deserve his love by our ethical behaviour or at least because we are human beings.
These two concepts conflict within each and every one of us. We are loyal to and love our family members, and we also have a commitment to justice. What do you do if your brother commits a terrible crime? Does your sense of justice make you report him, or does your loyalty make you protect him. This difficult conflict is respected by civil law. A spouse cannot be made to testify against his or her spouse. That moral dilema has not been solved, so the law provides a way out. Plato also discusses this conflict in the Euthyphro, where a son reports his father for accidently killing his slave. This conflict is also reflected in current Israeli politics. Some Israelis place their love of their fellow Jews higher than their sense of justice while others value justice above and beyond any familial loyalty.
Where does the Haggadah actually start? After some lengthy preliminary discussions about the importance of telling the story, and examples of Rabbis who told the story late into the night, the Haggadah actually starts the story with the story of Terach, "Arami Oved Avi..." which in drash is understood as referring to Terach. The Haggadah poskins like Rav. It is a falicy to claim both opinions are fulfilled. Shmuel says don't discuss anything before Egyptian bondage, but the Haggadah starts 400 years before that with "Arami Oved Avi." If one says start at point A and the other says start at point C, you can't claim that by starting at point A and continuing through point C you are fulfilling both opinions! You started at point A, not C. What does this mean? It means that the Haggadah believes the story of G-d's redemption should be understood in a particularistic light. G-d's love for the Jews is as inexplicable as a father's love for his son. G-d chose us and once that choice has been made He has a special relationship to us. He is our protector and we are His representatives in this world. Pesach celebrates G-d's love for us. If we extend this to human psychology in general, it means that the Haggadah feels that man's primary loyalty is for his family and not for abstract concepts of justice. This is an important lesson of the Haggadah.