וְדוֹרֵשׁ מֵאֲרַמִּי אוֹבֵד אָבִי, עַד שֶׁיִּגְמֹר כֹּל הַפָּרָשָׁה כֻלָּהּ (משנה פסחים י׃ד)
The core text of the Passover Haggadah, an exposition of four verses in Deuteronomy (26:5-8), is a midrashic tour de force that places the rabbinic method of biblical interpretation on full display. With their well-honed sensitivity to biblical expression, the rabbis draw out a narrative of the exodus from a terse chronology in a completely unrelated context. We must admit, however, that some of the particular interpretations cited in this section of the Haggadah appear so fanciful as to test the very limits of midrash.
The Haggadah certainly has little interest in the plain meaning of Scripture ("peshat"). The word "Haggadah" itself is an alternate form of "Aggadah," an interpretive style largely unconstrained by literal or contextual meaning (though subject to its own logic).
Take, for example, the first verse from the passage in Deuteronomy, translated literally:
My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation.
The rabbis read the verse differently, assuming the "Aramean" was Laban and that the word אוֹבֵד is a transitive verb, i.e., "(Laban) the Aramean was destroying my father (Jacob)." Taking this identification for granted, the Haggadah uses אֲרַמִּי אוֹבֵד אָבִי to show how Laban "sought to uproot the whole people," that is, to destroy Jacob and the nascent tribes of Israel.
But as a straightforward reading, this interpretation strains credulity (see Ibn Ezra and Rashbam) and I suspect the rabbis themselves would acknowledge that "Aramean," taken literally, refers to Jacob rather than Laban. Yet they crafted this midrash, not to undermine the simple meaning of the text, but to drive home a theological-historical idea. The idea is stated explicitly in the Haggadah at the beginning of Maggid and repeated at its conclusion with the catchphrase בְּכָל־דּוֹר וָדוֹר (in every generation): Persecution and redemption are perennial features of Jewish existence. Even before the Egyptian bondage, in a sign of things to come for generations, the nation's progenitor was threatened with annihilation.
By means of midrash, stretched to its elastic limit, the biblical account of bondage and redemption is transformed from a unique historical event into a metahistorical experience, to be reenacted at the Seder בְּכָל־דּוֹר וָדוֹר, even at times and places where Jews are free and prosperous. Only midrash can impart this metahistorical truth.
An even more startling demonstration of the gap between peshat and derash in the Haggadah is its interpretation of the last verse of the Deuteronomy passage:
The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents.
The rabbis thought "the Lord" was superfluous -- from the previous verses, we already know that God is the subject -- so they took it to exclude all other agents, human or divine. God himself took us out of Egypt, without the use of intermediaries. The Haggadah states this emphatically, underscoring the point with metronomic repetition:
"And the Lord took us out of Egypt" - not through an angel and not through a seraph and not through a messenger, but directly by the Holy One, blessed be He, Himself, as it is stated (Exodus 12:12); "And I will pass through the Land of Egypt on that night and I will smite every firstborn in the Land of Egypt, from men to animals; and with all the gods of Egypt, I will make judgments, I am the Lord."
As to whether the Egyptian firstborn were killed by God directly or by means of an angel of death, Exodus is ambiguous, though references to a "Destroyer" (Ex. 12:13, 12:23), and the performance of a blood-ritual meant to dissuade it from entering Israelite homes, imply the involvement of an angel or demon. Shemot Rabba (17:5), for example, presents the question as open for debate: וְעָבַר ה' לִנְגֹף אֶת מִצְרַיִם, יֵשׁ אוֹמְרִים עַל יְדֵי מַלְאָךְ וְיֵשׁ אוֹמְרִים הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא בְּעַצְמוֹ.
But the Haggadah (and parallel midrashim) goes much further in claiming that the entire exodus was conducted by God without assistance. And this, we know, is far from the plain sense of Scripture. The evidence is in Scripture itself: In his message to the King of Edom, Moses himself says, "We cried to the Lord who heard our plea, sending a messenger (וַיִּשְׁלַח מַלְאָךְ) who freed us from Egypt." (Num. 20:16). Whether the "messenger" here is human (Moses) or an archangel (perhaps Michael or Metatron) is beside the point -- the fact remains that God employed a messenger. The Haggadah's repetitious insistence that the exodus occurred לֹא עַל־יְדֵי מַלְאָךְ, וְלֹא עַל־יְדֵי שָׂרָף, וְלֹא עַל־יְדֵי שָׁלִיחַ directly negates the verse in Numbers, almost to the word. A parallel version in some midrashim lacks the phrase וְלֹא עַל־יְדֵי שָׂרָף making the negation even more obvious (see Haggadah Shel Pesah, ed. E.D. Goldschmidt, Jerusalem, 1948, p. 40; Jerusalem, 1960, pp. 44-45).
Here again, the Haggadah utilizes midrash to make an unequivocal, even extreme, theological claim which departs dramatically from a simple reading of the Torah.
The Seder is meant to be an exercise in deep storytelling rather than a recitation of events. An historical timeline could only scratch the experiential surface and would be better accomplished by a few key passages from Exodus. The four verses in Deuteronomy, by contrast, were deliberately chosen for their extreme brevity. They are a springboard for interpretation, best delivered by the deep readings of midrash.