In 1947, David Ben-Gurion famously said at the United Nations: “Three hundred
years ago, a ship called The Mayflower left for the new world .... [Its] landing
on Plymouth Rock was one of the great historical events... in the history of
America.... I’d like to ask the Americans: do they know what date the Mayflower
left port in England? How many people were on the boat? Who were their leaders?
What kind of food did they eat on the boat?” And yet, by contrast, he pointed
out: “More than 3,300 years before the Mayflower set sail, the Jews left Egypt.
Any Jewish child, whether in America or Russia, Yemen or Germany, knows that his
forefathers left Egypt at dawn on the 15th of Nissan.... Their belts were tied
and their staffs were in their hands.
They ate matzot and arrived at the
Red Sea after seven days.... Jews worldwide still eat matza for seven days from
the 15th of Nissan, and retell the story of the Exodus, concluding with a
fervent wish ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’” Judaism is a faith predicated on
well-established historical facts witnessed by millions of people, who
experienced the Exodus from Egypt, and who heard G-d proclaim the Ten
Commandments at Mount Sinai. Many aspects of the factual foundations of Judaism
come alive in Jerusalem and all of Israel, as modern archaeologists discover
more and more evidence of the great Jewish commonwealths, the first of which was
established by Joshua about 3300 years ago. You can, as just one example, go to
the remarkable archaeological site at Ir David – the City of David, and see the
excavated ruins of Jerusalem during the times of King David, complete with
discoveries of ancient signets with Hebrew names of people, such as Gemaryahu
ben Shafan, referred to in the Book of Kings, and who lived more than 2,500
years ago. It goes beyond the thousands of remarkable archaeological
discoveries, to the language, borders, many cities of Israel, and even, and
perhaps trivial by comparison, the name of its modern currency, all of which
emerge from the pages of the Hebrew Bible.
As Ben-Gurion observed, there
is no nation on earth that has as long and as consistent and well-documented
history as the Jewish people.
But why have we been so obsessed with
remembering history? The reason is that for us it is not just about the past –
it is about the present and the future; it is about our Divine values, vision
and faith. It is about a way of life that has been lived by generation after
generation of Jews for thousands of years since G-d gave us the Torah.
Ben-Gurion noted, it is at the Pessah Seder especially that the powerful facts
of Jewish history are relayed – facts which lay the foundation for our vision
and values contained in the Torah and expressed through the mitzvot.
Seder has a special place in the hearts of Jews across the world. More than
eighty percent of Jews in Israel participate in some form of Seder; and in South
Africa that figure is more than ninety percent. The power of the Seder, where
history and destiny, past and future, facts and values, intersect, goes way
The Seder is in our hearts because it is at the heart
of Judaism and the future of the Jewish people, it is that time of the year when
one generation hands over to the next the history, vision and values of what it
means to be a Jew.
How does the seder ensure that the facts and values of
our Divine mission are conveyed from one generation to the next? The clue is the
Ma nishtana – the famous four questions. If you look carefully in the Haggada,
you will find that these questions are not answered immediately, and some are
only answered indirectly.
The inescapable conclusion is that in a certain
fundamental sense the questions are more important than the answers and that the
Pessah Seder is not merely a history lesson of dictating dry facts to the new
The questions symbolize an active and lively interaction,
which aims to nurture an open and loving atmosphere. The Seder is a dynamic
dialogue, not a monologue, because it is conveying the very essence of who we
are and what our purpose is on earth. G-d has designed the Seder to be a space
and a forum where the facts, values and vision of Judaism are transmitted from
one generation to the next in the context of the bonds of love.
the center of the dynamic conversation of the Seder are the children. They are
the future of the Jewish people. Unless our children understand, accept and are
inspired by the Divine faith, vision and values of our ancestors there will be
no Jews left one day.
We are still here today because the transmission
from generation to generation has been so successful. And possibly the most
crucial and effective vehicle in achieving this success has been and continues
to be the Seder.
Maybe it has a special place in the hearts of so many
Jews across the globe because we intuitively understand its vital importance for
a vibrant Jewish future.
With its potential to uplift and inspire
families the seder can be a model for Jewish life in general. It a call to
Jewish families for how to live our lives. It teaches us all how we need to make
time and space for one another in order to discuss and to debate the most
important dimensions of what it means to be a Jew.
Just as on the Seder
night when families sit together to discuss the big ideas of what it means to be
a Jew, so too can we do that all year round, making time for each other. Let’s
do it at the Shabbat table and during the week by learning Torah together. Let
the dynamic conversations continue beyond the Seder. Let families talk to each
other, discussing and understanding what it means to be a Jew: who we are, where
we come from, our faith, our values and our vision for the future.
writer is the chief rabbi of South Africa. He has published a Pessah video
message which highlights and expands on themes discussed in this article.