A Passover Seder for new immigrants takes place in Mevaseret Zion in 2011..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Seder night, “Leil Haseder” in Hebrew, which takes place on Friday night, is the most festive night of the year. Going back more than 3,000 years, families gather on this night to mark the Exodus from Egypt and to fulfill the commandments unique to this night: eating matza, eating maror (bitter herbs), drinking four cups of wine, and telling the story of the Exodus.
These four mitzvot symbolize the content of this night: The bitter herbs symbolize the period of slavery in Egypt; the matza symbolizes the sudden liberation that led to our forefathers’ dough not rising so they ate matzot; the four cups of wine symbolize the redemption and the freedom following the Exodus; and telling the story of the Exodus provides the framework and the content for the whole night.
We tell the story so as to internalize concepts, and there are two themes that dictate the proper fulfillment of this mitzva. The first is that the story should be told through questions and answers; that it should be a dialogue and not a monologue, so that the listeners become partners in telling the story. The second is that the story should begin with the sad story of Am Yisrael suffering in slavery in Egypt, lacking any chance or hope of being liberated, and from there the story continues to the joyful part, the “happy end” of the liberation to freedom while the Egyptians are duly punished with the Ten Plagues.
The first part of the story, dealing with the period of slavery in Egypt, is not just an introduction meant to create tension before the happy ending. It contains an important message that precedes that of the liberation, without which the story of the Exodus would be found lacking.
If we examine the stories of how other nations were formed, we discover that it is impossible to point to a specific moment in history and say: This is when that nation was formed. Every other nation came into being through a long and complex process of national identity formation, conquering of territories, and the creation of a culture common to the members of the nation. The Jewish nation, however, is the only nation that was created at a specific moment in time: on the 15th of Nissan, 3,327 years ago. The moment the nation left Egypt was the moment it became a nation.
It did not yet have any territory to call its own; it did not yet have its own unique culture – and yet it became a nation. The Prophet Ezekiel called the moment of the Exodus from Egypt the Jewish nation’s “birthday” (Ezekiel 16:4). Based on this definition, the festivities of Seder night are actually the Jewish nation’s birthday celebration.
The period of slavery in Egypt was undoubtedly a most difficult time. If the Exodus from Egypt was the birth of the nation, it might be said that during the period of slavery, the nation was like a fetus in its mother’s womb.
The fetus is completely dependent on its mother. No one other than the mother carrying her child can take care of it. Likewise, during the time of slavery, the Jewish nation became used to being completely dependent on God.
Our forefathers had no means of helping themselves; they were demeaned and miserable, enslaved and without hope – other than the hope that God would redeem them, as indeed occurred.
But after a baby is born, and the dependency on the mother is no longer existential, a relationship of trust between the mother and the baby begins to develop.
A mother that devotedly cares for her child helps him develop a sense of trust and serenity that will accompany him his entire life. If the Jewish nation developed a sense of dependence on God during the time of their slavery, then the liberation and redemption created in it the sense of security and trust in God’s love and concern.
These two parts of the story which we tell on Seder night make up the “identity card” of the Jewish nation. Dependence on God, on the one hand, and complete trust, on the other. These were the feelings with which Jews lived through better and worse times, during days of glory and days of oppression, during the Golden Age in Spain and the dark days of the concentration camps in Poland. Dependence and trust – the secret of the Jewish nation’s existence.
Happy Birthday, Am Yisrael!
The author is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.