An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man stands on the rooftop during a special priestly blessing for Passover at the Western Wall.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The first night of Passover – Leil Haseder (the Seder night) – which is on Friday night this year, is the most festive evening of the year. According to ancient tradition, for the past 3,000 years, Jewish families have been gathering on the first (and outside of Israel, also the second) night of Passover to fulfill the commandments unique to the Seder: eating matza, eating maror (bitter herbs), drinking four cups of wine, and telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt.
These four mitzvot symbolize this evening’s content: The maror symbolizes the period of slavery in Egypt; the matza symbolizes the moment of sudden liberation during which our forefathers’ dough did not have time to rise and they ate matzot; four cups of wine symbolize the redemption and freedom that followed the Exodus; and telling the story of the Exodus through reading the Pessah Haggada provides the basis of the entire evening.
One of the central sentences in the Haggada is this one: “Even if all of us were wise, all of us understanding, all elders and versed in the knowledge of the Torah, we would still be obliged to discuss the Exodus from Egypt.”
After reciting this sentence, we read the story of the five wise men of the first century CE who sat and told the story of the Exodus the entire night until dawn.
From this sentence and the story that comes with it, we understand that telling the story of the Exodus is not meant only for those who are not aware of it, those whose knowledge of Jewish history is lacking, but also for those who already know. Even those whose lives are guided by this story must sit on this night and repeat the story, learn it, develop it and profoundly internalize it.
Why? What is so important about the story of the Exodus from Egypt? What is the fundamental message it conveys? Why is knowing the story insufficient so that it has to be repeated year after year? Humanity is in a constant struggle between good and evil. These are not two external forces, but two sides of a choice that humanity must make. A person can climb to the peak of goodness and then slide down into the abyss of evil. The big questions are: What causes a person to choose good or evil? Why and how does this happen? The root of evil is fear and lack of faith. A person who lives with the sense that all of reality is stacked against him, and that others are a threat, will choose to distance the “other,” harm him, or even remove him. “Man is a wolf to his fellow man” goes the famous saying. But absurdly, this saying is not the result of evil but the cause of it. Suspicion is what leads to evil. If we remove suspicion and fear, there is no person whose essence is evil. Man is created in God’s image in the most positive sense. Only fear manages to lead him to evil.
On one day in history – or more accurately, one night – God appeared in the world and wiped man’s tears away.
It was many years ago, when an enslaved nation was liberated and its oppressors were severely punished. It happened once and history has changed since then.
On this night, the greatest secret of reality was revealed: There is no reason to fear. The Leader of the Universe has the power to make radical changes and turn curses into blessings.
That nation was us. “It was not only our forefathers that the Blessed Be He redeemed,” we say in the Passover Haggada. This is not distant history, but a different existential struggle, in a different human reality, which we are commanded to always internalize.
If psychology teaches us that the way parents treat a baby determines his relationship with his surrounding reality for the rest of his life, so Am Yisrael (the People of Israel), at the beginning of its existence, just as it was born, had a special relationship with God. The way God treated us determined our nation’s strong sense of confidence, unbridled optimism and eternal hope. From this stemmed the battle with evil and the moral values we proudly uphold.
We were not always able to see things in this positive light. The Jewish nation knew unbearably difficult times, periods of terrible darkness, hardship and loss.
But the fact is that Am Yisrael knew how to get back up and rebuild itself. Where did that strength come from? From that same wondrous night we talk about every year; from that same Divine appearance upon which we base our existence.
Leil Haseder is a night of storytelling, a night when we experience being liberated from slavery to freedom, a night when we speak of redemption – and pass on the message to the following generations who will be here after we are gone. On this night we give them a task: to remember, to tell our story, and to hope.The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.