We stand at the threshold of Passover, the holiday the Jewish nation has celebrated in all its diasporas every year, for thousands of years, since our ancestors left Egypt. The distinctive feature of this holiday is the prohibition of eating hametz and the mitzvah of eating matzah: During the seven (or eight, outside of Israel) days of the holiday, it is forbidden to eat hametz – a dish made from grains that have risen or gotten wet during the production process; and on the first night of the holiday, the Seder night, there is a commandment to eat matzah – bread that is baked quickly without leavening.
On Seder night, we observe a number of mitzvot: eating matzah, eating maror (bitter herbs), drinking four glasses of wine, telling the story of the exodus from Egypt and reciting the Haggadah. The matzah must be eaten while comfortably reclining, a position that demonstrates liberation and freedom, and that’s how the four glasses should also be drunk. Each of these commandments expresses a specific memory or expression of an existential state. We will list them in the order of the events they come to mention or express.
The maror wishes to remind us of the dark and bitter period of enslavement imposed on our ancestors in Egypt. We seek to remember the difficulty to experience redemption properly. If we do not remind ourselves of the period of hard enslavement, we will not be able to appreciate and be thankful for our freedom.
The matzah is there to help us relive the great moments of redemption. On the fateful night that preceded the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites gathered in their homes and held a feast of the Passover sacrifice together with matzot. When the Israelites left Egypt, they wanted to prepare food for the way, but the exodus was done so hastily that they did not have time to bake proper bread, so they quickly baked the dough without it rising. In memory of this redemption, we eat matzah in the reclined position of free people.
The four glasses of wine, which we also drink in the reclined position, symbolize the situation after redemption, the state of freedom. As people responsible for their own fate, and no longer under the yoke of Egyptian enslavement, we sit back and drink wine. The four glasses allude to the four stages of redemption, as God promised Moses before leaving Egypt: “I am the Lord, and I will take you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will save you from their labor, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. And I will take you to Me as a people, and I will be a God to you” (Exodus 6, 6-7).
“’I am the Lord, and I will take you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will save you from their labor, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. And I will take you to Me as a people, and I will be a God to you”Exodus 6:6-7
The story of the Exodus and the Seder
In the story of the exodus, we tell the story of the Jewish people from its inception: the patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – the descent to Egypt, the period of bitter enslavement, the Ten Plagues with which God punished the enslaving Egyptians and the liberation. The sages state that “in each and every generation a person must see himself as if he came out of Egypt.” We do not deal with an ancient historical story on Seder night, but rather try to revive the experience of redemption and freedom and express this experience in a festive and lavish feast, as it is ruled in the Shulchan Aruch: “One should set his table nicely with pretty dishes, as best as one can.”
The Seder night focuses us, through the commandments we observe, on the past and present. In the past – the enslavement in Egypt, and in the past – that we turn into the present – redemption and freedom. It is no coincidence that this is the night about which it is said, “And you shall tell your children.” This is the night when we pass on the torch of Jewish heritage to the next generation, to the future generation. To shape the future, we must remember the past and live the present.
The past is important, for it plants our roots in ancient soil, in the exemplary history of a people who did not despair of carrying on spiritual values. Those who are rooted in Jewish history and heritage can move towards a worthy Jewish future. “In remembrance there is the secret of redemption,” said Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hassidic movement.
But no less important is the present. A nostalgic clinging to the past that does not affect the present, or perhaps even ignores it, does not have the power to revive the future. If we tell the story of the exodus and the history of the Jewish people as a purely historical story, we will not be able to derive spiritual foundations from it for the future and for future generations. We are called upon to revive the past and influence the present through it, thereby transmitting the Jewish faith and way of life to the next links in the chain of generations.
Wishing you a kosher and happy Passover. ■
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and the Holy Sites.