In Plain Language: The Seder of liberation

I could hear them call out for the great prophet to usher in that age of glory when all men would pursue peace and justice.

traditional seder [illustrative] 370 (photo credit: David Geffen, ‘American Heritage Haggadah,’ Gefen )
traditional seder [illustrative] 370
(photo credit: David Geffen, ‘American Heritage Haggadah,’ Gefen )
I had had too much to drink – four overflowing cups of wine, plus a bit more at the dinner. My son – you know, the one who everyone says is already a hacham (wise son) and is sure to be a rabbi – heard at his school that you have to drink a full cup each time the Seder calls for a toast to the redemption from Egypt. Four full cups, when just one is usually more than enough to set my head swimming! Now the songs and the kibitzing and the lively discussion at the table – my wife’s cousin, the professor from Hebrew U., had opinions on everything! – pounded into my brain from every direction.
Try as I might to concentrate on my guests, I couldn’t keep my mind from drifting off into another world. As I leaned back on my cushion, the pages of my Haggada blurred into a swirl of words and white, my eyes lost their last battle to stay open and I was gone.
I awoke with a start to the sound of what I thought were shots being fired all around me. Inexplicably, I was no longer at my home, but in a small, dimly lit, brokendown room. I was seated at a long wooden table, together with 12 or 13 other people. There were no chairs; we sat on benches or crude wooden crates. It was late at night and very, very dark. The only light in the room came from two thin candles in the center of the table, and I had to strain my eyes just to see the faces of those around me. Through the shaded windows, covered with burlap cloth, I could see occasional flashes of light, brilliant and fleeting as lightning. Yet this wasn’t lightning, for each burst of light was accompanied by a strange thunder, a terrible, deafening noise – so close the whole room shook, and so loud I held my breath in fear.
Where in God's name was I?
As I peered through the darkness, still too dazed to speak, I could discern both young and old at the table. There were boys with funny little caps and dark, cavernous eyes, the sleep drained from them, boys with old men’s faces in children’s bodies. There were several women wearing shawls of gray and tattered clothes, who sobbed almost imperceptibly in a singsong wail. Men with long, black coats and longer faces had the strangest expressions of all, as if they were asleep while awake, their eyes fixed vaguely on some faraway object beyond my sight. The flashes of light seemed to illumine their faces with fear each time the room brightened and shook, and I grew frightened by the terror in their eyes.
At the head of the table was an old man whose face was barely visible to me, for he wore a large black fedora pulled low upon his forehead and he had a majestic, flowing white beard, like a soft blanket covering his wearied features. He kept his head down and only when I finally spoke – too perplexed to remain silent – did he look up, piercing me with his stare, like an ancient patriarch.
“Where am I?” I cried out. “Who are all of you? Am I dreaming this?”
The old man stared straight at me, his gaze both soothing and scolding with its authority. “Do not become foolish, Shmuel,” he said slowly but sternly. “You are at the Seder table, and there will be no dreaming until we finish the afikoman.”
“But where are we?” I repeated, still determined to solve this mystery.
The patriarch gave a long sigh and I saw tears begin to glisten in his tired eyes. “You are in Warsaw, of course, celebrating the Passover of 1943.”
I gasped in confusion. Was this real or was I hallucinating? Could this be the Warsaw Ghetto of which I had only read? Certainly the bombs exploding just beyond our windows seemed real enough, and the faces of my fellow Jews at the table were the most vivid and striking I had ever seen. But I had no time to think about all this, for the old man, whose name I learned was Reb Yisrael, motioned for all of us to open our Haggadot and begin the Seder service.
I LISTENED with fear and wonder as Reb Yisrael recited the kiddush and sanctified the holiday. His body trembling but his voice unwavering, he held the small glass of wine and chanted each word slowly and deliberately. When he reached the phrase “For You have chosen us from among all nations,” he began to weep loudly, the wine spilling from side to side in his trembling grasp.
“Is this what we have been chosen for?” he asked, the silence echoing his question, and he began to recite the words of the 94th Psalm:
“How long shall the wicked, Oh Lord, how long shall the wicked rejoice? They slay the widow, they murder the orphan... Can He that created the ear not hear? Can He that formed the eye not see?” He would have gone on, but his wife stopped him and, with rage in his voice, he finished the kiddush and passed around the small cup for each of us to take a sip as we sat down to continue the Seder.
I was a mass of confusion, lost in a semipanic, like one who has been turned around by a blinding snowstorm so that he cannot find his way home. Everything that was happening was bizarre and beyond belief, and yet I had the feeling that I had been here before. Was I imagining all of this? Or was my other life, a life which seemed far off and improbable now, merely an illusion? And why, as I stared at Reb Yisrael, did he begin to look so familiar, as though I somehow knew him from before?
They called upon me to recite the Four Questions, and it seemed rather ludicrous and ironic that I should be asking why this night was different from all other nights. We came to the eating of the maror, a small bite of a bitter radish which one of the women had saved for weeks. The assembly began to discuss the suffering in Egypt, arguing that their own lives had reached a depth of bitterness even more distasteful. One after another, they told horrible tales of families split apart, of babies starving for lack of a piece of bread, of sleepless nights and haunted dreams spent agonizing over a loved one taken away by cruel murderers in the dead of night. No, they needed no maror to simulate ancient bitterness. It was in each man’s mouth, and with every flash of light I could glimpse the desperate faces of souls who had lost all hope of a better world.
Suddenly, the conversation was halted by Reb Yisrael’s anguished cry, directed as much to himself as to the others: “We must stop this moaning and wailing!” he demanded. “Is this still not Passover, the Festival of Freedom? Are we not Jews, ever oppressed but ever hopeful, ever persecuted but ever resurgent? And, as the Haggada says, do they not oppress us in every generation, only to fall before the hand of the Almighty? Have faith, all of you, and do not let your resignation give victory to the beasts at our door. Remember the words of the 94th Psalm: ‘The Lord will not cast off His righteous, nor will He forsake His inheritance.’ We are here tonight because our ancestors did not give up hope when they faced adversity. And neither shall we!”
BUOYED BY Reb Yisrael’s moving words, the participants of this Seder began a long discussion of the oppression in Egypt and God’s eventual salvation. There was no mistaking their troubled souls; they had fought an evil as great as Pharaoh, they had experienced the Ten Plagues a hundredfold. Yet they still sang “Dayenu” and thanked God for that which they still had, for their being alive to read the Haggada at least one more time, for the Judaism they clung to like a piece of wood in a rampaging river, which kept their heads raised above the swirling waters of approaching doom.
Yes, they would be saved, they concluded. They had not survived 3,000 years to end it all here, they reasoned with a logic that was more a prayer than a pronouncement. Somehow, a Moses would arise to end their suffering. One young boy even suggested that this must be Gog and Magog, the cataclysmic and global final battle which would precede the coming of the Messiah, as the prophet Isaiah had foretold. Soon, the Messiah would indeed arrive and end their persecution. But even if he tarried, they agreed, they would still continue to believe, and they would behave as Jews until the end. “That defeat – the loss of our Jewishness – we shall never suffer,” they pledged.
The discussion was halted abruptly. A mortar shell had exploded on the floor above our room, and the roof threatened to come crashing down. “They’re coming closer,” said Reb Yisrael. “We must hurry and finish the Seder.” The wine was poured and re-poured, and we read the Haggada quickly, with only an occasional word of explanation. We came to the third cup of wine and read the blessing together, not daring to look into each other’s eyes. Reb Yisrael stood up suddenly and walked to the window. Pulling back the cloth just a fraction and looking down at the destruction below, he defiantly read the next paragraph:
“Pour out Thy wrath upon the nations that do not know Thee, upon the kingdoms that do not acknowledge Thy Name. Pour out Thy indignation upon them and let Thy fierce anger overtake them. Pursue them with wrath and destroy them from beneath the Heavens of God!”  As I watched Reb Yisrael move and speak, he no longer seemed small and frail to me, as he had at first. Now he stood tall and strong, a cedar of Lebanon, a tower amidst the raging night. He was Abraham and David, a pillar of piety and strength. He was the Jewish people all rolled up into one agonized soul, tormented yet determined to survive in dignity and holiness. In him I felt a pride and dignity that was the essence of our people’s character, a heroic bearing standing firm amid calamity, a nobility that ran through all the guardians of our checkered history. And I felt a sudden surge of purpose within me, a new feeling that felt right and good.
We sang Hallel, songs of praise to God, hurriedly yet with a full heart. There was a pause before, “This is the day the Lord has created, be happy and rejoice in it,” but one look from Reb Yisrael and we sang on. Our stomachs were empty but our cups were full.
As the sound of fighting increased outside, we reached the section of the Seder dealing with Elijah the prophet, the messenger of the Messiah, and we filled his cup in the center of the table. There wasn’t enough wine left for the large goblet, so we poured whatever liquids we could find into the cup of redemption.
Reb Yisrael’s wife looked at me and said, with almost a smile: “Shmuel, you open the door for Elijah. Tell him to enter. We have waited patiently for him, and his seat has remained empty these 2,000 years. It is time for him to join the Seder.”
I arose from my seat and went to the door. I was scared, for I felt Elijah’s presence. I opened the door and stepped into the small hallway, while those at the table recited Elijah’s prayer. I could hear them call out for the great prophet to usher in that age of glory when all men would pursue peace and justice, when the wolves would no longer prey upon the lambs. I heard clearly the prayer end with “Yerushalayim,” the ancient plea for return.
As I turned to re-enter the room, I saw something fly through the window. There was a flash of blinding light, a huge explosion. I was sent flying into the wall and a heavy veil of darkness descended over me.
I opened my eyes, and I was back at my home. All of my guests were there, and they were staring at me. “You were dozing, dear,” said my wife. “You never could handle those four cups of wine.”
I got up from the table and rushed into my bedroom. From a desk drawer, I pulled out an old photograph album that my father had given me years ago. Frantic, I leafed through the worn pictures, now yellow with age, until suddenly I stopped. I stared long and hard at the photo of my grandfather, whom I had never known, and read the note scrawled at the bottom:
Reb Yisrael: 1873-1943.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana;