Sinai Today: In every generation

There is no nation on earth that has as long and as consistent and well-documented history as the Jewish people.

City of David 521 (photo credit: Courtesy City of David)
City of David 521
(photo credit: Courtesy City of David)
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.
As 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.
The 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 beyond statistics.
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 generation.
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.
And at 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.
The 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. (