When Shabbat falls on the first day of Pesach, Yom Rishon Shel Pesach, we read in Torah Moses’ instructions to “Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage…”(Exodus 13:3); beginning with this first night of Passover, which “was for the Eternal a night of vigil, leil shimurim, to bring them out of the land of Egypt; …one of vigil for all the children of Israel throughout the ages” (Exodus 12:42). These texts express strong themes of the transition from slavery to freedom exemplified by images of God’s power.
The journey out of Egypt allows us to fulfill the command in the Haggadah, “In every generation a person is obligated to see oneself as though one had gone forth from Egypt.” Reading about the Exodus enables us to fulfill our obligation to regard ourselves as having made the journey on our own. V’higad’ta, “you shall tell.” From this verb comes the word Haggadah, “the telling.” Unlike the Torah text, the Rabbis obligate women equally in telling the story because they too experienced the liberation.
We are told that when the Israelites left Egypt, they were not alone: The Israelites journeyed from Raamses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, aside from the women and children. Moreover, a mixed multitude went up with them (Exodus 12:37-38).
According to Gunther Plaut, this “mixed multitude”–erev rav–were “people from the bottom of Egypt’s social strata who took the opportunity to escape from their fate.”
Thus we have the Israelites and this mixed multitude together on a historic journey that leads to the birth of both a people and a community of faith. Together this group will reap the rewards of the Exodus: receipt of the Law and entrance into the Promised Land. Together this mix of Israelites and others will become one Jewish people, united by faith in one God.
And how shall we relive the Exodus in our own day? Chapter 13:3-10 instructs us. We are to eat matzah—and so we do. We are to eat no leavening for seven days, nor have any in our possession. We are to instruct our children in the reason for these practices—telling the story at our seder.
There is no mention of charoset, a seder plate, or for that matter, a seder in the Torah! The four cups of wine don’t get mentioned specifically and there is no direct reference to the four questions or the four types of children. Elijah and his cup are never discussed in the Torah. In fact, most of what we consider essential for a seder is absent! So where do those things come from? It is our best guess that these traditions – so familiar to us – developed slowly over time, and ultimately, they were first written in codified form in the Mishnah around the year 200 C.E., well over a thousand years after the first Pesach observance. By Mishnaic times, we do have four cups and four questions; salt water (or vinegar) and a fruit-spice sauce (charoset); and Hallel, and Birkat HaMazon.
As someone who has spent a long time as a Jewish educator, I have always been fascinated by the Pesach seder. In fact, I have often said that it is the most perfect “lesson plan” ever created. The seder, when planned and done well, is truly “experiential education” at its best. It makes use of all five senses, the imagination, the mind, and the heart. The seder can engage toddlers, teens, college age students, Jews, non-Jews, parents, and grandparents, all at the same time, speaking to each one at a level appropriate for that person.
Furthermore, the seder is not just an event that takes place and is then forgotten. Over the years, I have come to realize that people who know little about Jewish history or Torah can somehow draw on their Passover memories and tell the story of the Exodus with some credibility.
Pesach is that opportunity to use our senses to hear sweet music; see the faces of those we love; taste and smell the foods that God (and, of course, the person who cooked them!) created; touch the many shapes and textures of the ritual items; and understand the miracles God performed for our ancestors and us.
I love Shabbat, but I really love Pesach. Families make every effort to gather together and create memories. When my daughters and grandchildren were toddlers or young elementary school children, we put on plays, with costumes and props so that everyone was involved. As they got older, Jerry shared a few captivating readings, and I added some element of surprise. One Pesach, I decided to dress as Elijah, tip-toe out the back door with a sack of gifts for everyone at the table, slung over my shoulder. Since I am the one to “keep the seder moving” I secretly reminded Jerry of the plan. “Don’t forget to send the kids to open the door for Elijah!” Well, he forgot!! So I stood outside, in the rain, hearing my daughters ask, “Dad, where’s mom?” He was so into some story he was sharing, that he was oblivious that I was missing. “Elijah” finally had to ring the bell! “Mom, what are you doing in the rain?” Need I say more…. We still laugh at that memory that happened 30+ years ago – a wonderful mix of fun and a commitment to remember.
So once again as darkness falls this Friday night, the table is set, the ritual items are in their proper place, we will turn to the first page of the Haggadah to begin our seder. With each prayer, each reading, each song, and each game, we not only recall and relive the events of Yetziat Mitzrayim, the “Exodus from Egypt,” but we also must call for God’s attention to the redemptive needs in our day and age. When Jews sit down at a seder, how important it is to bring the issues of the times to the table. Alongside the Pharaoh of yesteryear, we include the tyrants and false values of our own time. By naming the oppressions around us, we bring to God’s attention the ongoing need for a leil shimurim, a “night of keeping watch,” a loving watchfulness over all people.
As we commemorate this important historic event, let us all enjoy our families and pledge to share with others what Judaism has taught us. Let us strive to improve the lives of all people. And may we all celebrate in peace and good health.
- Shabbat Shof’tim - September 4, 2019
- Shabbat Mas’ei - July 31, 2019
- Shabbat Korach - June 26, 2019
- Shabbat B’chukotai - May 23, 2019
- D’var Torah for Passover - April 17, 2019
- Shabbat Vayikra - March 13, 2019
- Shabbat T’rumah - February 7, 2019
- Shabbat Va-eira - January 2, 2019
- Shabbat Vayeshev - November 27, 2018
- Shabbat Vayeira - October 24, 2018