Four Questions for the Seder: Are we focused on ourselves or on others?

Passover is often experienced as a holiday of pity — not only for our ancestors who suffered in Egypt, but for ourselves.

Indeed, there is much to be concerned about. What will we eat? Will we stay or go? How will we clean? It’s easy to forget that from the Torah itself to the text of the Haggadah, we know that the holiday actually is supposed to involve concern for our needy neighbors and for the continuity of the Jewish nation as a whole. In the spirit of the four questions, here are several thoughts concerning priorities that are easy to overlook.

First, while we plan for ourselves, do we provide for others? When we begin the recitation of the Haggadah, we declare that all who are hungry should come, eat, and celebrate Passover with us. Well, what preparations have we made so that we don’t feel guilty reciting those words? The Talmud considers charity before Passover to be even more important than charity at other times of the year. It goes so far as to say, whether literally or figuratively, that people are required to sell the clothes off their backs in order to purchase four cups of wine for the seder. This is supposed to emphasize that rather than focusing on our preferences, we should be concerned with doing our part to help those who are struggling.

It’s easy to check off that box, whether with a large donation or by providing for someone who could use our help in a direct manner. But this leads us to a second question: what have we done for those who need friendship? Our society has become more and more isolated over time, to the point where in the U.K. the government even discussed assigning a government minister the task of dealing with loneliness.

Yet while everyone issues the call to strangers to come and eat on the night of Passover itself, too many times we shirk away from inviting others into our family circles. We shouldn’t. It’s easy to get caught up in the allure of quiet time with family, to the point where we feel that guests at our Seders are an intrusion. This is not something to dismiss lightly, insofar as every family ought to focus on quality time alone. At the same time, part of being a Jew means that we ought to expand our sense of family to include those further from us who lack the bonds that we might be privileged to enjoy. That is why, for the Torah, we cannot celebrate a holiday unless we help those who are less fortunate to celebrate along with us.

A third question concerns our attitude at the Seder: to what extent does our Passover celebration focus on the survival of the Jewish people, which of course was central to the holiday in the first place? How does that impact what we discuss at the table? There is, after all, always a temptation to lose sight of the connection we have with the living history that characterizes our people. This is especially true when waiting for a delicious dinner! But do we pause to think about the deprivation that has so often been our lot as Jews?

And for that matter, where do we spend Passover? Is it a vacation for us? Or an opportunity to work hard to prepare for a holiday that involves hard work? And do we feel deprived when it comes to the lack of variety of foods? We ought to — matzah is, after all, the “bread of affliction.” Is our conversation over the course of the evening suitable for giving thanks for being saved from slavery?

Finally, are we focused on the continuity of the Jewish people? We often forget that the story of Passover began with decisive decisions on the part of heroic Jewish women who sought to perpetuate the growth of Jewish families. The story of the Exodus starts with Shifra and Puah, the Jews’ chief midwives, disobeying a direct order from the Pharaoh and deciding to save newborn Jewish baby boys from death. Moses’s mother and sister, Yocheved and Miriam, saved him from the same end. There is even a midrash, drawing on the Book of Exodus’s description of the Israelites having many children despite their suffering, that it was countless heroic Jewish wives who saved the nation by convincing their hopeless husbands to have children.

The question we face is whether we are doing enough to help promote the Jewish family. There are so many ways to help. There are organizations like EFRAT and In Shifra’s Arms that assist pregnant women in crisis. There are others that help couples struggling with infertility who cannot afford treatments. Do we support them? Do we try to have more children of our own? Do we adopt if we are unable to? These questions may seem removed from the holiday, but they are central to the life of a Jew. In 110 C.E., the Roman consul Tacitus noted with disapproval that the Jews, unlike Romans, were interested in having as many children as possible. This is a phenomenon that has characterized the Jewish people for centuries, although it is now in danger in the diaspora, with non-Orthodox Jews in the United States having one of the lowest birthrates in the nation.

May this Passover holiday, and our preparation for it, cause us to redouble our efforts as Jews to do what we can for those who are in need, for those in need of friendship, and for the Jewish people as a whole. In this manner, may our celebration be one of joyous song, both for our nation and for each one of us.


About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Mitchell Rocklin is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Princeton University's James Madison Program. He is also a Chaplain in the New Jersey Army National Guard with the rank of Captain, and the President of the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty. He lives in Teaneck, NJ with his wife and two daughters.
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