This Friday night, Jews around the world will be sitting as families and friends to enjoy the Passover Seder. It is a night filled with ritual practices and symbolic acts as we relive the experience of the Exodus from Egypt. But this should not be simply a re-enactment exercise: the Seder has traditionally been an opportunity to share important messages with our families, and the rituals, prayers and recitations should serve as the platform to accomplish that goal. Here are a couple of themes that can lead to meaningful conversation at your Seder.
FEELING THE PAIN OF OTHERS
We break the middle of the three matzas and hide away a larger piece – the afikoman – for use toward the end of the seder. Commentaries explain that we put aside the larger piece to mimic the behavior of impoverished people – due to their uncertainty about future sources of sustenance, poor people tend to hoard food. On Passover night we try to internalize, through our own physical actions, that which the Jews experienced in Egypt. They had no control over their destiny and diet, and as slaves could only eat “poor man’s bread.” Presumably they hid larger portions for future consumption, and thus we do the same when we break the matzah.
Understand the pain of others is a major theme of the entire exodus narrative. The Bible describes that the very first act that Moses took as an adult was when he “went out to his brethren and saw their suffering.” (Exodus 2:11) The preeminent biblical commentator Rashi explains that Moses “placed his eyes and heart to feel pain for them.” Tradition teaches that Moses – who grew up in Pharaoh’s palace and was not subject to the slavery – cried out: “I am so pained for them! I wish I could die for them!”, and then offered his own shoulders and helped as many Jews as he could with their work. (Shemot Rabbah 1:27) Moses could have enjoyed his comfortable life without giving a second thought to the suffering of the Jewish people. But Moses, our teacher both in word and in deed, knew that people were hurting, and he needed to share their pain.
This connection between the Egyptian slavery and caring for others continues in the Bible. “You shall love the stranger because you were strangers in Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19) We were strangers in Egypt, a foreign land, and we know the horrors of being oppressed and treated as an outsider. Therefore we should anticipate the feelings of others and be proactive to ensure that no one in our midst feels downtrodden or unwelcome.
This concept is so integral to Judaism that the great sage Hillel told a potential convert that all of the Bible can be captured by one theme: “That which you hate, do not do to others.” (Babylonian Talmud Tractate Shabbat 31a) But feeling the pain of another is not enough – we must act to assist the helpless. As we perform Yachatz at the Seder and our children and grandchildren begin to scheme to win their afikoman present, we should make sure to discuss the reason for setting aside the larger piece of matzah for later; and we should dedicate ourselves to both feeling the pain of others and actually acting on those feelings – both as individuals and as families.
NOT JUDGING OTHERS
We introduce the four sons with a paragraph –Baruch Hamakom – in which we thank God four times. The connection between the two could not be clearer: we openly thank God for all types of children. But do we really thank God for the wicked son along with the other children?
Yes, we absolutely do!
The sweet smelling incense offered daily in the Temple included a foul-smelling incense called chelbinah. The absence of this pungent ingredient rendered the incense invalid. Sometimes, an unpleasant smell can actually enhance a sweet smell when combined in the right mixture. This concept serves as the basis for the custom to introduce the Kol Nidrei prayer on Yom Kippur night with an invitation to “the sinners” to pray with us. Our prayers would be lacking somehow if any Jews were excluded.
This ideal is captured by the tradition that there are 600,000 letters in a Torah scroll – the number of families that left Egypt during the Exodus and received the Bible at Sinai. Jewish religious law dictates that if even one letter of a Torah scroll is missing, the entire scroll is invalid and cannot be used to fulfill the mitzvah of read from it. The same applies to us as a nation: if even one person is not included, regardless of his ideologies, we are not complete and this makes all of us “invalid.”
The message from this is clear: we cannot be the ones to judge the value of another human being. Sadly, most everyone has individuals whom they view as the “wicked son” and the “sinner.” But one never knows the contribution that someone else makes to the world and to our community. Everyone has their worth and role to play, and truth be told, even if it is clear that someone else is in the wrong, we never truly know their challenges or what they are truly all about.
The story of “Yossele the Miser” comes to mind, and it is a great story to tell our children and grandchildren. There was once a man known as Yossele the Miser. Yossele was the wealthiest man in his village, and he received requests for charity on a regular basis. He would always ask the people to explain their needs in great detail. However, after they poured their hearts to him, he would routinely turn them away empty-handed. When Yossele died, they struggled to find a minyan to participate in his burial because the townspeople hated him so much.
Shortly after Yossele’s death, the village rabbi was flooded with numerous pressing requests for charity. All the stories followed the same pattern: “Every Friday morning we used to wake up to find an envelope under our door with the precise funds we needed to prepare for the Sabbath. Now we receive nothing and we are desperate.” Others reported, “Every Sunday we would find an envelope under our door with the specific amount of money necessary to treat our child’s illness. Now we don’t receive those envelopes and our child is suffering.” The stories were endless.
The rabbi investigated and discovered, of course, that Yossele was secretly supporting all those people. Yossele pretended to ignore all the requests that came his way, but in actuality provided these people with all their needs. The stunned rabbi called the entire village to gather at Yossele’s grave, where he asked forgiveness from the man they all now called “Yossele the Righteous.”
Tradition teaches that we should “judge all people favorably.” (Ethics of our Fathers 1:7) Some commentaries point out that the precise translation of this teaching is actually “judge the entire person favorably.” We should not focus on the bad that we see in others, but always seek the good and focus on their positive attributes. As we thank God for all four sons, including the “wicked” one, we must internalize this idea. This is an opportunity to teach our families that we should never judge others based on their external actions, and even if we are certain that their actions are improper, we must recognize that all people have importance and value and we should not harp on the negative but focus on the positive.
I hope everyone can make use of these ideas to have meaningful discussions at their Seder, as nearly every act and recitation said and done is filled with potential for discussions about important themes.
Wishing everyone a memorable Seder experience and a Happy Passover.