Now, more than ever, a Passover meal for our time

Tonight, Friday, April 6, 2018, families and friends will gather in many Jewish homes around the world to drink four cups of wine, eat some matzah and other special foods, sing some songs, and pray for our redemption finally to be complete with the coming of the messianic age.

No, this column is not being published a week late. For possibly as long as the last 200 years or so, the beginning of the eighth day of Pesach, Passover, has been marked in chasidic communities worldwide by a special meal known as se’udat ha-mashiach, the “messiah’s feast,” which includes elements of the seder. Tradition attributes the origin of the feast to Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the founder of chasidism known popularly as the Ba’al Shem Tov (the “master of the good name”).

As Yitzchak Schochet, rabbi of Mill Hill United Synagogue in London, explained it, “while belief in Mashiach is a cardinal tenet of the Jewish faith…, abstract belief is not enough. Our awareness must be translated into action.” Just as the seder’s special foods and rituals are meant to help us recreate the Exodus vicariously, he wrote, “by partaking of this special meal on the last night, and ingesting the food, [it] helps to internalize the … yearning for Mashiach…. Having recited the words ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ at the conclusion of the Seder, it is incumbent upon us all to turn that dream into reality.”

The custom derives from the haftarah, the prophetic reading we recite on the morning of the eighth day (meaning tomorrow morning). Taken from Isaiah (10:32-12:6), it describes the age of the messiah, when “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the kid…, with a little boy to herd them.”

The theme of this “messiah’s feast” originates in the seder itself, however, although that text is either completely passed over by many, or is recited without comment or thought. That is because it is encased in a moment of “fun,” when we invite the invisible prophet Elijah to enter our homes to sip some wine from “his” cup. While people usually sing the “Eliyahu Ha-navi” song at that moment, it does not appear in traditional haggadot. The words that do appear, and should be recited and discussed, are these:

“Pour out Your wrath, O Lord, on those nations whose actions and deeds deny Your ways, as they demonstrate a total disregard for human life and human dignity, and as they seek to subdue and dominate and enslave. Pour out Your anger upon them and let Your raging fury catch them. Chase them in anger and vanquish them from under God’s heaven.”

There are other words in the seder that also get short shrift, or no shrift, that relate to the “Pour out Your wrath” text:

“In every generation, a person is required to see himself [or herself] as if he [or she] personally came out of Egypt.” That is because we must forever keep up our guard. Our redemption was not complete when we left Egypt. The universal message of the Exodus is that injustice and intolerance have no place in our world, yet they are still with us. Also still with us — although people do not want to acknowledge it — are the specific acts of injustice and intolerance that Egypt directed at us, the People Israel, the Jewish people. If we are not prepared to stand up against the anti-Semitism that seems to be getting more pronounced every day, God certainly will not act for us.

That is one of the messages in the Torah reading in synagogues this morning, Pesach Day 7 (and it, too, gets short shrift nowadays). The Egyptian host is bearing down on the Israelites. The people cry out for deliverance, but God says to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.”

In other words, tell them to go forward into the not-yet-parted sea.

The message is clear: God will intervene on our behalf, but only if we act first. Which is why, “In every generation, a person is required to see himself [or herself] as if he [or she] personally came out of Egypt.”

Too many of us, however, have fallen victim to complacency. We live in the “Land of the Free” and the First Amendment, and we think our redemption is somehow complete. We ignore the reality that is right before our eyes.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, for example, the swastika is considered to be “the most significant and notorious of hate symbols, anti-Semitism, and white supremacy for most of the world….” Swastikas have no place in our world, yet they keep showing up. In October, a swastika was spray-painted on the outside wall of a Rutgers University residence hall. In November, one was carved into the ground in a New Jersey playground. Two weeks ago on Friday night, a Holocaust memorial in Lakewood and the synagogue adjacent to it had swastikas smeared on their walls. There are many other such incidents.

Then there is Charlottesville. Last August, the city sought to remove from public ground a statue of Robert E. Lee, because it was seen as a symbol of the oppression of blacks in the Old South. This led to a “Unite the Right” rally that had less to do with blacks or Robert E. Lee that it had to do with Jew-hatred. Swastikas and brown shirts emblazoned with swastika armbands and Hitler quotes were ubiquitous, as were anti-Jewish slogans, such as “Jews will not replace us” and “Jews are Satan’s children.” Neo-Nazi websites even urged protestors to burn down the local synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel.

As the ADL National Director Jonathan Greenblatt noted, “This [demonstration allegedly] is an agenda about celebrating the enslavement of Africans and their descendants, and celebrating those that then fought to preserve that terrible machine of white supremacy and human enslavement…. And yet, somehow, they’re all wearing shirts that talk about Adolf Hitler.”

Swastikas are only part of the story. According to the ADL, the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2017 set a record by rising nearly 60 percent over 2016. Incidents were reported in all 50 states, something that had not happened in at least 10 years.

This is a trend that is worldwide. A couple of weeks ago, it led to the murder in Paris of an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, Mireille Knoll. Police said she was killed because she was a Jew.

The year 2017 also saw a record number of anti-Semitic incidents in Britain, higher than any year since such statistics began to be kept there in 1984. It may have been this sharp rise that prompted this comment by Prime Minister Theresa May in her Passover message last week:

The “Exodus from Egypt,” she said, “did not mark the end of anti-Semitic persecution. For millennia, the descendants of those Moses led to freedom have continued to face hatred, discrimination, and violence. It’s a situation that continues to this day, including, I’m sad to say, here in Britain.”

Those in the chasidic world who tonight will sit down to their seder-like seudat ha-mashiach understand the consequences of complacency. Perhaps all of us need to partake in “the messiah’s feast,” as well.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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