Time Traveling on Seder Night: A New Understanding of the “Merit of Our Ancestors”

Saying yizkor this Passover, I started to think, not about our ancestors who directly preceded us, but about our ancestors long ago. They get preeminence in our tradition and prominence in our liturgy, and we often speak of the term zchut avot – the merit of our ancestors. Traditionally, that term is understood something like this – dear God, I stand here before you and I know I am unworthy. I have messed up a lot of times. But, as it happens, I have these really wonderful ancestors, whom I know you adore – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in particular. When you judge me, think of them. Remember that I am related to them and judge me mercifully with that in mind.

This year I started to think about this concept a little differently. My starting place is Harry Potter. For those of you who are not devoted Harry Potter fans, suffice it to say that Harry Potter’s parents are murdered by the evil Voldemort when Harry is only a year old. Nonetheless, throughout his life, Harry is protected by the love of his parents, particularly his mother. As Dumbledore, the headmaster and Harry’s mentor tells him, “Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. Love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves it’s own mark. To have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever.”

This idea got me started thinking about zchut avot differently. What if the merit of our ancestors means that across the generations they love us, that even if they are gone, or never knew us, they still love us and, in some measure, we are protected by that love. They lived their lives so we could be here. One cannot sit down at a seder without feeling that as different as our seder is from seders past, at the end of the day, I remain very conscious of the fact that I am sitting down to seder as my ancestors before me did. At some level, they lived so that I could do this. More than that, if you think about it, nothing would give your ancestors more joy than to know that all these years later, here you are, in the United States of America or Israel, sitting down to seder with your family because they did.

This winter I participated in an exercise that I replicated at our Passover seder in which we imagined ourselves time traveling seven generations into the future and speaking to an 8-year old child who lived then. We were told that the disasters that threatened the world had been averted and that there was human, even Jewish life. The child asked us questions about our experience. When we did this exercise, many people wept. I think that the pain of the world was overwhelming as was our sense of impotence in its face. At the same time, looking into the face of someone and imagining them as my descendant seven generations hence, was one of the most joyful and hopeful experiences I have ever had. It just felt so amazing to gaze at them and to imagine the great-grandchildren of my great-great grandchildren. I felt so full of love for this person. And I felt so clear that this is what we are living for, that my purpose now is to ensure that she is here in seven generations. I also felt blessed with the knowledge that someone, seven generations back, could hardly have imagined my existence and yet at the same time lived their whole life to make it possible, just as I live mine. Indeed, we are blessed by their love.

Eliezer Diamond, my teacher, wondered how people celebrated freedom in the death camps, why they did not see this celebration as a cruel joke? He writes about the experience of Simcha Bunim Unsdorfer who led a seder in Buchenwhald in 1945.[1] Unsdorfer gathered some scraps of paper and wrote a haggadah from memory. He acquired a small amount of flour and baked three small matzot. On seder night, he gathered with fellow inmates, using a rusty cup of coffee as a stand in for the four cups of wine.

Unsdorfer writes, “The seder in Buchenwald served as a source of great courage and hope for me. It was a reminder that our people have gone through many difficult and tragic experiences in our long history and have been freed each time, by the will of God, from our bondage and slavery. How wise, I thought, of our great rabbis of the past to command that Passover and Purim be repeated each year and thus remain alive among the Jewish people. Where would we have gained the strength and courage to survive all our sufferings?”

Unsdorfer draws upon his faith and imagination to reframe the horror and oppression of Buchenwald. He believes that God will again redeem his people, as He always has, and that this is the source of our strength and survival.

And yet, Diamond asks, what is meant by survival? Even on the eve of liberation, many of the seder participants that night probably did not survive. Unsdorfer had seen many more die. We realize that Unsdorfer was not speaking of his own survival, but rather of our survival as a Jewish people, that regardless of what happened to him and his fellow inmates, the Jewish people would live on. And he understood, even if he did not quite say it, that they would survive in part because of his willingness in the spring of 1945, in the shadow of death, to write a haggadah, bake matzot, and organize a seder. Their hope sustained and made possible the future. They lived so we could be here. We are sustained by their love. Ahava raba.

Diamond goes on to imagine himself interviewing participants at a medieval seder and asking them what they mean when they say, Next year in Jerusalem. Do you really think that next year, this time, you will celebrate Passover in Jerusalem? The simple Jew, he imagines, might say, “Why not? The Messiah could come at any time.” But someone perhaps a little more thoughtful might respond, “Will I be in Jerusalem next year, or any other year for that matter? I doubt it. My children? Unlikely. My grandchildren? It doesn’t look that way. But this I know: someday my descendants will return to Jerusalem, and this will happen because I and my fellow Jews are willing to express a fantasy as a certainty every year.”

Without question, the Jewish people ultimately returned to our land because our ancestors, over a long period of time, against all odds, nurtured the belief and hope that they would. “They kept the dream alive until its fulfillment became possible, and fulfillment was possible because the dream was kept alive.”

The haggadah tells us that we were redeemed by God, and I believe that that is true. But, as Diamond writes, “I believe that redemption also come through stubborn and unselfish commitment and hope.” Unsdorfer teaches us that our seder is important simply because we do it. We are each effectively announcing: “I am here. I am taking up the legacy entrusted to me by the Jews who came before me, and I am passing it on to my children and my children’s children. By remembering and doing.”

When we sit down and tell our story, we talk about the slavery and oppression our ancestors suffered in the past. We make a commitment in the present, to tell the story and to continue to work for freedom and justice. And by telling the story, we also express our faith and hope in the future. We stubbornly assert that we are here and we believe our great-grandchildren will one day sit down at their seder because we did. Our love protects them, in some measure, just as we are protected by the love of our ancestors. Our refusal to give up is our line cast forth into the future.

[1] Unsdorfer’s experiences are chronicled in his book, “The Yellow Star.” Eliezer Diamond’s article, “This Year We Are Slaves: How and Why Do We Celebrate Freedom in the Face of Our Oppression?” was published in 2014 in the weekly JTS Torah Commentary.

About the Author
Rona Shapiro is the rabbi of Congregation B'nai Jacob, a Conservative synagogue in Woodbridge, CT. She has also served as Executive Director of Berkeley Hillel and Senior Associate of Ma'yan: the Jewish Women's Project. She is the founding editor of and has written and published numerous articles.
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