When the Torah speaks about the mitzvah of Pesach, the text speaks in very personal terms. Lots of "you" and "your". The Torah presumes that your celebration of this festival will be remarkable and noteworthy; that it will prompt your children to inquire regarding the pageant that is unfolding before their eyes. Once having captured the curiosity of our children and evoked appropriate questions from them, the Torah bids us to answer by saying, "This is because of what God did for me when we left Egypt."
For the generation who received the mitzvot from God at Sinai, this was an easy and personal statement. Having been eyewitnesses to the miracles of the Exodus they could relate their experiences of that historic era. Those Israelites could articulate the suffering of they endured at the hands of the Egyptians and the sense of futility that surrounded all they did. For them, it was a simple act of memory to describe the hopefulness that greeted Moshe's arrival and the crushing dejection that came with Moshe's initial failure to liberate the people.
Our ancient ancestors could easily recount the unfolding of the ten plagues, the debilitating effect they had on the Egyptians and the growing sense amongst the Israelites that salvation was at hand. Their frenetic departure from Egypt and flight into the wilderness, indelibly etched in their mind's eye, came trippingly off their tongues; the elation of being free still challenging the speaker to find adequate articulation even after many years. Even the most challenged of our Israelite ancestors could speak about the Exodus with the magical word, "I" - an "I" that gave them authenticity and authority. It was the "I" of an eyewitness, unimpeachable and irreplaceable.
That reality notwithstanding, the Torah commands us to answer the questions put to us by our children with the very selfsame "I" and "me". This is what God did for me when I was brought forth out of Egypt." We are commanded to speak as eyewitnesses to events that are handed down from generation to generation in the words of our tradition and teachings. The Torah challenges to make the reality and the experience of these events our own - to learn how to speak of them in the first person. This is perhaps the greatest challenge in preparing for Pesach.
Embedded in this challenge is the key to grasping one of the central and essential themes of Pesach - K'lal Yisrael (Jewish nationhood). The Torah and the Haggadah remind us that the Jewish people have existed as a recognizable community from the moment of Exodus until the present. As a people, we are a continuous and self-replenishing entity. As a part of this enduring entity, replete with collective memory - we were slaves, we were liberated, we were brought forth, and we were chosen.
Viewed through the prison of Jewish peoplehood, our national history becomes our life story. The Seder celebrant exists as both a unique individual in a specific time and place but also as part of a “great link”1 where time and place are without meaning. The ancient Jewish metaphor used to express the connection between generations is the "chain of tradition". The Seder celebrants are at once the beginning, the end, and the middle link in that chain. As parents, we are the end of the chain that reaches back through the generations to the Exodus. Our children are the beginning of the chain that reaches into the future. All of us at the Seder, parent and child together, converge to create the present, to forge the middle link that is the crucial nexus of past and future.
Whether the future finds inspiration and hope in the past and whether history prods us to purposeful action before God in the future, is dependent on what we create around the Seder table in the present. To forge strong links in the chain and insure that the Jewish people will remain a strong and self-perpetuating entity, we must acculturate and socialize our children into the history and tradition of that entity. We need to inculcate them in the language and vocabulary of our people, to enable them to speak with the “I” of our ancestors.
On Pesach we remember that our ancestors were forced to build sterile edifices of bricks and mortar as tributes to dead kings who were buried with their possessions and past. More importantly, Pesach teaches us that our children are the building blocks of our future – an indispensable necessity for perpetuating the lofty and enduring values upon which our heritage rests. "Destiny, we intuit, is rooted in history, tomorrow is yesterday's child.2
With blessings for a happy and kosher Pesach,
Rabbi David M. Eligberg
1For those of you who are fans of Star Trek: Deep Space 9, think of Odo and his connection to the rest of the Founders.
2I really like this quote. It makes me wish I had written down who said it. I guess redemption will have to wait for another day.