In comparison with the fate of many of the laws and customs associated with Jewish tradition, it appears that none are practiced by such a broad segment of contemporary Jewry as the Passover seder. Long after other aspects of Jewish tradition lose their significance for many contemporary Jews, the Passover seder remains meaningful.
Why is this so? I believe it is because the Passover seder embodies the essential cultural and educational mechanism that has guaranteed the continuity of Jewish existence throughout the generations.
Tell Your Children
The central aspect of the seder is the telling of the story of the exodus from Egypt. More specifically, the Passover seder is the fulfillment of the biblical command mentioned in Exodus 13, 8: “And on that day you shall tell your child, for this God has taken me out of the Land of Egypt.” One may ask, what specifically is one obligated to “tell” his or her child “on that day”? What is “that day” in which he or she is obligated to actually tell the story? And finally: what is the character and purpose of the story to be told?
The answer to these questions is found in the very same chapter from the book of Exodus that this verse is taken, and indeed the delineation of that answer provides us with a clear understanding as to the mechanism of Jewish continuity throughout the ages.
Photo: Flickr – Creap
“And it shall be, when God will bring you to the land… that was promised to your forefathers …you shall perform this service in this month…. . And you will tell your child on this day, saying: for this God did unto me when I exited from Egypt. And you shall have [them] as a sign upon your hand and a remembrance between your eyes so that God’s teaching shall be upon your lips. …And it will pass in the morrow that when your child asks what this is, you will tell him, with a strong hand God took us out of Egypt from the house of bondage.”
Present and Future
First we note that the command to tell the story of the exodus is given in a past that was once “present”; that is, in the actual “present” of the exodus from Egypt to which an entire generation was witness. But the command itself spans a stretch of time that includes not only that present but also a future in which the children of that generation will have already entered the Land of Israel. It is in this future, upon the acting out of the “service” that includes a reconstruction of the eve preceding the exodus, that the curiosity of the children’s generation is aroused so as to confront their parents with questions concerning their past and the past of their people.