It’s been noted that more Jews observe the Passover Seder than any other Jewish ritual.
It is a powerful affirmation of our collective kinship in a historic moment that allowed for the birth of our people. With Divine aid, we went from slavery to freedom. The Seder permits us to remember and to give thanks. It is our opportunity to reflect upon the miracles of our past. It is our tribute to history.
But the very first Seder of our people makes clear that this is not its major message.
Remarkably enough, the Jews in Egypt were commanded to celebrate the Seder on the very night before their departure and deliverance. They were not yet free. Nevertheless they ate the matzah and the bitter herbs and they fulfilled the required rituals. Clearly they were not celebrating an event which had already occurred but rather demonstrating their faith in the inevitability of a Divine promise they were anticipating.
The Passover Seder began with an emphasis on destiny, not history.
The first Seder took place not after the Exodus but before it. It was a Seder not of gratitude for what was but of hope for redemption yet to come. The Passover Seder began with an emphasis on destiny, not history; on the future, not the past.
And that is what makes Passover so relevant from generation to generation. Even as we retell the story of old to our children we make clear that its purpose is meant to resonate with us as a harbinger of hope. “In every generation they rise up against us to destroy us but the holy one blessed be he saves us from their hands” – just as the Almighty did then against our ancient Egyptian oppressors.
It is the only certainty of history. God always comes to our aid. He may be depended upon, unlike any other temporary political alliances or allegiances. History has a preordained plan – an order, or as it is expressed in Hebrew by the word Seder. The Seder of history has a preordained conclusion. The story of our redemption from Egypt is but a prequel to the final redemption of messianic fulfillment. So certain are we of this for the future that we ask our children, those who will surely be the beneficiaries of this Divine promise, to open the door for Elijah at every Seder to welcome the prophet whose assigned task is to announce the coming of Messiah.
And by eating matzah at the Seder we make a stunning declaration about the way in which we see this come to pass. It is counterintuitive. It goes against the common proverbial assumption that “history doesn’t change overnight.” But it is the method of historic change utilized by God himself – and incorporated by way of symbol into the Passover holiday. Redemption, as illustrated by the matzah, came speedily and unexpectedly. They did not even have time to let their bread rise. Suddenly, in the blink of an eye, Israelite slaves were free.
Our ancestors were told that at the very first Seder, before they left Egypt, to sit “with their loins girded, with shoes on their feet, with traveling sticks in their hands” ready to begin their journey. Only faith that God would fulfill his promise made it possible for them not only to believe, after 210 years of bitter oppression, their salvation was near but that its implementation was but a matter of moments away.
Matzah demonstrates the speed of Divine intervention.
Human progress may take centuries. The matzah demonstrates the speed of Divine intervention.
Indeed, the rabbis long ago told us to be attuned in particular to dramatic historic changes that came about in unprecedented and seemingly incomprehensible speed. The haste of events is one of God’s chosen ways to indicate his direct and personal involvement.
Who Knows Nine?
That is why there is a unique tradition in Judaism that the Messiah will be born on Tisha b’Av. Redemption at the end of days is viewed as a dramatic turnabout, a total and speedy transformation from the tragic to the jubilant, from weeping to joyous wonderment. It is precisely when we are enveloped by darkness that we need to be certain of the nearness of dawn.
It is at the very close of the Seder that we find a perplexing line in the famous passage which alludes to the theological significance of numbers. We ask “Who knows one?” and we all respond: one is our God. So too we get the significance of two as the two tablets, three as the patriarchs, for as the matriarchs, five of the books of the Torah, six the number of sections of the Mishnah, seven the days of the week, eight the day of circumcision… and then comes the link which seems totally out of place. “Who knows nine?” and the response is nine are the months of pregnancy. Many have wondered at the pertinence of this connection. Nine months of pregnancy are simply a biological fact. What in the world is it doing in the list meant to offer religious significance of numbers on the night when we reflect on redemption?
I would like to suggest that the nine months of pregnancy indeed have a very special link with the theme of the Seder night. The prophets long ago taught that the final redemption will be preceded by what they called “the pains of childbirth.” Just as the prelude to the glorious moment of birth is the mother’s pain during labor, so too will the time of messianic fulfillment, sequel to the Passover story, be preceded by a painful and difficult period for the Jewish people. In the aftermath of a seeming Tisha b’Av , final redemption will break forth, speedily and almost in the blink of an eye just as for the Jews in Egypt in the ancient biblical story.
A Difficult Year
As Jews prepare to observe Passover, we cannot fail to note that the Jewish people in Israel and around the world have had a most difficult year. Growing anti-Semitism, the war of Gaza against Israel this past summer, the ongoing fear of Iran’s nuclear capability threatening our annihilation and now the strained relationship between the President of the United States and Israel have left us with great cause for concern.
But perhaps the meaning of these painful moments needs to be understood in context of the prophetic warnings of the terrible trials immediately preceding the messianic age. And perhaps, as we prepare to celebrate the Seder in the year which on the Jewish calendar is spelled TISHA, the very word for nine in Hebrew, we may express the hope that this will be the time alluded to in the nine months of pregnancy.
May our pain be prelude to ultimate joy and may our history finally turned into the blessing of our promised destiny.