Jews love questions. So it’s no surprise that the Seder, commemorating the birth of our people, is structured in a question/answer format. Participants are meant to ask and to spark lively discussion and exploration.
1. A question on the main theme of the Seder
Why do we call it the Seder?
“Seder” means order. And Jewish commentators explain that the most important idea of the holiday is that history is not happenstance but rather that it follows a divinely decreed order. When God took us out of Egypt we discovered that God didn’t exhaust His connection with the world by creating it; He continues to maintain an ongoing and caring relationship with those who love Him.
God took us out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage, so that we could forevermore know that He is involved with our lives.
Whatever happens to us isn’t coincidence; it’s God’s will. The events of our lives follow a script written by God. The existential meaningless of life viewed from an atheist’s perspective is replaced by the faith of a believer who knows that there is a Seder, a heavenly decreed order, to the seemingly strange but ultimately profound stories of our lives.
A close friend of mine who became religious later in life and who lives in Los Angeles shared with me this story. As a way of publicly acknowledging his love of Torah, he chose for his car’s license plate the word halachah. A while back he found himself followed by a driver frantically honking him and motioning him to pull over to the side of the road. Although somewhat frightened, he complied.
The man rushed over to his window to tell him he had to share his amazing experience. His life had recently presented him with some severe setbacks. Despondent, he decided he could no longer believe in God or hope for Divine assistance. He was ready to make a break with his past and his commitment to Judaism. He thought to himself, I’ll give God one more chance. If He really exists and wants me to maintain my faith, then let him send me a sign. “And then suddenly driving in front of me,” he confided, “was the license plate with the word halachah – the Hebrew word for Jewish law. I have to thank you for indirectly being the medium for God’s message, and allowing me to hear his response.”
Was that just coincidence? How wise is the insight that “coincidence is merely God’s way of choosing to remain anonymous.” There are moments when serendipity is too strange to be anything other than the voice of God reinforcing the concept of Seder, order, in our lives.
Question #1: Were there times in your life when it became clear that God intervened – and it was divinely decreed Seder rather than coincidence?
2. A question on the theme of family
If the Seder is so important, a student once asked me, how come it’s observed in the home and not in the synagogue?
The answer was obvious. Precisely because it is so important the Torah made its focus the family rather than the house of God.
The story of the enslavement of the Jews in Egypt lacks one detail. Why did it happen? Was there any sin of the Jews to account for the tragedy? The rabbis weren’t hesitant to give the answer. When the Jews came down to Egypt, they came “every man and his household” (Exodus 1:1). They understood the centrality of the home as the forger of morality and commonly held values. The text then tells us, “and the land became filled with them [the Israelites]” (Exodus, 1:7). The Midrash elaborates: They now filled the land, the circuses and the theaters, and no longer saw their homes as crucial to their spiritual being.
For deliverance to finally come, God demanded that they “take a lamb for family, a lamb for a household” and re-create what they had lost. The Last Supper of Egypt was a family meal, not a communitywide celebration.
At the very beginning of our history it was made clear that appreciating the importance of the home would be the key to our survival. Indeed the very first letter of the Torah, the Rabbis point out, is beit- the Hebrew letter that means “house,” because the Torah itself requires first and foremost commitment to the family.
Question #2: How can we recreate the centrality of family in Jewish life?
3. A question on the theme of children
The Seder revolves almost entirely around the children. The reason is obvious. Passover is the holiday when the Jewish nation was born and it is the time when it must continue to be reborn throughout the generations.
The children are our future. They represent continuity and survival. It is to them we pass over our heritage every Passover.
And that is no easy task. Not all of our children are willing to follow our guidance. Indeed, there are four kinds of sons. There is the wise son and the wicked son, the simple son and the one who does not even know or want to ask.
How do we reach them all? How do we make them appreciate the values that give our lives meaning?
There is a profound message in the way the Haggadah describes them. We contrast the wise son and the wicked. Yet this seems to be an illogical pairing. Wise implies intelligence and learning. Its opposite is ignorant. Similarly, the opposite of wicked is righteous; the emphasis is on character rather than cleverness. We should either speak of the wise son versus the foolish, or the pious son versus the wicked.
The commentators find a profound idea in this seemingly injudicious juxtaposition. The opposite of the wise son is the wicked son because we believe that the ultimate cause of wickedness is an insufficient exposure to wisdom. The wicked son is wicked because we didn’t teach him enough to make him understand the joy of leading a life dedicated to Torah.
We have lost many of our finest youth to assimilation and to a rejection of their heritage.
Our successes are glorious. We delighted to read the heartening article by David Brooks in the New York Times a short time ago titled “The Orthodox Surge” in which he took note of the remarkable resurgence of Jews committed to Torah and Jewish values. Spirituality has become not only acceptable but admired by many.
Yet the “wicked sons” – perhaps primarily because they were not given the opportunities to become wise – form a significant number of the Jewish community.
It’s important to note that they were not cast-off or excluded from the Passover table. We are never allowed to forget them or ignore their presence. We need all of our children as part of our nation. And it is they who represent the greatest challenge to our religious commitment.
Question #3: How can we reach – and teach – those of our children we have failed to inspire?
4. A question on the theme of slaughtering the Paschal Lamb
The requirement for Jews being saved in the Passover story was to slaughter a lamb and to smear its blood on the doorpost so God would “pass over” that home and spare its inhabitants.
What was the meaning of this seemingly bizarre ritual? The lamb was the national god of Egypt. It was the object of their worship. And for the Jews to deserve deliverance they had to prove they didn’t share the false idols of the Egyptians.
Idolatry didn’t end with ancient paganism. Francis Bacon popularized the concept of “idols of the marketplace”. They are the false gods people in every generation and culture mistakenly worship.
Contemporary society offers us countless examples. Americans worship at the altar of monetary success and fame. Movie stars who flaunt immorality are shamelessly deified. Business tycoons are the modern heroes of our age solely by virtue of their billions. For all too many, the only god is Mammon and the only goal in life is to accumulate more wealth than others because “he who dies with the most toys wins.”
It takes profound courage to go against the popular definition of success. It takes great spiritual strength to deny the superficial allure of a hedonistic lifestyle. It takes incredible valor to choose a life of value over the vanities of the trendy and fashionable tastemakers of our culture.
But that’s exactly what the Jews of Egypt had to do in order to be worthy of the miracle of the first Passover that allowed us to become God’s chosen people. They had to slaughter the lamb of Egyptian idolatry. Our challenge is to replicate their heroism in its contemporary format.
Question #4: What are the most powerful idols of our day that challenge us to refute them in our quest for lives worthy of God’s deliverance and blessings?
May our discussions at the Seder table bring us greater insight into resolving these four major challenges to our faith – and help us to hasten the time of final redemption.