The Pesach Seder: When we all must become children

April 6, 2012

“One is obligated to see themselves on the Seder night as if they are actually now leaving Egypt.”  -Maimonides

“The child at the Seder asks: “Why is this night different from all other nights?  On all other nights we eat leavened or unleavened bread but on this night only unleavened.  On all other nights we eat regular vegetables but on this night bitter herbs….””                                                                                                -The Talmud

If the Passover Seder meal is one of remembering that God redeemed the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery, why not do precisely that?  Read the Biblical account of the Exodus (which we do not); ask about slavery and freedom, divinely brought plagues and miracles, nationhood and history.  Why all the questions about why this night is different?

Children live in the present, their questions straight forward; they observe and ask, observe and ask.  According to some Jewish sources we do strange actions at the Seder meal, like dipping our food, drinking many cups of wine and delaying the meal, precisely so that the children will notice and ask: “Why is this night different?”

“When your child shall ask you: “What is all of this ritual?” Then you shall answer them, “With a strong hand did God take us out of Egypt.””        -Exodus 13:14

God did not take “us” out of Egypt, God took our ancestors out, and that was over 3500 years ago.

The past is long gone, yet always at hand.   Only the present is real, yet always a product of our past.  The Passover Seder is paradoxical, a meal of recalling the 3500 year old Exodus, an experience very much lived in the present:  “Why is this night different?”  It is the child, who always lives in the present from whom we must learn this.

One hundred years ago Sigmund Freud and his circle of psychoanalysts discovered that though we live in the present, we do so almost entirely conditioned by experiences we have had, and ways we have lived, in the past.  The past can not really be integrated or changed through remembering what is past; it must be experienced and understood in the powerful present.   The past is formative but, as a memory, impotent.  The present integrates our past.  The here and now is colored by our past but much more powerful.  Thus the present can lead us to insights about the past and about whom we are, more so that remembering and analyzing past experience.

The Passover Seder is like the process of psychotherapy.  Its function is to understand, to clarify, to integrate the exodus of the past in our present lives, yet this can only be accomplished in any real way, though living in the present.

We do not ask: Why did we leave Egypt? How did we leave? What did it mean to leave Egypt? Why did God think it so important that the Jews be enslaved and redeemed?  Such would only be an intellectual process of remembering the past.

Instead it is the child who asks:  Why are we dipping twice now?  Why are we reclining now when we eat?  Why the flat unleavened bread?

Children know how to be in the present.  All they have is now.  On Passover we must all be children.  Living the past in the fully present we must leave Egypt in our lives now -a gift from the past.


The 10th Plague and the Sanctification of the First Born –By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

January 19, 2011

In the past few Torah portions we have been reading of the Jewish People’s Exodus from Egypt.  The 10th plague, the smiting of the firstborn, seems to be the final catalyst which precipitates Pharos’ freeing of the slaves.  Curiously, just after the firstborn in Egypt are killed the Jewish people are told, “…therefore you shall sanctify the firstborn of the Jewish people.”  But why should the killing of Egypt’s first born result in the sanctification of the Jewish people’s first born animals and humans?

Several answers are given to this question by the classical commentaries.   The most basic is that the sanctification of the Jewish firstborn is an act of thanks for sparing them.  This seems strange though, for to give thanks to God, one should bring a thanksgiving offering, not offer up precisely that which was saved.

I would like to suggest the following answer along more physiological lines.   When individuals are together in a life-threatening circumstance in which some people survives and others do not, the survivors often ask themselves why they survived.  They were often not more worthy than their neighbor, not smarter, or more careful.  What can result from this is not just guilt on the part of the survivors but, especially given the seemingly often random nature of who survives and who does not, a sense of hitchayvut or obligation.  A sense that they were saved ‘for a reason’ and thus a feeling of need to make their lives more meaningful, deeper, and perhaps more spiritual than they would have been otherwise.

I think this may be why the Jewish people are not commanded to sanctify their firstborn.  Had this act been one of thanksgiving the Jewish people would be required to sanctify the firstborn as a kind of sacrifice.  But instead the firstborn are not offered by people but naturally and of necessity rendered in a state of sanctity which, as the Torah states, results directly from the act of the slaying of the firstborn of Egypt.

The Israelite who is saved while their Egyptian neighbor is killed, is, as a result of the seemingly random, non-merit based nature of the universe, propelled to make greater sense of their survival and their life, to sanctify their life and to come closer to the Source of all the grand complexity.

Many years ago I was in an accident which I survived and my friend did not.  Later I expressed my sense of survivor guilt to a rabbi I knew.  “Why me?” I asked.  “I was no more righteous than my friend who died.”

I have never forgotten the rabbi’s response: “We, all the living, feel guilty, for we all are the survivors.”  Indeed he was right.  The very fact that we are alive should, in this existential sense, propel us to see ourselves as survivors and to make greater meaning of our lives, to become closer to the Divine and to feel in this way, sanctified –obligated in special work, bearing an extra-ordinary sense of obligation.   We, the living, are all the survivors and must own up to our sense of sanctity and obligation.