Perhaps the most celebrated evening of the Jewish calendar is the Seder night. Jews the world over come together to have a Seder, during which the Haggadah is read and expounded on in its multifaceted dimensions. In every generation, Jews have found new meaning and relevance in the ancient text, and have sought, Seder after Seder, to draw inspiration from its ageless wisdom – based on timeless truth – and apply it to contemporary events and modern struggles.
It is this juxtaposition of the timeless and the timely that makes the reiteration of the Haggadah an exhilarating experience. Each of us participates in a very personal encounter with history and its modern manifestations; with our personal journey from galut to geulah. We connect the eternal themes of the Haggadah to our personal lives and experiences.
Vehigadita Levinchah – The Key to Jewish Survival
The Seder, and the reading of the Haggadah – as its very name implies – center around the mitzvah of “Vehigadita levinchah” – the commandment to tell the story of our redemption to our children. This mitzvah highlights the key to Jewish continuity. It is precisely because we teach our children, and instill in them the knowledge and pride of our heritage, that 3,330 years after yetziyat Mitzrayim, we are still here to recount its miracles and to give praise to HaKadosh Baruch Hu for performing them.
But “Vehigadita levinchah” does not end with our own sons and daughters. The Haggadah begins with an invitation: “Kol dichfin yetei veYeichol – Anyone who is hungry should come and eat.” That message serves as the preamble to our Pesach Seder and animates what we seek to do that night and throughout the year. It teaches us that we are not alone and that the wellbeing of every Jew is our own concern.
We may not sit down comfortably and begin our Seder until we can be sure that every Jew has a Seder to go to. More broadly, we cannot be satisfied with our own Jewish practice and experience unless we recognize the concomitant obligation that all Jews are given the opportunity to receive a Jewish education. An affordable, quality Jewish education for every Jewish child is the responsibility of all of Klal Yisrael, and only that will ensure that we survive the dual threats of assimilation and intermarriage that plague our generation and threaten our survival as a people.
It is for this reason that the OU, through its Teach NYS advocacy arm, has placed the fight for increased government funding for yeshivot and day schools at the forefront of its communal agenda. As I write this piece, we await word whether the New York State budget will provide increased funding to reimburse yeshivot and day schools for the cost of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) teachers – a ground-breaking program we fought for and obtained in last year’s state budget that now needs to be funded at much higher levels.
Just last week, Ronald S. Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress, penned an op-ed in The New York Times entitled “Israel’s Self-Inflicted Wounds.” In it, Mr. Lauder argued that Israel was “capitulating” to “religious extremists”; that Israel was alienating a large segment of the Jewish People – particularly millennials in the United States – who were distancing themselves from Israel because its policies contradicted their values. The results, Lauder contended, were “assimilation, alienation and a severe erosion of the global Jewish community’s affinity for the Jewish homeland.”
How sad that a preeminent Jewish leader has so conflated cause and effect. Assimilation, intermarriage, disaffection are the results of Jewish illiteracy. The research has demonstrated clearly and repeatedly that Jewish literacy and religious identity not only prevent intermarriage and assimilation, but are the most significant determinant of emotional attachment to Israel. In short, “Vehigadita levinchah” is central to the Seder because it is a prescription for the strength and everlasting survival of the Jewish people.
Vehi Sheamda – In Our Generation
The Haggadah tells the story of our enslavement at the outset of our national narrative. But throughout that period, we were heartened by a promise, “Vehi Sheamda Laavoteinu” – the promise that we will be G-d’s chosen people; that we will once again be looked up to as a beacon of light to the nations. That we will once again offer our own success to better mankind and the world and bring glory to G-d’s name in doing so.
But amidst the recognition of G-d’s role for the Jewish people, we likewise acknowledge “shebechol dor vador omdim oleinu lechaloteinu – that in every generation they rise up to destroy us. We can never rest in total comfort; we must remain alert and vigilant to focus on the dangers that face us, both from a physical and spiritual standpoint.
I recently participated in the annual mission of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. This year, our mission took us to the United Arab Emirates (Abu Dhabi and Dubai) and briefly to Jordan. It is true “shebechol dor vador omdim oleinu lechaloteinu” – but it is equally true that “Hakadosh Baruch Hu matzileinu meyadom.”
It was not that long ago, certainly in meta-historical terms, that Israel was surrounded by enemies on every side. Today, relationships with Egypt are at an all-time high, and the recently-announced natural gas sale heralds an era of further enhanced economic cooperation. Relations with Jordan meanwhile are peaceful, despite constant public anti-Israel sentiments and anti-Semitic vitriol from the street.
My visit to the UAE was truly mind-boggling. There is growing respect for – one might even say dependence on – the Israeli counterweight to Iranian-exported terrorism and instability in the region. “My enemy’s enemy is my friend” has found new meaning in the regional realignment that pervades the new Middle East.
While it remains true that in every generation there are forces bent on our destruction, it is equally the case that the Guardian of Israel determines a path – sometimes visible and often opaque – to defend and protect us. Yetziat Mitzrayim manifests itself in every generation. Our obligation is to realize that it does.
Bedamayich Chayi – Pesach and Brit Milah
The verse “Va’omar lach bedamayich chayi, va’omar lach bedamayich chayi” is an enigmatic one. According to the Mechilta, its significance is that it mentions blood twice – alluding both to the covenantal blood of circumcision and to the Korban Pesach.
Recently, I had the occasion to meet with the ambassador of Iceland to the United States to discuss legislation pending in Iceland’s Parliament criminalizing circumcision. While the Jewish population of Iceland is tiny (fewer than 200 Jews), the import of such a proposed ban on other countries in Europe would be profound. As I endeavored to make clear to the ambassador the importance of circumcision to the Jewish people globally, my thoughts kept returning to this verse – recited at every brit, and repeated at the seder as testament to an eternal covenant with the Almighty that cannot, and will not, ever be broken.
Hallel – Appreciation for the Past, Hope for the Future
The climax of the Haggadah is Hallel. So much of the Haggadah revolves around our expression of thanks to G-d for his miracles and kindness. In fact, a large passage that we read as part of the Haggadah is actually an exegesis of the verses that were recited when bringing Bikkurim to the Beit HaMikdash. Those verses told the story of how we were once enslaved but now bring the first fruits of our labor.
As its name implies, the Seder reflects an order – an agenda, so to speak, for the evening’s celebration. But on a deeper level, the Seder reflects a more cosmic order – G-d’s divine plan, working its way through history. An eternal pathway, a sequence of divinely-inspired events, masterminded by HaKadosh Baruch Hu, leading us from darkness to light, from slavery to freedom, from profane to holy, from exile to redemption.
In a world filled with confusion, overcome by trials and challenges, G-d creates a “seder.” It is the story of the Jewish people through the ages, and the blueprint for a glorious future. “Vehigadita levinchah” mandates the transmission of that story – the tribulations and the triumphs – that will lead us to the ultimate redemption.
A freilechen Pesach to all.