In 1947, David Ben Gurion famously said at the United Nations: “Three hundred years ago a ship called The Mayflower left for the new world … Is there a single Englishman who knows the exact date and hour of the Mayflower’s launch … do they know how many people were in the boat? Their names? What they wore? What they ate? … More than 3 300 years before the Mayflower set sail, the Jews left Egypt. Any Jewish child, whether in America or Russia, Yemen or Germany, knows that his forefathers left Egypt at dawn on the 15th of Nissan … Their belts were tied and their staffs were in their hands. They ate matzot and arrived at the Red Sea after seven days … Jews worldwide still eat matzah for seven days from the 15th of Nissan, and retell the story of the Exodus, concluding with a fervent wish ‘Next year in Jerusalem’. This is the nature of the Jewish people.”
It is at the Pesach seder that these powerful facts of Jewish history are relayed – the facts which lay the foundation for our vision and values contained in the Torah and expressed through the mitzvot. The Pesach seder has a special place in the hearts of Jews across the world. More than eighty percent of Jews in Israel participate in some form of Pesach seder; and in South Africa the figure is more than ninety percent. The power of the Pesach seder goes way beyond statistics. The seder is in our hearts because it is at the heart of Judaism and the future of the Jewish people, it is that time of the year when one generation hands over to the next the history, vision and values of what it means to be a Jew.
How does the seder ensure that the facts and values of our Divine mission are conveyed from one generation to the next? The clue is the “mah nishtanah” – the famous four questions. If you look carefully in the haggadah, you will find that these questions are not answered immediately, and some are only answered indirectly. The inescapable conclusion is that in a certain fundamental sense the questions are more important than the answers and that the Pesach seder is not merely a history lesson dictating dry facts to the new generation. The questions symbolise an active and lively interaction, which aims to nurture an open and loving atmosphere. The seder is a dynamic dialogue, not a monologue, because it is conveying the very essence of who we are and what our purpose is on earth. G-d has designed the seder to be a space and a forum where the facts, values and vision of Judaism are transmitted from one generation to the next in the context of the bonds of love.
The Pesach seder with its potential to uplift and inspire families can be a model for Jewish life in general. It is in the hearts of so many Jews across the globe because we intuitively understand its vital importance for a vibrant Jewish future. The seder is a call to Jewish families for how to live our lives. It teaches us all how we need to make time and space for one another in order to discuss and to debate the most important dimensions of what it means to be a Jew. Just as on the seder night when families sit together to discuss the big ideas of what it means to be a Jew, so too can we do that all year round, making time for each other. Let’s do it at the Shabbat table and during the week by learning Torah together. Let the dynamic conversations continue beyond the seder. Let families talk to each other, discussing and understanding what it means to be a Jew, our values, our faith, who we are, where we come from, our faith, our values, our vision for the future.
Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein
Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein is the chief rabbi of South Africa and the founder of The Shabbat Project.