A Night of Reflection
Rabbanit Sally Mayer, Rosh Midrasha of the Maria and Joel Finkle Overseas Program at Midreshet Lindenbaum
When we think about the seder night, our first thought often relates to the hard labor of cleaning and cooking that precedes it – perhaps yet another way in which we taste the bitterness of slavery, aside from eating maror and tasting the saltwater tears on the karpas. But after thoughts of our modern-day “slavery” pass, we inevitably think of the symbols of the evening, and the mitzvah of telling the story of the exodus from Egypt at the seder. The seder is full of “fours” – four questions, cfour cups, four languages of redemption, and the four sons, based the Torah’s description of the mitzvah of telling the story in four different places. What is the message of each of these four commandments to tell the story? I’d like to suggest that each passage offers us a different emphasis on the story of the redemption from Egypt, and a different message for us to incorporate into our mindset for the rest of the year.
The first passage is found in Shemot 12:25-27, and there the Torah predicts that when the Jewish people arrive in the land of Israel, and we offer the korban Pesach, our children will ask – what is this observance? The Torah instructs us to answer: “It is a Pesach sacrifice to Hashem, for He passed over the houses of the Jewish people in Egypt; when he was smiting Egypt, He spared our homes.” What is the main message here? That the Jewish people were and are God’s chosen nation; He cares about us and protects us. Pesach is the anniversary of our being chosen, of Hashem’s taking out “a nation from within a nation.”
In the second passage, Shemot 13:5-8, we are teaching our children not about the sacrifice, but about the requirement to eat matzah and refrain from chametz for seven days. The passage emphasizes: “When Hashem brings you to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Emorites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey . . . for seven days you shall eat matzah . . .And you shall tell your child on that day, ‘Because of this Hashem did for me when I left Egypt.’” What do we mean, “because of this”? Perhaps after God brings us to a land of milk and honey, of richness and wealth, we are commanded to remember where we came from. We eat the poor person’s bread, so that we can appreciate the extent to which we are dependent on Hashem’s beneficence.
In the third case (Shemot 13:14-15), our children want to know why we offer our first-born animals to Hashem and why we must redeem our first-born sons through a pidyon haben. The answer: Hashem killed all first-borns in Egypt, and therefore I owe all of my first-borns to Him. The message of giving our firsts to God is one of hakarat hatov, of appreciation for what God has done and continues to do for us. We owe our lives and our freedom to Him, and as a small token, we offer Him our first-borns.
The fourth passage, found much later in the Torah (Devarim 6:20-25), puts an even more sweeping question into the mouths of our children: “What are the laws, statutes, and rules that Hashem your God commanded you?” In short, why do you keep the Torah? We are to answer that we were once slaves to Pharoah, and God took us out with great miracles and brought us here, as He promised. He gave us these commandments “so that it will be good for us forever, and to keep us alive as we are today.” Keeping the Torah is our obligation to God because He took us out of Egypt, but at the same time it is also good for us, and it will train us to be upstanding, moral, and spiritual people.
When we step back and consider these different passages, we see that they emphasize the core values of our religion: the notion that we have a special relationship with Hashem – that He loves us and cares for us; the recognition that all that we have comes from Hashem and that we must appreciate all of His blessings in our lives; and that the observance of the Torah is both our obligation and our privilege. These messages were relevant to Am Yisrael at the time of the Torah and still resonate with us today as we think about them and try to internalize them. May this seder night be an opportunity for all of us to raise, discuss and reflect on these messages with our families and friends.