The effort and hard work preparing for the Passover seder culminates with the commemoration of our historic exodus from Egypt and thanking the Divine for His kindness.
Throughout our history, the annual rite has been observed despite difficult periods for our People. Against all odds, and improvised under harsh conditions, we've always strived to conduct the ceremony properly.
An exhibit now touring the country, "From the mountains to the prairie: 350 years of Kosher & Jewish life in America" includes the poignant accounts of two Civil War servicemen. Though political enemies one was a Northerner and the other a Southerner as Jews, they both persevered to observe Z'man Chayruseinu, the season of our freedom, when doing so seemed an impossibility.
In the Spring of 1862, J.A. Joel, a member of the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Regiment, was stationed in what is now West Virginia. Four years later, in an article in The Jewish Messenger, he described the scene when he and twenty other Jews in the regiment were relieved from duty to be able to hold a Seder.
The camp supplier, who was traveling to Cincinnati, had provided the Jewish soldiers with seven barrels of matzah, two Haggados and prayer books.
But that was it.
One group of the young men built a log hut to serve as a temporary sanctuary for the service. Another was sent off to forage for more supplies. They returned with cider instead of wine, a lamb, chickens and eggs. Missing, though, were the traditional horseradish or parsley integral seder ingredients.
"In lieu we found a weed, whose bitterness, I apprehend, exceeded anything our forefathers 'enjoyed,'" writes Joel.
They were unable to make charoses, the sweet mixture representing the mortar used by the Israelites to build the pyramids in Egypt. So, Joel recounts wryly, "we got a brick which, rather hard to digest, reminded us, by looking at it, for what purpose it was intended."
Everything went well until it came time to eat the substitute bitter herb. "The herb was very bitter and fiery like Cayenne pepper," he writes. The celebrants gulped down the cider, which was apparently hard and had its effect. "One thought he was Moses, another Aaron, and one had the audacity to call himself Pharaoh. The consequence was a skirmish, with nobody hurt."
Moses, Aaron and Pharaoh were carried back to camp to sleep it off.
"There in the wilds of West Virginia, away from home and friends," Joel states prouldly, if not deservedly, "we consecrated and offered up to the ever-loving G-d of Israel our prayers and sacrifice."
Isaac J. Levy, of the 46th Virginia Infantry, was stationed at Adams Run, S.C., in 1864. In a letter to his sister, he described observing Passover with his brother, Ezekiel, a captain, who arrived for the holiday with enough matzah to last a week.
"We are observing the festival in a truly Orthodox style. On the first day we had a fine vegetable soup. It was made of a bunch of vegetables which Zeke brought from Charleston containing new onions, parsley, carrots turnips and a young cauliflower also a pound and a half of fresh (kosher) beef, the latter article sells for four dollars per pound in Charleston. Zeke E. did not bring us any meat from home. He brought some of his own, smoked meat, which he is sharing with us, he says that he supposes that Pa forgot to deliver it to him."
These descriptions are timely because of their timelessness. The memoirs are picturesque as they depict the Jewish soul's yearning to relive Yetzias Mitzraim, the Exodus
These historical riveting anecdotes embody the seder's mystique and should have an important message for us, now: Somehow the interrogative dialogue surrounding the Four Questions retains its vitality no matter where it takes place. Three millennia later, the zeitgeist of the miraculous Exodus from Egypt is recaptured each year in every day and age.
What is it that underscores this phenomenon?
The Haggadah comments of the Jews' experience in Egypt that they were distinguishable as a nation apart. Their style of dress and language differed than those of their host country. Our sages further comment that even in the fleshpot of Egypt, the Israelites observed the mitzvos, the precepts handed down orally from their forefathers, preserving their identity.
This is a precursor for the Jewish experience. The Torah inspires that those who remember their glorious past are destined to repeat its success, for a Supreme Entity ensures Jewish continuity.
West Virginia circa 1862 and Adams Run, South Carolina, are a case in point. The United States was largely terra incognita for most Jews. Yet these dedicated individuals brought the homefront to the warfront to uphold their traditions.
In a signature phrase, the Haggadda narrative declares: "One who expounds on the Exodus story at length is meshubach", praiseworthy. The classic commentators remark that by incorporating the lessons of the miraculous Exodus into one's personality, one becomes a better individual, as he discusses how the One Above charts the course of human events for all of civilization.
The seder night carries the day; like the High Holidays, it leaves its mark on the remainder of the year. Indeed, a story is told of a guest who once graced the table of Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner. Inadvertently, he spilled some wine on the pristine white tablecloth. It was an awkward moment. But with his sagacious counsel, the sage put the guest at ease. "Feel at home," said he. "A tablecloth Passover night without any droplets of wine is like a Yom Kippur machzor (prayer book) without any tears."
The seder is a table of contents that infuses us with hope from the past to believe in the future. He Who performed miracles long ago will sound the shofar as we hail the clarion call, "Next Year in Jerusalem."