JWR Pesach
April 1, 1998 / 5 Nissan, 5758

Seder Night The Pesach night

The Seder as a means of reliving the Exodus experience

By Dr. Isaac Breuer

EVERY YEAR, there returns a night in the life of the Jews that is set aside for the Jewish father to explain to his children the meaning of being a Jew.

This night is pervaded by the spirit of a living nation of indestructible vitality. There resounds in it the sad plaint of a nation tried by suffering, surrounded by enemies; the proud triumphal song of a nation never defeated, outlasting all peoples and empires; and the hymn of praise of a nation close to its G-d, happy in misfortune, certain of its future. He knows the nature of Judaism who has grasped the meaning of this night: the Pesach night, the national night of Judaism.

The father gathers his children around the table. On it, is unleavened bread, which our ancestors ate when they fled Egypt, a remembrance of the swift manner which our forbears exited, so quick that the bread they were hoping to bring for their journey didn't even have time to rise. Also there, are the bitter herbs, as bitter as the bondage in which Pharaoh had held our ancestors; all the family silver, some of which the Jews never lacked since they took that of the Egyptians into the desert. The questioning glance of the children passes over the table, bathed in candle-light, and appeals to the father: "What does all of this mean?" And the father begins to tell them, according to the words of the Haggadah, the ancient document of national freedom: "We were Pharaoh's slaves in Egypt, and G-d, our G-d, brought us forth from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm: and if the Holy One, Blessed is He, had not brought forth our ancestors from Egypt, we, and our children and children's children, would have still continued in bondage to the Pharaoh in Egypt. Therefore, even if we all were wise, all of us men of understanding and experience, all of us knowing the Law, it, nevertheless, is incumbent upon us to discourse of the departure from Egypt, and he who discourses at length is praiseworthy."

The Exodus from Egypt is not, to the Jewish nation, a legendary tale from ages long passed by. It's a historical certainty born from our own experience. It is as a witness to its truth that the father stands before his children this night ... he who heard it from the mouth of his father, closing the chain which across thousands of years, links the slaves of the Egyptians to their youngest descendants.

"In every generation the Jew has to look upon himself as if he himself had gone forth from Egypt; as is said: "And you shall declare unto your son, on that day, saying that for the sake of this (Pesach service) G-d did this for me when I departed from Egypt." For it was not only our ancestors whom the Holy One, Blessed is He, redeemed from Egypt but us, too, He redeemed with them; as is said: 'And He brought us from there, that He might bring us to the land which He swore unto our fathers'."

It is from his own experiences that the father tells his children. He does not speak to them as an individual, weak and mortal, but as representative of the nation, bearer of its national history, demanding from them the loyalty to be expected, not by him, indeed, but by the nation looking to its members. Woe unto the child who turns away in this night of national reflection, in a spirit of superiority, objecting to the unleavened bread and the bitter herbs: "What does this service, which may have made sense for your ancestors, mean to you!" -- To you and not to him! As he withdraws himself from the nation, you, too, should exclude him, as is said: 'For the sake of this (Pesach service) G-d did this for me when I departed from Egypt' -- for me but not for him: had he been in Egypt he, in his disloyalty, would not have been redeemed...."

We were redeemed by G-d from Egypt, and turned by Him from slaves into a nation because we were willing to shoulder the Law. "Blessed is G-d, who has given the Law unto His people Israel; Blessed is He." Those who deny the Law make themselves in retrospect unworthy of redemption.

Remember, children, we are not a nation like others. Who knows how they arose? They are borne by the natural conditions of survival. They revere the soil which nourishes them, the sun which gives them light, the strength which protects them. We, however, look at Terach, father of Abraham and Nachor. He dwelt "across the river"; there he stayed, sharing with Nachor the fate of the nations. Abraham, your father, however, was led by G-d from across the river into Canaan. Of his descendants, Esau was given the mountain of Seir, and Jacob and his sons came to Egypt.

While Esau's descendants were already kings of Seir, hatred and envy enslaved us in Egypt, turning us into a horde of people without rest and rights. "And the Egyptians ill-treated us, afflicted us, and laid heavy bondage upon us." We did not know how to help ourselves for theirs was the power and strength. According to the laws of history, we were goners. There was nothing left to us but the G-d of our fathers. "Then we cried unto G-d, the G-d of our fathers; and G-d heard our voice, and observed our affliction, our labor, and our oppression. And G-d brought us forth from Egypt, with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm, with terror, and with signs and wonders."

Favor after favor G-d has heaped upon us ever since: "He brought us forth from Egypt, inflicted justice upon the Egyptians and their idols and firstborn, gave us their wealth, divided the sea for us, brought us to Mount Sinai, gave us the Law, ... brought us into the land of Israel, and built the Holy Temple for us, to make atonement for our sins ..."

In Egypt, by our readiness to accept the Divine Law, we became a nation, G-d's nation, even though we had neither land nor state. Our transgressions have robbed us of Temple, state, and land. Ever since then, like in Egypt, we "have enemies [who've] arisen against us to destroy us, generation after generation; but the Holy One, Blessed is He, delivered us out of their hand ... ": for we still remain G-d's nation, as long as we guard His Law. G-d keeps His pledge to our father Abraham; "It was this which always stood by our ancestors and us" and which will lead us back into the land that G-d swore unto our forefathers.

Hallelujah! Join in the Jewish national anthem, sung by King David in his hymn to the Divine government of history! History belongs to us, and so does the future. In Egypt we vanquished the death that befalls nations. At Sinai we received the light which, wherever we are, turns bondage into freedom, sorrow into joy, mourning into holidays, darkness into great light --- Hallelujah!"

He who has ever lived through this Pesach night, and has entered into its spirit, cannot doubt the Jews are a nation. This night is dedicated to the children -- that they, physically born in Russia, England, Iran, or anywhere else-- complete their spiritual birth upon Israel's holy ground. There is no mention, on this night, of dogmas, nor of the mystery of a founder of a religion living in communion with G-d. We speak of history this night, of the history of a nation.

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, whom dry theology would turn into myths, arise before the eyes of the child as vividly as if it had only been yesterday that they blessed their children and lay down to rest in the cave of Machpelah. While scholars quarrel whether the Jews were, indeed, enslaved by Pharaoh, the Jewish child eats the bread of Egyptian affliction together with his ancestors, tastes the bitterness of their bondage, and joins with them in the national hymn of praise that Moses intoned at the shore of the sea. A fine distinction between the traditional and secular Jew is drawn by profound scholars; what does it mean in the face of the unity of consciousness which links the youngest Jew of today with Moses and the prophets, with David and Solomon's Temple? There is no Jewish "religion" at all, in the ordinary sense of the word, but only a national history. To be a conscious Jew, means to have experienced Jewish history, and to dedicate one's entire self to it, to become its bearer, and creator of its future.

Judaism does not -- in the manner of religions -- aim to gain acceptance by "convincing" the individual, but by giving him as the member of a nation, historical self-consciousness: "You are my witnesses!" exclaims the prophet, Isaiah. The mere fact of your existence, here and now, is meaningless if you do not accept your past. Only one choice is left to you: If you affirm your history, it will give you a sense of being at home even abroad, the pride of a historic mission, and the triumphant confidence in ultimate redemption which you yourself will help to bring about; if, however, you withdraw from the historic sphere into which you were born, you will fall amidst the multitude of nations, without past or future, hammered and beaten, trodden down and crushed, until you cover the ground -- dust of culture.

The late Dr. Isaac Breuer, is considered the spiritual heir of his grandfather, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, and was recognized as a leading thinker and ideologist of Torah Jewry during the mid- 20th Century.


© 1998, Jewish World Review