What is the main point of having a Seder? Tonight, I want to
challenge the idea that the seder held primarily so that we can remember the
Exodus from Egypt. Despite the fact that our Haggadah says that we are
obligated to tell about the Exodus from Egypt, and that “the more one tells the
story of the Exodus from Egypt the more one is to be praised” I’m not so sure
that the main purpose of having a seder is to tell the story and remember our
First, we never actually tell the story of the Exodus from
Egypt in our Haggadah. There is no mention of the main protagonist of the
Exodus story, Moses, in all of the Haggadah. How can one tell the story of the
Exodus from Egypt while leaving out the central character of that very story!
Chronologically, we read tell the story of our oppression, how we were slaves
in Egypt, how God sent plagues against the Egyptians and so forth, but we never
read about the Jewish people leaving Egypt! We never read about them crossing
the Red Sea. We are told that God brought us out of Egypt, but we never read
about the drama associated with it. True, the Exodus from Egypt is referred to,
but it is not actually told.
Second, why do we need a Seder to remind us of the Exodus
from Egypt? Every morning, and every evening, we are reminded of the Exodus
from Egypt in our prayers. Every Friday night when we recite kiddush we say
that the Shabbat is “Zecher litsiat mitsrayim”, it is a remembrance of the
Exodus from Egypt. In fact, remembering the Exodus from Egypt is an obligation
that is met through the daily ritual of prayer, specifically in the mention of
the Exodus from Egypt in the third paragraph of the Shema that we recite daily,
morning and evening.
Rather than remembering the Exodus from Egypt, I think the
main purpose of the Seder is to teach our children to remember that they are
Jewish. The Seder is a vehicle toward creating and implanting indelible Jewish
memories into the minds of our children. The Seder is all about connecting children
to their parents and grandparents and from there to an awareness that our
lineage stretches all the way back to Abraham and Sarah.
What our children do with those memories, no parent can
control. Whether those memories determine how adult children live their lives
is beyond the reach of parents. Our children need to live their own lives. Whether,
and how, their lives unfold Jewishly we cannot determine. Yet, if we do our job
properly, our children will need to struggle with their Jewish identity as adults
even as they may submerge it. Here is a remarkable story that illustrates just
how that played out in one man’s life:
A Black African woman and a White European rabbi stand before
the grave of Walter Galler, born in London in 1885. The grave is in a Christian
cemetery in Namibia, Africa. The African woman is his widow. “He would be so happy
to know that a rabbi was visiting his grave,” the woman said, tears in her
eyes. The rabbi examines the tombstone. He notices some strange markings carved
above the name. On closer examination, he sees that these are Hebrew letters, written
upside down, and reading from left to right instead of right to left. He looks closer,
and sees that the letters spell out the words, “Kasher le Pesach” – Kosher for
The woman explained that her husband had come from London
many years ago. They married but he never said anything about his being Jewish.
It was only on his deathbed that he told her that he was Jewish and that he
wanted that acknowledged at his grave.
He took out a box of Matzah that he had kept for years but
had never opened. It was the only Jewish item in his possession. He pointed to
the Hebrew words on the box – Kasher for Pesakh – and said, “Please engrave
this on my tombstone.” Those were his last words.
No matter how far this man travelled, physically and
psychologically, he could not forget that he was Jewish. Memory is a huge thing.
Here we have an entire holiday designed to instill Jewish memories. Memories
that we will carry with us the rest of our lives. Through these memories can
recall warm connections with parents, family and friends, no matter how far we
have travelled from them; memories that can guide us, inspire us, and even
haunt us. The memories that we take from our Seder can play a crucial role in
shaping who we become and how we relate to the world.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach