In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What is the meaning of the laws, stipulations, and rules that the Eternal Our God has commanded us?’ You shall say to them, ‘We were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt and the Eternal freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand.’”
– Deuteronomy 6:20-21
Passover, or Pesach, our holiday of redemption and remembrance, is our opportunity to fulfill the Torah’s commandment to pass the laws, customs, and teachings of our tradition along to future generations. Pesach is one of the few holidays on the Jewish calendar intended to be celebrated outside of the synagogue. As Jews, we know that any important holiday by necessity must include a festive meal. I believe the common phrase is, “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.” The Passover Seder actively enacts this central theme of hope for redemption in the face of oppression and provides a prime example of a form of Jewish holiday observance that follows its stated format. However, Pesach also represents a unique freedom for innovation and creativity that has allowed it to remain a central holiday in the Jewish annual cycle.
As we move through the Haggadah, we come to learn how each aspect of the meal symbolically represents the Exodus story. One of the primary strategies of the Haggadic material is a dialectical method, which likely stems from the passage from Deuteronomy cited above. Why is this night different from all other nights? Why do we eat different things and in a particular order? All of these questions allow the opportunity to teach and learn from the experiences of our ancestors.
We often forget that the uniqueness of our meal is the reenactment of the symbolic meal discussed by the Rabbinic Sages of Late Antiquity. The original format of the Passover Seder follows the same structure as meals from the Greco-Roman world at this time. This can be seen in the preservation of the Greek word, afikoman, as part of the later-consolidated Jewish ritual. When initially conceived, the Seder described in the Mishna sought to replace the Passover sacrifice originally offered in the Temple through a symbolic meal. By having a special meal with roasted meat, matzot, and bitter herbs, the meal fulfilled the ritual requirements of the Passover sacrifice as stipulated in Exodus. Their consolidation of this meal, and its script, is what we reenact each year in our own homes.
In this sense, each Passover we reenact a symbolic meal, which itself sought to represent and fulfill the obligation to offer a Pesach sacrifice. This teaches us that as time passes, each generation has the freedom to adapt and innovate their Passover Seders in ways that both transmit the teachings and experience of our ancestors and allows us to apply our learning to our particular historical situation.
This Passover, may we share in the freedom of past generations and intentionally bring our own experiences, struggles, and creativity to the Passover table in order to better learn about ourselves and the challenges of our own times. How might we see the oppression Egypt in our own lives? And how might the message of hope allow us to see the possibility for redemption? By engaging in these questions, we fulfill our obligation to our heritage to learn, and to teach.