From Past to Future – They Say There's Still Hope | Special Dvar Torah for Passover
By Yael Hirsch-Biderman
There are two pillars that form the foundation of the Passover Seder: remembering the past ("a memory of the Exodus from Egypt – זכר ליציאת מצרים"), and renewing that memory for future generations ("and you shall tell your child – והגדת לבנך").
These pillars move us between past and present, with the Passover Seder at their base – trying to hold the connection between the two through a ritual aimed at meaningful intergenerational transmission, while "Pesach, matza and maror" sit before us as central symbols, through which we must tell our shared story.
Similarly, we can understand the story of the four sons, which took on different shapes and understandings over the years. This story also expresses the educational understanding that we must prepare ourselves for different kinds of learners on Seder night, and that we cannot just build one lesson plan and hope that all children will connect to it.
And still, the question must be asked: how do you begin to transmit the memory of a people? What is really important for us to transmit to our children at the Seder table? What is the power of collective memory in this context, and is this not too heavy a burden to place on our shoulders as adults, and an information overload for the children?
On Pesach it is traditional to read passages from Exodus 12:21-51, which describe the commandment of the Passover sacrifice, moments before the departure from Egypt: "Moses then summoned all the elders of Israel and said to them, ‘Go, pick out lambs for your families, and slaughter the Passover offering’” (Exodus 12:21). This is a description of the last moments of the children of Israel in Egypt, just before they departed for the long journey through the desert. But where does the story actually begin?
"A man wakes up in the morning and feels he is a people, and begins to walk.” (Shlomo Artzi)
The Book of Exodus presents us with two beginnings – one is our becoming a people, and the other is the birth of Moses.
The birth of the people is described in the following verses:
"But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them. A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, 'Look, the People of the Children of Israel [עם בני ישראל] are much too numerous for us'" (Exodus 1:7-9).
This description clearly recalls the creation of Adam in the book of Genesis and the commandment to "be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and master it." Simultaneously, these verses reflect additional ingredients for the creation of a people. For example, the migration to Egypt is what gives the family of Jacob's offspring the look and shape of a people. Similarly, it is Pharaoh who, by seeing in "the People of the Children of Israel" a threat and trying to constrain their reproduction, gives the people a name and establishes it from his external perspective. This is the very first time in the Bible that the Children of Israel are referred to as a people or nation [עם].
The second beginning is told in the biblical account as a personal and family story – the story of Moses's birth. The Bible describes the birth in brief:
"A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months" (Exodus 2:1-2).
Many interpretations of the biblical account have transformed this private birth into a much more dramatic event. For example, Josephus describes Moses's birth as follows:
"While the affairs of the Hebrews were in this condition, there was this occasion offered itself to the Egyptians, which made them more solicitous for the extinction of our nation. One of those sacred scribes, who are very sagacious in foretelling future events truly, told the king, that about this time there would a child be born to the Israelites, who, if he were reared, would bring the Egyptian dominion low, and would raise the Israelites; that he would excel all men in virtue, and obtain a glory that would be remembered through all ages. Which thing was so feared by the king, that, according to this man's opinion, he commanded that they should cast every male child, which was born to the Israelites, into the river, and destroy it; that besides this, the Egyptian midwives should watch the labors of the Hebrew women, and observe what is born…" (Josephus Flavius, Antiquities of the Jews 2:9:2)."
That same seer in Pharaoh's court made a clear connection between the birth of Moses and Pharaoh's decrees for the entire people. We have before us, then, two stages: the threat of Pharaoh on the one hand, and the influence on the people on the other. These two stages express Josephus's intention to present a depiction that highlights Moses even before he was born. In other words, Josephus's intention is to connect between the personal story (Moses) and his commitment to his people.
The birth of Moses, closely tied to the birth of "the People of the Children of Israel," returns us to the Seder table and the connection between "the memory of the exodus from Egypt – זכר ליציאת מצרים," and the injunction, "you shall tell your child – והגדת לבנך."
On Passover, we are called upon to create connections between our personal story and the communal, societal and national stories, so that they may be meaningful for us and, moreover, that they may be meaningful for our children. We must see ourselves as having personally left Egypt, but more importantly, we must consider what echoes of slavery and freedom are present in our midst.
"And you shall tell your child," symbolizes our responsibility to create the appropriate and precise connections between our past and our future. As responsible adults, as parents and as educators, our role is to ensure the transmission of the story and its message.
One of the questions that we must ask ourselves before "the telling," (or, in Hebrew, the haggadah – הגדה), is what we need in order to tell the story. What process must we undergo each year in order to come to the Seder focused and prepared for this important responsibility? What connections to we need to make in order to move seamlessly between the broader Jewish collective memory and our familial unit? How can we act as role models for the next generations, while also clarifying the messages during the Seder? On the Seder night, we traditionally open the door for the prophet Elijah, so that he may come in. But in my mind, it is no less important to open the windows of our homes to see what is happening outside. It is not enough merely to create connections with "the memory of the exodus from Egypt," and the education of our children. Part of this process also requires a collective understanding of reality, so that we might equip the next generation not only with collective memory, but also with meaningful action, tikkun olam, and social justice, "in memory of the exodus from Egypt."
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