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SIDIC Periodical XXX - 1997/1
The Passover Seder (Pages 03 - 07)

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The Meaning of the Passover Seder for a Jew living in Israel
Rabbi Dr. Pesach Schindler



Among the many curiosities of the Pesach (Passover) ritual are the traditions which have developed as pedagogic devices, simple and practical. Since the Passover Seder (literally, “the order”) of the liturgy, which is long and involved, must be simultaneously transmitted as the Passover message to the young generation (Ex. 12:26; 13:8-10; 14) it is necessary to keep them awake and aware.

Among these charming “stimuli” are the well known lyrics and melody of Dayenu (“It would have been enough”), which appears in the middle of the first part of the Seder evening. Of course, one who is engrossed in the melody and not attentive to the lyrics would not suspect that there are many theological time bombs hidden in the text. Among the many paradoxes within the fourteen point stanza is the strange statement, “Had the Lord only directed us to Mount Sinai but not given us the Torah, it would have been enough.” A further enigma: “Had the Lord given us the Torah, and not brought us into the Land of Israel, it would have been enough.” In an earlier stanza: “Had the Lord split the sea for us, but not brought us through the desert, it would have been enough.” Among the various explanations - which are constantly encouraged around the Seder table - are at least two possibilities: 1) Do not take any of these poetic problematics too seriously. After all, they are actually intended to hold the attention of the young generation. 2) Children aside, we have some very serious theology here. In fact, it says in a nutshell: Each miracle, no matter how minor, stands on its own since it connects the human being to Divine Providence. And just as each heartbeat is cause for “radical amazement” (Heschel), each minor miracle described in this Seder ditty stands on its own.

However, for the purpose of this presentation, our thesis will stand contrary to the statement: “Had the Lord given us the Torah but not brought us into the Land of Israel, it would have been sufficient.”

This thesis is based on a very subjective but clear recall of my own childhood Seder experiences in the Munich, Germany of the 1930s, and subsequently of my later childhood in New York City. There is no question that our parents, consciously or unconsciously, with the arrival and the very supportive presence of the Haggadah liturgy kindled within us a religious Zionist philosophy on the installment plan. Each year of the Passover cycle we would once again be sensitized to a pedagogical and ideological reinforcement of the message that, despite Dayenu, the Exodus was not an end in itself but a means towards striking emotional and theological Zionist roots into our impressionistic make-up.

This brief treatment will attempt to explore for the reader the process whereby the surrogate Seder experience prepares one for Eretz Yisrael, and, once there, enhances the very presence in the Holy Land.

Entry into the Promised Land is anticipated and sharpened at the very genesis of the Exodus:
“The Israelites groaning under the bondage cry out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God; God heard their moaning and God remembered - His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” (Exodus 2:23-24) The Covenant which may even have been remote to Moses, struggling with the pagan influences of Egypt, is then reiterated in very clear terms: “Yes, I am mindful of their sufferings. I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians and to bring them out of that land to a good and spacious land - a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Exodus 3:7-8) And at the momentous theophany of the burning bush: “Go and assemble the elders of Israel and say to them: The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, has appeared to me and said: I have taken note of you and what is being done to you in Egypt. And I have declared: I will take you out of the misery of Egypt to the Land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, to a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Exodus 3:16-17)

The equation of bondage leading to national redemption echoes beyond the Pentateuchal tradition: “And say to them, Thus said the Lord, the God of Israel: ‘Cursed be the man who will not obey the terms of this Covenant which I enjoined upon your fathers when I freed them from the land of Egypt, the iron crucible, saying, Obey Me and observe them just as I command you, that you may be My people and I may be your ‘God' in order to fulfill the oath which I swore to your fathers, to give them a land flowing with milk and honey, as is now the case.' And I responded, ‘Amen, Lord.' ” (Jeremiah 11:3-5)

Biblical and prophetic statements, however, would not always suffice to implant a strong redemptive drive and passion merely by incorporating scriptural adjurations. Neither can symbolism and imagery remain trapped indefinitely within their self-imposed exile. Imagery could only contain the potential. Specific and concrete traditions would have to evolve from a praxis (mitzvot) of the Jewish people. Hence, following the destruction of the temple during various periods of exile and Diaspora, the faithful remnant would have to develop lifelines of hope that would have to be strengthened and reinforced anew in every generation.


The ultimate return of the people to its land accompanied by the Shechinah (God's presence), who also retruns from her exile having accompanied its people during periods of darkness, is now embedded in Jewish tradition. (B. Megillah 29a) The Temple rite, no longer possible, is transposed to liturgy and prayer. (B. Berachot 32a; Jer. Berachot 1:1 4:1; J. Sanhedrin 1:2) Jerusalem becomes the directional compass for Jews everywhere and the Temple Mount the spiritual magnetic - true East, towards which hopes, faith and trust gravitated. (B. Berachot 30a) The bridal couple at the apogee of their joy face Jerusalem under their wedding canopy. In mourning, the comforters incorporate in their greeting: “...among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”

Upon this fertile background the Pesach Seder, radiating restoration and redemption, opens as well as concludes with “Next Year may we be in the Land of Israel.” (Le'Shanah Haba'ah Be'arah De Yisrael - LeShanah Haba'ah Bi'Yerushalayim.)

The historical narrative at the beginning of the Seder immediately contrasts the pagan origins of the Abrahamic clan with the subsequent task of a people guided by a mission, rooted in a land of their own, albeit interspersed with durations of temporary exile. The Seder does not gloss over this exilic and defective period. In fact, the servitude segments of the Hagadah serve as inhibiting factors, moderating tendencies which might otherwise exaggerate the triumphalistic descriptions of Divine miracles and plagues directed at the enemies. Hence the remarkable curtailing of the Hallel Psalms recited during the six of the seven Pesach days in the morning service. Only on the first day of Pesach is the full Hallel recited. The Midrash text, in the name of Rabbi Yohanan, expounding upon the verse in Exodus 14:20 states: “The ministering angels requested to break out in song [of joy at the pending miracle of the redemption from Egypt].” Replied the Holy One, Blessed be He, “My creatures are drowning in the sea and you wish to sing [in praise]?” (B. Talmud Megillah 10b)

Lest the anticipation of a sumptuous meal towards the close of the first part of the Seder distract the participant from the major message, two key passages are introduced: “For the Holy One redeemed not only our ancestors; he redeemed us with them, as it is said: ‘He took us out of there so He might bring us to the land he promised our ancestors.' ” (Deut. 6:23) Immediately prior to drinking the second cup of Redemption, with the wine cup raised the Haggadah passage is read: “Blessed art thou O Lord our God, ruler of the Universe, who has redeemed us and our ancestors from Egypt and enabled us to experience this night when we eat Matzah as well as Bitter Herbs. May You, O Lord our God and God of our Fathers, enable us to celebrate in peace other holidays and festivals, joyful, in the rebuilding of your city, Jerusalem. Happy in being able to participate in your Service. ... O praised are You O Lord, Redeemer of the people, Israel.”
And finally, in the informal concluding part of the Seder, the popular piyutim (liturgical poetry) and their beautiful melodies incorporate in their concluding stanza the longing and hopes of Zion restored, e.g. “...O, lead us soon, the shoots of Your stock, redeemed towards Zion, with joy.”


Prior to our Aliyah to Jerusalem with our family in 1972, the annual Pesach eve experience was viewed from the perspective of an individual Jew (or collections of individual adherents to Jewish tradition). We recited the Haggadah text. We sat at the standard Seder table fulfilling the prescribed rituals, identical to those of our brothers and sisters in Israel. But the mood was one of expectation. The redemptive themes emerging from the Seder rite were as yet, for us as a family in the Diaspora, unfulfilled hopes, as if they were trapped within the symbolic and pedagogic confinements and limits of their own making. At times, the repetitive traditions of a people still in exile would become a substitute for the normative and would short circuit the redemptive elements which were originally meant to serve as active impulses towards a viable national redemption from that very exile. For generations the Seder text “We were once slaves to Pharoah in Egypt” was jammed in our throats since the post-70 C.E. realities represented a mere exchange of limits [e.g. the homiletic reading of Mitzrayim (Egypt)] for other limits.

Aliyah (lit. ascent) signified for us the ascension from one's limited role within the individual domain to the challenge of assuming corporate responsibilities in an era defined by many as hathala d'geu'lah (the beginnings of redemption). It was as if the Seder in Jerusalem had suddenly shaken loose the dust of constraints, which had accumulated unnoticed over the centuries upon the developing complexities of the Seder symbolisms and pedagogies leading to the quietistic spiritualizing of the concrete - from which emerged tragically the substitutive Jerusalems of Poland (Warsaw) and Lithuania (Vilna).

Yet, were it not for these Seder mnemonics during the past two millennia, the latent redemptive spark might have been permanently extinguished. The return of the Jewish people to Jerusalem released those sparks. Expectation now moved to three dimensional reality. The Karpas vegetable, the third of fourteen Seder mnemonics, now took on the realistic dimension of agricultural renewal of spring in Eretz Yisrael. (Pesach is also the Hag Ha'aviv, the Festival of Spring, based on Ex. 13:4, 23:15, 34:18, and Deut. 16:1). These are vegetables which have been sown, planted, harvested and marketed in the springtime of Israel reborn, by Jews who have returned productively to their soil. Nine other segments of the Seder ritual involve agricultural fruits: flour for matzot (unleavened bread), the maror (bitter herbs: romain lettuce or horseradish), grapes for the four cups of wine (identified with the four expressions of Divine redemption in Exodus 6:6-7). Gradually during this past century of Shivat Zion (return to Zion) the quantitative rebirth and blossoming during the Spring-Nissan-Pesach season, some of the corresponding Biblical and Rabbinic mitzvot hatluyot ba'aretz (commandments linked to the Land of Israel) were reinstituted - for example: Ma'aser (tithing - Deut. 14:22-29), shvi'it (the sabbatical year hiatus - Lev. 25:1-7) and Orlah (the forbidden products of fruit trees during the first three and four years of growth - Leviticus 19:23-25). Hence, national autonomy creates within its religious and moral orbit as many responsibilities as it does privileges.


Needless to say, the exhilirating experience of participating in a Seder in Jerusalem is in response to the accumulation of hopes, disappointments, misforturnes and longings which were the lot of a displaced people. One allows oneself to savor the genuine joy of participating at last in the beginnings of redemption.

This small people, having been witness to and participant in so much of the drama on the enduring stage of human history, has learned to temper the excesses of response, whether of joy or of despair. During those early years of aliya, celebrating the Seder in Jerusalem also enhanced the mitzvah of eating the bitter herbs. I recall holding in my hands a facsimile of excerpts from the Haggadah which were written by hand by Jewish children in France during the Shoah who had been forcibly removed from their homes and schools and prepared for transportation to their last destination. The excerpt which stood out more than any other was the kiddush written meticulously in a child's script sanctifying the first of the four cups of wine, which expressly recalls the Exodus from Egypt. Who knows how many of these children were now identifying with their ancestors who had been fated to experience slavery. Most never tasted redemption. The maror of the Jerusalem Seder is a unifying experience across the ages which one can only fathom within the joy of Jerusalem.

This perspective permitted us to re-examine the old-new responsibilities which were once again ours as a sovereign people replanted in its soil. This accountability was already articulated in Israel's covenant with the Divine embedded in the exilic and redemptive dialectic of Egypt:
1) The Responsibility - to the other: the stranger, the slave, the orphan, the widow and the poor, because we were once downtrodden in Egypt. (Exodus 22:20; 23:9; Lev. 19:33-34; Deut. 10:19; 15:15) 2) The Responsibility - which emerges from extended slavery which destroys quality of life and deprives the individual and the group of privacy within time as well as in space, as anticipated in Deut. 5:15. Hence, the Sabbath is born precisely in the limits of Egypt, and so commemorated in the Sabbath and Festival Kiddush. 3) The Responsibility - to God, in expressing human gratitude and not allowing oneself to be cloaked in a mantle of haughtiness and triumphalism while savoring redemption. (Deut. 6:10-12; 8:11-18) 4) The Responsibility - of juxtaposing the freedom feeling of Pesach in Jerusalem with the counterpoint (indeed harmony!) of recalling the humble origins of our people in Egypt. (Deut. 16:3)

At this stage in Israel's young reborn history, any one of these imperatives would deserve the “Dayenu” of the Passover pivut.


After two millennia of the loneliness of a people struggling with its individualness, the Passover Seder in Israel welcomes, at last, the challenge of accepting the corporate responsibility of return. The prophet Jeremiah expressed it best as he anticipated the freedom of a people re-entering history on its own terms: “Assuredly, a time is coming,” declares the Lord, “but it shall no more be said, ‘As the Lord lives who brought the Israelites out of the Land of Egypt,' but rather, ‘As the Lord lives, who brought the Israelites out of the North land and out of all the lands to which he has banished them.' For I will bring them back to their land which I gave to their fathers.” (Jeremiah 16:14-15)

*Rabbi Dr. Pesach Schindler is Senior Lecturer of Rabbinic Studies at the Rothberg School for Overseas Students, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and at St. Michael's College of Theology, University of Toronto, at Ratisbonne Center in Jerusalem. He is director of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in Israel, and author of Hassidic Responses During the Holocaust in the Light of Hassidic Thought (New Jersey) 1990.


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