The seder night is a night of storytelling. The name of the text we read is haggadah—story. At the heart of this story lies the section entitled Maggid—story teller. At two points in the ritual of the seder, there is an exhortation: “And you shall tell your child, vehigadta levinkha…” Compiled over a period of time, the text comprises a motley collection of excerpts from the Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, and midrash.
The story that the haggadah presents, in picaresque fashion, is essentially a concise history of the Jewish people. Beginning with the time when “our Fathers were idol worshippers,” it ends with the song Dayeinu, a triumphant record of miraculous survival. The final item in this recitation is the building of the First Temple.
There follows a striking injunction. In every single generation, it is a person’s duty to perceive him or herself as though he or she had come out of Egypt. “And you shall tell your offspring… ‘This is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt’ (Exodus 13:18). For it is not only our fathers whom the Holy One blessed is He redeemed, but we were also redeemed with them.”
The passage of time is eliminated. Past and present blend, so much so that the penultimate verse of this chronicle of events appears, mutatis mutandis, wholly appropriate to our own times: “And God brought us out of there, so that He might bring us in to give us the land of which He swore to our fathers (Deuteronomy 6:23).”
Is it not therefore incumbent upon us to bring the list of God’s wonders up to date? There is, after all, another injunction at the beginning of the seder: to “tell the story,” with the rider that the more one dwells on the story, the more praiseworthy the telling becomes.
We, in our times, must continue the story, citing the events of recent history in which, as in every generation, there were “those who sought to destroy us.”
Tell of the Holocaust, in which six million Jews perished and entire Jewish communities in Europe and elsewhere were wiped out.
Tell of the War of Independence in 1947-48, in which a tiny community of 600,000 Jews resisted the onslaught of neighboring countries to establish the State of Israel—at the cost of 6,000 lives.
Tell of the Six-Day War of 1967, when the Israel Defense Forces not only withstood a similar attack but also liberated East Jerusalem, enabling Jews once more to worship at the Western Wall.
Tell of 1973, when a dastardly surprise attack on the holiest day of the Jewish year led to a long conflict that cost Israel too many lives, yet ultimately led to peace with neighboring Egypt.
There may well be people at the seder table who experienced, or learned about, other murderous attacks. My mother and grandmother, both born in Galicia, used to tell us of the pogroms in Eastern Europe before the First World War, of how Jews left their doors open on the seder night, to prove they were not murdering Christian children in order to drink their blood.
And I recall the miserable seder night of 1934, when my father had already fled Nazi Germany while my mother, her mother, my brother and I still remained behind, not knowing if and when we might be permitted to join him.
But, like all Jewish women of my generation, I have another story to tell: the story of women’s liberation, the revolution that began in the 1970s, which resulted from women’s acquisition of Jewish literacy and the inspiration of second-wave feminism, first in the US, then in Israel, and finally throughout Jewish communities around the world
Jewish feminism often found expression in the celebration of a separate women’s seder complete with its own haggadah. It chronicled the exclusion of women from Jewish ritual and reinstated women into the story of enslavement and the Exodus, citing the bravery of the midwives, the faith of Yocheved, the mother of Moses, and the ingenuity of his sister, Miriam. It exalted Miriam as the leader of the Israelite women and initiated a new custom, Miriam’s Cup, with an accompanying prayer to the Shekhinah to pour faith and love on the gentiles who, throughout the ages, saved Jews from persecution and death.
From this stage of “separate but equal,” women have now found their rightful place at the regular seder table. No longer limited to being the providers of food and washers of dishes, today women can wholeheartedly say, “Once we were slaves; today we are free.”
There is an additional element in the seder night that can lead to the creation of more family lore. It is the invitation to “let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are needy come and partake of the Pesaḥ offering.” The seder night is one on which families congregate, but it is also a time when Jews everywhere open their doors to those who have nowhere to celebrate. Such occasions of hospitality also become subjects of reminiscence.
In 1941, Jews in the East End of London celebrated a makeshift seder in a public air-raid shelter, while overhead German bombs obliterated their homes.
In that same year, the Jews who remained in the Warsaw Ghetto added to the haggadah a prayer asking God to forgive them for being unable to fulfill all the commandments relating to the festival, and promising to revert to the custom if they survived. Tragically, few lived to fulfill that promise.
Each year, my father used to relate how, as a prisoner of war in Russia in 1919, he succeeded in rounding up the necessary ingredients to bake matzah and boil eggs for a makeshift seder for his fellow Jews.
In 1944, while we were evacuated from London to a small village in a “safe” part of England, my father undertook to organize hospitality for Jewish soldiers posted nearby. Finding himself with nearly thirty men who were still without hosts, he invited all of them to our totally inadequate home. My mother took it all in her stride, as she did two years later, when my father returned from Warsaw, where he had attended the first anniversary of the Ghetto uprising. He unexpectedly brought home with him two distinguished writers and a noted singer, all of whom had been unable to return to their respective countries— Israel and the United States—in time for the seder.
I tell these stories time and time again to my children, grandchildren, and their children to inculcate in them the essential Jewish values and observances.
So long as the Jewish people exists, so long as Jews gather—no matter what the circumstances—to mark the Exodus from slavery, the telling can, must, and will continue.
Each generation has its own chapter to add to the chronicle of God’s wonders, and it is incumbent upon us to do so, for “the more one dwells on the story…the more praise one deserves.”