That was for the Eternal a night of vigil [leil shimurim] to bring them out of the land of Egypt; that same night is the Eternal's, one of vigil for all the children of Israel throughout the ages. Exodus 12:42
Once again darkness falls, the table is set, the ritual items are in their proper place, and we turn to the first page of the Haggadah to begin the seder. With each prayer, each reading, each song, and each game, we not only recall and relive the events of Yetziat Mitzrayim, the "Exodus from Egypt," but we also call for God's attention to the redemptive needs in our day and age.
In the Torah reading on Pesach morning, Bo, we learn about the leil shimurim, the "watch night." (Exodus 12:42) Who do you think was doing the watching according to the text above? When I was little, I thought it meant that the Israelites were watching for God to come. When I read it now, I feel that on the night we were freed from Egypt, God was keeping watch over us, and God continues to do so "throughout the generations."
In Midrash Rabbah the rabbis cite several redemptions as having taken place on this same Pesach night. One redemption leads us to contemplate the others. Do we still do that today? When Jews sit down at a seder, it is the custom to bring to the table the issues of the times. Alongside the Pharaoh of yesteryear we include the tyrants and false values of our own time. By naming the oppressions around us, we bring to God's attention the ongoing need for a leil shimurim, a "night of keeping watch." What topics or readings have you incorporated into your seder in the past, and what do you think should be added to your seder this year?
Living in a time when we are unclear about how God acts in this world, we are tempted to tell our children (and ourselves) that human beings are the only keepers of the watch. We celebrate Pesach so that the story of the Exodus arouses our righteous indignation and stirs us to take responsibility for the plight of others. Perhaps at your seder table you can discuss what each person present can do to be a keeper of the watch.
I like that. I like being responsible with all other Jews and all other human beings for the redemption of the world. God inspires us in ways I cannot fully understand, and then we act. That is enough for me every day of the year-except on Pesach.
The Torah verse tells us that on the original watch night in Egypt, it was not our power but God's power that brought the redemption. God didn't wait for us to break the chains of slavery. God's redemptive act came to fruition, and, as a result, our people went out from bondage. How does believing that God brought us out of Egypt fit with your idea of God? Is it comforting, mind boggling, frightening, or confusing?
Perhaps after considering these ideas, you'll want to add an extra question to your seder. Why is this night different from all other nights? On all other nights we ourselves do the acts of tikkun olam, "perfecting and redeeming the world." But on this night we do not have to keep watch. We only need to have the faith that God is keeping watch, ready to bring the oppressed through the darkness into the light. Our task is to affirm that God's power was so mighty that it spilled over onto all the watch nights that followed, creating moments that are ripe for new redemptions. May it be so.
Rabbi Debra R. Hachen is the spiritual leader of Congregation B'nai Shalom in Westborough, MA.