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.
We are told that when the Israelites left Egypt, they were not alone: The Israelites journeyed from Raamses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, aside from children. Moreover, a mixed multitude went up with them . . . (Exodus 12:37-38)
According to Gunther Plaut, this "mixed multitude"--erev rav--were "people from the bottom of Egypt's social strata who took the opportunity to escape from their fate." (p. 462) This term, Plaut says, is similar in meaning to one used in Numbers 11:4, asafsuf, which is loosely translated as "riffraff." (p. 1,091)
Thus we have the Israelites and this mixed multitude of riffraff together on a historic journey that leads to the birth of both a people and a community of faith. Together this group will reap the rewards of the Exodus: receipt of the Law and entrance into the Promised Land. Together this mix of Israelites and others will become one Jewish people, united by faith in one God.
And, when the Israelites and the riffraff received the Law, they were not alone. As we read in the Haggadah text, we are to experience that moment as if we, too, were there at Sinai.
Thus when the Israelites became the Jewish people-when we became the Jewish People-so, too, did the riffraff. Given that some of us are descendants of these "riffraff," how should this influence the way in which we treat others?
- God's message to the Israelites is not exclusively ours. The Ten Commandments serve as the foundation upon which the moral codes of all of the monotheistic faiths are built, as well as those of numerous societies. In sharing our moment with a group of riffraff, we are symbolically sharing that moment with all those who are in search of meaning and direction. We have found it through Judaism. Others have found it elsewhere. But we are all involved in this task of seeking to live a moral life.
- It was more than our lineage that led to our becoming the Chosen People. We were chosen because of where and how we lived. The inclusion of so many others indicates that God chose to liberate all the victims of Egyptian oppression. In sharing this pivotal moment, we and our lives are entwined with the "riffraff" in our society. While it is not our job to bring Judaism to them, it is our job to bring what Judaism teaches us to them through acts of gemilut chasadim and tikkun olam. Just as God gave Egypt's riffraff the opportunity for a better life, so, too, should we strive to make a better life for the mixed multitude in our world.
As we commemorate this important historic event, let us all pledge to share with others what Judaism has taught us. Let us strive to improve the lives of all people, even the riffraff living in our midst. And, since we hope to be in the Promised Land next year, let us make sure that it is a place where all people can live in peace.
Jonathan Cohen, M.A.J.C.S., M.S.W., is the Camp Director for Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, MS.
Yom Rishon shel Pesach, Exodus 12:37‒42, 13:3‒10
The Torah, A Modern Commentary, pp. 462-470; Revised Edition, pp. 414-416;
The Torah, A Women's Commentary, pp. 368‒371