Our Jewish tradition speaks frequently about the gift of memory. One of the most devastating illnesses of our times is Alzheimer's, a disease that destroys memory. Families are overcome by anguish when parents no longer recall who their children are. Their past has been blotted out. In fact, "to blot out the memory" is one of the strongest curses in the Jewish tradition.
The festival of Passover is the prime example of the importance that Judaism places on memory. Every holiday and Sabbath are to be observed as "a memorial of the Exodus from Egypt." It is in this week's Torah portion, Parashat Bo, that we read the words that "this day shall be to you one of remembrance." (Exodus 12:14)
What is it that we are supposed to remember? Someone once remarked that too frequently we suffer from "spiritual amnesia." We perform certain rituals, but we don't know why we do them. A good example is the commandment of putting up a mezuzah. I recall being implored by a lady to come to her house that afternoon to put up her mezuzah because she was afraid to move into her new home without having a mezuzah affixed to her doorpost. The reason for the mezuzah is that it serves as a memory aid, causing us to recall the commandments of Judaism as we enter and leave our home. It should not be regarded as a Jewish lightning rod!
One of the purposes of ritual is the expression of an array of ideas and ideals through an act. The Passover seder encompasses so much and is one of the most universally observed rituals in Judaism. For some, it is merely a reason for the gathering of the family. For others, it is an opportunity to review the miracle of Jewish history, remembering all the catastrophes and triumphs that have checkered our journey as a people. Passover is also a call to our concern for all peoples to sound the cry for freedom for all those in bondage-spiritual bondage, the bondage of poverty, and the bondage of ignorance.
We might also reflect on what we remember as we celebrate the Jewish holidays and why they are connected to the Exodus from Egypt. Why is that event so central to our faith? And what does the Sabbath have to do with Passover? In the Kiddush for the Shabbat, we reiterate that, "the Sabbath is a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt." Perhaps the connection lies in the fact that the Sabbath is the true day of freedom from the obligations that we must fulfill during the workday week. The freedom of the Sabbath, like that of the Jewish Holy Days, can be awesome! We have to be able to observe them in a special way that recognizes who and what we are.
One of the interesting aspects of the word exodus is that it indicates a continuing process: We are always "going out" of Egypt. We haven't fully left, and we haven't fully arrived. In a beautiful poem, Rabbi Alvin Fine says, "Life is a journey, a sacred journey...." We as Jews have been on such a collective journey, ever seeking to leave Egypt and arrive at some special place. The prophet Jeremiah exhorted the Jews who were in exile in Babylonia to build houses, etc., and to pray for the welfare of the community. We, too, while on our journey, should seek to accomplish the most for our communities, wherever we may be.
Another question comes to mind as we ponder what we should remember, namely, What should we forget? It is remarkable that Jews have never expressed resentment against Egypt for the many years of slavery our ancestors spent there. Is it because that event happened so long ago? How long should we harbor anger against Spain, Germany, and the countries that persecuted us in the past? One of the notable events of modern times was the way in which Israel welcomed President Anwar Sadat of Egypt to Jerusalem. We chose not to remember the cruelties that had preceded this event. Do we tend to remember too much and forget too little? This week's portion is a call to remember the good and forget that which makes us less than human.
Harold Kudan is the founding rabbi of Am Shalom, Glencoe, IL.
This week's parashah, Bo, sets forth the basic instructions for the ritual observance of the Passover seder. However, it is not until Deuteronomy that a few specific words are prescribed for the "telling," which is at the core of the Magid section, the account of the Exodus.
The requirement that we recount the story of the Exodus at the seder can, in truth, be accomplished with a minimum of words. Some years ago I attended a family seder in Israel at which the grandfather, who was leading the seder, sought to explain the meaning of that occasion to his five-year-old grandson. He placed a saltshaker next to his grandson and a peppershaker at his own side of the table. Gesturing toward the saltshaker, the grandfather explained, "This is Egypt," and indicating the peppershaker, he stated, "This is Israel." After pointing back and forth from one to the other, he concluded, "We used to live there; now we live here. Let's eat!"
Although the economy of expression and lack of familiar ritual at that Israeli seder disturbed me at the time, its message has retained its power for me over the years, and I have never forgotten that particular telling. While I hesitate to recommend such a truncated seder, I must admit that it was one of the most memorable s'darim I have attended and that it serves as a powerful reminder that less is often more when we seek to communicate a message.
Indeed, learning how to convey a message in just a few simple words can often be a good exercise for those who wish to communicate effectively. Noting that Exodus's prescriptions for the telling of the seder do not provide any specific words, we feel justified in asking whether it might be possible to express the message of Passover without any words at all but rather with symbolic actions alone. If we strip away the words of the seder, we find embedded within our observance a symbolic activity that has become nearly invisible to us because the pattern of the seder has left such a profound imprint on all of the other holidays that we do not see it for what it is.
This pattern, the most significant message, is that the seder begins at twilight, descends into darkness, and continues into the next morning. True, the reason s'darim are supposed to last until morning is so that we may talk about the holiday all night. But perhaps the real reason the rabbis of Bnai Brak of old encouraged all that talking was to emphasize the symbolic, nonverbal message of the passage from darkness to daybreak. Thus while debates, discussions, and recitations are important, what is most essential is the mostly unspoken message: We began our life as a people amidst the darkness of slavery and emerged into the light of freedom, soon to be augmented by the light of Torah.
In The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Rabbi Plaut cites the following comment by Sefat Emet: "Israel orders its calendar by the moon, for it is used to living in the night of history." (p. 467) Indeed all of our holiday observances begin at night, and we emerge in the morning affirming our survival, announcing that we as a people have the power to persevere through darkness. Passover is the paradigm of darkness turning to light. As the Mishnah exults: "God took us out of slavery into freedom and from suffering to joy, from mourning to celebration, and from darkness to great light." (P'sachim 10:5)
We need only to return to our parashah to see how very essential is the power of light as a symbol of hope for our people in even our darkest hours. The Bible contrasts the impact of the terrible plague of darkness on the Egyptians-a palpable darkness that left them unable to see one another and prevented them even from moving about-with its lack of effect on the Israelites. As the Torah teaches us: "The Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings." (Exodus 10:23) It is this light of hope, born of suffering, that has allowed us to live through many a dark age and to kindle the lamps of hope and faith for many other peoples who have been affected by the darkness of injustice and inhumanity.
David Kudan is a rabbi at Am Shalom in Glencoe, IL.
Bo, Exodus 10:1-13:16
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 448-471; Revised Edition, pp. 405–426
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 355–378
Haftarah, Jeremiah 46:13-28
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 700-702; Revised Edition, pp. 427-429