The Passover Seder

Passover (Pesach) begins this week on the evening of April 5, 2023. Passover is one of the three major Jewish festivals and commemorates the Exodus from Egypt. The name “Passover” corresponds to the miracle in which G-d passed over the houses of the Israelites while carrying out the tenth plague. Judaism is a religion based largely on rituals – those things we do together as an expression of our collective memory and shared ideals. The Passover seder service which we will conduct on the first and second nights of Passover is the oldest surviving ritual in the Western World dating back some 3,300 years to when the Israelites ate their last meal in Egypt before their exodus to the land that is now Israel. During this ritual, the seder service, we tell the story of the focal point in Jewish history; our redemption and exodus from Egypt. But, we are supposed to do more than just tell the story. We are supposed to re-enact it and taste it. During the Passover seder (and throughout Passover), Jews all over the world eat matzah and bitter herbs to remind us what it felt like to be oppressed while simultaneously drinking wine to celebrate we are alive and together. The awesomeness of this ritual is highlighted by the fact that millions around the world are engaged the same ritual at the same time (within our respective time zones, that is).

There are important elements to the Passover seder. Yes, our seder plates, our wine (four cups to be exact), and the matzah, are crucial to a proper seder. Ok, matzah balls are important too, but not crucial. However, the truly vital elements of the Passover seder are the home and family (or friends that are family). When we tell the story of the Exodus, we do so sitting around our dinner tables with our families and friends – together. We open our homes in warmth to those who don’t have families (near or far) so they can partake in the seder. Indeed, our seder opens with our invitation to all to join us in homes together – “Let all who are hungry come in and eat.”

Gathering Together

Our ability to be “together” as Jews has not always been assured. We have not always been able to live in our homes or even open our doors to others. Over the centuries, there have been many who have tried to eliminate us. In fact, there is a very important part of the Passover seder that acknowledges the intersection of our history with oppression, death, and genocide. This passage is known in Hebrew as Vehi Sheamda. The essence of this passage refers God’s promise to take the Jewish people out of Egypt and save them from their oppressors. This promise is an everlasting promise, as Vehi Sheamda states that “[f]or it was not only one man who rose up to destroy us; in every generation people rise up to destroy us, and Go-d saves us from their hands.” This passage tells the story of resilience and expresses the Jewish people’s ability to overcome dire challenges, unfathomable circumstances, and even genocide.

Our Family Tradition

My immediate family has developed a tradition when we reach this moment of the seder. Many years ago, I made cards for use at our seder which identify each of the death camps in operation during the Holocaust – Auschwitz, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Chelmno, and Majdanek – and which identify the number of those Jews murdered at each death camp. I have cards for places where Einsatzgruppen murdered Jews in mass such as Babi Yar. I have cards for the pogroms that were carried out during the Holocaust such as the Jassy Pogrom in Romania (1941). I have cards not only related to the Holocaust, but identifying those Jews killed during Israel’s War of Independence when the Arab nations famously tried to wipe Israel from existence. Equally as important, I have cards for contemporary acts of violence against Jewish people including, for example, one for the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre (2018), one for victims of the Hypercacher Kosher Food Market terrorist attack in Paris (2015), one for victims of the Jewish Museum of Belgium (2014), and one for victims of the bombings in Buenos Aires, Argentina (1992 and 1994). I also have a card for the Jews in Israel who are murdered by terrorists and antisemites each year. Every year at our seder, each of these cards (and more – even one for the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 and the destruction of the two Temples) – are placed randomly under the dinner plates on our seder table. Just before we raise our wine glasses and recite the words of Vehi Sheamda, we go around the table until everyone has read their cards. As you can imagine, this is not a quick process. But it is impactful. It drives home the messages of how precious life is and how grateful we should be to be alive and together; alive and together despite the efforts of many to remove us from the face of the earth. All of us at our seder table can also unanimously agree – if only for a little while – that there is a higher power at work who ensures our survival.

Maintaining Our Freedom

We are living right now in dangerous times. Multiple Jewish agencies such as the ADL and AJC have recently compiled data stating that antisemitism and Jew-hatred is at an all-time high in America. Holocaust history is under assault from extremists on the left and the right. The far left has now encroached on what was once the monopoly of Jew-hatred owned by the far right. Today, many of us experience a heavy feeling of unease and fear – perhaps not like the oppression that our ancestors experienced in Egypt – but the heaviness is there. I feel it. Many of my closest friends and confidants feel it. As the cards under our seder meal plates indicate, we are never far from danger.

As Jews we know our battle for freedom, honor and dignity is never over. We must always be prepared to stand up and fight, not only for our freedom, but for each other as well, regardless of our differences. While the fight may seem daunting, the timeless words of Vehi Sheamda should give us hope and inspire us in our call to action. It is important for us to be educated and informed. We also must educate and inform others about history – history rooted in the truth about antisemitism and the ongoing oppression of the Jewish people. For Jews today, most importantly, remaining silent is not an option. As Elie Wiesel said:

“Silence encourages the tormentor; never the tormented.”

Chag Pesach Sameach from all of us at The Institute for Holocaust Research and Education