Pesach: Looking Forward

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

There is something most beautiful about a holiday that celebrates our past being focused on future, on our children. Pesach marks the founding of our people, and it is the story of our past that we retell at our seder. “We begin with shame and end with glory”. There is much tragedy in our history, but so much greatness, so much to be proud of.

This recounting of the past is so crucial to our way of life that the mitzvah to recall the Exodus must be fulfilled each and every day, both by day and by night. Other mitzvoth such as shofar, lulav, tzizit, korbanot, may only be done during the day; whereas some, such as Sefirat haOmer or eating matzah, are to be fulfilled in the evening. Yet remembering the Exodus, fulfilled in the context of reciting the shema (the only other mitzvah that is be done both[1] by day and night) is an obligation both during the morning and the evening.

The Exodus itself is the basis of so many mitzvoth beyond Pesach: Shabbat, mezuzah, pidyon haben, honest weights and measures, the prohibition to charge interest, and sensitivity to strangers (likely the most important of them all [2]). All of these mitzvoth, in one way or another, are zecher leyetziat mitzraim, helping to properly recall the Exodus. Yet when we actually fulfill the mitzvah of not just recalling, but retelling and reliving, that of sippur yetziat mitzraim, the focus is not so much on our past but on our future, our children. All kinds of things, from karpas to removing the seder plate, are done so that “the children will ask”. The Gemara quotes a custom to hand out nuts to the children in order to maintain their interest in the (long) proceedings. We hide the afikoman for the same reason. And the central questions of the seder, the Mah Nishtanah, are traditionally asked by the youngest of the children.

We best ensure our future by recalling our past.  Unless our children have an appreciation, even love, for our past, our future is shaky at best. And unless recalling the past is but a means to inspire our youth, it is of little import. We are not meant to tell a story but rather, to experience it. History must come alive so that we are inspired by it. “Recall the days of yore, understand the wisdom of each generation” (Devarim). “Focus on three things and one will not come to sin; know where you come from, where you are going and that all your actions are recorded in a book”.

For many--I would venture to say, for most--children, Pesach is their favorite holiday. While this is likely due to the many rituals--children, unlike adults, generally love ritual--and the attention they receive (they, along with adults, love attention), I would like to think that what makes Pesach so beloved is how the past becomes so real and helps, even if subconsciously, imbue a sense of connection to our people.

All too many, including (especially?) too many world leaders, are poor students of history. They find it a boring and relatively useless collection of names, dates, and places. And with the many “advances” of modernity, we all too often feel that there is little to learn from the “primitives” of the past; those who treated woman as second class citizens, enslaved the blacks, lacked scientific knowledge, and practiced outdated religious norms. 

But those who appreciate history know it is the best teacher for the present and best predictor of the future. We have much to learn, both positive and negative, from our past.

As we come to the last day(s) of Pesach, we read the shirat hayam, the song sung by the Jewish people after crossing the sea, a song so important that it is recited daily in our siddur. Yet this is a song not of our past, but of our future. “Az Yasheer Moshe”, then Moshe will sing. Let us properly study history so that we can sing most beautiful songs in the future.

 

[1] Reading the Megillah at night is “only” a custom, one likely begun in the post-Mishnaic period.

[2] This is the mitzvah most repeated in the Torah, with Tosafot noting that there are 36! references to this mitzvah--which, more than almost any other, tells us what type of people we truly are.