If there is anything that the sacred Pesach seder promotes, it’s that if there is any time to ask questions, that time is now. Yes, it’s also a time to gather with family and partake in the rituals that have connected Jews throughout the millennia, but that is not always the primary focus of the night. The most vital element to the seder is encouraging everyone, from the youngest child to the wisest matriarch, to fulfill their obligation and ask each other questions; that is what a free people have the luxury to do.
The overarching questions that we should ask ourselves – as is our wont as a self-reflective culture – are: Did we do enough during our brief time celebrating Pesach with friends and family to look at the broader world? Did we engage with the Exodus story in a meaningful, tangible way? All over the world right now, from the hell of the Syrian Civil War to mass deportation, to the bloodthirsty turbulence in South Sudan, did we even consider the plights of people who are, right now, vulnerable and exposed to exploitation and bondage?
This isn’t meant as a slight if you didn’t bring up these issues. They are difficult to process. The seder, at its most profound, has always been the mechanism to explore the challenges of human cruelty and ultimate redemption. It is a sacred space to challenge each other to think deeper while opening our hearts and souls to the struggles found in the world.
While the holiday is indeed designed to elicit joy and warm tidings of freedom, the commemoration of the Hebrew manumission from Egypt reminds us of eternal human struggle. Through contemplation of this moral consciousness, our human conscience reboots. “Ha-lachma anya d’achalu avhatana b’ara d’mitzrayim. Kol dichfin, yattei va-yechol,” the holy words read. This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the Land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. What kind of gift is “bread of affliction,” and why would anyone want it, without the outcome that we are to internalize the distress of all people, no matter their station or creed?
During my seder, I reflected on the words of the great spiritual teacher Rav Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook. He was forthright in his observation that when the ritual of the seder remains on a level of pious nostalgia – filling, but empty – it is an ineffective ceremony devoid of all significance. In other words, if the seder does not stir the soul to action, it has lost its value. He was eloquent on this point:
We can know that our behavior is derived from pure and spiritual motives when our innate sense of what is right becomes more exalted as a consequence of its religious inspection. If the moral quality of the individual and the public response [to ethical challenges] is diminished by our religious observance then … our supposed piety is of no value.
The mandate to internalize and express empathy for the other – the stranger in our midst – transcends the parameters of collective memory. Our recollection of the physical flight from Egypt demands that we escape the fetters of a spiritual Egypt that we see in the world.
By seeing those who are trapped today by circumstances beyond their individual control, the Haggadah reminds us that our participation in the seder can never merely be an exercise in intellectualism. Rather, it is a guttural wake-up call to feel and react to the reality of the world around us. May we embrace the closing days of the festival to ask questions and open our hearts.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash.