The Passover Seder’s Most Important Idea
Passover celebrates the concept of a personal God who cares about us and is the ultimate director of history.
Excerpted from Rabbi Blech’s just published haggadah, Redemption, Then and Now.
What is the single most important idea of the Passover Seder?
For me, it's always been captured best by the very word that gives it its name. The ritual of this night that commemorates the birth of the Jewish people on the eve of our exodus from Egypt is called Seder because it summarizes our unique understanding of history and the role played by God in the course of human events.
Let me explain.
The very first commandment of the 10 given on Sinai links God's identity with the Passover story: I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage. It is, on the surface, a very strange way for the Almighty to define himself. After all, it is the very first statement introducing us to the reality of an all-powerful being, of a deity worthy of being worshiped. Could not God have chosen something far more formidable to illustrate his greatness? Wouldn't it mean much more to us if God's claim to our obedience were to have been expressed with the words I am the Lord your God who created the heavens and the earth? The fact that God liberated us from slavery was a wonderful achievement but even human beings like Abraham Lincoln have been great emancipators. However only God himself can lay claim to the role of creator.
It is a profound question that has intrigued countless Jewish commentators. In one of the most famous philosophic works of the medieval period, the Kuzari, Rabbi Yehudah Halevi puts this very difficulty into the mouth of the pagan King of the Kahzars in the imagined dialogue between him and the Rabbi who was summoned to assist in his search for religious truth. Why would God, the King wonders, choose a relatively minor event to make His power known if He is in fact the creator of the entire universe?
The answer is rooted in the reality that most people in fact are not atheists. It's hard to deny the existence of a higher divine power who brought this whole world into existence. Every part of the miraculous structure and design of our bodies, every glance at the heavens and every glimpse of the wondrous workings of nature force us to agree with the psalmist that "the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows his handiwork."
The true difficulty is not to convince people of the fallacy of atheism. Both intellectually and intuitively mankind knows there must be a God. The first commandment didn’t come to proclaim what was already self-evident. What is difficult to grasp however, for the millions of people on this earth who feel estranged from God is that the creator really cares about all those whom he created. The heresy that needs most to be addressed is Deism. Deism acknowledges that the brilliant design of the world forces us to accept a Designer, just as a watch must have had a watchmaker. But just as the watchmaker no longer has an ongoing relationship with the watch he brought into being so too is God surely indifferent to the lives of its inhabitants or to its ultimate destiny.
To be a deist is to believe in God – but in a God who truly doesn't matter. A deist would hardly deign to pray, for after all no one is really listening. A deist would be hard put to follow any divine commandments since he is certain the commander isn’t concerned enough to take note of his compliance or disobedience. A deist couldn't possibly accept a concept like messianic redemption at the end of days since the Creator long ago lost interest in the meaningless meanderings of his creations.
God is a God of history who maintains a personal relationship with every one of us created in His image.
The God whom we met at Sinai wanted above all to refute the heresy that denied not his existence but his ongoing concern. When He told us I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage, He wanted to impress upon us the idea, as Yehudah Halevi put it, that He is a God of history who maintains a personal relationship with every one of us created in His image.
Note carefully, said the commentators, that in the Hebrew phrase for I am the Lord your God the word for your is grammatically in the singular. It is as if God is speaking directly to every one of us, promising an ongoing special relationship.
And because God is a personal God who continues to care about us, about the fate of the Jewish people and the ultimate future of mankind, history becomes meaningful. It is orchestrated from Above. It has a pre-ordained destiny.
One of the first questions we will be asked when we face the heavenly court after our death, the Talmud reveals to us (Shabbat 31a), is “Tzipito L’yeshuah – did you during your lifetime await salvation?” During the course of our difficulties on earth it seems we are expected always to optimistically await heavenly intervention. We must live our lives with ever present hope or be held accountable at the time of our final judgment. The rabbis wonder, if this is such a serious obligation we are expected to fulfill, what is its Torah source? Where are we taught that our belief in God must be wedded to a belief in His constant providential care? R. Yitzchak ben R. Yosef (Ba'al Ha-Chotem) of Corbeil, France, a major commentator of the 13th century known as the SEMAK responds that it is implicit in the first commandment and an obvious derivative of its careful wording. I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt is to be understood not simply as a statement of relevance about our past. It is the foundation of what must serve as the source of our acceptance and relationship with God. The commandment demands that we realize that just as God saved us a long time ago he continues to be with us as our ever present Savior and Redeemer.
The question to which we will have to respond affirmatively after death inquiring whether we were always confident of the Almighty’s presence and his promised assistance is nothing less than asking whether we really believed in the God of our ancestors, the God who was, is, and made a covenant with us for the future.
The Talmud teaches us that there are two possible ways to view the events that befall us. The first is the philosophy of “let din v’let dayan- there is no justice and there is no judge.” It is a heresy that adopts words like coincidence, chance, luck or happenstance to explain the human story. It is a sacrilege whose sin goes to the very heart of our mutual love relationship with God, denying any link between the Creator and His creations.
History has meaning and purpose. It is not haphazard. It has a plan. It has Seder.
In the biblical section known as the Tochechah – the concluding admonition of the book of Leviticus with its threatened curses for future national disobedience there is a recurring phrase to explain what will anger God most and be responsible for repeated affliction: “and if you will still not listen to me but walk contrary unto me” (Leviticus 26:27). The Hebrew for walk contrary unto me is v’holachtem imi b’keri. In a fascinating philological insight, Maimonides connects the Hebrew root of b’keri with the word mikre, the word that means chance or accident. The intent of the verse then gives expression to this very idea: If the Jewish people continue to attribute events that befall them to nothing more than pure chance, to mikre, instead of recognizing them all as a part of the divine master plan that guides human history, God will continue to afflict them until they “get it”. The crime that God cannot countenance is the refusal to recognize His ongoing role in history – the very idea alluded to in the First Commandment in the emphasis on God's role as the Redeemer of the Jews from the slavery of Egypt.
The antithesis of the heresy that “there is no justice and there is no judge” is that history has meaning and purpose. It is not haphazard. It has a plan. It follows a divinely ordained order, decreed by God who continues to be involved in every aspect of the story of mankind.
And the word for order in Hebrew?
Of course it is Seder!
The Passover Seder is known by this name not so much because the meal follows a pre-ordained order but because it is meant to affirm the major teaching about God that appears in the first of the 10 Commandments. Long after God created the world he demonstrated his continuing love by intervening in history, to punish evildoers and to bring freedom to those who suffered from the cruelty of their oppressors.
The Talmud (Berachot 12a) teaches us that every blessing requires two elements. “Kol brachah she’ein boh shem u’malchut eino brachah - any blessing that does not include in it God's name as well as reference to his rulership as king is not a blessing.” To speak of Him simply by way of his four letter name Hashem without clarifying that He is also Elokenu Melech Ha’olam – our God who continues to rule over the world as a king, involved, concerned and personally connected – is to be blind to the true significance of our monotheistic faith and the meaning of “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
It was on the first Passover that the Jews clearly witnessed God's intervention in human affairs. To celebrate Passover is to acknowledge the idea of Seder – the concept of history that embraces God as the ultimate director of events that proceed according to a divinely ordained order.
Hear Rabbi Benjamin Blech live in Manhattan, Wed, March 29, 2017, on Insights into the Haggadah, celebrating the publication of his new haggadah. Click here to register.