It’s that time of year again. No matter how distant a Jew is from their heritage, no matter how secularised or alienated or acculturated, can there be anyone who does not recall, from the deepest recesses of their mind, those words of tradition that are sung or chanted, mumbled or muttered on this night: Ma nishtana ha-layla ha-ze - ‘Why is this night different from all other nights?’
Something about this festival of Pesach - Passover – has lodged itself in the Jewish psyche. Deeper than questions of religious belief or unbelief – did the exodus from Egypt really happen as the Bible says it did? does a God who is concerned with the fate of a group of immigrant slaves really exist? does any kind of divine force exist or is it all legend and superstition and infantile yearning? – deeper than these doubts and questions something else stirs up at this season. Family memories begin to arise from the hidden recesses of our consciousness.
Memories of grandfathers chanting the prayers in an alien tongue, white tablecloths and dishes brought out only for this night, the bitter-sweet taste of haroset, arguments round the table, benign bedlam, everybody with a different Haggadah, the over-excitedness of tired children, the gaps at the table of relatives no longer here, the displaced seders during the War, the silence about the Shoah in the post-War seders, celebrating the seder communally on Kibbutz at long tables with hundreds of others, the search for the afikoman, the rewards and treats and shushing, the waiting for the songs, the disputes over the tunes, opening the door for Elijah and the cat walks in, or a relative home from distant parts. Memories - sentimental or enraging, tear-laden or embittered – wrap themselves round the seder night.
This is the night when we tell our story, our history, our great mythic narrative of liberation from slavery – and this is the night when, in the midst of telling a collective story, our own personal link in the chain comes alive, as we recall seders gone by. Seder night is when Judaism comes home, literally.
At no other time of the year does Jewish tradition so take over our personal lives, as individuals and families. The New Year and Yom Kippur do have their home dimensions (as of course does Shabbat) but the High Holy Days are largely celebrated (if that's the word) in the synagogue – if they are marked at all: primarily inner and reflective, they are easy to avoid, to dip into, or opt out of altogether. But Pesach seems to resonate in a different way - partly because for those of us born Jewish it is part of our earliest layers of memory in a way that Rosh Hashanah and the Day of Atonement are probably not.
If this is so, it is a small victory for the tradition – because so much of the seder ceremony and Haggadah narration focuses on the need to instruct the next generation, to tell it to the children, to induct the younger generation into the collective mythic history of the tribe. The seder is in effect a psychodrama : you eat the symbolic foods which link you to the ancient tales, you drink the ritual four cups of wine, you keep hearing the motif of four (the Four Questions, the Four Sons/Children, the Four Cups) – as if even ordinary numbers have a deeper meaning, a deeper link to history and tradition – there is communal singing of songs that might not make much sense but cause laughter in the adults...It all adds up to an evening that enacts a group mystery into which the children are to be inducted, whether they want it or not, whether they understand it or not.
The story contained in the Haggadah tells of the survival of a tribe, a people – the ‘miraculous’ survival of a people, through the generations, through history, a people who chose to gather each year to tell of their miraculous survival as a people. The Haggadah tells of a group of rabbis in Bnei Brack – five of them, so before the number symbolism was developed! - gathering in secret to tell the story two millennia ago. So far away in time - and yet already the need to tell the story, the miraculous story of liberation and survival. And we join with them on Seder night – telling the story of their telling the story – passing on to the next generation this story about storytelling, and the vital role of storytelling in the survival of the people.
It is a night when thankfulness is possible – and when other questions emerge. What is this survival for? Is it survival for its own sake - are we like the Armenians, or the Aborigines, with a collective identity and history and set of cultural traditions? - or does Jewish survival have a further purpose? The story we tell suggests that the answer, perhaps disquietingly, is yes: survival in and of itself is fine, we can appreciate what it means, but it is not the end of the story.
The story of our liberation from past oppression points towards a task, a responsibility. We know what this is. On this night we remember that we have a destiny as well as a history. Slavery and oppression are always with us – whether it is women and children sold into degradation and bondage or Palestinians oppressed by policies that humiliate and dehumanise, we live in a benighted world where the work of liberation is as urgent as ever.
May this Pesach help us recover our awareness that we belong to a people whose story only has meaning if it leads to action, to renewed commitment to others who still await their own liberation.