At the beginning of the Haggada the child asks: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” But shortly after that, we learn from Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah that there is an obligation to mention the redemption from Egypt every night of the year! So what indeed is the unique essence of the Seder night?
Some have suggested that on every other night of the year the obligation is merely to briefly mention the Exodus. But on the Seder night, the special mitzva is to substantially extend the discussion. But if that were the case, why does the Haggada state “…and all those who relate the Egypt experience at great length are praiseworthy.” Why only praiseworthy? It’s what’s obligated!
Others have proposed that the mitzva on the night of the fifteenth of Nissan is to cultivate a dialogue with one’s children – “ve-higadeta le-binkha” (Exodus XII:8). However, Jewish law ordains the observance of a Seder even when one is alone, even in the absence of children. Clearly, the dialogue with one’s children is an important element in how best to fulfill the Seder night obligation – but not the essence of the commandment.
Rabbi Mordechai Elon suggests that a solution to this can be found in the words of Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides, Rambam). As the Maggid section of the Haggada reaches its climax, we say: “In every generation one is obligated to envision oneself as if he/she were redeemed from Egypt.” Maimonides, in his classic code (Yad, Hilkhot Hamets u-Matsa, VII:7), rephrases this slightly differently: “In every generation one is obligated to act as if he himself (she herself) were now redeemed from the servitude of Egypt.”
Rambam’s reformulation teaches us that the obligation on the Seder night is to re-enact that uniquely stunning and exhilarating moment of transition from slavery to redemption – “as if he himself (she herself) were now redeemed from the servitude of Egypt.” You see, on every other night of the year, the obligation is to remember the Exodus – like an academic studying and analyzing a historical fact. But on the night of the fifteenth of Nissan, maintains Maimonides, remembering is not enough; the unique obligation of the Seder is to relive the Exodus. In the immortal words of Walter Cronkite: “It was a night like any other night – only you are there!”
To recreate this experience – not only for yourself but for the whole family – takes teamwork and planning. Good food, good friends and a good story are not enough; you cannot relive the Exodus unless the annual experience is fresh, exciting and relevant. There has to be a dialogue where all generations are involved. You have to stimulate the children and the adults to challenge and be challenged – to question and be questioned – by the tale and its details. As Maimonides stresses, there is much acting and drama. We not only talk about the bread of affliction and bitter herbs – we eat them. At the same time, we act out freedom with wine, songs that make us smile and food to suit royalty.
Physical and spiritual redemption is the precious gift which the Passover story describes. But as modern man knows only too well, freedom needs to be properly protected and correctly channeled. The goal of the Seder is to sensitize us yearly to the need to guard, cherish and value this bequest. May we be equal to the challenge.
Hag Kasher ve-Same’ah!
Rabbi Dr. Aryeh A. Frimer is the Ethel and David Resnick Professor of Active Oxygen Chemistry at Bar Ilan University; FrimeA@mail.biu.ac.il.