Why is this year different from all other years? On all other years we gather in close around our tables with family and friends.
The Passover seder combines all the things we love most: food and wine, storytelling, and home hospitality. Perhaps this is why, of all the Jewish holidays, Pesach is the most observed by American Jews – regardless of their level of affiliation or engagement.
The other Jewish holidays have a lot to offer, but none of them combine food, storytelling and hospitality as powerfully as the seder. Which begs a question:
Why didn’t the rabbis give us similar rituals for the other holidays? What is so special about Pesach?
The answer is “telling:” on Passover we recount our primary defining narrative – the Exodus from Egyptian slavery towards freedom. The seder leverages all five of our senses to remind us who we are, where we have come from, and where we have yet to go. For that reason alone, it deserves special treatment.
However, we are Jews, which means that among other quirks, we look for meaning in the details. Consider, for example, these words which Moses spoke to the Israelites about the future observance of Passover:
“You shall observe this as an institution for all time, for you and for your descendants. And when you enter the land that the Eternal will give you, as God has promised, you shall observe this rite. And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Eternal, because God passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when God smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.’” [Ex. 12:24-27
This passage is all about l’Dor vaDor – transmitting our tradition through the generations. Moses emphasizes the concept of l’Dor vaDor multiple times throughout the Exodus story. It is no surprise, then, that education became a core value of Torah and therefore also Judaism. What makes this particular passage different is not what Moses said, but when he said it. At God’s command, Moses instructed us to teach our children about the Exodus while we were still in Egypt!
Why would Moses tell us to teach future generations during our most frenetic preparations before the final and most horrible plague arrived?
I have long thought that it was to reassure the Israelites that, on the darkest night of their lives, they had a future. However, over time I have come to understand that Moses was not just speaking to them, but to us. Our laws, values, and traditions are not just about the past, they are about the future. So in each generation, we are instructed to teach our children that we were slaves in Egypt, and that God redeemed us from servitude with awesome wonders and a mighty outstretched hand. We teach our children that no matter what the rest of the world may say, human dignity and freedom are sacred gifts to treasure and protect. We teach our children not to accept the world as it is, but to work towards creating the world as it should be. We teach our children that there is a higher purpose and a deeper meaning to our lives. We teach our children, l’Dor vaDor, so that they will be inspired to act and achieve. We teach our children so that they will teach their children.
Why is this year different from all other years? This year we all feel our oppression, not by Pharaoh but by the virus. This year we all pray for a different kind of redemption, for a life without the disease and quarantine and fear and uncertainty. This year we recognize that we are all children, on the receiving end of the generations who have transmitted our story to us, a story of resilience, of strength, and of hope.
We will celebrate Passover this year, just as our forebears did in Egypt, while still awaiting an end to the plague. Well, not exactly as they did. We will connect digitally, with video and with sound. Our tables will stretch across miles and miles as we share and celebrate together even while we remain physically separate. In the midst of our pain, I hope that we will also find some joy and especially some meaning.
As we gather around our tables this Pesach, I invite us to share how we are bringing l’Dor vaDor (the transmission of our tradition in our new generation) to life. Try going around the table and asking everyone to share their answers to any or all of the following questions:
We won’t all agree, that’s for sure, but as we share our ideas, we may discover or rediscover something deeply meaningful about ourselves, our place in history, and our hopes for the future.
Warm Wishes for a zissen Pesach, a sweet, meaningful, and healthy Passover,
Rabbi Gary Pokras
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras