There are moments in time one needs to forget. Often, though, these are moments we really need to remember. Such a moment came into my life on Aug 9 (the 20th of Av) in 2001.
A beautiful afternoon in the heart of Jerusalem surrounded by the music of children’s laughter. Lives full of promise captured in a mother’s hug, or a young soldier’s grin. The fulfillment of years of toil viewed through the contented sigh of an old man, leaning on his walking stick as he watches his grandchildren enjoying the treat of an ice cream on a hot summer’s day.
All of this magic, ripped apart by the nuts and bolts, explosives and hatred of a suicide bomber in a pizzeria.
It was one of those moments you try not to think about, that you decide to put behind you. I try to let go of such moments; I hug our children a little tighter, and find enormous strength in every smile and cuddle.
But for many, it is not so simple.
There will be many empty places at the Passover seder this year, making the challenge of remembering that which we wish to forget, and never forgetting that which we must always remember, all the more difficult.
What is the balance between remembrance and letting go, between dreaming of tomorrow, and learning from yesterday?
The central theme of the seder night, indeed the entire festival of Pesach, is remembrance — “Vayomer Moshe El Ha’Am, Zachor Et HaYom HaZeh (and Moshe said to the Nation [of Israel]: Remember this day)” (Exodus 13:3).
On this night, we are commanded to remember the story of our Exodus from Egypt 3200 years ago. However, there is something unique about the way in which we remember the story on the night of Pesach.
Maimonides, in his Sefer HaMitzvoth (Positive Commandment 157) tells us that the mitzvah to remember the Exodus from Egypt on the 15th night of Nissan is based on the verse, “ve’higadita le’bincha (and you shall tell your son [children] on that day)” (Exodus 13:8).
Yet this same obligation to remember the story of Egypt exists every day, and indeed is mentioned in the Shema we recite three times daily for precisely this reason. Indeed, our Hagaddah makes mention of this very fact, when Rabbi Eliezer Ben Azariah explains how he learned that the mitzvah to recall the Exodus from Egypt applies not only every day, but every night as well.
What then, is different about our mitzvah to remember the story on the night of Pesach?
Rav Chaim Brisker explains that all year round we recall, but this night we actually re-tell the story. And the difference between the two is that one can recall an event on one’s own, but to tell the story, requires a listener. A beautiful thought, but for one fact:
The Talmud (Pesachim 116a) points out that at a certain point in the Hagaddah, the child asks the parent, and if the child is not clever (or old) enough, or there are no children, then the husband and wife exchange the questions, and if a person is alone, he asks himself!
Here then, is a new bent to the seder evening; the issue is not just to teach, but also to re-tell the story, even if one already knows it! Most fascinating, although the focus is still the re-telling of the story to the next generation, if one has no one to ask, and no one to teach, one should ask one-self!
What can possibly be the point of asking myself questions I already know the answer to? Especially if, as Rav Chaim points out, the seder night re-telling is meant to be an inter-active dialogue?
Maimonides, in his Hilchot Chametz U’matzah (7:3) adds a dimension, which may serve to unlock this puzzle.
Explaining the reasoning for a person being obligated to re-tell this story even to himself, he adds that this is just as the Torah tells me: “Remember the Sabbath day” (“Zachor Et Yom HaShabbat”). What does remembering Egypt have to do with remembering Shabbat?
The Talmud (Pesachim 106a) points out that the fulfillment of remembering Shabbat, as expressed in the Ten Commandments, is when I make Kiddush on Friday night. In fact, it is precisely on Shabbat that I learn that the Jewish concept of remembering is not passive, but rather active. I do not remember that original gift of Shabbat, given us so long ago, by what I think but rather by what I do. In Judaism, to remember is to re-live, to re-experience.
How and why do I ask myself the Seder questions if I am alone? In Judaism, I am never alone. Not only because my relationship with G-d means I always have a silent partner, but also because I am together with 4,000 years of Jewish history.
On the night of the seder I am sitting at the table with Moses and Aaron, and every Jew that ever was willing to put his or own blood on the door, and identify with the Jewish people. I am sitting with every Jew who sang when the Red Sea split, as well with every Jew who cried when another Jewish child was thrown in the Nile.
We sit with all the Jews of Babylon, dreaming of their beloved homes burned to the ground by Nebuchadnezzar and his hordes, as well as every Jew who stood on the train platforms of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and finally understood.
The theme of the seder table is all about the Jewish family, and by re-experiencing the story of our birth as a nation; we connect, in the deepest sense with the rest of our family, past, present, and future. Indeed, we rediscover, yet again, who we really are.
May Hashem bless us soon to partake in a Jerusalem filled only with the sounds of peace, together, as one family, at one magnificent seder table.
Wishing you all a chag kasher ve’Sameach,a happy Pesach full of growth, joy, and peace,
A version of this column appeared in 2012.