Originally Published 5774-2014

“The Opening Act”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

As every good scriptwriter, playwright or novelist knows, the opening act of a television presentation, a Broadway show or the opening chapter of a novel, is crucial in determining its success. If the reader’s or participant’s attention is not captured in the first few moments, then the likelihood of success is much diminished.

Obviously, the wise authors of the Hagaddah knew that well, and created a natural, dramatic opening for the Seder, one that has had repeated success for more than two thousand years in Jewish homes and communities around the world.

Before the Seder even begins, the participants are informed of the fifteen “acts” in which they will be asked to participate at the Seder. In many homes, the fifteen steps of the Passover Seder are often sung and explained, so that all will know what to anticipate.

A good dramatist might have suggested that the Seder open with the recitation of the “Mah Nishtanah,” מַה נִּשְׁתַּנָּה, the Four Questions. After all, what could be more impressive than beginning the evening with a loving scene of the youngest child, standing tall on a chair, reciting the four questions? It is a scene that is embedded in the minds of many who grew up in traditional households.

The recitation of the Four Questions is not only a powerful scene, it is a true showstopper. After all, what could possibly outshine a young child, struggling to remember the questions in Hebrew or in Yiddish, sung with the traditional or contemporary melody? The children, of course, are performing to a most sympathetic audience, who invariably react to the presentation with a rousing ovation.

Instead, the Passover Seder opens with the almost mundane recitation of Kiddush, the sanctification over the wine, and the special blessing for the People of Israel and the day of Passover. Before anything can be said or done at the Passover Seder, it is necessary to affirm the purpose of the night, and the ultimate mission of the Jewish people. Of course, we want to create a magical setting in which the children will be fascinated by the unusual Seder rituals and the exciting stories. But, even more, we want all those who are able to understand that the bottom line of all of Judaism is the sanctity of human life. It is an especially profound lesson to learn for those who are slaves and whose time is not their own that for those who are free, time is the most precious commodity. That is why the Seder opens with the sanctification of time and the sanctification of the day.

For those who appreciate the many profound lessons conveyed by the Passover holiday and its unique celebratory nature, it is impossible to participate in a Seder as if it were a private family affair. For those who are familiar with Jewish history, it is simply unfathomable for a Jewish household, no matter how poor, to have a family Seder without guests, especially needy guests who have no other place to celebrate the holiday. That is why the Passover Seder begins with the Aramaic declaration of “Ha Lachmah Anya,” הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא, this is the bread of affliction that our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt when we were slaves. Let all who are hungry come and eat with us. Let all who are needy, come and observe Passover with us!

Once the Kiddush concludes and the invitation to guests is extended, the opening act of the Seder is dominated by a series of significant questions. The most obvious question of all is: Why in the world do we celebrate tonight in such an odd manner?

Those who are familiar with the methods of Jewish study and Jewish education are well aware of the critical role that questioning plays in Jewish life. All of the Talmud and much of Jewish pedagogy involves questioning. That is why opening the Seder night with the questions of the “Mah Nistanah” מַה נִּשְׁתַּנָּה, is so natural, questions about the significance of the night, about the special foods that are eaten that night, why we recline in a seemingly defiant manner, rather than sit erect, and why we dip our foods into salt water and other liquids.

The answer to all the questions is found with the introduction of the famed paragraph: “Avadim ha’yee’noo,” עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ, We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik astutely notes that the text does not read, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves,” but rather, “We were slaves to Pharaoh,” in Egypt. Slavery for the Jewish people, says Rabbi Soloveitchik, was a greater external challenge than an internal one. Inwardly, the Jews remained faithful, not only to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but to their language, to their Jewish names, and to their Jewish garb.

It was this faithfulness to Jewish tradition that inspired the Israelites to dream of freedom, even though they were inches away from losing that desire. It is a profound lesson for all freedom-loving people, that enemies can incarcerate the slaves’ bodies, beat and bruise them physically, but faith, internal faith, is not easily denied. The most powerful weapon that the desperate Israelite people had to counteract and defeat their challenges was faith, faith in G-d, and especially faith in their own specialness.

While it may seem difficult to fathom, the Egyptian enslavement actually helped shape the essential character of the Jewish people. It was the experience of common suffering that united the twelve disparate Hebrew tribes into one people. It was the memory of pain that inspired the suffering people to strive to eliminate pain, not only their own pain, but also the pain of others who suffer. While our ancestors, the Israelites, were slaves long ago in the land of Egypt, there are today still many others throughout the world who are not free. The exodus from Egypt was Israel’s most glorious hour. We now need to help others experience their own glorious moments, and to assist those who are not yet free to experience their own exodus, and, hopefully, obtain their own glorious freedom.

The Seder goes on for many hours. The discussions continue long after the Seder has ended. But as our teachers have always emphasized, “This is the essence, the rest is commentary. Go and study!”

May you be blessed.

The first two days of the joyous festival of Passover will be observed this year on Friday night, March 30th and all day Saturday and Sunday, March 30th and April 1st. The seventh and eighth days of Passover begin on Thursday night, April 5th, and continue through Friday and Saturday, April 6th and 7th.

חג כשר ושמח.

Wishing all our friends a wonderful, joyous and meaningful Passover.