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Transmitting Memory

The Seder is replete with strange customs and rituals to encourage questions that we answer with stories.

But why don’t we just read the story?

Aside from the fact that the story is incredibly long, R’ Tzadok haKohen explains that the perpetual mitzvah of knowledge and history of the Exodus is not enough on Seder night, nor are the reasons behind the mitzvos, nor even the cleverest thumbwavy pedantry. The Haggadah’s goal is engagement, the vehicle for which is stories – וַאֲפִילוּ כֻּלָּנוּ חֲכָמִים כֻּלָּנוּ נְבוֹנִים כֻּלָּנוּ זְקֵנִים כֻּלָּנוּ יוֹדְעִים אֶת הַתּוֹרָה מִצְוָה עָלֵינוּ לְסַפֵּר בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם.

Seder night is a night of storytelling. The goal of our Seder should be to engender a feeling, an experience of emotional connection, a sense of wonder, and a sense of identity and heritage. On Pesach, we refill the fuel tank of our spirit, rooting our identity in where we come from, overflowing with the wealth of knowing where we come from and where we can go. Our reaction should be one of awe, amazement, curiosity, and wonder – it’s not the time to explain a halachic discrepancy. Even the wisest of us must undergo this journey every year because there isn’t just more to know; there is further and deeper to experience beyond the assimilation of more information.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that the two Hebrew words for inheritance have very different meanings – נַחֲלָה / יְרוּשָׁה. The root נחל means a flowing river, and the root רשת means conquest or capture, as in מורשה קהלת יעקב.

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that tradition is not inherited in the way a river flows – we cannot make the grave error of assuming children will just follow their heritage. Tradition is an inheritance secured through conquest because when you invest in your learning, you have earned and acquired your knowledge. Children and questions are central to the Seder because through their questions, they make what is ours into theirs.

When the wise son asks what the point of it all is, we answer that we don’t eat anything after the Korban Pesach. Rav Kook understands this as an allegory; let your children experience the lingering aftertaste of our traditions – don’t dilute them. 

We all grew up sharing a table with extended families, and we don’t just tell stories. We taste the strange foods, the Matza, Maror, and Charoses, talk about what it means to be free, and sing songs to celebrate our blessings. Everyone remembers being the one to ask the four questions and steal the afikoman. As we grow up, we become the ones to answer the questions, and it’s our afikoman getting taken. The Seder’s enduring power is its way of transmitting our memory and identity across generations. It should be no surprise that more people go to a Seder than to shul on Yom Kippur.

That’s the power of ritual, simple things we do as children because it’s fun, and as adults, because we know that our identity is one of the most precious things we can pass on. We can’t just tell stories at the Seder, that would miss the point entirely. Seder night is about what we do together as an expression of collective memory and shared ideals.

A great Seder holds a mirror to our hearts, that tells our universal tale of pain and redemption, and affirms to us that redemption exists and will always be more resilient than any force of transient evil or misfortune. A great Seder is a source of lasting inspiration not just in our lives, but for countless generations to come, as with countless generations before – בְּכָל־דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת־עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם.

The Jewish People make it out of Egypt, ushering in a new age of freedom and victory, culminating at Sinai, but the victory is not everlasting, as no victory over evil is. Eventually, Moshe will die and so will all his people. Darkness and persecution will find their way into the world again and the entire struggle begins anew, which brings us back to the importance of the Seder experience.

In order to comprehend the experience we are living in, we must, by imagination and intellect, be lifted out of it. We must be given to see it whole; but since we can never wholly gaze upon our own life while we live it, we gaze upon the symbol, that comprehends our own.

The Seder is such a symbol, persisting as a mother of truth through countless generations, coming therefore with the approval not of one group of people but of all. When you see yourself as part of the Seder experience – חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת־עַצְמוֹ – part of the living history that is still becoming, with the ebbs and flows and light and darkness, the marvelous translation has occurred, and you are lifted out of yourself to see your life wholly.