Some of my happiest childhood memories are of this time of year. I remember the excitement of taking the special Pesach crockery and cutlery out from their dusty boxes and helping to clean them. I remember sitting on the sofa the afternoon before the seder started, nestling into my father’s side as he listened to me practising ma nishtanah. I remember the smell of the special Pesach cooking permeating the house.
I also remember having a lot of questions, especially about the seder. Our Shabbat and Yom Tov mealtimes were always full of questions about religion and philosophy and so the seder was an especially exciting time.
One of the questions that always came up was about the line at the beginning of the seder to invite the poor and needy to come and eat and celebrate with us.
כָּל דִּכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכוֹל. כָּל דִּצְרִיךְ יֵיתֵי וְיִפְסַח.
Let all who are hungry come and eat! Let all who are needy comeand celebrate Pesach!
As we are sitting at the table with our family and friends with the seder plate in front of us and the food cooking away in the kitchen, isn’t it a bit late to be inviting other people to join us? We don’t tend to invite someone to a party after the party has already started (unless we are being disingenuous to say the least). So what is going on?
One way to look at this is that the invitation is not really for outsiders, it’s for those already sitting at the table. Why do we need to invite those sitting round the table? Surely they are already sitting there!
The fact is that it is possible to be physically present at the seder without really being there – without focussing on what is happening. We might be sitting at the table, but our minds might be somewhere else – our work, the football match that we’re missing, or even the state of the food simmering away in the kitchen. If we fail to be ‘in the room’ we may miss out on what should be a transformative journey back in time to ancient Egypt. We could go through the whole seder experience and perform all of the rituals – eating our matza and marror, sitting through the retelling of the plagues, dipping our fingers in wine and schmearing copious amounts of charoses over our lettuce (and commenting on how good it is) – and completely miss the point of it all.
Not only that, but so much of the seder is designed to create wonder and generate questions we mistakenly think that it is entirely designed for the children. In reality the seder it there for all of us: we are all supposed to view ourselves as having left Egypt, we are all obligated to eat matzah and marror and hear the story of our Exodus and redemption being retold and we are all supposed to be invested in the meaning of the seder.
It is less about the seder being an experience for children, and more about adults becoming uninhibited and child-like in their thirst for knowledge by asking good questions. We can only do that if we are hungry to learn.
May we all prepare ourselves for the seder with an appetite for plumbing the depths of Jewish learning and use the experience to relive and understand the redemption of our people, arguably the seminal moment in our shared history.