Elie Weisel's Seder

Haggadah Section: Commentary / Readings

Elie Weisel's Seder

"This is the bread of affliction which our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry enter and eat thereof...."

Thus the Seder, that ancient family ceremony in which all Jews everywhere can and should relive an event that took place thirty-five centuries ago.

Like all Jewish children, I loved this holiday more than any other. Both solemn and joyous, it allowed us an escape from time. Slave of the pharaoh, I followed Moses into the unknown, into the desert. His summons to freedom was stronger than fear.

The Seder transformed our very being. On that evening, my father enjoyed the sovereignty of a king. My mother, softer and lovelier than ever, seemed a queen. And we, the children, were all princes. Even visitors the traveler and forsaken beggars we'd invited to share our meal acted like messengers bearing secrets, or like princes in disguise.

How could I not love Passover? The holiday began well before the ceremony itself. For weeks we lived in a state of anticipation filled with endless preparations. The house had to be cleaned, the books removed to the courtyard for dusting. The rabbi's disciples assisted in making the  matzah. Passover meant the end of winter, the victory of spring, the triumph of childhood.

Here I must interrupt my reverie, for I see that I'm using the past tense. Is it because none of this is true anymore? Not at all. The meaning of the festival and its rites has scarcely changed at all. But everything else has. I still follow the rituals, of course, I recite the prayers, I chant the appropriate Psalms, I tell the story of Exodus, I answer the questions my son asks. But in the deepest part of myself, I know it's not the same. It is not as it used to be.

Nothing is. An abyss separates me from the child I once was. Today I know that no happiness can be complete. In fact, I'll go further and say that now, at this holiday time, the joy I should feel is tainted with melancholy.

It's understandable, of course. Passover was the last holiday I celebrated at home. I recall all this in order to tell you why it's impossible for me to talk about Passover only in the present tense. Do I love it less than before? No, let's just say I love it differently. Now I love it for its questions, the questions which, after all, constitute its  raison d'etre.

The purpose of the Seder is to provoke children to ask questions. "Why is this night different from all other nights?" Because it reminds us of another night, so long ago, yet so near, the last night a persecuted and oppressed people, our people, spent in Egypt. "Why do we eat bitter herbs?" To remind us of the bitter tears that our forefathers shed in exile. Each song, each gesture, each cup of wine, each prayer, each silence is part of the evening's ritual. The goal is to arouse our curiosity by opening the doors of memory.

On this evening, all questions are not only permitted, but valid. And not only those which relate to the holiday. All questions are important; there is nothing worse than indifference. The story shows us four possible attitudes toward history; that of the wise son, who knows the question and asks it; that of the wicked son, who knows the question but refuses to ask it; that of the simple son, who knows the question but is indifferent to it; and finally, that of the ignorant son, who neither knows the question, nor is able to ask it.

In anguish, I wonder: What can we do not to forget the question? What can we do to vanquish oblivion? What significance does Passover have, if not to keep our memories alive? To be Jewish is to take up the burden of the past and include it in our concerns, our projects, and our obligations in the present.

We read the news and it's always the same: violence in Jerusalem, bombings in Lebanon, riots in Hebron... Were it not for its past and its history, what right would Israel have? It is because of Moses, not only Sadat and Begin, that the peace between Israel and Egypt strikes one as miraculous.

As we recite the Haggadah, which tells us of the exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt, we experience a strange feeling, the feeling that we are living in Biblical times, living at a vertiginous pace.

My contemporaries have witnessed and lived through what no other generation has seen: the power of evil, but also the victory of a promise, the kingdom of night, but also the rebirth of a dream; Nazism and its victims, but also the end of the nightmare; the deaths at Babi Yar, but also the defiance of young Russian Jews, the first to challenge the Kremlin's police dictatorship.

Sometimes our heads spin, so frenzied and terrifying is the flow of events. History advances so quickly. And although man has conquered space, he has not conquered his own fears and prejudices. Have we learned nothing? All the wars that continue to rage, all the victims fallen to terrorists' bullets, all the children dying of hunger and disease in Africa and Asia. Why is there so much hatred in the world? And why so much indifference to suffering, to the anguish of others?

I love Passover because it remains for me a cry against insensitivity.

Two stories. The first is about Job, who was in Egypt at the same time as Moses. What's more, he held the important position of adviser in the Pharaoh's court, with the same rank as Jethro and Bilaam. When the Pharaoh asked how he might resolve the Jewish question, Jethro spoke in favor of Moses' request to let his people go. Bilaam, on the other hand, took the opposite stand. When Job was consulted, he refused to take sides; he wished to remain neutral, so he kept silent, neither for nor against. This neutrality, the  Midrash  says, earned him future suffering. At critical times, at moments of peril, no one has the right to abstain, to be prudent. When the life or death or simply the well-being of a community is at stake, neutrality is criminal, for it aids and abets the oppressor and not his victim.

The second story is no less provocative. It is found in the  Midrash , in the passage about the Red Sea. The expected victims are saved at the eleventh hour, while their oppressors drown before their eyes. It is a moment of grace so extraordinary that the angels themselves begin to sing, but God interrupts them with the most humane, the most generous, and the most sympathetic reminder. What has come over you? My creatures are perishing beneath the waves of the sea and you are singing? How can you praise me with your hymns while human beings die?

Although neither of these stories is part of the traditional Seder, I like to tell them. For me, Passover is an ongoing commitment to others and to compassion.

Oh, I know... it's easy enough to say. Compassion for the enemies of one's people who has the right and the audacity to preach such a position? We can understand it on the level of God and the angels, but not on the human level. Why the story, then? To prompt us to question. If God demands compassion, then it must figure into the equation, it must play a role.

A topical question for the whole world and for Israel and its inhabitants. Face to face with hatred, what should their attitude be? What do they feel, what should they feel, in the face of those Palestinians who treat them as despicable usurpers?

I have seen Israel at war and I can attest to the fact that there was no hatred for enemy soldiers. Yes, there was a fierce desire and determination to win, but there was no hatred. At the time, I remember how difficult it was for me to understand this phenomenon; it seemed illogical, irrational. For an enemy who desires only our destruction, you have to feel as much hatred as he feels for you. All of military history exists to prove it. But all of Jewish history exists to prove the contrary. The Jewish people have never had recourse to hatred, even when it involved a fight for survival.

If we'd had to hate all our enemies, we'd never have known where to stop. And so, I return to the last holiday I celebrated at home with my family in my small town. The region was already infested with Germans. In Budapest, Adolf Eichmann was planning the deportation and liquidation of our communities. But we didn't know this. The Russian front seemed so close. At night we heard the cannons, we saw the reddening of the sky, and we thought: Soon, soon we will be free.

Communal prayer was forbidden in the synagogues, so we arranged to hold services in our house. Normally, on Passover eve, we chanted lightheartedly, enthusiastically. But not this time. This time we only murmured.

I remember now, and I'll always remember, that Seder. With bowed heads and heavy hearts, we evoked the memories almost in silence; we dared not ask ourselves if, once again, God would intervene to save us.

In addition to my family, a strange visitor participated in the ceremony. In my imagination, I saw him as the Prophet Elijah. He spoke and fell silent and spoke again, like a madman. Fuming with rage, he frightened us with his cruel and horrifying stories.

Now I understand. He did not want to tell about the past but to predict the future. It is he too that I remember today when I invite "all who are hungry to come and eat." But he will not come. He will never come again. Nor will the others."

From  The Kingdom of Memory  by Elie Wiesel.
Copyright by Elirion Associates, Inc. Printed in  Hadassah Magazine

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