By Rabbi Avi Shafran ~
A memory from when I was a teen remains vivid. A middle-aged fellow had come to shul one Thursday morning because he had yahrtzeit. The shul hosted a mixture of Jews, some “frum from birth” (though babies can’t really be observant, you know what I mean); some who had become observant as a result of the mentorship of the rabbi (my father, may he be well); and some who hadn’t yet fully embraced their religious identities. This fellow was in the last category, and he was called up for an aliyah to the Torah.
He seemed nervous; he clearly hadn’t assumed such a privilege recently—perhaps not since his bar mitzvah. In my thoughts, I coached him.
Repeat after me, I silently prompted: “Asher bochar bonu mikol ho’amim (who has chosen us from among all nations) “vinosan lonu es Toraso (and has given us His Torah).”
The man’s life was passing before his very eyes; you could tell. The occasion was both momentous and terrifying to him.
When he began the bracha, he made a strange mistake. First it made me wince. Then it made me think.
“Asher bochar bonu,” he intoned, a bit tentatively, “mikol”—slight hesitation—“haleylos shebechol haleylos anu ochlim…”
The poor fellow had jumped the track of the blessing over the Torah and was barreling along with the Four Questions a Jewish child asks at the Pesach seder! “Who has chosen us from…all other nights, for on all other nights we eat…” He was quickly corrected and set back on track.
My first thought was a sad one. The brachos on the Torah and the Four Questions may have comprised the sum of his Jewish knowledge.
But then I regarded what had happened the way I imagine Reb Levi of Berdichev would have done: Here stood a simple Jew, inexperienced in most things Jewish, oblivious to the richness of his ancestral faith. And yet, he knows the Four Questions. By heart.
When he tries to recite the bracha over the Torah, they come tiptoeing in, unsummoned but determined. The seder is a part of him.
As it is of countless Jews far removed from any other aspect of Jewish observance.
Surely that is why Jews seem so compelled to create “haggados” of all sorts of bizarre types. The 1960s saw a “civil-rights haggadah” and a “Soviet Jewry haggadah.” Nuclear disarmament, vegetarian (Paschal Turnip, anyone?) and feminist versions followed. It’s still happening today; a “New American Haggadah,” with “contemporary” commentaries and musings by an assortment of personalities has been much ballyhooed in the media of late.
At the core of all the mutations, though, lies the age-old recounting of how our ancestors left Egypt and became a nation, preparing them for, fifty days later, G-d’s revelation at Har Sinai. Jews, it seems, far as they may have drifted from their source, have a strange compulsion to preserve the Pesach seder, even if they have to coat it in foreign flavors to satisfy their pop palates.
Because the seder, with its message of Jewish peoplehood, is what links each Jewish generation to the next, and all of them, in turn, to the genesis of Klal Yisrael. Even Jews who have lapsed in belief and observance are pushed by some inner motivation they themselves cannot explain to communicate the message of the seder to their young. Sometimes the message resonates even more strongly within the newer recipients.
When I was in yeshiva, the period between Purim and Pesach was called the PPPP— “Post-Purim, Pre-Pesach”—lull. It was not the most productive time for learning for most of us. But one of my rabbaim (rabbis) would always stress that that made it all the more special an opportunity. To apply oneself to Torah study at a challenging time is a special merit.
No such lull confronts those of us no longer in yeshiva. These weeks are busy ones—from the clean-up and mishloach manos search-and-consume missions after Purim to the immediately ensuing Pesach cleaning and preparations.
But it offers us its own special opportunity: to reach out to Jews with limited Jewish backgrounds, and invite them to join us for a more traditional seder than they might otherwise have. A seder that, while it may not be contemporary, is timeless.
Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine.
© 2012 AMI MAGAZINE