In Every Generation, Finding Redemption in the Seder By David Arnow

A single word captures the concern of the Passover Haggadah: redemption.

Encyclopedia Judaica defines redemption as “salvation from the states or circumstances that destroy the value of human existence or human existence itself.” At its core lies a relatively simple idea: The future will be better than the present. Not just a little brighter–eventually more like the difference between night and day. Maimonides put it simply: “In that era, there will be neither famine nor war, neither jealousy nor strife.”

Redemption is about the potential for positive change, ultimately dramatic change, even if it comes about slowly.

“Now we are slaves. Next year we will be free.” Whether you interpret that statement in terms of political oppression or spiritual enslavement to false gods, how can you say those words if you don’t believe in the possibility of change?

Maybe that’s what the Haggadah’s wicked child represents: a cynical voice calling Passover a charade, arguing that nothing really changes. Why study all the laws and customs of Passover? They’re about differentiating Passover from the rest of the year. Why bother to make one night different from all others, if the fundamental reality points to an eternal status quo rather than a world we can improve? During the Seder we recline like kings and queens. We ask questions, as free people are wont to do. The Seder promises that you can make one night different, and that’s a start.

That Jews held Seders in concentration camps provides an infinitely poignant illustration of Judaism’s unshakable faith in redemption.

For some inexplicable reason, the Germans permitted Jews in Bergen-Belsen to bake matzo one Passover. Rabbi Israel Spira of Bluzhov (1881-1981) led the Seder. In the midst of unspeakable degradation he searched and found hope. Here’s part of what he said:

“Tonight we have only matzo, we have no moments of relief, not a moment of respite for our humiliated spirits… But do not despair, my young friends…

For this is also the beginning of our redemption. We are slaves who served Pharaoh in Egypt. The letters of the Hebrew word for slaves, avadim [ayin, bet, dalet, yod, mem] form an acronym for the Hebrew phrase: David, the son of Jesse, your servant, your Messiah [David–dalet, ben–bet, Yishai–yod, avdechah–ayin, meshichechah–mem, a phrase from the Sabbath morning liturgy also found in the Haggadah]. Thus, even in our state of slavery we find intimations of our eventual freedom through the coming of the Messiah. We who are witnessing the darkest night in history, the lowest moment of civilization, will also witness the great light of redemption…”

Perhaps faith in redemption would not have become such a prominent feature in the Jewish psyche had our history been less traumatic.

That’s the rub.

The very experiences that nurture faith in redemption can also spawn hopelessness. It’s not hard to look back and agree that “in every generation they rise up to destroy us,” to quote the Haggadah’s powerful but uncharacteristically embittered take on Jewish history. The good news is that “the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hands.” But that’s hardly an end to the oppression and persecution that have stalked our people over the ages.

On the whole, however, the Haggadah wants us to choose hope over despair. The last verse of “Chad Gadya,” in many traditions the Seders conclusion, leaves us with a glimmer of the ultimate hope–the triumph of life over death itself: “Then came the Holy One, blessed be He, and slew the angel of death.”

We cannot know when our travails will end: we can only have faith that the future need not be as bleak as the past.

To believe otherwise is to reject the promise of hope that animates the entire story of the Exodus and the Haggadah. To choose despair and cynicism is to endorse Egypt as the end of the road, the ultimate truth.

To have faith in redemption is to believe that suffering, exile and oppression will end–someday. However distant that day may be, those who can envision it, muster the strength to bring it closer.

Belief in redemption stands as one of those fundamental human divides. It’s the difference between those who believe we’re in a tunnel, though we sometimes can’t see the light at the end, and those who think there is no tunnel, just a world that’s unalterably dark.

The compilers of the Haggadah certainly knew the dark times of Jewish history. But they chose to bequeath us a book that defiantly celebrates hope.

At the Seder, we hold their shining gift in our hands.

May we guard it with love and tenacity. May our Passover Seders fortify our faith in redemption. May we pass that faith down to our children. May we strengthen one another to build a world redeemed.

Published in The Forward
April 18, 2003