It is time to come home. It is Pesach and we return home. Returning home does not just mean that children who are no longer living at home return home for the Seder. Everyone who celebrates the Seder at Passover-time is returning home.
Pesach expresses the essential foundation of Jewishness. As time goes on it becomes ever more compelling that Jewish national history begins in each family, and begins at a family meal and not in a national assembly. Sinai has to wait for the Jewish family.
The single most important object of the Passover Seder is the family table. The family table is the theatrical setting for the drama of Passover, surrounded, fortified, and treasured by those who have unconditional love for each other. The family table is the center of our first and greatest Jewish national commemoration. The family's custodianship of this national meal is what has made the Seder the oldest extant ongoing religious ritual. The expression of the national in the familial is dramatized throughout the Seder. The cast is children and parents. The dramatic encounters in the Seder take place between parents and children.
The Four Questions are asked by child to parent. Parents have two features that no teacher possesses. In love they create the child. In unconditional love they raise the child. The whole Jewish tradition transmitted on this night is packaged in this unconditional love, in the loving environment of the family dinner table. Judaism assigned this task to the family because families are better suited than institutions to the transmission of the Jewish tradition. Jewish life is lived in family. It is supported and inspired by synagogue and school.
Families are complicated. Each child has to be met in their uniqueness. There are wise children and wise adults; simple children and simple adults; children and adults who do not know how to connect, for whom a door must be opened by a loving parent. And who can forget the wicked child. The Haggadah approaches the wicked child in two ways. The wicked child has, on the one hand, been told the truth. You asked, "What does the service of the Seder mean to you?" The wicked child did not say, "What does the Seder mean to us?" The wicked child excludes him or herself. The use of pronouns teaches much about a person's stance in relation to others.
For example: criticizing the government of Israel is a Jewish national sport. All who do so fall into one of two categories: Those who talk about Israel as "we" and "us," and those who use "you" and "they." To use 'you' and "they" is to separate oneself from the Jewish people. That is what the wicked child does.
However, at the very same moment that the wicked child is confronted with "you have separated yourself and thereby you have decided your destiny is different than that of the Jewish people," the parent is instructed to "soften the child's teeth." This means, through teaching and love, help the wicked child to "soften," in other words, help the wicked child learn how to take the sharpness out of his or her words. Taking the bite out of someone's teeth is the beginning of engagement and learning. The wicked child is not asked to leave the table. The wicked child remains at the table because of the demand of unconditional love.
When we come home this Pesach, we are coming home from a complicated year in which so much has overtaken the Jewish people and American society in the polis, the public square in which great democracies organize themselves. It is time to come home, exhausted though we may be, to the Jewish verities of the Seder. We are a family that became a faith and remained a family. The redemption of Ethiopian Jews, one of whose great airlifts was named Operation Moses, was amongst our greatest tests. We looked into the faces of black Jews from Africa and we saw our family face. Thus, they became the first black Africans to come to a Western country, Israel, not in slave shackles.
Unconditional love is not mindless. Unconditional love does not mean a suspension of basic principles or a denial of differences. The familial attachment of one Jew to another is testimony to the strength of family ties in the face of so many differences. Unconditional love does not mean overlooking or ignoring the complexity of each family and the fact that there are important matters about which there is difference. Unconditional love means that family always treats family like family. First and foremost, this means no one ever loses membership in the family or their seat at the Seder table.
This coming Passover, as you sit down at the Seder, look around at those gathered, family and friends; remember that more than 3,000 years ago a fairly similar group of people sat at the Seder table on that first Passover long ago in Egypt. It is the family gathered around the Seder table that has been the custodian of this Jewish people to this very day. And so will it continue from beginning to beginning to beginning.
Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko is Rabbinic Scholar of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago.