Pesach has a remarkable fascination. It holds on to us with tremendous tenacity. No matter where we are, we will not rest until we have a Seder to go to. “Jews who long have drifted from the faith of their fathers”, said Heine, “are stirred in their inmost parts when the old familiar Passover sounds chance to fall upon their ears.”
The statistics are impressive. More than four Jews in every five attend a Seder. They are all there, wise sons and wicked sons, simple sons and sons that know not how to ask: even the scoffers, the sinners, the cynics, and those (as Heine says) “who long have drifted from the faith of their fathers”.
All know they are taking part in something moving and meaningful; as Rav Kook put it, “a great and mighty Divine poem, a poem of confident trust and love (with) a unique musical quality.”
Who is the most exciting guest of all? Strangely, the one whose face you cannot see at all.
We all have an invisible Pesach guest. We pour him a cup of wine. We open the door to let him in. He enters with the rush of wind from the open door, and we believe we see the wine in his cup diminish, if ever so slightly.
Popular theory suggests this invisible guest is Elijah the prophet, unseen guardian of the people of Israel, whose presence attests to this being leil shimmurim, the night of Divine watchfulness. But Elijah is not the only unseen guest. It is not Pesach without a whole series of “virtual” guests:
• There is the Holocaust victim whose presence we sense at Seder. A home without Pesach stabs him with a new unbearable pain. Our neglect can (God forbid) give Hitler the last laugh. The price for escaping the fate of martyrdom is to make the k’doshim feel at home at our Seder table, being Jewish for them as well as for ourselves.
• There is the fifth son, the one who is not even mentioned in the Haggadah. The wise son, the wicked, the simple, the inarticulate – no matter how far each is from the ideal, at least they are there at Seder. But the fifth son has not even come. Maybe he is going through a phase of rebellion; maybe he simply does not know what Pesach is. He must be there in our mind’s eye; we miss him and love him despite everything.
• There is the spirit of Pesach past. At Seder, to borrow Israel Zangwill’s words, “dead ancestors that would not be shaken off” live and move within us. Whatever our generation has achieved was possible only because of foundations laid by the past. We share Pesach with them in thankfulness and joy.
• There is the spirit of Pesach to come, the projection of generations yet unborn. If we observe Pesach today, we can be certain they will have the opportunity of being Jewish. Otherwise there will be nothing left to hand down to them.
Years ago, I addressed an elderly audience in the East End of London. My subject was my work amongst Jewish youth. At question time, one disarmingly ungrammatical comment was made by an old man whose words I have never forgotten. “If we won’t have no children,” he said, “we won’t have no future!”
“If we won’t have no children”… the words were probably meant in a spiritual sense. If our children and grandchildren do not receive intact a living Jewish tradition, it won’t be only the fifth son who will not be at Seder, but the fourth too, and the third, the second and even the first – and Judaism will wither and die.
Many are the unseen guests who join us at Seder, crystallising now into this identity, now into that.
One above all others must know he is welcome. Wherever people have worked for peace, they have been certain of his presence. Wherever people have agonised at inhumanity and been stirred to righteousness and justice, there he has been with them. Wherever people have been moved by moral courage and persevered after truth, they have known he was with them.
Seder, with its theme of freedom and human dignity, evokes his presence. Recognise he is there, and the world at large may feel a sense of a new tomorrow. Give him his due place in the assembly of unseen guests, and may blessing be with you on Pesach and always!