More than the Jews have kept Shabbat,” said Ahad Ha’am, the early Zionist writer, “Shabbat has kept the Jews.” A century later, he might observe that despite assimilationist trends to the contrary, not only are most Jews wanting to be at a seder, but the seders have been “keeping” the Jews — preserving our memories, solidifying friendship and families, binding the generations, and emphasizing our history, values, and messianic future — like no other night of the Jewish year.
No other night breaks down the walls between traditional and secular, elevating and emphasizing our common peoplehood to the extent that the seder does. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister (and not “religious” in the way that the word is usually understood), used to muse that the Mayflower sailed for the New World more than 300 years ago, the beginning of the great American experiment. But how many Americans, he wondered, knew the exact day that it sailed, or exactly what they ate on board? The Israelites left Egypt more than 3,300 years ago and it is still commonly known that they left on the 15th of Nisan and that they ate matzah (and why); the reason we know is that we still consider ourselves to have been there, no less than Moses himself.
“Children” of all ages — wise, wicked, and innocent alike — are welcomed into a culture where questions are welcomed, even if answers are elusive. They are taught that in every generation there are bad guys, but if you stay up late and open the door for Elijah — yes, the prophet himself — you can see him “drinking” the wine from his cup; if you look carefully enough you can see the wine rippling, but only for those who look carefully, with the eyes of a child. By the end of the seder, even those who had entered as cynics can often imagine the messianic promise that awaits, that after 2,000 years, “Next Year in Jerusalem” is true, once again, for anyone with a ticket.
Over those 2,000 long years, seders have been celebrated in times both good and horrific, but always with that unique Jewish blend of realism (in every generation our enemies will arise) and optimism (next year in Jerusalem, and God Himself will destroy the Angel of Death). In every generation, no matter how poor or overcrowded the table, there’s a seat for everyone at any self-respecting seder, for no one is a stranger on seder night. Millennials will be celebrating in a variety of alternative ways and locations. Young Lubavitchers from Crown Heights will be making seders for thousands, even in Nepal and Thailand. In New York City, the Masbia food pantry will be offering dignified waiter-service seders to the poor, for even the poorest among us should not have to pour their own wine on this most awesome of nights.
It is the “Night of Watching,” and the angels are surely noticing that on seder nights the Jews in these earthly realms, in this often-broken world, are even more glorious than we suppose.