An elderly man in Miami calls his son in New York and says, "I hate to ruin your day, but I have to tell you that your mother and I are divorcing. Forty-five years of misery is enough."
"Pop, what are you talking about?" the son screams.
"We can't stand the sight of each other any longer," the old man says. "We're sick of each other, and I'm sick of talking about this, so you call your sister in Chicago and tell her," and he hangs up.
Frantic, the son calls his sister, who explodes on the phone, "Like heck they're getting divorced," she shouts, "I'll take care of this. They went insane." She calls her father immediately and screams at the old man, "You are NOT getting divorced! Don't do a single thing until I get there. I'm calling my brother back, and we'll both be there tomorrow. Until then, don't do a thing, DO YOU HEAR ME?" and she hangs up.
The old man hangs up the phone and turns to his wife. "Honey,” he says, "I got great news. The kids are coming for Passover and paying their own airfare."
From a Nation to Family
Passover is, by its very definition, a national holiday. Commemorating our birth as a people, Passover celebrates the creation of a new and free nation destined to transform civilization. Following its Exodus from Egypt, the youthful nation could forge its own destiny, crate its own vision, build its own homeland, and make its unique impact on mankind—all the endeavors the Jewish people engaged in following their liberation from Egyptian tyranny on Passover.
One would thus expect that the holiday rituals would emphasize the "nation" motif, the idea of our collective and national identity. Perhaps the Torah would instruct us to assemble on Passover the entire nation (as it instructs at the end of Deuteronomy to gather the whole nation once in seven years, during the Sukkot holiday), or suggest another ritual that would reflect the national dimensions of Jewish life.
Yet, surprisingly, the Torah says, that the way Passover is to be celebrated is through individualized seder meals, conducted in the privacy of homes. In the words of the Bible: “Every man must take a lamb for the family, a lamb for each household. If the household is too small for a lamb, then he and a close neighbor can obtain a lamb together, as long as it is for specifically designated individuals. Individuals shall be designated for a lamb according to how much each one will eat(1).”
And the Bible continues: “It must be eaten in one house; do not bring any of its meat out of the house(2).”
In other words, each home had to have its own lamb and its own Passover seder meal; each Jew was individually designated to one particular seder; every person had to be confined to his or her particular home or company for the duration of the Passover repast. You could not switch homes or meals in middle of your seder. You could not have another family join your seder feast if they were not previously designated to your meal. The borders between groups who “signed up” for a seder were upheld strongly.
Even today, in the absence of the Jerusalem Temple, when the Passover lamb is not part of the seder, the emphasis of Passover remains on the individual home and family. “You must relate the story to your child,” Moses instructs the people(3). The entire Seder structure was created in order to engage the children seated around the family table(4). Jewish law prohibits starting the afikoman (the final piece of matzah eaten at the seder as a commemoration of the Passover lamb) in one home and then switching to another home.
Also the prohibition against eating leaven (chamatz) and the instruction to eat matzah during Passover express themselves primarily in the confinements of the home, not in the national existence of the nation.
Why the absolute and radical borders between homes and individualized groups during a national holiday? Logic would dictate otherwise: during a national holiday, the borders between the members of the nation should be relaxed?
The Nucleus of Civilization
The answer to this question captures Judaism’s perspective on the path of a people to redemption and renewal. More than three millennia ago, the Torah was teaching us that the battle for society began at the home. The family—not the Temple, not the synagogue, not the university, not the market place, not the battlefield—was the nucleus of civilization. It is in the home—in the loving, nonjudgmental, and warm embrace of the home, the spot where expressions of tenderness gush out without any sensation of awkwardness and without any dread of ridicule (in a famous expression)—where the future of humanity is molded.
We are well aware today of how much of the emotional turmoil in our lives can be traced back to the homes that raised us. “If you don't believe in ghosts, you've never been to a family reunion,” Ashleigh Brilliant once remarked. Many of our challenges and blessings arise out of the homes in which we develop our primal identities and relationships. So the Torah is telling us, that if there is to be reformation, if there is to be a change, if there is to be redemption, it must begin in the home. It is here that truth is learned, that integrity is cultivated, that self-discipline is instilled, that love is nurtured, that morality is ingrained, that a vision for liberty is embedded.
Judaism understood that what matters most occurred not in boardrooms, but in kitchens; not on the desks of CEO’s but in the arms of mothers and fathers cuddling their children and sharing with them the story of the human potential to liberate itself from the confinements of instinct, selfishness, hate and superficiality.
On Passover the Torah tells us: You want to become a nation and change the world? Go home!
(Based on a Passover letter written by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, 11 Nissan, 5724, 24 March, 1964. This was the time when the once un-breakable family bond began to erode in the United States, creating a vacuum that transformed our society.)
1) Exodes 12:3-4. Cf. Talmud Pesachim 81a. 2) Exodus 12:46. 3) Exodus 13:8. 4) See Talmud tenth chapter of Pesachim.