And when your children ask you, What mean you by this rite?
Pesach is for Israel, in a way, what Christmas is for American culture: an event that dominates popular consciousness for a period of a month before the holiday: the housewares and hardware and furniture stores, the painters and gardeners, the schools, the travel agents, the supermarkets and greengrocers, the caterers, the entertainment industry all are in a frenzy of preparing, marketing, planning for seder night and for the week of vacation that follows. The newspapers are thick not only with ads, but with special supplements on Pesach preparation, on travel abroad (250,000 Israelis left the country for Pesach this year), on where to hike and how to entertain the kids in Israel, on reminiscences of seders past, etc. Almost everyone attends a seder. The traffic jams before and after can be a national disaster. However, listening to water-cooler conversations and reading the pre- and post-seder newspaper features reveals that for many, the seder is neither a spiritual high nor an educational experience. For many, the seder is a ritual to which we don't really look forward, a routine that we feel obligated to endure, an orgy of food, a family gathering that includes family members we are relieved to see only once a year, a boring recitation of an obscure text. And it seems that even in many families in which all these negative descriptions are not relevant, the Haggadah itself remains largely unexplored and incomprehensible, saved to some extent by the charoset and echad mi yode'a and four cups of wine.
What is sad and ironic in this image of the seder in Israeli society, this sense that it is an obligatory ritual without relevant content, is that the Haggadah is clearly designed to have just the opposite impact: the seder is meant to be primarily an educational experience, a creative and sophisticated passing on of collective memory from generation to generation. From the four questions to the four children, from the symbolic foods to seeking the afikomon, from opening the door to chad gadya, the seder is about parents and children, about how we cope with the eternal educational dilemma of making the parents' experience real for the children. It is intended to hold the attention of the youngest by color and music and taste while it stimulates the intellect of the more mature as it recounts a miraculous history and hints at moral dilemmas (Who is a slave and who is free? What is idol worship? Why did God harden Pharaoh's heart? Who is excluded from the community? Why did the Egyptians have to suffer?) Unlike the prayerbook, the Haggadah is not merely a sacred text that must be recited to fulfill an obligation; it is a complete multi-media multi-age curriculum in Jewish identity and values which perhaps explains why it has been issued in more editions (probably around 4,000, many of them illustrated) than any other Jewish book, ever.
I suspect that Pesach is as big a deal as it is here in Israel because it represents a conjunction of transitions that affect us on different levels: on top of the visceral response to the transition from winter to spring, the pagan basis of the holiday, we have grafted a national-religious narrative, of redemption, of the birth of our people. So we clean and paint, we celebrate and vacation; we begin afresh (note that Pesach falls in the first of the months [Exodus 12:2]). However, it seems to me that another transition that is central to Pesach is that of the generations. The genius of the seder is the seamless integration of the pagan substrate of the spring festival, the universal value of liberation, and the national-historical narrative with the educational challenge of making all of this come alive for the next generation. If the educational component gets lost, then the whole exercise becomes pointless.
Why does Elijah visit on seder night? Elijah's role in our tradition is to proclaim the coming of the messiah. It is clear that we have not repaired the world in our lifetime the best we can hope for is to educate our children in such a way that their world will be better than ours. Teaching our children is our modest contribution to redeeming the world. That's what we do at the seder.