On the first night of Passover one year ago, my wife and I learned a new meaning to the traditional Passover question “why is this night different from all other nights?” Our daughter was celebrating the first night with her boyfriend’s family and the two of them were going to join us for a second night Seder. That year, as we often did, we hosted a Seder at our home with members of my wife’s family. After the meal, my wife noticed that our daughter was calling via video conference. We assumed she was calling to wish us a happy Pesach. Instead, she was calling to tell us that she was engaged!
Why is this night different from all other nights? Well it’s not every day that a daughter gets engaged to be married. Not surprisingly, there was pandemonium in the Johnston household. Everyone at our Seder table wanted all the details (he hid the ring in the Afikoman and rigged the search so that only she would find it!) and privately I wondered who would be the first to ask about children (my father-in-law, of course).
The excitement certainly made our Passover unique.
As I began to think about Passover this year, reflecting back on last year’s excitement (and the upcoming nuptials), I reflected on the parallels between the Passover story and this joyous event. As the parent of an only child, there is a unique and profoundly overwhelming joy to be found when your child finds love and a life partner. There is nothing a parent wants more than the happiness of their child. But for me this exceptional joy had a tinge of sadness as well. My child, my only child, was growing up and away.
Don’t misunderstand me; her fiancé is a kind, caring, and remarkable young man. He is the kind of person that I had always hoped my daughter would find. Perhaps most importantly, he makes her happy. What could be better? Yet, my little girl was moving on in life.
This combination of bitter and sweet is part of the Passover story too. Imagine the joy felt by our ancestors as they escaped centuries of slavery. They must have felt the same kind of immeasurable happiness that I did at hearing my daughter’s wonderful news. However, in celebrating this moment of jubilation we also recognize and remember the suffering that was necessary for us to gain our freedom. We spill drops of wine like tears to acknowledge the extraordinary suffering caused by the plagues. Exceptional joy tinged with sadness.
It can be easy to fall into ritual patterns in Judaism. The same Haggadah, the same stories, the same prayers. Yet, I am constantly surprised to find in our rituals profoundly new and modern meanings. There are lessons in our Passover ritual not only about our history as a people and the power of freedom, but also very personal and profound lessons about life.
Life is full of small (and, unfortunately, sometimes large)moments of sadness, but we are called to celebrate the remarkable life that has been given us. To revel in the miracle that is existence and, even when faced with great sadness, to rise from mourning and remember all that is truly miraculous about life.
This year at our Seder, we will be without my father-in-law for the first time. For many years, he defined what Passover was in the family. It will be a challenging year. Yet, as often happens in life, this great sadness is balanced by the great joy of love and life renewed through our daughter’s wedding. Such is the way of life; such is the lesson that Passover teaches us.
May you find your sense of personal joy and meaning in your Passover Seder this year. I know that we will.
Michael Johnston is the President & CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation of