Pesach Message: A Seder Lesson From the Hostage Families

Dearest Hostage Families,

Everything you have taught us over these six torturous months can be summarized in a biblical phrase, vayima’ein l’hitnacheim, “(they) refused to be consoled.” You put your lives on hold and dedicate your every moment to advocating, traveling, and speaking on behalf of your loved ones held captive. You have demonstrated what true commitment to family looks like. It is a lesson we badly needed, and we hope we have begun to learn.

Your dedication to your loved ones has inspired an outstanding wave of love and dedication within the Jewish family and beyond. In a world of unspeakable cruelty, you are symbols of compassion. At a time when our nation was on the verge of self-destruction over its internal differences, you reminded us of the core principle of enduring brotherhood. You will be on our minds and our lips this Pesach as we gather with our diverse families, all four sons, to remind ourselves of who we are, our shared past and common destiny.

We will think of you when we perform the seder’s very first distinctive act, the dipping of the karpas vegetable into salt water. Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazy in the 16th century suggested that this dipping is performed at the beginning of the seder as a reminder that the immediate cause of our exile in Egypt, the very beginning of the Passover story, was the sale of Yosef into slavery by his jealous brothers. While the brothers harbored no love for Yosef, they had to address their father’s attachment to him and so they took his multicolored cloak, dipped it into the blood of a goat, and presented it to their father as evidence of Yosef’s apparent death. They thought this would work, that Yaakov would see it, get it, grieve, and move on. They were wrong. Vayima’ein l’hitnacheim, “he refused to be consoled.” Days would turn into weeks, months, and years, and Yaakov continued to grieve, because family is forever.

The brothers in their betrayal of Yosef had tried to walk away and not look back, but they couldn’t. Yaakov’s unremitting grief taught them what enduring relationship means and led them to use the opportunity of the famine to search for Yosef in Egypt. Long before the appearance of Moshe and of frogs jumping everywhere, Yosef’s choice to embrace his brothers and prefer enduring relationship over resentment and revenge constituted the first stage of our redemption in Egypt.

That redemption would culminate when each family would dip into the blood of the Paschal offering and place it on the doorway of their family home and then stay safely inside that home and partake of the original family Pesach seder. While the Egyptian homes around them were seeing their future crumble with the plague of their firstborn, the Jewish home was being reestablished as the safest and most enduring structure in our lives, a place where family gathers, communicates, shares their story, and builds enduring loyalty. That, taught Rabbi Ashkenazy, is symbolized by the second dipping of the seder, performed following the reading of the Haggadah, thereby framing the evening as the journey from betrayal to loyalty.

When the Haggadah of October 7 is written, the text may start with border breaches, Hamas, and Nir Oz, but it will have its own dipping of karpas alluding to the frightening internal hatred and distance that was growing within the Jewish family preceding that date. We will painfully recall how we Jews were able to renounce brotherhood and sisterhood, to walk away from defending each other, to plow ahead and address our own needs and fears without considering the needs and the fears of others. We will note with shame how little the commitment to the Jewish family seemed to matter.

But then came October 7 and we all met you, the parents and children, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, uncles, aunts, and cousins, shemi’anu lehitnachem, who refused to be consoled. You taught us what family means, what loyalty means. You showed us that we are Klal Yisrael and that we can never go back to the internal hatred and distance of October 6.

This Pesach, many seder tables around the world will have empty chairs serving as reminders of your beloved family members; others will display their posters and pictures. But all of us will be drawing on your example, your refusal to be consoled and your enduring commitment to family. And each of us will need to plug that example into how we live and relate both to our biological brothers and sisters and to our Klal Yisrael brothers and sisters writ large.

Once upon a time long ago we sold one of our brothers into slavery, seeking to exclude him from our lives and our story. Once upon a time not so long ago we fought some of our brothers and sisters, seeking to exclude them from our lives and our story. All too often we ignore some of our brothers and sisters, dismissing their significance in our lives and our story.

You have helped us see that we cannot and must not do that anymore. You continue to teach us that by your refusal to be consoled.

L’shana haba’ah b’Yerushalayim habnuyah, k’ir shechubra lo yachdav. Next year in a rebuilt Jerusalem, a city filled with brothers and sisters firmly joined together, a nation united, and your loved ones home.