Why one is the Seder's special number

There may be tensions in the family but Pesach helps us to stick together


By Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, April 11, 2014
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At the Seder table, we celebrate the fact that every single person can connect with our Torah tradition. We read in the Haggadah that the Torah addresses itself to four types of children who represent a cross-section of the Jewish people. “The Torah speaks to four children: one who is wise, one who is wicked, one who is simple and one who does not know how to ask”.

The repetition of the term “one” is unusual and appears unnecessary. So what purpose does it serve?
In our eyes, every single Jewish child is equal to one. The wise and committed child who is an endless source of naches for his or her parents and grandparents is one. The child who breaks their hearts, disappointing them continuously, is one. The simple child who might not become a lawyer, doctor or internet entrepreneur, in line with his or her parents’ expectations, is also one, and so too is the child who is ignorant through lack of adequate education.

We love and value each child. With genuine and natural affection, our care and compassion extend equally to every child. All are included and all must be welcome.

Close to the beginning of the Seder, we practise the custom of karpas, where we dip a vegetable in salt water. Rabbi Shlomo Kluger (Poland, 1783 – 1869) explains the fascinating origin of this practice. The term karpas appears just once in the Bible, in the Book of Esther.

Karpas was one of the materials used to decorate the palace of King Ahasuerus. In his commentary to the Book of Genesis, Rashi suggests that the striped coat that Jacob gave to his favourite child, Joseph, was made of karpas. The Jerusalem Talmud states that our first dipping at the Seder serves as a reminder of the most significant dipping mentioned in the Bible: when Joseph’s brothers dipped his coat in the blood of an animal and presented it to their father, exclaiming in respect of Joseph that “a wild animal devoured him”.

Through staging a Seder we fulfil the precept of remembering our exodus from Egypt. However, the custom of karpas conveys two powerful lessons. In addition to recalling how we left Egypt, we must also understand how we arrived there in the first place. It was a sorry tale of jealousy and enmity in a dysfunctional family setting that plunged the children of Israel into a long and bitter exile.

The second lesson conveyed by our custom of karpas relates to parenting. Although the interactive nature of Seder night makes it a fine model of good parenting, we commence the proceedings with reference to the Bible’s most notable example of poor parenting. Through karpas we recall Jacob’s inexcusable favouritism shown to one child above all others. By equating Joseph to more than “one” in his eyes, his other children understood that they were less valuable. This was a mistake which would come to haunt Jacob for the rest of his life.

In our Friday evening prayers we recite the verse from Psalms, “Those who love the Lord hate evil”. Note that we do not say, “Those who love the Lord hate the wicked”. It is beyond our capacity to determine who is righteous and who is not. We leave that up to God.

We should, of course, clearly identify appropriate modes of conduct. It is entirely right to abhor evil and to show contempt for shameful behaviour. However, that is not the same as rejecting the perpetrators themselves. For all we know, there may be extenuating circumstances and in the eyes of God they might be more righteous than we are.

Like Jacob, we cannot always foresee the consequences of our actions. The ripple effect can sometimes be significant. On this Pesach, the festival of our freedom, let us welcome every Jew into our synagogues and into our homes. Let us heed the call of Ha lachma anya at the very start of the Seder: “All who wish are welcome to join us”. Let us not judge others but rather welcome each person equally as “one” of us and may we merit the blessing ““Who is like your people, Israel, one nation on earth?”.

Last updated: 6:10pm, April 11 2014