A respected talmid chacham shared with me the following story, or more accurately stories within stories, to convey the essence of the mitzvah of leil haSeder – "And you shall tell it to your son . . ."
One year he took his family away for Shabbos HaGadol just a few days before Pesach to a small settlement in the Galilee. Most of the inhabitants of the settlement were simple people, whose primary livelihood was from the renting out of cottages during summer vacation. The arrival of a talmid chacham, with a distinctive frock, on the settlement occasioned much interest, and he was asked to deliver the traditional Shabbos HaGadol drashah.
My friend was used to speaking to advanced yeshiva students and kolleleit, and he wondered what he could say that would benefit a largely unlearned audience. In the end, he decided to speak about how precious Seder night is, and how we can take advantage of the opportunity it affords us. Seder night, he stressed, is much more than a wonderful occasion for the entire family – often three generations together -- to gather around the table. It is the time for a father to convey to his children the essence of his "ani ma'amin," to share with them the lessons that he would most like to be remembered by, and, even more important, that he would like his children to live by.
To bring home to them what he was talking about, he told them the following story.
One of the talmidim in the yeshiva in which my friend was a maggid shiur lost his father. My friend went to comfort his student, and as was his custom, he kept the discussion centered entirely on the niftar (deceased). His talmid told him that his father had never had much of an opportunity to learn Torah. At a young age, he had arrived on one of the kindertransports from Germany to England. Because he came all by himself, without any family members, he was eventually sent to Palestine from England. Upon arriving in Palestine, he made his way to Petach Tikva.
Though he had never learned in a yeshiva, he remained frum, and, in time, became the initiator of almost everything that took place in the Great Synagogue of Petach Tikva. He arranged the various shiurim (classes) in the shul – shiurim which he faithfully attended himself. And he was the one who took responsibility for the upkeep of the shul. His sons, still young at the time of his petirah, all grew to be a talmidei chachamim. The younger boy, only around ten at the time of his father's petirah, was eventually chosen as a son-in-law by a major rosh yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael.
While still at the yeshiva house, my friend asked the older of the sons what was the secret of his father's success. How did someone with little formal learning and all alone in the world from a young age grow to be someone who took upon himself so much responsibility for the Klal and merited so much success with his own children. The young man replied that he had only recently thought about the question for the first time. Until then, his father was just his father, and everything about him was just the way it was. But when the question of how his father had remained faithful to his Judaism, while so many from ostensibly more favorable circumstances had not, finally occurred to him, he had asked his father. His father answered with a story from his own childhood.
As a young boy, less than ten years old, he was sent by his father to Germany from the town in which they lived in Austria. For some reason, only he was allowed to cross the border. Father and son sat in the early morning darkness waiting for the train that would separate them forever. Neither spoke.
Finally, the lights of the train appeared. As the father lifted his son onto the train, he broke the silence. "Zei a gutte Yid – Remain a good Jew, " he told his son. As the train began to pull out of the station, the father ran alongside yelling, "Zei a gutte a Yid."The train gained speed, and the father kept running after it, screaming, "Zei a gutte Yid." As he ran, the father tripped and fell prostrate on the station platform. That image of his father running after the train and then falling, as he desperately tried to implant the message to be a good Jew in his heart, remained with the young boy the rest of his life. And he lived up to it, under the most adverse circumstances.
When he had finished telling the story of those last minutes between a Jewish father and son and their lifetime impact, my friend urged his listeners to view the Seder night as if it were the last five minutes that they will have with their children, the last chance that they will have to influence them.
And how should we fulfill the commandment, "ve'higad'ta l'vincha – And you shall tell your son"? By telling him, "b'avur zeh asah Hashem li b'zaisi m'Mizrayim – on account of that which Hashem did for me in my going out from Egypt." "Zeh (this) is the language of pointing. The going out of Egypt must be something tangible to us, a real event in which we are taking part. Only then will it become real to our children as well.
For that to happen, we must devote our time preparing for Seder night with the type of visualization described by the Alter M'Kelm: "In the normal course, something which took place many years earlier lacks the power to profoundly affect us. Therefore Chazal instruct us to involve all our senses, and to visualize the events time after time, until we ourselves personally experience them. Only in that fashion will the memory of Egypt make a profound effect upon one."
It is not enough to just read the verses in Shemos; we have to imagine ourselves right there, as the plagues destroy Egypt, at the first Seder, as the Sea splits. And then we will be able to implant these events in the hearts of our children as well.
Let us not waste the opportunity.
Chag Kasher Ve'Sameach