In the Little Shtetl of Vaysechvoos: The First Seder Night
A rabbi once remarked, Jews who long have drifted from the faith of their fathers…are stirred in their inmost parts when the old familiar Passover sounds chance to fall upon their ears.”
For the people of Vaysechvoos, as for Jews everywhere, the first seder night was very special indeed. Each house was made spotless and bright. All chometz was removed and all the special Passover dishes and utensils were brought out. The families eagerly awaited the gathering ’round the table and the lengthy and elaborate telling of the Passover story. The boys tingled with delight and anticipation, and spent hours in practice, chanting the mah nishtana with feeling and expertise. The girls helped their mothers with preparations for the delicious Passover meal. So it was in each home in the shtetl of Vaysechvoos as Passover approached.
Yankel, the son of Shimon the butcher (whose Passover seders were known for their dignity and great length) was walking home from cheder when he happened by one of his playmates, Perchik, the son of Lazar the Boot Maker. Perchik was a few years older than Yankel. He was already working as an apprentice in the craft of boot making.
“Yankel,” Perchik asked quietly, “do you really believe that Eliahu Ha Navi could come this Passover to announce the coming of Messiah?”
Yankel wondered if Perchik’s question was sincere. “Perchik may be testing me,” he thought. “If I say yes, he may laugh and call me a baby for believing fairy tales. On the other hand, he continued, if I say no, and he really is serious about the question, he may run and tell the rabbi and then I will really be in trouble.”
After a while, Yankel answered, “Well, Perchik, it really doesn’t matter what I think, does it?” Pleased with himself for evading the question, Yankel continued home, dismissing the matter from his mind.
The night of the seder came at last, and as the men made their way home from the synagogue to begin the household celebration, they passed a stranger in the shadows along the road. They sauntered by him, engrossed in conversation, each wishing him a “good yontif,” but paying little attention to him otherwise. The stranger did not speak and soon was the only one left out in the cold spring night.
In the home of Shimon the Butcher, the seder table was laid out with all the Passover finery. The wine cups all shined with the brilliance of newly polished silver. The seder plate, handed down from Yankel’s great grandmother, Freida, seemed to convey its rich history to all who were seated around the table. The pillows at each seat were filled with genuine goose feathers. And what could one say of the meal to come? After all, if the town butcher didn’t eat the finest meat available, who would? Yes, the butcher’s family was to celebrate the Passover with much splendor.
All that night the stranger stood outside the house of none other than Shimon the Butcher waiting for the traditional invitation, “Let all who hunger, come and eat,” for he was hungry, but, more than that, he knew that if only Shimon’s son, Yankel, would see him, then faith would be kindled in the heart of this small boy. And if Yankel would believe, then who knew but that the heart of every person in the village might also be stirred. And with that faith, what miracles might come to Vaysechvoos?
The time came for the youngest son to open the door to invite Eliahu Ha Navi, Elijah the Prophet, to enter. As Yankel approached the door of his home, he thought again about the question his playmate Perchik had asked. Did he really believe that if he opened the door Eliahu would be standing on the outside, waiting to come in, to take his place at the table, to herald the coming of Messiah? He thought of the answer he had given Perchik, “It really doesn’t matter what I think, does it?”
Yankel left the kitchen and walked into the outer room and to the door. He gripped the latch, but his hands froze upon the handle and the muscles in his arms grew suddenly weak. “It really doesn’t matter what I think,” echoed loudly in his thoughts once again. “It doesn’t matter at all.” His hand dropped from the handle of the big wooden door. He shook his head and ran back to his family in the kitchen.
“There’s no one, Papa,” he said, matter-of-factly. “No one is outside.”
The stranger remained outside the door until all the lights went off in the house of Shimon the Butcher. Then, grieved beyond telling, he sadly left the little village of Vaysechvoos.
The next morning Yankel was the first to awake. Although the Passover feast had afforded the rest of the family a heavy night’s sleep, he had slept poorly. Still wearing his nightshirt, Yankel left the bed and tiptoed to the door hoping that a breath of spring air would clear the sleepiness from his mind. He opened the door slowly so as not to awaken anyone.
As he squinted into the early morning sun, Yankel was surprised to see Perchik in the road, halfheartedly kicking a stone, careful not to awaken the village and call attention to his play which some would see as a desecration of the holy season.
“So Yankel,” Perchik chided with a faint smirk, “did Eliahu show up last night?”
Annoyed by Perchik’s taunting, Yankel raised his voice louder than he wanted to, realizing now that his restless night was somehow linked to troubled thoughts about how he’d responded to Perchik’s question the day before. “There wasn’t anyone at the door!” he replied, his face reddening slightly. For some reason, he was ashamed to admit that he’d not even bothered to open the door at the appointed time in the ceremony.
Turning away from Perchik, Yankel closed the door behind him. He tiptoed to bed and crawled in beside his brothers. Somehow it was better to go back to sleep than to be troubled by restless thoughts of a door and of an ancient prophet whose message of hope brought no peace to his heart that Passover season.
Director of Communications, Missionary
Susan Perlman is one of the co-founders of Jews for Jesus. Susan is the associate executive director of Jews for Jesus and also director of communications for the organization. She also serves as the editor in chief of ISSUES, their evangelistic publication for Jewish seekers. She left a career track in New York City to help launch Jews for Jesus in San Francisco in the early 1970s. See more here.