This Monday night Jews around the world will sit down at their tables and embark on recreating the narrative of the Exodus through the rituals of the seder. We will immerse ourselves in the story from some 3,000 years ago that forged the Jewish people. We will eat matzah and bitter herbs to taste as our ancestors tasted. We will drink four cups of wine to symbolize the four stages of redemption that transpired during the Egyptian experience. However, this night does not belong to the Exodus alone.
If we do not allow the seder to inspire and move us to greater action we will have missed a key component on what the whole evening is all about. The Exodus becomes a central relational context for our connection to God: “I am the Lord, your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage (Exodus 20:2).” It is used four separate times to introduce major components of Biblical legislation (Exodus 23:20, 23:9, Leviticus 19:34 and Deuteronomy 10:19). It is the framing by which future generations come to know their history and their people: “You shall say to your child, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt…’ (Deuteronomy 6:21).” Simply, the Exodus is the hinge by which the entire covenantal experience rests.
The Exodus is not just a story to be told. It is an imperative to be acted upon.
What is that imperative? At it’s most basic level the Exodus compels us to liberate, to free and to make better the lives of those most impacted by persecution and oppression. To “know the spirit of the stranger” as the Bible reminds us multiple times is to empathize directly with the marginalized, the outliers and the ones on the margins. In that spirit the organization I work for, The Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, has recently published an insert for your Haggadah that makes relevant the work of Passover into a concrete issue people living in Illinois face today. This is precisely the type of work Passover and the Exodus story calls us to. I encourage you to download the insert and even if the issue is not applicable for you, make it an impetus for the type of investigative work necessary that transforms the Exodus from simply a story into an imperative.
This week, my partner and I sat down to plan our seder. For us, this involves much more than deciding on the menu. While we use a haggadah that we compiled as a guide to take us through the 15 steps that make up the seder (which means “order”), what we do with those steps varies from year to year.
This year, I was inspired by two wonderful suggestions from our cousin, Ilana Stein Ben-Ze’ev. The first is a beautiful and moving new ritual, shared out of the experience of the death of her father, Professor Jerome Stein. She writes:
We have Eliyahu’s Cup, and Miriam’s Cup, and now, at my home: The Memory Cup. Kos Zikaron. Even though Pesach is ‘Zman Simchatenu’ (A time of our happiness), I knew I would miss my father- his seders were a big part of our family life. I had a friend coming who had also recently lost her father. So, I took one of the many goblets I’ve made over the years, and declared it to be Kos Zikaron. Before we started the seder, we filled it and passed it around the table. Whoever wanted to, announced whose cup it was for them, and why. For me: “This is my father’s cup. I have so many seder memories and he is in them all. I’d like his presence at our seder.” And so it went- I was surprised that everyone found someone to bring in (and glad I didn’t have to feed them all!).
Ilana’s second sharing in inspired by the line with which we begin the Maggid (story-telling) part of the Seder. She writes: Kol dichfin (the line in the Maggid that pronounces – let all who are hungry come and eat!) – let’s put our money where our mouths are: Donate the cost of feeding 1 Seder guest to a food bank.
There are also those who make a habit of donating all of their unopened hametz to a local food bank in advance of Passover. In our congregation, we have reinterpreted the period that begins on the 2nd night of Seder – the counting of the Omer – as a time to donate grain-based foods to the local food bank. Historically, this was when our ancestors gave thanks as the different kinds of grain (barley first, wheat later) became ready for harvesting, and the first sheaves were brought to the temple as an offering to give thanks. During Passover we begin with rice, but once Passover has ended, cereal boxes, cookies, and other non-perishable grain-based foods are donated and publicly displayed as the collection grows, culminating at Shavuot.
The haggadah does not begin with a retelling of the Exodus narrative. In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find that narrative laid out in the haggadah. The entire Maggid section is more of a teacher’s guide to the spiritual and practical lessons we can learn from engaging with the story not as re-telling of an historical account, but as a guide to the spiritual landscapes of our own lives and the society and world that we live in today. That is why we are commanded to experience the Exodus “as if we, ourselves” were freed from slavery. That’s not necessarily an instruction to imagine yourself back in time as a character in the story (although that can be fun and insightful too). It is an instruction to look at how those themes of enslavement, constriction, limitation, and of freedom to become, fully, are played out today. One way to more deeply share the meaning of these narratives with the guests at your Seder is by examining these themes through poetry, images, news stories, and personal sharing.
If Pharaoh is the one that limits and controls us, making us a slave to needs that line the pockets of another and constrains us from living expansively, guided by our inner truth and our relationship to the Divine (which, for many, is experienced through our relationship with others), then we can ask what manifests as Pharaoh in our life today?
This year – especially this year – when the weather patterns have left us longing for spring to finally be upon us, we can ask what new seeds are we nurturing, and what might we be hoping to see blossom in our lives in the coming year.
These are just a few ideas to enrich your seder ritual this year. Share your creative rituals with us here, so that we can inspire each other this Passover.
Around this time of year I often find myself fielding questions about what haggadah to use, and how families can spice up their Seder rituals at home. There are so many choices these days, and the answer may depend on who will be at your Seder, the age of the children, and the relative value you place on nostalgia vs creativity or innovation, among other factors.
But the one element that I have found to be a game-changer when it comes to how Seder night is experienced is an element that is often completely overlooked: Logistics and lay-out. This is one of the most overlooked elements of the Seder but one that I have come to appreciate as crucial. While not every home has the space to accommodate some creativity in this department, we have found that sitting on sofas, cushions and chairs in concentric circles around a coffee table in a living room to be much more conducive, at least for the pre-meal part of the Seder, than sitting still around a formally-laid table. Young children can get up and move around more easily without being a distraction, and the atmosphere engenders more conversation and interaction between the adults too. At our Seder we often hang colorful fabrics in the room to create the feeling of sitting under a tent. Some homes are large enough to move people to tables for the meal, but going for a more informal buffet and continuing to eat in the same space as you’ve gathered for the ritual can be just as good an option too.
In truth, while I highlight logistics and layout as the game-changer because it is so often not even considered as a player in the creation of a great Seder, there is another element to our family Seder that has been just as significant a game-changer in the Passover experience. At our Seder, we have taken to inserting different freedom-related themes each year, as we invite guests to add their own midrashim – in the form of news articles, photos, videos, and more. In our home we compile these images into a powerpoint presentation ahead of time and project the images for all to see and to discuss during the Seder, but a household that doesn’t want to use technology in this way on a festival night can achieve the same kind by simply handing around printed copies. And so, when we get to the maggid section of the Seder (the telling of the story), we often depart from the Rabbis’ retellings from centuries ago embedded in the pages of our various haggadot. In each generation we must experience the exodus from Egypt as if it were our personal experience. When we add our own stories and images, we can dramatically engage each other in meaningful conversations about the nature of freedom that can be viscerally felt at a deeper level.
Take a look at my posting on Maggid 2.0 where I reported on our first year of taking this approach at our 2011 Seder, for an example of this visually-rich and conversation-stimulating approach to Passover.
Many blessings for a wonderful, engaging, meaningful Passover!
We had reached one of those loaded moments in our family Passover seder where all my acumen as a parent, an educator, and as a rabbi are tested simultaneously. See, I have four sons, and hence a problem. We had already sung the Ballad of the Four Sons to the tune of My Darling Clementine, and it was now time to assign passages in the hagaddah to each of my boys, each of which, on any given day shows streaks of wisdom, wickedness, simpleness, and a lack of being able to ask a question much beyond “is dinner ready? (While technically a question, I refuse to count it). The danger in assigning parts is that I could unwittingly play into a fraternal competition of “See, Abba likes me best!” This is how I played it this year: I assigned the readings randomly, and before they could read into which part they were assigned (“Hey, why did I get the wicked one?”) I said the following:
Let’s read these straight through and as we read them pay attention to clues, I am going to ask you which child do you think I like best, and why (for a wonderful contemporary/traditional take on the Four Sons, check out this G-Dcast video).
The Wise Child asks, “What is the meaning of the laws, statues and customs which the Lord our God has commanded us?”
Answer him with all the laws, to the very last detail of the afikoman.
The Wicked Child asks, “What is the meaning of this to you?”
Answer him, “You have denied a principle of our faith. This was done for me, and not you!”
The Simple Child asks, “What is this about?”
Answer him, “God took us out of Egypt with a mighty and outstretched arm.”
To the One Who Does Not Know What to Ask, say, “This is done because of what the Lord did for me when I came forth from Egypt.”
To my delight, they gave me the answers I wanted.
“The wise child because he is wise.”
“The wicked child because he asks tough questions.”
“The simple son because he is open to anything you say. You said that last year.”
“Yes, you did,” two others guests at the table corroborated.
“I think it’s the One Who Doesn’t Know What to Ask, because he is polite and let’s you start the conversation.”
I know that each of us carries each of these traits within ourselves, and I pointed that out, with the use of a helpful and provocative paper-cut image in one of our haggadot (plural for haggadah)
This year I said that I preferred the wicked one – “He asks the best question,” I answered. And, I believe he does. I was also struck, more so than other years, that the Wicked son gets a bad rap, not only for asking a fair and pointed question – which we otherwise applaud (It is said that a Jewish parent does not ask a child, “what did you learn at school today,” but rather, “did you ask a good question today?”) The problem with the wicked child is that he has a crappy teacher, who slams him for showing up to the seder and being himself, for wanting some integrity in the system? “Do you believe this stuff?” “Is this still relevant?” “Why are you so Jewish all of a sudden?” The response to the Wicked child got me thinking about what I would say as a high school teacher, if I could say anything I wanted to these four archetypal students:
To the Wise son, “What are the statues, laws, and customs? Why are you asking me? Go read the Tenth Chapter of the Talmudic Tractate on Passover, and then we can discuss it, then you can explain about the Afikoman to your brothers.”
To the Wicked son, “What does this mean to me? Good question. I think it is an individual challenge to understand the duality of confinement and freedom. Ask yourself, what constraints on your life would you want to be free from? What obligations do you have to yourself and others as you exercise your freedom?”
To the Simple son, “Dig a little deeper. Yes we are commemorating an event that has long past, and whose memory still inspires us today, but go a little further – Why? Why should we bother with this? What lessons are we trying to hold on to? What implications does it have for the world we live in today?”
To the One Who Does Not Know What to Ask, I want to answer along the lines of Sterns Professor Scott Galloway, in his “Get your S–t Together” email to a student a few years ago – here is an excerpt:
…Let me be more serious for a moment. I do not know you, will not know you and have no real affinity or animosity for you. You are an anonymous student who is now regretting the send button on his laptop. It’s with this context I hope you register pause…REAL pause xxxx and take to heart what I am about to tell you:
xxxx, get your shit together.
Getting a good job, working long hours, keeping your skills relevant, navigating the politics of an organization, finding a live/work balance…these are all really hard, xxxx. In contrast, respecting institutions, having manners, demonstrating a level of humility…these are all (relatively) easy. Get the easy stuff right xxxx. In and of themselves they will not make you successful. However, not possessing them will hold you back and you will not achieve your potential which, by virtue of you being admitted to Stern, you must have in spades.
So To the One Who Does Not Know What to Ask, I find myself wanting to say, “Hey, Judaism, like being part of this family around this table is not a pass/fail course in which you can just hide out in the back. We need your voice in the mix too. You can ask picayune questions about tiny details, you can ask pointed questions in an antagonistic tone, you can even ask a basic question that you think everyone but you must know the answer to, but passivity is never a substitute for actual learning – doing nothing, saying nothing doesn’t just hurt you. You don’t have to be the smartest. You don’t have to be witty, you don’t have to leave your skepticism at the door, or anything like that, but keeping your personal Torah, your deep inner wisdom to yourself, deprives us all of sparks of the divine that only you hold. We are not at the movies, silence is not golden.