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!
One should not be surprised the Pope is not coming to my seder. Truth is, we do not know each other and I seriously doubt he would come. But what is more striking is that I will not be inviting Moses to join me either and it is not simply because he is dead. After all, each year I invite Elijah to join and even open the door for him to enter.
Why is Moses not present at the seder? How do we account for the fact he is virtually erased from the traditional Haggadah? If we are to be recounting the story of the Exodus from Egypt, how can we ignore a crucial character of the story? Would we tell the story of the founding of the United States and leave out George Washington? Do we really transmit the Exodus properly to our children by hiding Moses?
I would like to suggest that Moses is not present Passover night because despite of his greatness, or perhaps because of his greatness, he cannot have a seat at the table. Moses represents the opposite of what the seder is intended to convey.
In Exodus Chapter 18 we read of the encounter of Moses and his father in law Jethro after the Exodus but (according to most) before Sinai.
1. When Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses, and for Israel his people, and that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt;
2. Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after he had sent her back,
3. And her two sons; and the name of one was Gershom; for he said, I have been an alien in a strange land;
Notice that he brings Moses’s wife Tzipporah with him and her two children. Tzipporah was not in Egypt during the Exodus. Moses had sent her away before that fateful night. According to some he even had divorced her. One passage in the Zohar says that the reason the children are called her’s is that while Moses fathered them, she had brought them up.
In an earlier blog post I discussed a Midrash that says Moses after the Revelation at Sinai never returned to his tent, which is understood to mean he never resumed a conjugal relationship with his wife. He remained celibate, always on call to God.
Moses, the great leader and teacher he was, is the absent father and absent spouse. His family is sacrificed for his leadership. He is our hero, but not our model to be remembered at the seder. Indeed at the very first seder in Egypt, Moses was alone and had no children present who could ask him ma nishtanah, the Four Questions. Moses is the opposite of the very experience we strive to have at the seder. He represents the negation of family. His leadership might require the sacrifice of family, but the seder is still not his place. He has no seat of honor there.
I am aware that many people this Passover may be at a seder where there may be no children or where everyone is single. I am not being critical of this. It should be pointed out that tradition dictates it still be in a style of questions and answers. While people who gather may not be related, a family of sorts is created at the seder.
But then why do we invite Elijah to the seder? You can discuss it then.
Last week, Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, in a remarkable display of bad taste (to say the least), decided to put on an Afro wig and blackface in order to portray an African-American basketball player for Purim. In response, Jon Stewart, the host of The Daily Show, pointed out the hypocrisy of Hikind’s insensitivity given his career as an outspoken critic of both actual and alleged (at least to Hikind) anti-Semitism. Stewart followed his comments with this hysterical segment entitled “Crazy Stupid Dove–The War On Purim” (see video below).
This is not the first time The Daily Show has captured the humorous side of Jewish holidays. As J.J. Goldberg notes in his recent Forward blog, Stewart also introduced a laughing-out-loud funny segment about Passover last year called “Faith Off” in which he called on Jews to make Passover more enjoyable than Easter.
If you have ever attended, taught, or sent your children to a synagogue religious school, you know that teaching elementary school children the essentials of Judaism in 4-6 hours a week is extremely challenging. Given how little time there is to teach and how many other facets of contemporary American life religious schools have to compete with, we often turn to games, skits, and other ways to depict Judaism as fun and attractive. But in doing so, we sometimes revert to a simplistic, easy to digest version of Judaism without complication or obligation.
What is fascinating about The Daily Show’s Purim segment, though, is not how funny it is but how substantive it is. The segment thoroughly rebukes the transformation of Purim into a Jewish Halloween and the general trend towards fitting Jewish holidays into mainstream culture. Its message is actually the antithesis of his Passover piece, in which Stewart suggests coming up with cartoon characters and making video games to update our celebration of Passover. Through intelligent humor and sophistication, the Purim segment makes a compelling argument for rejecting the commercialization and assimilation of Jewish holidays. It is this translation, this targum, that we would do well to embrace. Most young Jews today are not interested in frontal, rote transmissions of tradition. Our religious school educators are correct that we need to approach today’s students through creative, interactive ways to reach the “multiple intelligences” of the Jewish public, to borrow from educational theory jargon. But what The Daily Show segment teaches us is that we don’t need to be reductionist to make tradition contemporary and accessible. The challenge for us, as Jewish educators and teachers of the next generation, is to pick up where The Daily Show leaves off.
We often flow unaware from one moment on the calendar to the next. There are too many times where we fail to remember what we did last month, last week or even yesterday. There are too many times where the year breezes past us and before we know it, we are another year older. This pattern and this way of being is sharply interrupted by the ritual known as the Sefirat HaOmer, the Counting of the Omer. In Biblical times the Omer was a grain offering brought to the Temple in Jerusalem and since then has transformed into a ritual with rhythm and movement all of its own.
Each night people from every corner of the globe count how many nights have elapsed from the second night of Passover until the holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the Revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Every night adds from the night before, slowly building and rising in anticipation and progression towards Shavuot. This ritual concretely and conceptually links the holiday of Passover to the holiday of Shavuot. It makes a profound statement about the nature of the freedom won in Egypt by the ancient Israelites. It sets out to define the very state of what it means to be free.
If the Exodus from Egypt was an unshackling of the physical bonds that held the people of Israel to servitude and bondage then the Revelation at Sinai was the unshackling of the emotional, psychological and spiritual bonds that kept the people in an oppression of the soul and the heart. The 18th century Italian mystic and philosopher Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto underscored this when he commented that the reason Pharaoh increased the physical labor of the Israelites after Moses made his first plea for their release was to further suppress their spirit because the fatigue and tiredness of the body destroys the aspirations of the spirit.
This is the intention behind the count between Passover and Shavuot. The Talmudic rabbis teach that every person in each generation is obligated to see himself or herself as having left the servitude of Egypt and an intrinsic part of that process is the progressive march from the experience of physical freedom to a fuller freedom encompassing not just body but spirit as well. The rituals of the Passover seder help us reconnect into the experience of the Exodus and the deeply important ritual of the Omer help us walk and move through our own deserts towards a life of whole and total freedom.
The Omer brings us to a stop and to reflect that every day and every moment count. Every day is a unique and precious opportunity to walk the journey towards a freedom of purpose and a freedom of dignity.
A few weeks before I began rabbinical school, I took a vacation and went to visit my in-laws where they were volunteering in the Peace Corps in the Ukraine. Although it was far from the first time I had traveled overseas – I had done quite a bit of traveling actually- visiting the Ukraine was quite different to any other experience I had had.
To travel to Ukraine, one had to apply for a visa, which was not always granted; Ukraine was still a relatively closed country, and did not welcome outsiders. It is a beautiful and interesting place, and we stayed for about a week, visiting different cities, meeting with people, talking to the people my mechutonim (in-laws) had been working with – all lovely. But after a day or two, something struck me as odd. I couldn’t quite place my finger on it, but as the week progressed, I finally realized what it was: there was an extreme regularity about people’s appearance. The relatively closed borders had resulted in a population where there were only a few facial types, skin shades only within a very narrow range (and of the rosy-cheeked variety that one reads about in fairy tales, but I had rarely seen in actual people), and so on.
Growing up in an urban area of the South Atlantic seaboard, I was used to seeing people of all sorts of colors, shapes, ethnicities; people who had immigrated in their own lifetimes or their parents’ or grandparents’. But in Ukraine, I saw none of that. Except, occasionally, I might see someone who looked different: they were easy to point out as “not Ukrainian.”
Until that trip, I had never really understood antisemitism. Not that I hadn’t experienced it – even in urban areas, we were still a location where one might encounter the sort of person who upon getting to know me might mourn, “you’re so nice, it’s such a shame that you’re going to hell,” or ask to examine my horns. But I never really understood what it meant for a person to live in a society where physically, they stood out as “other,” to the extent where they could be pointed out in the street. And when I suddenly grasped this in Ukraine, it was a bit of a revelation.
When the Israelites left Egypt, the Torah tells us that there were 600,000 men, plus children, and also an erev rav, a mixed multitude, went with them. This term, erev rav, later came to have a variety of connotations, not necessarily good ones: some commentators blamed this group for the Israelites straying after the golden calf. But the Torah makes no claims about who these people are at all.
I like to imagine that among them were the now-elderly Shifrah and Puah, the midwives to the Hebrew women who refused to slaughter Israelite sons, and whom, the Torah tells us (Exodus 1:21), God rewarded. I expect that among this group were also other, non-Hebrew, slaves. Perhaps there were also Egyptians, neighbors and friends of the Israelites, or those who simply could not endure the oppression of the Pharaoh towards the Hebrews, and were glad to leave.
Whoever these people were, the Torah, after announcing their presence, goes on to remind us that while foreigners and hired servants who are not circumcised and part of the Israelite family do not eat the Passover sacrifice, if a person joins the community and the males of that family are circumcised, they become fully part of the community and partake of it. Moreover, whether they do or not, “there shall be one Torah for the citizen and for the stranger that lives among the Israelites (Exodus 12:49), that is one law, one justice, the same for everyone.
Until recent times, and in some places to this day, nationality is, indeed, a racial or ethnic category. In some places, it’s easy to point out who belongs, and who looks different, who isn’t “one of us.” But for Jews, this isn’t – or at least, ought not to be- the case. Jewish law insists that one who takes on our practices, who goes through conversion and lives by Jewish law is a full member of the family, regardless of color or origin. Jews who make a distinction between converts and natal Jews, or because someone doesn’t “look Jewish” are, in fact, in violation of Jewish law.
But, I don’t think it’s enough to stop there. In some parts of the Jewish community great care is taken to physically separate themselves from non-Jews, or from Jews who practice in different ways. It is true, that this has some effect in preventing exogamy, and thus increases the number of Jewish grandchildren. But it also misses the point. If Judaism has a mission, then surely that mission involves engaging with the world, and offering to it some of our gifts. But before those of us in liberal communities get too comfy, let me add that that separation doesn’t always take a physical turn. It is also a form of separation to use fear of the other as a fundraising tool, or to refuse to engage with others whom we fear.
When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, we ceased to offer sacrifices, and so there is no sacrifice partaken at the Passover seder. When we eat a seder meal, we invite in to eat “all who are hungry” in remembrance of a rabbi who opened his house to the hungry every night at the time of the Talmud. We invite all who wish to partake of a Passover meal. In earlier times, that was surely only and always other Jews, but today, it’s likely to be quite the erev rav. Many, if not most, of us have non-Jewish relatives. We invite non-Jewish friends who are curious about the seder, or moved by the story of the exodus. While the rabbis of past generations often saw non-Jews as a threat, or a seduction, today, in America at least, they are family, neighbors, and friends.
The Jewish community spends a great amount of time and money worrying about assimilating ourselves out of existence, but we often forget that that threat is there only because we are part of the fabric of every day life. More than tolerated, we are part of the American family.
In a place where everyone looks alike, and you can point to the person who looks different and say, “she’s the outsider,” there could once again be pogroms. And we are not done with that in the US either; as we have seen from recent events, being black in America is still “different,” and still dangerous. And of course, not everywhere is equally heterogeneous. But we are also not the Ukraine. If nothing else, America is a great erev rav, where everyone looks different, and whatever risks there are in that, we live in great blessing, where the Jewish community itself comes in a rainbow of colors, through marriage, conversion and adoption, and no less so are we part of a country where people from everywhere, of all colors, with a thousand different accents, live more or less in harmony.
Are we done with learning to get along? Not quite. Not completely. But it would be a mistake to think that we haven’t gained a great deal by mixing with our neighbors. I love the fact that at my seder table always has non-Jewish friends, people who look differently, think differently. I don’t fear my neighbors, no matter what they look like. We forget what an incredible blessing that is. In running the risk of getting mixed up, we also gain perspectives we never could have gotten from staying separate. There is holiness in separation, and we should continue to recognize our distinctions, but those distinctions are only relevant when we are among others with whom we can compare and discuss them.
This Passover, I’m feeling blessed not only in having been redeemed from Egypt to serve God, but I am thankful that I live in a place that when I walk down the street, I can see so many different kinds of faces, and God in all of them.
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.
Every year I get a call from my mother, “Remind me again, do we eat peanuts on Passover?”
This question should have an easy yes or no answer. Rabbis have lists of what to eat and what to stay away from to uphold Passover, and I’m a rabbi so….. But as an Ashkenazi rabbi committed to multiculturalism, I’m torn.
Here is the problem. Back in the 13th century some rabbis in France decided that in addition to things that rise, legumes and rice , which can be made into flour should be off limits during Passover. The rule spread East and caught my family in Romania, Poland, Russia, Yugoslavia and Austria in the bargain. Jews in North Africa, the Middle East and the Sub-Continent were never affected. So growing up it was easy, like all of my ancestors, we stayed away from legumes including peanuts during Passover.
But at 19, I went to study in Israel for a year. Among the classes I took was a class in Jewish law with Rabbi David Golikin. Golikin argued, and here I quote from his written opinion on the matter, “it is permitted (and perhaps even obligatory) to eliminate this custom.” In the written response (see volume 3), Golinkin provides many explanations as to why to do away with this custom, but what struck me then and what resonates now is “it causes unnecessary division between Israel’s different ethnic groups.” His plea to eat rice and beans and peanuts was an attempt to tear down this culinary divider between Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi groups.
As the Rabbi-in-Residence for Be’chol Lashon I work daily to remove barriers between groups of Jews of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. From a rabbinic point of view I think it is advisable and permissible to do so. The answer should be easy, “Yes mom, we eat peanuts.”
But though Golinkin is quick to dimiss “the only reason to observe this custom; the desire to preserve an old custom,” I am not so quick to walk away. All of my ancestors, as far back as I can tell, were Ashkenazim. They stayed away from peanuts, rice and so on. Celebrating diversity is important, but fundamental to my ability to reach out and connect with others who do not share my background, is my understanding of who I am and where I come from.
In recent years, my mother has taken to making gefilte fish for the Seder. She doesn’t even like the stuff and it is hard to make. But she makes it as a tribute to her mother and to her grandmother (who she never knew and was murdered by the Nazis) because she wants us to remember them, who they were and to know where we come from that family and place.
So will I eat peanuts this Passover?
I’m sorry mom, I don’t know, the best I can do is “I see a value in doing it both ways.”
Is it mere coincidence that the Jewish festival of Passover, beginning this Friday eve, April 6th, falls in the early weeks of Springtime? The answer is ‘no’, both from a historical perspective but also from a symbolic perspective. Historically, several scholars suggest that there was a pre-existing Springtime celebration before the Jewish people assigned Passover and the re-telling of the exodus from Egypt to this time in the calendar. In fact, we see hints of this earlier celebration embedded in the Exodus story itself. Exodus, chapter five begins: ‘And afterward Moses and Aaron came, and said to Pharaoh: ‘Thus says the Eternal, the God of Israel: Let My people go, that they may hold a feast for Me in the wilderness.’ Spring is the season of new flowers and buds appearing in nature, and it is the lambing season. The centrality of the sacrifice of a lamb just before the tenth and final plague that led to the Hebrew slaves being allowed to go free may well have been related to an earlier celebration where a first-born of the new flock was offered up in thanksgiving.
Today we do not sacrifice animals as part of the Passover celebration; instead a shankbone is placed as one of the symbols on a Seder plate that takes center stage in the home-based ceremony held in Jewish homes all over the world to mark the beginning of the holiday. Another symbol of fertility and new life is also found on this plate – an egg (a Spring time symbol shared by our Christian neighbors at Easter).
But Spring time remains deeply symbolic as a time not only of new birth, but struggles for freedom from oppression over the centuries, new hope and new possibilities. We may be most familiar with the recent waves of unrest and uprisings against dictatorial leaders in the Middle East, dubbed ‘the Arab Spring’. These movements did not literally begin during Springtime, but commentators quickly adopted the phrase that can be traced back to the 1800s. Ben Zimmer, author of www.visualthesaurus.com, finds the earliest usage with a German philosopher, Ludwig Borne, in 1818. Referring to several European revolutions in the mid-1800s, in French the phrase used was printemps des peuples (springtime of the peoples) and, in English, ‘The People’s Springtime’.
What is common to both the current socio-political changes, the European revolutions, and the Biblical Exodus is that the journey from slavery to freedom is never straightforward. We are much more certain about what we are seeking freedom from but it usually takes a lot longer to know what we will do with our freedom. For the Hebrews it took forty years of wandering in the wilderness but, along the journey they created a covenant with God that provided them with laws and structures for creating a new society in a new land, where time and again they were reminded not to oppress others, because they had once been slaves in Egypt. This is a message that we all need to hear, year after year, precisely because it is so easy to forget the greater purpose of freedom once we have the power to choose our own path.
Chag Pesach Sameach – A Happy Passover to all!
A version of this article appears in the Editorial pages of The Bridgeport News and other publications of the Hersam-Acorn Consortium
At the most obvious level — the p’shat – the entity doing the talking, and proclaiming its freedom, is the Jewish people. Pesach celebrates our liberation from Egyptian bondage. We — the Children of Israel — were redeemed at this season, all those years ago. Pesach, at this level, is a powerful exercise in communal memory. We celebrate it each year, so that we’ll never forget that we were freed.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson saw the text a little bit differently. He sought to expand the reach of the “our” in that passage a bit. For him, “our” implies not only the collective “we” of the Jewish people, but the presence of two distinct entities. They turn out to be the Jewish people and God. Passover is the season of “our” freedom: ours and God’s. We celebrate our freedom from Egyptian bondage, to be sure; but we also celebrate the freeing of the divine within us. In his words: “Freedom is two-fold. There is a physical liberation of the Jewish People, and a spiritual liberation of the Divine Presence, which is to say, the divine within each and every one of us.”
But why stop there? Perhaps the p’shat and the mystical reading together are not enough. I would suggest that another member of the group included within “our” is, quite simply everyone else. For many of us, it’s not enough to talk about “our” freedom and limit the conversation to Jewish concerns. We are part of something larger, that encompasses all people, indeed all beings. To speak about “our freedom” and exclude other people seems to run counter to the spirit of the season and the story.
The New American Haggadah, so much in the news lately, includes this passage from the children’s author turned Jewish commentator, Lemony Snicket. It is a comment on the phrase, “In every generation each person must look upon himself as if he left Egypt”:
…the story of liberation is one that is still going on, as people all over the world are still in bondage, and we wait and wait, as the Jews in Egypt waited and waited, for the day when freedom will be spread all over the world like frosting on a well-made cake, rather than dabbed on here and there as if the baker were selfishly eating most of the frosting directly from the bowl.
Ultimately, all of the freedoms contained within that little possessive pronoun — the safety and security of the Jewish people, the releasing of the divine spirit within us all, and the universal redemption for which we work and hope — are connected. It is from a place of physical security that we can develop the habits of heart that connect us to God within, and everyone else around.
I was recently in an awkward social situation. My husband and I were invited to dinner at the home of friends along with third couple whom we didn’t know. As introductions began, I asked the new acquaintances where they live. I mentioned that I know their town pretty well. “How?” they wondered. I explained that many members of our synagogue live in that town. They asked which synagogue we were from and that launched them into a long discussion of their experience in synagogue life. I assumed from this conversation that they knew that I am a rabbi, but soon learned that I was wrong.
The couple shared lots of reactions to things their rabbi and cantor (but mostly the rabbi) had recently done, and their critique was expansive. It wasn’t an angry conversation, but more like banter about their disagreements with their clergy. I mostly listened, but when the reflections circled back to one particular grievance regarding a change in the synagogue worship, I said that surely that change had been vetted with the leadership and the board (meaning –it is not only the rabbi’s responsibility.) Our dinner companion then turned to me and said, “What…. are you a synagogue president or something?” I said, “No, I’m a rabbi.”
This created some confused and embarrassed sputtering and apologies for gossiping about rabbis. I diffused it quickly by telling them I was amused by the conversation, even as I wondered to myself what my congregants would be saying about what I had done that day as they sat at dinner parties. I laughed it off and the subject was quickly changed (for a while at least, until the “Well, you’re a rabbi, can I ask you….? started up.)
I could have been critical. I could have told them about about the challenge of leadership of the American synagogue, especially during changing times. I could have chided their criticisms as selfish. I could have cited Jewish texts that command us to refrain from speaking ill of others and gossiping. But none of those responses would have been constructive. Instead, I chose to support them for taking sufficient interest in their congregation as to want to talk about it.
While gossip can indeed be breed negativity and divisiveness, I chose to see this exchange not so much as about gossip as being like a Talmudic exchange. In the Talmud, the rabbis who shaped the Judaism that we inherited speak in a discourse of disagreement, often quoting their colleagues to support their own positions. It is in the dialogue that Jewish ideas, values, beliefs and practices take shape. The Talmud sets the stage for a long tradition of questioning and critical thinking.
One of the greatest gifts left us by Talmudic sages was the Passover Seder. They managed to create a very structured ritual that is designed to be an open educational experience. They understood that the best way to learn is to ask questions and vigorously discuss ideas and lessons from every angle. They wanted us to enter the world that they modeled for us, where dialogue, debate and personal opinions open worlds of possibilities for growth.
There is an enigmatic story in the Haggadah, the book we use for the Seder. It tells of a group of rabbis sitting up all night learning — discussing meanings and ideas. Historical analyses aside, this story is so cryptic that we have no choice but to wonder out loud, “What were they doing?” “What were they thinking?” “What does this have to do with me?”
If we skip this opportunity for open discussion, we have missed the point of the seder. Just as our dinner acquaintance wanted a forum for discussing the “what was he thinking?” question relating to their rabbi, and no doubt these conversations happen in many a synagogue parking lot, our sages gave us a nod of encouragement to engage.
I hope we use the dinner table of the Seder to banter, to discuss, to question, and to think. “What were they thinking?” becomes “What are we thinking?” It’s more than entertaining; it’s about meaning. I wish you an engaging, enlightening, meaningful Pesach/Passover.