As a child, the great Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas noticed that dogs appear in Torah at a crucial moment. On the night of the tenth plague, Torah says, “not a dog was barking” (Ex. 11:7). Young Manny wondered at this. Why do dogs deserve to be mentioned? How could they have known what a momentous night it was for both Israelites and Egyptians? Are dogs really “man’s best friend”? What does the Torah know about this?
Levinas found his answers during World War II. He, a French citizen, was drafted into the French army in 1939. Early in the war, German soldiers captured Levinas along with his regiment, and placed him in a POW camp in a special block for Jewish prisoners. Guards treated the Jews as non-persons, interacting as little as possible, never calling them by name.
One day, as the prisoners were returning from work, a dog came by. They called him “Bobby.” Bobby made friends with the Jewish prisoners. Each time they returned from work, Bobby greeted them with joyous canine passion. Eventually, Bobby moved on in his travels, but he remained a treasure in the hearts of the prisoners. Bobby the dog was the only one who recognized them as human beings.
Sometimes, Levinas concludes, dogs can be more humane than human beings. In the Exodus story, their humanity contrasts with Pharaoh’s hardened, de-humanized heart. Unlike Pharaoh, the dogs responded to human feeling, and sensed the presence of the Infinite God. Unlike the German soldiers who murdered Levinas’ parents and brothers, or the French officials who sought his wife and daughter hiding in a monastery, Bobby saw past ethnicity into a living heart.
Bobby’s visit echoes through Levinas’ mature philosophy. To be alone, writes Levinas, can be terrible. Sometimes it seems that even God has abandoned the world. The way out of this loneliness is to respond to others. Traces of God are found in this response-ability. Some people feel God’s infinity through their infinite sense of social or interpersonal responsibility. They know that responsibility must be taught and modeled at every level of relationship—first at home and then on the world stage—in order to make a lasting difference.
As Bobby’s friendship with the prisoners shows, we do not have to know other people well in order to respond to them. Sometimes, says Levinas, we don’t even know the inner lives of our own family members, yet we reach out to them in love. Good spouses understand they cannot fully know one another, and embrace this interpersonal mystery. Good parents recognize they cannot control or predict their children’s future, and cherish the surprises children bring.
Yes, Passover with all its surprises is upon us this very Monday night. But it is still possible to bring Bobby’s spirit to your Seder, in some small, but emotionally huge, last-minute ways.“Let all who are hungry come in and eat,” says the haggadah. Can you set aside some very real everyday differences to reach out to a last-minute guest? “Originally, our ancestors were idol worshippers,” adds the Haggadah, reminding us that nobody has a perfect history. Can you get beyond habitual negative judgments of the spiritual levels of your least favorite relatives, to greet them with joy?
“Be kind to fans of “The Good Wife” today,” CNN extolled, “They’re seriously struggling.” The New York Times weighed in. So did National Public Radio. The unexpected death of Will Gardner was news. The fact that he was a fictional character and that the actor who played him, Josh Charles, was alive and well was irrelevant. For avid fans, the shock and dismay were real. As a close friend told me, a week later, “Don’t talk to me about it. I’m still in mourning.”
When it is well done, a good story can touch us as though we ourselves are part of the drama. We walk out the theater with tears in our eyes. We don’t put down the book for hours because the joys and challenges of the characters have become our own.
That is exactly what we are meant to do at the Passover Seder. We read in the Hagaddah that “in each generation, each person is obligated to see himself or herself [lirot et atzmo] as though he or she personally came forth from Egypt.” But as we rush through the text and the rituals we don’t always feel the dramatic flow with the intensity of the fans of The Good Wife.
Here are three suggestions for helping you create a Seder that helps you put yourself into the story:
Act it out: Instead of retelling the story of the Exodus turn your Seder into a dramatic retelling. Middle Eastern Jews have been doing this for generations, dressing the part and packing sacks that they carry over their shoulders or playfully beating each other with scallions a reminder of the whippings the Israelites received at the hand of their Egyptian overlords. You can make it as elaborate as you like, giving out parts and creating a script with costume changes as the night goes on and liberation occurs. Or you can have people ad lib and be in the moment. Literally getting into the story does help you feel like it is your own.
The Modern Miracles: The miracle of the Exodus can feel abstract. But there are many modern versions of the Exodus that bring the story home in very real terms. Share Rabbi Gershom Sizomu’s recollection of the liberation of the Jews of Uganda or watch the retelling of Natan Sharansky’s liberation from Soviet Russia or liberation of Ethiopian Jews. These three modern powerful Jewish stories demonstrate that the Exodus narrative continues to resonate even today. Let these compelling broad narratives open a conversation about how each person at the Seder has experienced liberation. The examples might be dramatic, such as an emigration or kicking a drug habit, or they might be lesser in scale such as getting out of homework or moving to a new division with a new boss. Whatever the examples, we can all find ways to relate from our own lives.
The Contemporary Challenges: Sadly, slavery is not a thing of the past. There are many people for whom freedom and fair work conditions are not a reality. The Seder is a perfect opportunity to make these stories our own by sharing them and discussing the changes that we can be part of to liberate those who are not free. T’ruah, the rabbinic call for human rights, suggests putting a tomato on the Seder plate to call attention to the plight of field workers whose conditions are often inhumane. Not For Sale provides information and action items about the estimated 30 million people worldwide who are currently enslaved. For those who want to mix traditional text and contemporary discussions American Jewish World Service (AJWS) has thoughtful resources about the challenges faced by some of the most disadvantaged workers.
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.
At our home, the seder is not over until we sing “Chad Gadya“ – making the appropriate animal noises for every verse of this Jewish “House that Jack Built.” When we sing, full of food, wine, and holiday euphoria, Chad Gadya comes out sounding silly. What if it’s really meant to be a serious work of religious poetry? As it turns out, many famous Jewish thinkers have found deep teachings of one kind or another.
Midrashic. The original author of Chad Gadya in plays on a famous midrash (c. 500). The Aramean King Nimrod challenges our monotheistic ancestor Abraham to a theological dialogue. Nimrod suggests that Abraham should worship fire. But Abraham argues that water quenches fire, clouds bring water, wind blows away clouds, and humans can control wind through breath – so if you worship forces of nature, you might as well worship yourself. Nimrod, angry, sentences Abraham to death by fire – but God saves Abraham’s life. Hence, Chad Gadya explains, the Holy One of Blessing can slay the Angel of Death.
Historical. The Vilna Gaon (1720-1997) says that Chad Gadya is an allegory of Jewish history, showing the recurring relevance of the Exodus. Israel is the kid, and everyone else wants to destroy us. But in the end, God saves us. This interpretation is, however, a bit loose, as cat eats the kid in the first verse.
Apocalyptic. Contemporary philosopher Rabbi Neil Gillman says that Chad Gadya celebrates Elijah’s visit to every seder, where he announces the End of Days, the coming of mashiach. At that time, God will triumph over everything, even death. All who once lived will come alive again.
Political. According to Lawrence Hoffman, a contemporary scholar of Jewish liturgy, Chad Gadya warns against taking revenge. The cycle, once started, may never end. Similarly, modern Israeli songwriter Chava Alberstein used Chad Gadya as a metaphor in a 1989 song urging the Israeli military not to retaliate against Palestinian strikes. “Why are you singing Chad Gadya? How long will the cycle of horror last, the pursuer and the pursued, the striker and the stricken?”
Spiritual. Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (1724-1806) sees in Chad Gadya an allegory about the inner journey towards spiritual refinement. One who sings Chad Gadya declares: I am the beginning seeker, bought for a blessing, whose creativity is threatened by too much rationality, which is in turn threatened by desire, which is then transformed into passion for the holy, which passion is defeated by the body, causing me to judge others harshly, which I can temper with love, which is sometimes defeated by my shadow side, until God helps me perfect my id.
Ethical. Rav Nasan Adler (1741-1800) taught that Chad Gadya is really a warning against lashon hara (gossip). Once, this controversial rabbi overheard a group of strangers gossiping about him. He walked over and said, “How about that Chad Gadya! The cat that ate the kid did a terrible thing, so the dog was right to bite it, and the staff was wrong to beat the dog. If you follow the logical steps of the song, it seems like God was wrong to punish the angel of death. The song cannot really be criticizing God, so how do you solve the problem?” “You have thought about this a lot, so perhaps you have an idea,” said the strangers. “Indeed I do!” said the Rav. “Actually, the dog was wrong. It was up to the father who owned the kid to punish the cat. The dog should never have gotten involved in someone else’s business!”
Perhaps Chad Gadya expresses the essence of retelling the Exodus story in every generation. Each year, different goals drive us: answering religious questions, learning about Jewish intellectual traditions, grappling with Jewish history, hoping for a just future, growing spiritually, dealing with difficult people and more. If Chad Gadya, a mere fragment at the end of the seder, can spark so much insight, how much more can we glean from the seder as a whole!
In only a few short weeks we will encounter our annual adventure down memory lane as we gather around and relive the Passover experience through the seder. It is through the evocative power of ritual, the art of story telling and the act of asking questions that we will immerse ourselves in the formative narrative of the creation of the Jewish people: the slavery in Egypt and eventual liberation.
Why is this story so important that every Jew is obligated to tell it and retell it again? Indeed, we are asked to not just share the story on the nights of Passover but every day as it forms a critical part of the recitation of the central prayer, the Shema. On one level, we are commanded to tell the story so as it keep it alive throughout the generations. Our children will not forget where they came from and the roots of their people’s existence because we; their parents, family members, friends and mentors, refuse to let the story enter the dustbin of history.
Yet, perhaps there is also even more to why we immerse ourselves so extensively into this story of servitude, oppression and freedom. The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim, which means “from the straits.” The experience of our ancient ancestors was not only the breakdown of their physical selves, the utter control of their bodies by their oppressors, but it was also the complete degradation and humiliation of their hearts and minds. They were so tightly constricted from the oppression they had no room to live as full human beings.
The story of Passover is not only retold on the seder nights and not even just retold every day through the Shema, it becomes a primary organizing principle behind much of the later commandments in the Torah. “You know the spirit of the stranger” becomes the rationale behind many commandments. The call to establish a sovereign Jewish homeland based on the principles of fairness, compassion and justice are rooted in the experience of Egypt.
We immerse ourselves so deeply into the Passover story not just to make sure our children don’t forget it, but so our children don’t forget themselves. The kind of people God desires us to be— humble, caring, justice-driven—is forged in the servitude and oppression of Egypt. We need to know intimately the movement from Mitzrayim, “from the straits,” to redemption, so we can model that in our daily lives and impart that way of life to future generations.
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!