One of the simple but important sentences that we read on the Seder night is: “Even if all of us were wise, discerning, venerated, and completely knowledgeable in the Torah, it is still a mitzvah for us to tell the story of the deliverance from Egypt.”
This sentence presumes a very simple question: “If I already know the story what’s the point of telling it all over again?” The answer is that this is not the kind of knowledge that one gets all at once and then you have it. It is a different kind of knowledge that is capable of growing as we re-tell it and go deeper into it.
This reminds me of a passage from a beautiful book by Mary Katherine Bateson, called Peripheral Visions: Learning along the Way. She writes,
“Planning for the classroom, we sometimes present learning in linear sequences, which may be what makes classroom learning onerous: this concept must precede that, must be fully grasped before the next is presented. Learning outside the classroom is not like that. Lessons too complex to grasp in a single occurrence spiral past again and again, small examples gradually revealing greater and greater implications.”
Telling the Passover story at the seder is more like this kind of learning than classroom learning: it spirals past every year and we are meant to get new insights as we re-tell it in different circumstances, at different ages. When I was a single grad student studying Talmud I would have seders with my friends in which we’d stay up almost all night discussing the deeper meanings of the story. Now, with a couple of small kids, we usually get up from the table, put on costumes and act out the story in a fun and attention-grabbing way.
In this way the Passover story is a lot like the myths that many traditional cultures tell: they are often deceptively simple stories, but there are layers of meaning hidden, waiting to be revealed. Notice that I am using the term “myth” not in the way that we sometimes use it in everyday speech, as something that isn’t true: “It’s only a myth that someone buried a Red Sox uniform under the new Yankee Stadium.” I’m using myth in the old sense of the stories that cultures tell to try to convey and teach their deepest wisdom. These stories are the heritage of the whole culture, from children to the oldest and wisest, so they need to be both simple and deep at the same time.
We tell of the enslavement of the Israelites, the plagues and the “passing over:” when God/the Destroyer sees the blood on the doorposts of the Israelite houses their
first-born are saved while the first born of the Egyptians are killed. The Israelites carry their unrisen dough out of Egypt in the middle of the night; they get to the sea and are chased by Pharaoh’s chariots. The sea splits and they cross to freedom while the Egyptians drown in the sea.
Like many myths, it has elements that are harsh and cruel: We often struggle over the unfairness of the punishment of the Egyptians, or the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. It is important to have these conversations and to confront the problematic aspects of this story.
But, remember that this is only one layer of the many meanings of the story. Another layer, for example, is a story about the birth of the Israelite nation. The Red Sea is the birth canal. The blood on the door posts is also a symbol for birth. When we look back on the story of the Exodus we see that most of the heroes are women and the stories relate to birth: the mid-wives saving the Israelite male babies, Miriam waiting for her baby brother to be taken out of the water (another birth metaphor), Zipporah, Moses’ wife circumcising their son on the roadside.
Telling the story of a birth is a way of talking about how we all come into this world: not on our own merits, but freely given the mysterious gift of life. There was no real merit that the Israelites had over the Egyptians. The ancient Rabbis told of how the Israelites were completely assimilated into Egyptian society. They worshiped idols just like the Egyptians! So, the Egyptians in the story are really a mirror of us. We could have been them and they could have been us. We could have not been born at all, but, instead, God gave us life.
This is the beginning of Israel, of Judaism: We recognize that we were given the gift of life. So we enter into a relationship with The Source of Life. This relationship is the Covenant, and all of Judaism flows from there.
The story of the Exodus is meant to be told on many levels: we can throw plastic frogs and act out the story of the “good guys and the bad guys” for the kids, we can struggle with the ethical issues of the “price of liberty” and the perennial struggle for human freedom, we can think of it as a metaphor for our own struggles to free ourselves from our own narrowness and constrictions (Egypt, mitzrayim in Hebrew, means narrow). All of these meanings are there to be explored.
Even if we’ve heard them all before, there is one element that is always new: I’m always a different person each time around. In discerning what the story of Egypt means I need to ask myself: what does the story mean to me this year? After all, the center of the Passover ritual is “in every generation each person must see him/herself as if s/he had come out of Egypt.”
Rabbi Natan Margalit is spiritual leader of the Greater Washington Coalition for Jewish Life in Washington, Conn. This article is reprinted from his blog, OrganicTorch.org
Infusing meaning into
the Passover seder
By Michele Alperin/JNS.org
As the intersection of family, Jewish memory, and the passions of contemporary politics and society, the Passover seder is said to be the most celebrated annual Jewish event in the United States. But it is not always easy to make all seder attendees feel the Haggadah’s mandate that in every generation, each individual should feel personally redeemed from Egypt.
The seder’s uniqueness is what makes running a successful seder so challenging, suggests Noam Zion, research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and co-author of two haggadot. It is at the same time a very intellectual venture, modeled on the Greek symposium, and a reflection of the priestly service, with ceremonial foods eaten in the proper order at the right time. Yet the leader of any seder is the head of the household where that particular seder is being held, and that leader may or may not be an expert.
“You need imagination, emotion, drama [to lead a seder]; you need someone who has gone to drama school, studied in a rabbinical yeshiva, and knows the rabbinic laws and how to run a priestly seder, and you have to do that with people of all different ages and different attitudes,” says Zion. “It’s almost a ‘mission impossible’ to balance all those elements.”
Zion says his father, Rabbi Moses Sachs, imparted two lessons about running seders: the importance of meshing the traditional and contemporary, and the need for sensitivity to a seder’s particular audience.
n From his experience running seders over the years, Zion offers a number of suggestions for molding a successful seder night:
n Pick the best guests you can, because you need allies who share your goal of having an interesting seder, says Zion. He notes that family members who don’t want to be there can be a big drag. Inviting curious Christians, he says, can spice things up with new questions and put “deadbeat relatives” on their best behavior.
n Always assign roles to at least three or four people before the seder. “Pick the people who are not the most knowledgeable but the most energetic, dramatic, opinionated,” says Zion. A politically interested person might talk about contemporary struggles for freedom, a storyteller might perform paper-bag dramatics, an artist might discuss artistic renditions of the four children, and a good cook might bring lots of hors d’oeuvres to put out at the beginning of the seder, so that there are no complaints about hunger.
n Don’t have the same person planning the seder and serving the meal, says Penzner. It’s worth paying someone to help out.
n Plan the timing of the seder well, Penzner says. Know when you want to end, and get to the meal in time for that. If you want to include the post-meal parts of the haggadah, you need to stop the meal early enough so that people don’t leave.
n Encourage questioning. The ritual “four questions” are just a model. For little children, suggests Penzner, hang matzot from the ceiling with crepe paper, or shape sticky Sephardic haroset into pyramids. Penzner also likes to give out chocolate chips to anyone who asks a good question.
n Make sure the seder reflects the participants: If you are bringing young children to a seder that is adult focused, Zion suggests, you should ask the host for a 10-15 minute slot to do something meaningful for the children. With small children, you may want to move the first part of the seder from the table to couches and the floor. “That gave us and families with babies room to go in and out and participate as much as they could,” says Penzner.
n Include activities that get everyone involved, like creating a second seder plate. Zion suggests one plate filled with objects brought by invitees that represent the most important thing that has shaped their Jewishness. Zion also recommends filling Elijah’s cup together—via the Ropshitzer Rebbe, he explains that as each participant pours in a little wine, they can share their hopes and dreams for “next year in Jerusalem” and for a better world.
Once is enough: ‘Olim’ happy to drop second seder
Why do Diaspora Jews have to tack on the eighth day, and the second seder?
By Deborah Fineblum/JNS.org
Rather than feeling a sense of loss, leaving the second Passover seder behind in the U.S., or France, or Turkey, or any other country of origin is touted as a perk of living in Israel that new immigrants to the Jewish state (olim) mention in the same breath as the universal availability of fresh pita and falafel.
But why do Diaspora Jews mutter to themselves while they’re dragging out the matzo balls for their return engagement at seder No. 2? Why, since the Torah is crystal clear that Passover is to last seven days, do Diaspora Jews have to tack on the eighth day, and the second seder? And why don’t Israelis need to do that?
For the answer, one has to look up—to the moon—because the Jewish calendar is a lunar affair. In the old days, witnesses needed to testify that they saw the new moon, thereby fixing the date that each month began (since the months could be either 29 or 30 days long). Consequently, without that expert testimony, those far removed from Jerusalem would not be informed when the month began—hence the timing of the holidays in the Diaspora. Since there is a day on each side of possible error, the ancient Jewish sages wisely tacked on an extra day to the festivals, as one of the first two days was bound to be right. In Israel, of course, no such precaution was necessary. Thanks to those witnesses, they knew the right day.
Although communications are vastly improved since the days of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish supreme court in Jerusalem), the custom in Diaspora communities of celebrating an extra day of Passover, and other festivals such as Sukkot, has remained in force. (Note: Rosh Hashanah is the one exception, as the Jewish New Year is celebrated everywhere for two days.)
The 30 years since Gary (“Gary the Guide”) Kamen made aliyah from Chicago have, if only in this one respect, been nothing short of bliss. “Did I miss the second seder? Not for an instant,” grins Kamen, whom JNS.org caught up with outside Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City, where he was rounding up his tour group. Growing up with divorced parents, it was always the first seder with Dad and his family and the second seder with Mom and hers. Or vice versa. Now it’s one seder for family and friends alike, and then a dive directly into chol hamoed—the intermediate days of the holiday. Here in Israel, that’s a full five days (not four as in the Diaspora), during a time of year when olive blossoms burst into bloom and the air and lakes warm up appreciably.
“You know what a mechayah (“pleasure” in Yiddish) is? That first Pesach here was a mechayah!” added Kamen’s fellow tour guide Allan Younger, in a distinctly Scottish brogue. Even 20-plus years later, the memories are still fresh.
“I can remember what it was like for the first time not having to start all over again and drag out the leftovers like we had to back in Scotland,” he adds. “The truth is, day-old tsimmis (an Ashkenazi stew made from carrots, dried fruit, vegetables, and meat) does not taste good.”
Baila Brown says she too will never forget her first seder as an Israeli citizen. She had made aliyah from Massachusetts and had just moved into her new apartment in Jerusalem. Waiting for her son to return so they could begin their seder, she stood in her courtyard listening to the children in the adjoining apartments singing the Four Questions. “It was such an amazing sound. I knew at that moment that I had arrived,” she says.
As for the second seder, Brown says that, as much as she was accustomed to it in the States, “It’s as if we don’t need it here… the one we do have is such a powerful telling of the story right here in the part of the world where it all happened.” And as those neighborhood children chanting the four questions illustrated, the seder “is a communal and shared experience here in a way it can’t be there,” she explains. “And here you can really experience Passover as a spring holiday, something you don’t feel in New England where it’s still cold at that time of the year.”
Harold Berman, former executive director of the Jewish Federation of Western Mass and co-author of Doublelife – One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope, also remembers the first Passover after he and his family arrived in Efrat five years ago. “The word that kept coming to mind was ‘natural,’” he recalls. “It seemed so natural to tell the story just once. Once you have experienced it, it stays with you. After all, in America, we never had Thanksgiving dinner two nights in a row.”
By the way, visitors to Israel, unless they own property there, still need to keep the second day of the holiday even when the Israelis around them are throwing the bathing suits into the car and heading off for their vacations. Yes, that means the visitors need to hold a second seder, complete with seder plate, four cups of wine, and the reading of the Haggadah with as much respect and focus as the night before.
Maybe, after singing “Chad Gadya” and draining the fourth cup of wine at that second seder, these visitors will want to amend the traditional seder-ending promise of “Next year in Jerusalem” by adding “… this time as an Israeli citizen.”