Many Seders, Many Egypts

Image: The Weighing of Souls, from the Papyrus of the Book of the Dead, Egyptian museum, Turin Italy (photo by Souza_DF/Pixabay)

Each year, when I come to the seder table, I experience it a little differently.

At my very first seder, before I even thought I could become a Jew, I was mystified. I was the Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask at a seder that was mostly in Hebrew and completely opaque to me. What I did know was that I had been invited to join that household for something precious to them. I listened, I followed directions, I drank four cups of wine and I left feeling a little sick. I look back on that seder, and realize that I was there as an observer, not as a participant, and four cups of wine is a lot of wine, so OK.

Every year since I began my journey into Judaism, the seder sneaks up on me. The first few years, I was worried about performance, from the dishes to the text. I wanted it to be “perfect.” I wanted it to be a correct seder. It never was, and finally it dawned on me that I was missing the point.

In the midst of the Maggid, the portion of the Haggadah where we retell the events of the Exodus, there’s the following passage:

בְּכָל־דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת־עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר, בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה ה’ לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרַיִם. לֹא אֶת־אֲבוֹתֵינוּ בִּלְבָד גָּאַל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, אֶלָּא אַף אוֹתָנוּ גָּאַל עִמָּהֶם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וְאוֹתָנוּ הוֹצִיא מִשָּׁם, לְמַעַן הָבִיא אוֹתָנוּ, לָתֶת לָנוּ אֶת־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשָׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ.

In each and every generation, a person is obligated to see himself as if he left Egypt, as it is stated (Exodus 13:8); “For the sake of this, did the Lord do [this] for me in my going out of Egypt.” Not only our ancestors did the Holy One, blessed be He, redeem, but rather also us [together] with them did he redeem, as it is stated (Deuteronomy 6:23); “And He took us out from there, in order to bring us in, to give us the land which He swore unto our fathers.”  – Haggadah from

This is the passage that finally explained to me what I was supposed to be doing at seder. I began digging at the concept of Egypt, and the results have been coming for over 20 years. Each year, sometime during the seder, I identify an Egypt that I have left, or in which I am still trapped and in need of deliverance.

  • One year I suddenly flashed on my flight from a bad marriage and an abusive parent. I remembered my terror and my fear of the unknown. I burst into tears at the table and couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone what was happening with me.
  • One year I realized that I was still in the Egypt of racism and a beneficiary of racism. There were bad things in my head that were never going away. Leaving that Egypt would mean reschooling my behavior and hoping that my mis-trained brain would follow.
  • One year I burnt myself rather badly kashering the kitchen. I felt grumpy at the seder table until it hit me that here I was again, in Egypt! I had let my ego take over my observance of mitzvot. I resolved to let the sea part and let it take my ego with it. My house has never been that perfectly cleaned for Pesach since, but my observance has been a lot more authentic.
  • One year I fled Israel for Passover. (I know, irony.) I was not sure that I was going back to finish rabbinical school because I was miserable. I felt too Other to be useful as a rabbi; too lost in Egypt to be any good to anyone.  Then I sat at seder in NYC with some Jews who hadn’t done a seder in years. I rose from that table, ready to go back to school, convinced that I had something to offer.
  • One year I was too exhausted for seder. I wrote about that seder in the post For a Very Hard Year: The Movie Seder.

I don’t know what Egypt I will be delivered from this year. All of us have “narrow places” in our lives, places that we’ve gotten out of, or can’t get out of, or ways in which we are stuck. The message of the seder is one of hope: wherever I’m stuck, whatever is sticking in my throat, the situation is not hopeless. The sea may or may not part (I’m open to a miracle) but Pharaoh cannot hold me: I am free.

What Egypts have you left? What Egypts remain?


The Haggadah is not a Straightjacket!

Image: Silhouette of a family celebrating Passover on a matzah background. (ayelet-keshet/Shutterstock)

The Passover seder is meant to be an evening of delight.

If that does not match with your Passover experience, maybe it’s time for some upgrades. Here are some common issues and some contemporary fixes:

  1. It’s so long and it is all in Hebrew!  Not every American Jew is fluent in Hebrew. There’s no shame in reading the English translations. If someone at the table knows the Hebrew and wants to, let them choose some sections to read, but break it up with language everyone can understand.
  2. We’re starving! It’s too long till we get to the food!  That’s a very good point. We can’t enjoy the goodies of the seder when we’re hungry. There’s a part of the seder called karpas (greens) where in most haggadot (plural of haggadah) we are told to say a blessing and dip some parsley in salt water. But the truth is, that’s a great time to serve a veggie platter of foods to dip: greens, carrots, celery, maybe cherry tomatoes and cauliflower, whatever your family likes. Serve dips with the veggies (guacamole is good!)  and let everyone munch while we enjoy the seder service.  That’s how the karpas section was meant to be.
  3. None of us know any music. has a whole list of places to find Passover music in time for the seder, whether you want to play it on your smartphone or sing it yourselves.  Check out Where to Find Songs for your Passover Seder, which is just a click away.
  4. But it’s loooong and it’s booooring! Read through the haggadah ahead of time. (Anyone leading a seder should do this anyway.) If there are parts you know put everyone to sleep, shorten them. I promise I will not tell if you even skip a bit.
  5. But it’s boring! Is there someone in the family who secretly longs to host the Oscars? Who loves to do standup? Let this person lead your seder. Empower them to liven it up with props, skits, whatever works! Tell them to think of the haggadah as a script for an evening of improv.
  6. But it’s boring! One more idea: divide up the haggadah. Give each part to a different leader (you’ll still need someone to remind Cousin Fred that it’s now time for his part.) Encourage them to do it however they want, from whatever sources they like – do that part THEIR way. At least then, the voices will change, and you can accommodate both Aunt Sarah who wants to read her part in rapid Hebrew and Cousin David who really wants to do standup.
  7. But I hate our haggadah! Clearly you need a new haggadah. Yep, it’s an investment, but check out some of the new haggadot. There are also some free ones to be had online here and here. Organize a haggadah swap at your synagogue (ok, maybe next year.) Free haggadot are one-size-fits-all, and just like those pantyhose in the eggs, that means they don’t really fit anyone. Maybe next year, make your family its own haggadah.

The haggadah was never meant to be a straightjacket. Like many Jewish texts, it evolved over time and then at some point, someone printed it and it froze a bit. Just remember that it is your heritage: you can do with it what you want. If you have a family full of Torah scholars, you’re going to have one kind of seder. If you have a table full of beginners, you’ll have a different seder. The whole idea of the seder is to make the story come alive – so if it feels dead, it’s time to take off the straightjacket and do something new.

I wish you a zissen (sweet) Pesach!

Don’t Make This Seder Mistake!

Image: Grapes, grape leaves, and a pitcher of red liquid. (Photo via, some rights reserved.)

My seder table every year is really crowded: there’s the seder plate itself, the haggadahs, the individual place settings, the wine glasses, the two kinds of wine (Manischewitz and not-Manischewitz),  along with little plastic frogs for the kids and all sorts of other paraphernalia. It’s a lot of stuff!

However, there are two other things that must be on every seder table, One is a pitcher or carafe or bottle of grape juice, and the other is a pitcher of water. And yet often when I’ve been a guest at seder, neither of those was in evidence until I asked.

In the haggadah, we read “Let all who are hungry come and eat!” And yet when we leave off the grape juice, or when we have it in the kitchen as an afterthought in the plastic Kedem bottle, we are putting some of our guests at a disadvantage, and possibly embarrassing them.

Some people don’t drink wine. Some are friends of Bill W. – they are addicted to alcohol, and they absolutely must not drink wine. Some (like me) are on medications that make alcohol dangerous. For those guests it is really important for the grape juice to be out on the table, easily available, and if possible, staged as attractively as the wine.

I can tell you from personal experience that it’s very tempting to say to a host, “Oh, sure, I’ll just have a little wine” if it looks like getting the grape juice is going to be a lot of trouble. I can also tell you that I feel like a bit of a second-class citizen when my grape juice comes out of a plastic bottle with a torn label, when everyone else is drinking out of a pretty bottle.

Oh, and no, apple juice isn’t just as good. This is the blessing for the glasses of wine:

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space, who created the fruit of the vine.

It doesn’t have to be fermented, but it does have to have grown on a vine, for the blessing to be correct. Other vine-grown alternatives are tomatoes, melons, and kiwi fruit.

So why the water?  All of your guests will feel better if they have the option of water to drink between cups of wine. Also, some of your guests may wish to water down the wine a bit, so that they can stay sober enough to enjoy the seder and drive home after.

So please, add water and grape juice to your overcrowded seder table. Your guests will thank you!




Don’t Forget This Mitzvah before Pesach!

Image: A box for collecting tzedakah funds.

It is a Jewish tradition of long standing to give tzedakah (funds for the relief of suffering and need) before holidays and celebrations. We are approaching one of the greatest holidays of the Jewish year, Passover. In the rush to be ready, don’t forget to give so that the discomforts of others may be less on the holy days.

I’ve been working on a long piece about tzedakah, and as often happens there are texts that I love but cannot use in that particular paper. I thought I’d share them here for your enjoyment and perusal, because darnit, I like them so much!

“What goes around, comes around”:

R. Hiyya advised his wife, “When a poor man come to the door, give him food so that the same may be done to your children.” She exclaimed, “You are cursing them (by suggesting that they may become beggars)! But R. Hiyya replied, “There is a wheel which revolves in this world.” – Shabbat 151b

About fakers and frauds:

Rabbi Chayim of Sanz had this to say about fraudulent charity collectors: “The merit of charity is so great that I am happy to give to 100 beggars even if only one might actually be needy. Some people, however, act as if they are exempt from giving charity to 100 beggars in the event that one might be a fraud.” – Darkai Chayim (1962). 137

A warning against “compassion fatigue”:

R. Joshua b. Korkha said, “Anyone who shuts his eye against tzedakah is like one who
worships idols.” – Ketubot 68a

Do you have a favorite text about the mitzvah of tzedakah?


Economic Justice & Jewish Funerals

Image: A plain pine casket. Photo: Northwoods Casket Company.

Likewise, at first taking the dead out for burial was more difficult for the relatives than the actual death, because it was customary to bury the dead in expensive shrouds, which the poor could not afford. The problem grew to the point that relatives would sometimes abandon the corpse and run away. This lasted until Rabban Gamliel came and acted with frivolity, meaning that he waived his dignity, by leaving instructions that he be taken out for burial in linen garments. And the people adopted this practice after him and had themselves taken out for burial in linen garments. Rav Pappa said: And nowadays, everyone follows the practice of taking out the dead for burial even in plain hemp garments that cost only a dinar. – Moed Katan 27b

Sometimes people are surprised at the plainness of Jewish funerals. The coffin is usually plain wood and there are no flowers. The funeral itself is simple: a few psalms, a few words about the deceased, more psalms, and then the special prayers for the dead: El Male Rachamim and the Mourner’s Kaddish.  We put the plain box gently in the ground, and all participate in filling the grave.

That’s all there is to the funeral. Afterwards our focus is on the mourners, making sure that they are able to do the work of grief with the community’s support. If you want to know more about that, I have written A Quick Primer on Jewish Mourning.

The story above is the origin of all this simplicity. The ancient Jewish community was divided by the fact that some were wealthier than others. Income inequality was so wide that some families felt ashamed to bury their dead, because they felt they could not do so adequately without spending money they did not have.

It took the leadership of Rabban Gamliel to change things. He made arrangements that his own funeral would be utterly simple: a simple shroud that anyone could afford, or that a donor might buy for a destitute person. In that way, he equalized all Jewish funerals: he set the example that even a great sage from a prosperous family should have such a simple funeral. Therefore everyone had to follow suit.

Sometimes when we talk about economic justice, we spend a lot of time reassuring people with resources that they will not lose anything by making justice. It’s up to those individuals, sometimes, to lead the way, and perhaps to quietly shame those who don’t want to give up their own splendid shroud. Face it: who needs a high fashion shroud?

Jewish tradition teaches us that there is nothing wrong with enjoying the good things in this world. There’s nothing intrinsically evil about money. However, it is wrong to leave others hungry or homeless. It is wrong to do things in such a way that others will feel ashamed.


Shabbat Shalom! – Tzav

Parashat Tzav takes us deeper into the Book of Leviticus, and into the minutiae of Temple sacrificial practice. This week we see the sacrifices from the priest’s point of view, especially the week-long ordination rite. What can any of this possibly have to say to 21st century Jews? Take a look at these divrei Torah and see!

Giving Thanks in the Present Moment by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Tzav: Oil and Blood by Maggid Melissa Carpenter

The Life Blood and the Nefesh by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Leadership, Precision, and the Power of Ritual by Rabbi Rachel Sabath- Beit Halachmi

“Head, Shoulders, Knees & Toes by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

The Convert Who Loved Nice Clothes by Rabbi Ruth Adar


The Convert Who Loved Nice Clothes

Image: The High Priest in the Holy of Holies, from the Holman Bible, 1890. Public Domain.

This week’s Torah portion is Tzav, “Command.” It begins:

“The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: “Command Aaron and his sons thus…” – Leviticus 6:1-2

Nowhere in Scripture is there anything to suggest that Aaron wanted the position of High Priest. The more I think about that role, the more I am convinced that it isn’t the sort of job most people would want. It’s hard, heavy work: slaughtering animals, skinning them, cutting them up, stacking the pieces with wood in a very precise manner, burning the lot, then cleaning up the mess. It’s bloody, sweaty, dirty work.  And as we will soon see,  mistakes in the vicinity of the Mishkan [Tabernacle] can be fatal.

It’s easy to miss the grubbiness and danger of the job. We read about elaborate vestments with fancy embroidery, precious stones, and magical devices. Most sacrifices involve a meal for the priests. The title is seductive, too: “High Priest” or in Hebrew, “Kohen Gadol.”

There is a story in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) about a non-Jew who walked by a synagogue, and heard the reading from Exodus describing the High Priest’s garments. He was very curious, and asked a bystander about the passage. “They are special garments for the High Priest.” The man was excited. “For this, it is worth becoming a Jew. I’ll convert and become the next High Priest!” The bystander, amused, suggested that he go see a rabbi named Shammai, who was a builder by trade.

He went to Shammai and said, “I want you to convert me, but only on the condition that I become the next High Priest!” Shammai, disgusted by his chutzpah, poked at him with a measuring rod until he fled the shop.

Undeterred, the man got the name of another rabbi, Hillel. He went to see Hillel and repeated his outrageous demand.

Hillel looked at him for a moment. “OK,” he said, “But if you want to become High Priest, you should learn the laws concerning the High Priest. Start with those.” Overjoyed, the student went away to study.

Then he read the verse, “Any non-priest who participates [in the holy service] shall die” (Num. 3:10). “To whom does this refer?’ he asked. Even King David, he was told. Even David, king of Israel, was not allowed to serve in the holy Temple, as he was not a descendant of Aaron the kohen. He was horrified: he didn’t want to die!

He returned to Hillel. “May blessings fall on your head, humble sir, for drawing me under the wings of the Divine Presence.” For you see, even though he no longer wanted to be the High Priest, he had found the beauty of Torah in the text itself and in the person of Hillel. He continued studying Torah, and eventually converted to Judaism.

There are many lessons available in that story. One I have to work to remember is that sometimes ignorant people ask offensive questions without meaning offense. I can pick up the nearest measuring rod to chase them out of my shop – Shammai’s response is understandable! – or I can give them what they need to educate themselves. It’s my choice.

Have you ever asked a question you realized later was foolish or even offensive? When and how did you learn better? And what did you do then?