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 Sefaria.org

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?

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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. MyJewishLearning.com 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!

To My Christian Friends Coming to Seder

Image: Matzah (Unleavened bread.)

Dear Friends,

I’m so glad that you will be joining us for seder this Passover. The seder is a core experience of Jewish life and hospitality. We’re glad to have you.

After a few experiences with guests at the seder table, I’ve learned that it helps if you get a little orientation ahead of time. So, some history:

The seder goes back to the time just after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 of the common era (which you call “70 AD.”) Our people were distraught at the loss of our Temple, at the violence of the Roman armies, and we looked desperately for a way to make sure that the central story of our heritage would be handed down intact.

You see, up until that time it was our custom to travel to Jerusalem for the festival every year. It is one of three such “pilgrimage festivals” in Judaism. Families would travel long distances to camp in the valleys and hills around Jerusalem. On the last day before the festival, the head of each household would carry a lamb or goat down to the Temple, where the priests would slaughter it ritually and begin the process of roasting it before they handed the roast back to the householder. Then he (usually he) would return to the family and they would finish roasting the meat, munching on unleavened bread (matzah) and bitter herbs as was commanded in the Torah. While all this went on, there was storytelling by the elders and children, telling the story of our deliverance from Egypt. That’s how Passover was celebrated while the Temple still stood.

After the Temple was destroyed, we could no longer have the animal sacrifices, because we can only make those sacrifices in the Temple. Our elders made the decision to use the most powerful teaching practice of the time to transmit our story. That practice was the symposium banquet, a Greek custom at which wealthy free men reclined around a table, enjoying food and wine and discussing important issues. So from that time to this, we recline around the table, using the Haggadah, a script, to discuss our story at a level that everyone at the table can enjoy, linking our story to music and the tastes and odors of delicious food.

That’s what the Passover Seder is: a sacred moment in which we pass on the heritage of our people, experiencing it anew every year. The seder has served us well, seeing us through centuries of persecution and exile. It differs from the symposium in that we make the declaration “Let all who are hungry come and eat:” the learning offered at the seder is for anyone who is hungry for it, not only the privileged. Men, women and children participate at the seder table.

You may have heard from someone about links to your own Christian story. It’s true: Passover (Pesach) is mentioned in your New Testament. The gospels say that the events leading up to Easter took place during the Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem. However, it is not true that the “Last Supper” was a Passover seder. Think about it: the Temple was still standing in the year 33; it would be standing for 37 more years. Jesus never went to a Passover seder, although as an observant Jew, he certainly took part in the Passover observances of his time: the sacrifices, the storytelling, and the unleavened bread.

So here’s what I ask: when you come to sit at my seder table, be there for a Jewish experience. I’m inviting you into my world on one of the holiest nights of its year. Just as I would not come into your church for Christmas services and tell everyone about all the Jewish content in the service, don’t come to a seder table to teach about Jesus. We both know that there are connections, and if you feel powerfully about that, press your minister or priest for interfaith events. There are many days of the year when those would be appropriate. Christmas, Easter, Rosh HaShanah and Passover are not those days; they are days when each community has its own important work to do.

I’m glad you are coming to my seder table, and I hope that you have a wonderful evening with us. Pesach sameach! (PAY-sokh sah-MAY-ahkh) – Happy Passover!

L’shalom,

Rabbi Ruth Adar

P.S. – For more advice about getting the most out of your first seder read Seven Ways to be a Great Passover Seder Guest. 

• This post appeared last year on this blog in a slightly different form. 

To Christian Friends Coming to Seder

Image: A Seder at Mark and Dawn’s house. Photo by Linda Burnett.

Dear Friends,

I’m so glad that you will be joining us for seder this Passover. The seder is a core experience of Jewish life and hospitality. We’re glad to have you.

After a few experiences with guests at the seder table, I’ve learned that it helps if you get a little orientation ahead of time. So, some history:

The seder goes back to the time just after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 of the common era (which you perhaps call “70 AD.”) Our people were distraught at the loss of our Temple, at the violence of the Roman armies, and we looked desperately for a way to make sure that the central story of our heritage, our deliverance from Egypt, would be handed down intact.

You see, up until that time it was our custom to travel to Jerusalem for the festival every year. It is one of three such “pilgrimage festivals” in Judaism. Families would travel long distances to camp in the valleys and hills around Jerusalem. On the last day before the festival, the head of each household would carry a lamb or goat down to the Temple, where the priests would slaughter it ritually and begin the process of roasting it before they handed the roast back to the householder. Then he (usually he) would return to the family and they would finish roasting the meat, munching on unleavened bread (matzah) and bitter herbs as was commanded in the Torah. While all this went on, there was storytelling by the elders and children, telling the story of our deliverance from Egypt. That’s how Passover was celebrated while the Temple still stood.

After the Temple was destroyed, we could no longer have the animal sacrifices, because we can only make those sacrifices in the Temple. Our elders made the decision to use the most powerful teaching practice of the time to transmit our story. That practice was the symposium banquet, a Greek custom at which wealthy free men reclined around a table, enjoying food and wine and discussing important issues. So from that time to this, we recline around the table, using the Haggadah, a script, to discuss our story at a level that everyone at the table can enjoy, linking our story to music and the tastes and odors of delicious food.

That’s what the Passover Seder is: a sacred moment in which we pass on the heritage of our people, experiencing it anew every year. The seder has served us well, seeing us through centuries of persecution and exile. It differs from the symposium in that we make the declaration “Let all who are hungry come and eat:” the learning offered at the seder is for anyone who is hungry for it, not only the privileged. Men, women and children participate at the seder table.

You may have heard from someone about links to your own Christian story. It’s true: Passover (Pesach) is mentioned in your New Testament. The gospels say that the events leading up to Easter took place during the Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem. However, it is not true that the “Last Supper” was a Passover seder. Think about it: the Temple was still standing in the year 33; it would be standing for 37 more years. Jesus never went to a Passover seder, although as an observant Jew, he certainly took part in the Passover observances of his time: the sacrifices, the storytelling, and the unleavened bread.

So here’s what I ask: when you come to sit at my seder table, be there for a Jewish experience. I’m inviting you into my world on one of the holiest nights of its year. Just as I would not come into your church for Christmas services and tell everyone about all the Jewish content in the service, don’t come to a seder table to teach about Jesus. We both know that there are connections, and if you feel powerfully about that, press your minister or priest for interfaith dialogue events. There are many days of the year when those would be appropriate. Christmas, Easter, Rosh HaShanah and Passover are not those days; they are days when each community has its own important work to do.

I’m glad you are coming to my seder table, and I hope that you have a wonderful evening with us. Pesach sameach! (PAY-sokh sah-MAY-ahkh) – Happy Passover!

L’shalom,

Rabbi Ruth Adar

P.S. – For more advice about getting the most out of your first seder read Seven Ways to be a Great Passover Guest.

For A Very Hard Year: The Movie Seder

Passover 2009 was a time when it seemed like we could not get a break. I don’t remember all the troubles – it’s a fog now – but I had been struggling with depression and after six years in rabbinical school, I had only part time work as a rabbi. One son had a job so scary that I couldn’t think about it. The other son was having a tough time with bipolar disorder, and we were still adjusting to it. The previous year California voted in Prop 8, saying, yeah, you lesbians are worthless.

We didn’t have energy for a seder that year. Looking back, I think we were in the depths of Egypt and it was hard to even imagine a seder. I didn’t feel like going to someone else’s seder and smiling and making nice, and neither did Linda.

But we still had the commandment to observe the chag (festival.) I take these things seriously, and so does Linda. It wasn’t OK to just ignore it, no matter how tattered we felt.

So we came up with what I remember as The Movie Seder. Purists will be horrified, but that year it was perfect for us. We had a box of matza, we made a green salad, charoset and something basic for dinner, I think roast chicken.

At the kitchen table, we did the preliminaries: lit and blessed the candles, made kiddush, and washed without blessing. Then ate our salads and broke the matzah, moving to the living room couch. There we had more matzah, horseradish, greens, charoset and the roast chicken. We put on a recording of The Prince of Egypt and settled in to watch as we munched on the ritual food. When they got to the red sea, we broke into dessert (chocolate matzah!) We sipped wine all the way through; I’m sure we had four cups.

And I have to tell you, while it wasn’t a proper seder, at the end we felt hopeful. The music and the beautiful messages of the film had lifted us just a bit. Watching it together, eating together, talking about the movie reconnected us in ways I still don’t entirely understand. I just know that I rose from that seder “table” ready to trudge on through that year’s personal wilderness.

That seder was years ago. A lot has changed. We aren’t nearly so worried about either son. Prop 8 and DOMA are gone (good riddance) and we feel like citizens at last. I’m in a good place emotionally right now, and I have work I love. Linda survived cancer, again. Linda and I are solid, baruch Hashem. But I think of that funny little seder with great affection: it got us through a very bad time.

When you are deep in Egypt, sometimes your seder has to be basic. If you are having a rough year of your own, I encourage you to buy a box of matzah, a jar of horseradish, some salad greens, and a bottle of wine. Make the blessings. Put on a good Exodus film (I recommend The Prince of Egypt or The Ten Commandments) and relax with one of the great stories of all time. Be in it; in a rough time, that story tells us things we need to know.

The Haggadah teaches us 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.” Part of the reason this works is that over the course of a lifetime, most of us will have an experience of our own personal Egypt. If you are in Egypt today, I wish you deliverance.

L’shanah haba’ah birushalayim!

Next year, in Jerusalem!

Escape the Passover Anxiety Trap!

Image: Gerbera daisy. Photo by Pezibear at pixabay.com.

Passover is coming at us like a freight train. I’ve gotten rid of my chametz, but my kitchen is buried in preparations: pans and ingredients are in piles only I understand and the refrigerator is filling up fast. I’ve located the Passover boxes with dishes and linens and seder-stuff.

Company is coming and I can feel some old anxieties rising. Will they have enough to eat? Will they like what I’ve planned? Are there enough dishes for everyone? Who will sit where? Will so-and-so behave nicely? What will I do if they don’t?

STOP.

I invite you to take the moment I took earlier this evening and go through your anxieties. Separate them into three lists: (1) things I can control, (2) things I can’t control, and (3) things that don’t matter anyway. The only worries that are worth my precious time right now are the things I can control.

It will be OK. There will be food. If I burn all of it, we’ll eat Hillel sandwiches and have a story to tell for years to come. They’ll all like something, and if they have any manners at all, they won’t announce what they don’t like. I have enough dishes. They can sit where they want, since that is what they’ll do anyway. And if someone misbehaves, that is their bad behavior, not mine. Again, maybe a story to tell someday.

It’s easy to get so wound up over a “perfect seder” that we forget what we are really doing: We’re gathering to tell the story and make it our own.

“I Hate That Part of the Seder!” Four Solutions

What part of the seder do you wish would disappear?

For one friend of mine, it’s the Four Children. She cringes every time she hears about the “wicked child.” As she points out, somewhere there is a child who identifies with that child, and she worries that there are children who internalize those words and never feel connected to the Jewish people. I think she has a point. The Four Children need some explanation to make a constructive point.

In a proper seder, we don’t just read through the haggadah like radio announcers reading the news. We encourage conversation at the table. We encourage feelings. We ask questions – not just the Four Questions, but lots of questions. We make it clear to the children at the table that adults ask questions, too.

When there is a part of the seder that we don’t like, we have choices:

Replace it. If there’s something that really bugs you, check out other haggadot and see how they handle that section. If you find something better, use that haggadah instead, or maybe use some hybrid of the two.

Rewrite it. If you can’t find a text you like for that section, rewrite it yourself! You can get help – make an appointment with your rabbi to talk about the section of the seder that bothers you, and ask for help in figuring out what you’d rather say instead. Or just do it.

Refer it. Look at your guest list. Is there someone coming who might enjoy the project of tackling that section? If you are going to do that, you can’t control how they do it, but you can say, look, that section doesn’t work for me, can you come up with something different?

Reframe it. Many of the commentaries on the haggadah and books about Passover suggest alternate ways of understanding the traditional text. For instance, one popular way of reframing the Four Children is to see them as four aspects of every human personality. In some of us, one or another of the “children” is dominant, but most of us have all of them. Then incorporate that explanation into your seder, either by reading the commentary aloud or by paraphrasing it.

The Haggadah is a script for the seder. Like any script, we can adjust it to our situation, to the actors, and to the moment in time. Some years a very simple children’s haggadah is really the best thing for our table. Other years, something else will be best. And some years, parts of it need to be done as improv.