Passover is coming, and many Americans, Jewish or not, will be observing the holiday with a Seder. While most of us know the Seder as the ritual meal that structures the observance of Passover, Seder also means order. Every year during the Hebrew month of Nissan, as Spring and new life emerge, Jews are commanded to retell the story of the Exodus and the birth of the Jewish people. During this telling at the holiday table, the reading of the Haggadah, we celebrate freedom for all humankind. We also have the opportunity to reflect on enslavements of all kinds, external and internal.
The prescribed order is almost embodied in Seder-goers, familiar and evocative of the many Seders that have come before. Participants bless the holiday candles and wine, wash hands, dip greens in salt water, break the middle matzah, read from the Haggadah (traditional book that contains the story of Passover), pray, sing, ask the four questions, wash hands again, and sample the Seder plate’s symbolic foods representing the Israelites’ slavery in Egypt and their Exodus. More singing and–at last–we eat.
The paradox of this order is the lack of order around us. Despite the fact that we are all once again gathered together, nothing is the same as it was last year. We have changed, and the people around us have changed. The charming toddler has become the school brat; the pouty teenager, a charming young person. For a moment, the embrace of those who brought us to maturity feels lovely, until suddenly it feels suffocating. For each of us has broken out of the cocoon of last year’s self and emerged as a new person. While it is comforting to be the baby of the family, it also feels out of character now that one is an adult, or at least more adult, with new responsibilities.
Each year we both dread and look forward to renewing our ties to people we know well enough to know they are flawed. Passover forces us to interact with all those relatives who we may not have chosen as friends. Fortunately, part of the Haggadah gives us ideas on how to interact with others. The story of the four children guides us to treat each individual according to their capacities, the wise, the wicked, the simple and those too young to even ask questions. The holiday brings us together, then calls on us to expand our repertoire of behaviors toward others.
While the order of the service is prescribed, around us there is chaos. Children squirm, an older head droops into a snooze, stomachs growl. A teenager sneaks a look at the iPhone. Some of the elders argue about how to execute a certain part of the Seder. The hosts rush in and out of the kitchen, checking to make sure the chicken soup is still hot and the matzah balls are just the right bouncy consistency. A glass of sweet, red wine spills, seltzer water is thrown on the fine Passover linen cloth, and the family treasure absorbs another pinkish spot in its embroidered weave. The order which we so desire, and which gives us comfort, proves elusive.
The meal then turns into a festive blur as platters brimming with Ashkenazi favorites of brisket, tsimmes, roast chicken, vegetables, and potato kugel are passed around the table. Some people introduce Sephardi Passover treats to the Seder like dried fruit studded rice pilaf or date Charoset, but only at their own risk. The complaints begin. Someone says the soup is too salty, or not salty enough. The chopped liver is loose this year; how come? Food, so closely tied to memories, senses, and aspirations of the families and friends at the table, brings the tensions and comforts of order to the forefront.
Life is unpredictable. Though the host prepared the festive foods, and organized every detail of the table, we have little control over the people at the table. This is a metaphor for the way our lives and the lives of our loved ones unfold on their own, despite our planning.
Is it a surprise, then, that order is disturbed as well as observed at the Passover Seder? The eagerly awaited Passover meal, with its familiar colors, smells, and sounds, takes us through the emergence of the Nation of Israel and the decades of our lives, blurring boundaries of order and chaos.
After the multi-course meal, we eat the Afikomen, open the door for Elijah, have another glass of wine, say the blessing after meals, and end with songs of praise and our hopes that next year, like our formerly enslaved ancestors, we will be in Jerusalem. For the escaping Israelites, Jerusalem is an emotional and physical destination; for us, Jerusalem is an equally charged metaphor for liberation from whatever constrains us.
Holidays and family gatherings are times when our childhood and adulthood live together both internally and externally. Many of the feelings from childhood remain and often come to the fore at family gatherings. The Seder calls on us to be compassionate to ourselves as we try on new identities, and as we work to accept the same in others. The Seder provides a map for helping us to negotiate the complexities of families and our ever-changing lives. Order within the context of chaos; for this, we are thankful.