The beauty of the Jewish spring festival of Passover and the ritual meal that kicks it off (a “Seder” — pron. sādər) lies not in whether the well-known story of the Exodus we tell each year is true (spoiler: it isn’t), but in the continuity, sincerity and dynamism of the telling. It’s that time of year again.
Some who celebrate the holiday year after year like the orderly process of repeating familiar rituals as directed. Some most enjoy the debates among rabbis of old that make up part of our ritual text (called a Haggadah) and give the evening mysticism and gravitas. For others it’s the food or at least a particular recipe, and just the process of showing up. And depending on the company you keep, you might find yourself confronted at a seder these days by the latest thematic Haggadah insert, downloaded from the internet from the likes of Scientific American, “Star Wars,” socially responsible chocolate. I got one on immigration issues and another on mass incarceration from my very own synagogue. When reciting the 10 plagues that we are told God inflicts on the willful Egyptian ruler who will not set his Israelite slaves free, you might go for the traditional or find yourself with a group that has decided this is the year for counting out the modern 10 plagues of conflict minerals. You might be with people who want to do nothing more than take a day off and eat a familiar meal with familiar people, enjoying all that such stolen times have to offer in a chaotic world.
The grandeur and authenticity of this most well-known of Jewish rituals lies in the concept known in Hebrew as L’dor va’dor, which translates in English to “From generation to generation.” Jews and all those at our tables gather to eat Ha Lachma Anya — the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate when they fled in haste from slavery and misery in Egypt. With pieces of matzah in hand, we are required to say “all who are hungry, come and eat”; and we are called to tell again the story of our descent into slavery and our delivery from bondage.
Together we remember Joseph rising to a position of esteem in Egypt and how his people — a distinct ethnic minority known as the Israelites — came to prosper and multiply. We take on the familiar tale of how in hard times they become targets of a nativist ruler who comes to power and we learn “does not know” Joseph. Xenophobia, legal restriction and slavery ensue. Even forced population control (an order that the firstborn son of every Israelite household be killed) ensues. We learn about baby Moses and his brave sister, Miriam. We recall the brutality of the Pharaoh and the miracle of the burning bush. And we struggle with the upshot of this deeply religious and deeply dramatic story— “God delivered us with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”
Each seder table has its orthodoxy. There are true believers in the words and rules of the traditional Haggadah and those who pledge allegiance to the version adapted and adopted by a favorite cause undoubtedly given too little support by some of those present. The only truth-teller is the one who says there are many roads that led us here and they all require us to choose the one we travel next. As anyone who has ever led a seder knows — it is a responsibility and a challenge to guide a group through such a process. Success seems to begin by acknowledging that seeing family and friends, having several glasses of wine and eating good food are as much what the table wants as anything else.
Perhaps many Jews feel compelled to hold this annual ritual meal two nights in a row each year just to prove the point that no two seders could possibly be the same. After all, the authentic collective experience of Passover requires the participation of everyone present and it connects inherently to countless tables of related ritual observers and guests in the past. Participating means connecting to something larger than any or all of us and making it our own in every generation and every unique social context.
Slavery and the suffering associated with it is hardly a leitmotif or casual allegory. And coming to terms with the self-satisfying but grandiose Passover mantra, “all who are hungry, come and eat,” should vex and challenge us. After all, it is one thing to invite a neighbor to our table. It is entirely another to contemplate literally taking responsibility for feeding those who are going without even when we know suffering exists in so many forms.
Whatever our chosen text or our favorite ritual, song or story, Passover compels those of us who celebrate it to confront the expanse and also the limits of one of the most basic of human attributes, and one that is surely needed in this and every age: empathy. The simple act of telling the story of our deliverance and reflecting on it is hardly more than a start — and carries the grave risk of sentimentality. At the same time, this simple act of telling has been repeated for a thousand generations or more and continues to have a power and cultural currency beyond the size of the seder table itself. The story of the Exodus remains a powerful source of identity and motivation for the descendants of the Israelites, and reaches far beyond the genealogical or even cultural lines of descent from those ancient people. It can lift you up and propel you forward if you let it.
Small as the Jewish people continues to be (no more than 15 million worldwide), millions will gather in small and large groups in homes and communities around the globe this week as Passover arrives. We are more diverse than ever in every way the term could possibly conjure. Starting with the first seder, we will reflect and remember to be thankful even just for the gift of being together and for the miracle of coming this far. We will welcome spring, and embrace again the responsibility to recall, in memory and metaphor, the significant obligations we have as human beings and as Jews to one another and to the stranger as well. We will recite the simple, direct explanation that is given for these obligations. We will tell and retell the story “for once we were slaves — and now we are free.”
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