The Family Story
This week’s commentary is a letter to Ethan Witkovsky’s class at Temple Israel Center.
I knew I’d learn something important about Passover from talking to you about the seder. High school students have not failed me yet. I asked what part of the seder you most enjoy; whether any aspect of it bothers you; which piece of the Exodus story, if any, means a lot to you personally; and how, or if, you relate to the seder as a religious ceremony. The Skype connection we had did not quite work out as well as we had imagined it would, so I did not get to see your faces as you reflected on and addressed my questions. But I got your voices, loud and clear. Here’s what I learned from what you told me.
First—not surprisingly—the thing you like most about the seder is the food. Eating, including finding and eating the afikomen (not exactly a taste treat), heads your list of seder pleasures. The next favorite of the group: singing. One of you mentioned Had Gadya in particular, maybe because the singing is loud, even raucous, and marks the end of the formalities. It soon turned out, as you talked back and forth about it, that the pleasure you get from the food or the singing does not come from these things in themselves, but from the fact that they are done with the family, including grandparents. Several of you like the fact that your family has created its own Haggadah for use at the seder, or that you put on a skit or play, act out the parts, and give awards for the best presentation of the story. Someone else’s seder features recitation of the Ma Nishtana (Four Questions) in all the languages known to people around the table. Your pleasure at these things was palpable, except for the person who is tired of being the youngest at the table and always having to sing the Ma Nishtana.
You got me thinking about how clever the Rabbis were when they designed the seder for us about 2,000 years ago. They wanted us to focus on some of the harshest facts of human existence (there is slavery in this world, and even genocide), face up to some of the hardest questions imaginable (why does God let this happen? why should we care about the oppression of the Children of Israel in Egypt 3,000 years ago?), and take on some of the most difficult work one could imagine (to do something about the suffering; to become agents of redemption)—and they figured out a way to make us enjoy the exercise and feel good about taking on the job we’d been assigned. The lessons of Passover come attached to good things like food, family, and talking in a relaxed way. The Haggadah text even frees us from the need to start conversation from nowhere or to suffer its descent into mere chitchat. We know the talk will end at some point, and that a good meal lies ahead.
When I asked what is most meaningful to you in the seder, someone mentioned Miriam singing at the shore of the sea: “I see a little of her in me, and of me in her. She has spirit.” Someone else said it bothered him that Moses tried to get out of the responsibility to which God calls him. The group then picked up on the Haggadah’s intention to relate the events of Egypt to our own lives, to connect us deeply and directly to what happened there long ago. It wants us to identify with the heroism of the midwives, the exaltation of Miriam at the experience of salvation, the humanity of Moses in shirking a duty he knows will mean risking his life repeatedly and sacrificing it for the cause of his people. Once we come to identify with the suffering of others, as well as with the redemption they have experienced, we are more likely to realize that, as the Haggadah affirms, “It was not our ancestors alone whom the Holy One Blessed be He redeemed, but we also were redeemed with them.” This seems to be working in your seders.
The text continues immediately so that as soon as we get that point, really take it to heart, we know—or should know—that we are “therefore obliged to thank, praise, glorify and exalt the One who did these miracles for our ancestors and for us.” You didn’t much want to associate your families’ seders with religion, which to you (I think the one who said these words probably spoke for all) means “praying and services.” The seder is rather the family “telling stories,” you said, and therefore is “not at all like Yom Kippur,” though you conceded upon reflection that these were biblical stories, and therefore “tied to religion.” Someone said the answer to my question depends on how one defines religion (true); he believes the seder is religious because he associates religion with community, family, food and singing. (Judaism has long worked hard at this association. A synagogue with bad food after services will not succeed.) I’ll give the last word on this subject to the person who in my view went to the heart of the matter. “For me, Passover is about the Jewish People: what we were able to do long ago, how we became our People. The amount of religiosity at the seder depends on how closely the Jewish People is linked to the Jewish religion.”
I like that answer a lot. Not because the Jewish People somehow takes the place of religion, but because the Exodus led the Children of Israel to Mount Sinai, where the Jewish People got its start at the moment of entering the Covenant with one another and with God. Think about it: the end of their avodah (slavery) to Pharaoh made possible their avodah (worship and service) to God. Freedom from oppression opened the door to the freedom, the ability, to do good. Indeed, it imposed that responsibility on them. Those who are liberated have the duty to liberate others. Those who have tasted redemption have the obligation to testify that redemption is possible in the world—and to help bring it about. That’s what we mean by witnessing.
Our sacred story, the Torah, recounts that God, for reasons the Torah does not explain (the mystery lies beyond human understanding, I believe), needs human partners to join God in performing this work of redemption. We know we are no longer slaves. “God has led us from slavery to freedom, from anguish to joy, from sorrow to festivity, from darkness to great light.” Here we are, you and I, sitting at leisure with our families and friends, pretty happy and well fed, enjoying the warmth of a home in which everything sparkles for the holiday. We know we have it good. What to do? “Sing God a new song—hallelujah.” This is religion, by the usual definition, hymns and prayers to God, but the seder also wants another sort of “new song” from us. We have work to do that only we can perform using all the abilities and tools at our command. We have to help redeem the world. Feast tonight. Sing your heart out. Then go out and do at least one act of justice tomorrow, and another one of kindness.
You can’t do that on an empty stomach. I’m serious: if you are starving, or without clothes, your first duty is to provide these basics for yourself and your family. Those of us who don’t have to worry about these things have the operating equipment we need for the work of redemption. We have a story to carry forward. We have an instruction manual (the Torah, as interpreted with all the Jewish-human wisdom and knowledge we can bring to it). We have ancestors with whom we can identify—and descendants who are counting on us. We have God’s help. We can be confident that the acts of justice and mercy we do are performed in partnership with the Highest and Holiest Being we can conceive, even if we do not know how this works. The Torah gives us this assurance.
Last but not least—and first in the pleasures of the seder, yours and mine both—we have our families. Do you think you’d be able to love anyone or anything without the love stored up in you, thanks to infinite acts and expressions of love given you by your family? You can see love circulating around the seder table, if you look; or should be able to see it unspoken but no less present for being wordless. Love reverberates in the “she-he-hey-anu” the family recites. It echoes in the way your family deals with the “Four Children” passage. You can taste it in the chicken soup made by your grandmother (or according to her recipe). It is there in the corny stories told by your uncle for the umpteenth eye-rolling time. It resounds in the recital of the Hallelujahs. Thank God, we say in response to all the goodness on view at the seder. Thank God. The love, and only the love, makes acts of redemption possible.
May Passover be good and sweet for all of us.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.