By Rabbi Donald Rossoff, Temple B’Nai Or, Morristown
Passover is a Jewish holiday like no others. To be sure, it follows that cliché description of all of the Jewish holidays: “They tried to destroy us; we won; let’s eat!” But Passover (Pesakh in Hebrew) is much, much more.
Passover, at least the first night’s home ritual, is one of the most widely observed of all the Jewish holidays. More Jews attend some sort of “Seder” – the home ritual of telling the story of the Exodus using the script known as the Haggadah (“The Telling”) – than attend services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, supposedly the highest of the Jewish holidays.
Why is the Passover Seder so popular?
Is it because it brings families together?
Is it because it evokes precious personal memoires of early times?
For many, yes.
Is it because it tells a particular story of one people with a universal message for all peoples?
To be sure.
Is it because of the philosophical discussions held around the table about the meaning slavery and freedom in our day or because of the joyously fun songs and games that are embedded in the Haggadah?
Yes and yes.
Is it because many interfaith families who are not raising their children as Jews find Passover to be a nice way to expose the children to the Jewish observance of that side of the family?
Is it because the meal that is served is so darn good?
I suppose that depends on who is doing the cooking.
Is it because we sing fun songs like “Dayenu,” which tells God that if the Almighty had only done one of the many wondrous things “He” did for us, it would have been enough, or because we usually go back for seconds when the main meal is served because one helping is simply not enough?
Speaking only for myself, I have to say so.
Is it because the Seder table is where the generations meet?
Oh yes! The Seder table is where the generations meet: children, parents and grandchildren, uncles, aunts, cousins and friends. Generations gather over the same Jewish ritual foods seen at Jewish tables in every place and in every age. And alongside the prescribed ritual foods, most also feature their own unique family recipes, often handed down from generation to generation. Yes, present at the Seder table with us, among us and within us, are all the generations: present, past and those yet to be.
Of course, each family has its own way of celebrating the Seder. Some families continue the ritual observance long into the night; others give the tradition a perfunctory nod and then simply eat. Most observances fall somewhere in between.
Some recognize the saving power of God and sing praises to the Holy One. Some don’t mention the “G” word at all.
Almost all have the night’s script, the Haggadah. Most families, I would imagine, use the traditional text created by the rabbis of the second century and following. Many use modern versions of the Haggadah, each with its own emphasis. And some personalize the Haggadah to fit that particular family’s understandings of what this observance is all about.*
But one thing they all have in common: They are there, together, personalizing ancient memories and making new memories at the same time. For Passover is very much about retaining, conveying and creating Jewish memories. As the Haggadah says, B’chol dor vador, in every generation, each of us needs to see ourselves as if we ourselves left Egypt. This is not about history – what happened to them back then. It is about memory – what happened to me and to us back then, regardless of the historicity of the event.
At Passover, more than any other Jewish holiday, we re-experience the collective memory of slavery and liberation passed down from ancient days, and we do so largely by recounting the story, singing songs and eating symbolic foods, each chocked full of meaning. We embed a food with historic and moral meaning, and then we eat it. (I call that the “internalization of Jewish history and values.”)
The matzah reminds us of the haste with which our ancestors left Egypt. The bitter marror (generally horseradish) allows us to taste the bitterness of slavery. But then the bitter is mixed with the sweet, as it is eaten together with haroset, a combination of fruits, wine and sometimes nuts made into a kind of paste. The haroset replicates the mortar the Hebrew slaves were forced to make and use for their slave-work. The parsley – symbol of spring and the liberation of the world from the shackles of winter – is dipped into salt water. Some say dipping in salt water allows us to taste the tears of slavery, while others say it is a little taste of the Red Sea through which the Israelites trekked towards freedom dry-shod.
There is even a food with a message conveyed by our NOT eating (actually drinking) it. While we take from four servings of wine (or juice) during the Seder, there is a fifth cup of wine that is not touched. We call that the cup of Elijah the prophet, messiah’s herald. Elijah’s cup left untouched reminds us that the liberation of humanity to which the Exodus story points has not yet happened and that there is more work to be done on our part until it does. Elijah’s is the cup of hope that is filled to the brim until the promise of human liberation is fulfilled.
For Passover is not just about a liberation that is said to have taken place more than 3,000 years ago. It is also about the hope needed in our world and in our own lives.
Passover begins in memory, but it does not end there, for the memories we share are embedded with values, values which lead to action. Jewish memory leads to Jewish living and Jewish action in the world.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg teaches that our reenactment of the Exodus story helps us “turn the memory into moral dynamic.” Our collective memory of the Exodus conditions us (hopefully) to look at the world through “exodus eyes.” Those are the eyes and mindset that bring us to look at the world through the lens of “exodus morality.”
The exodus experience and the “exodus morality” are lenses through which we see our world today, as it is and as it should be. An ancient story – our defining myth – becomes a burden of moral responsibility and a force for social change. Holding within our personal Jewish memory-banks the experience, not only of the Exodus, but also of years of Jewish suffering throughout history, we are called to be sensitive to those who are in situations similar or analogous to ours. As Greenberg writes, “The experience of slavery that breaks and crushes slaves does not destroy free people. It evokes feelings of repulsion and determination to help others escape that state.”
Passover is a most joyous of holidays. What could be better than eating festive food with family and friends and telling the story, which is ancient and ever new? Taken seriously, Passover acts as a call to conscience. It calls us again to refocus our “exodus eyes” on hope and do what we can to bring “exodus morality” into our world.
On behalf of Temple B’nai Or, I pray that you have a joyous, meaningful holiday – whichever holiday you are celebrating this weekend – and that we all can see our religious paradigms from the past as messages of hope and possibilities for the future!
*Just go to Amazon.com, and you will see that apparently they have 1,296 Haggadahs to choose from! My newest recommendation is “Sharing the Journey: The Haggadah for the Contemporary Family” by Alan S. Yoffie and illustrated by Mark Podwal. Hot off the presses, it is one of the most recent Haggadahs to be published. It features great explanations for children and adults alike, especially those with limited Jewish background.