What are the most important aspects of the Passover seder to you?
This week’s torah portion, Bo, provides us with the torah’s rationale: God tells Moses
Ex. 12:14 This day shall be to you one of remembrance: you shall celebrate it as a festival to YHWH throughout the ages; you shall celebrate it as an institution for all time. 15 Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the very first day you shall remove leaven from your houses.
And then a few verses later, Moses tells us:
Ex. 12:26 And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ 27 you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to YHWH, because God passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when God smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.’”
13:3 Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage, how YHWH freed you from it with a mighty hand: no leavened bread shall be eaten.
13:8 And you shall explain to your son on that day, ‘It is because of what YHWH did for me when I went free from Egypt.’
13:14 And when, in time to come, your son asks you, saying, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘It was with a mighty hand that YHWH brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage.’
Moses became the head of a nation of educators. He set out the reasons and methods. (I left out the long explanation of the festival of unleavened bread, and the rather interesting digression on the march to freedom by way of a new calendar.)
But the point was that we are supposed to listen closely to the questions of our children, and teach them through ritual and discussion, the lessons of memory and the lessons of deliverance, and the lessons of freedom.
The Passover Seder, from the beginning, from the moment the plagues ended, even as we baked our first batch of matzah, was supposed to be a form of project based learning, symbols providing meaning. As time passed, the seder became more elaborate, more symbols added. The Mishnah has entire book devoted to the laws of Passover, telling us how much wine is enough wine, how much maror to put on our matzah, how long the matzah can be out of the oven before leavening begins. Each of these details was supposed to reinforce the message of our people, and ourselves as individuals, moving from g’nut to shevach, from degradation to redemption. Talmudic scholars Rav and Shmuel (Pesachim 116a) debate this journey from g’nut to shevach. The debates centers around what constitutes the redemptive process. Shmuel claims that g’nut was a purely physical one: the Israelities were slaves in Egypt and then God gave them their freedom. Rav contrasts this view with g’nut being a spiritual process. It seems to me they were both right. But one point is that sometimes freedom cannot truly be experienced without recognition of its opposite.
And, just like a siddur, our prayer book, where things are not supposed to be removed, but can be added, the haggadah, the book of our telling, has seen a thickening at the waist, just as we sometimes experience after the seder meal. One of my teachers showed us a beautiful haggadah that used colors to show the different times additions were made: it was a rainbow text showing us the torah texts above, the Mishnah, the talmud, Rashi, and others. In modern times, there have been a plethora of haggadot, for all flavors of people: young families, interfaith families, feminists, Orthodox feminists, JewBu’s, secular Jews, you name it. And the additions to the seder plate have ranged from the beet to replace the shankbone, for vegetarians; rice, to honor sephardim; the orange; tomato to represent fair labor practices; a fourth matzah for Soviet Jews; potato peelings to commemorate the Holocaust; an olive, for peace in the middle east; a plaintain, for suffering in Cuba, and yes, even fair trade chocolate. And many more. At some point, the egg and parsley were innovations.
All of them there to spark children asking, “Why?” to encourage more questions. Because the seder is all about questions and answers and discussions. It is about remembering what it was like – or imagining what it was like – to be a slave unto Pharaoh, whether a tyrant like Stalin or Idi Amin, or addiction that keeps the user under its control, or a boyfriend or husband who locks his girlfriend or wife in the web of a destructive relationship, or someone who partakes in human trafficking, or Walmart forcing small businesses out of business or forcing suppliers to cut costs so much that their workers burn to death in modern day Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fires. All of those are a form of Pharaoh.
Our task, each year, is to remember the words Moses spoke to us on the brink of freedom, after we had seen wonders and miracles. Our first task to teach our children well. To take our story and wrest meaning from it for today; to put in their consciousness that the tasks are not finished, there is still much work to be done in the world. As the sages say in Pirkei Avot: It is not our responsibility to finish the work, but neither are we permitted not to take it up. As Martin Luther King taught,
Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent. (“I See the Promised Land,” Speech in Memphis, Tennessee, April 3, 1968)
Martin Luther King, Jr. and our rabbis were often in sync, because they read the same text we read this week. Our seder is one of the jewels in Judaism’s possession: it brings one of the most exciting, most liberating (pun intended) stories to light, offering us the opportunity to continue to teach our children in ways meant to engage them: food, stories, songs, material reminders of our past and our present and our future.
It was the Passover seder that brought me back to Judaism, when I realized the depths of possibility within the haggadah text itself, the ability to add our contributions to the story, as we remember what it was like to be slaves. To waste these moments with banality is to waste one of the supreme moments of educational splendor. For me, the seder offers us the responsibility and the honor of leading our children to the values of our people in an engaging way that keeps evolving, and keeps moving forward.