Seder thoughts 2012
An adult activity
It is important for children to be involved in the seder. However, at the risk of being labeled a Litvak Grinch, I must state that the seder, like the rest of Judaism, is not primarily a pediatric enterprise. Certainly we want children to participate and, yes, we do many things to stimulate their curiosity and keep them awake for as long as possible. Nevertheless, the memories we seek to create should be more significant than where did daddy hide the afikoman, or how tasty was grandma’s brisket.
As a teenager, I once attended a relative’s seder with many children in attendance. The adult discussions and hermeneutical pyrotechnics — with appropriate digressions and questions for the children — were deliriously and deliciously way above my head. I could hardly follow the give-and-take debates and the learned analyses as each part of the haggadah was dissected and passages were explained with creativity and ingenuity.
This was a seder I had never experienced before, but resolved to re-create. The following year, I spent months studying the text and (with his permission) put annotated footnotes in my late father’s haggadah. He read them, asked his own questions, and so began an annual tradition of study, analysis, and discussion at the seder on a higher level.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, of blessed memory, taught that the haggadah has the status of talmud torah, i.e. it is to be an exercise in Torah study. The festive meal is the least important part of the seder. In fact, in order to eat the afikoman by mid-the-night (approximately 1 a.m.) when the time limit for eating the paschal lamb expires, many families have to rush the meal since so much time is taken up in discussion. A group of Sages, as narrated in the haggadah, were so engrossed in their discussions of the Exodus that they were unaware that it was time for the morning prayers. Surely then, this pre-occupation is deeper than singing Chad Gadya.
The haggadah, after the Tanach and the siddur, is the most popular Jewish text, with over 5,000 published commentaries. Today’s explosion of haggadah commentaries in English offers something for everyone. It does take time to prepare, but the effort is worthwhile. Instead of just dryly reading, speed reading, or skipping some of the text entirely, discussions about the meaning of the seder symbols, talmudic passages that make up the haggadah text, the biblical narrative, and the deeper meaning of freedom, can make the seder a more experiential and participatory event.
The mathematics of the seder (three matzot, four questions, four cups, four sons, 10 plagues and their exponential development) makes for interesting discussions, as well. The songs added at the end of the seder are also fruitful areas of inquiry to be mined.
The Four Questions are the minimum needed to extract the basic understanding of the Exodus and the seder. This annual event should not be a dreaded ritual, but an opportunity for growth. Every level of knowledge can be accommodated, and for us in the diaspora there are two nights in which to do it. Passages can be assigned in advance and questions can be given out. That is the lesson of the Four Sons. Re-enacting the Exodus can be enjoyable and educational — for everyone.
Rabbi Yaakov Lessin, of blessed memory, was fond of saying that on Pesach one must remove the chametz, the leaven, from within us. That which puffs us up like the yeast in the dough needs to be eliminated. We are still slaves today to a pseudo-sophistication that does not take our heritage seriously. We are still in a state of cerebral bondage that denies the beauty and erudition of our sacred texts.
We need to free ourselves from the token and often perfunctory observance of our most precious rituals.
The talmudic sage Rabban Gamliel, as we note during the Magid portion of the seder, teaches us that at the very least we must discuss and understand the meaning of three things: the paschal sacrifice, matzah, and bitter herbs. Only when we do understand them, he explains, do we fulfill the obligation of the seder. Our seder has developed over the centuries as a time when families come together to rejoice in our freedom. In the words of another sage (and from a different context), Hillel, the rest is commentary—go study.Dr. Wallace Greene is an occasional contributor to The Jewish Standard.
More on: Seder thoughts 2012
Complex messages lurk in haggadah’s ‘simple’ text
Is Moses missing from the haggadah?
Does his supposed absence suggest that the haggadah rejects a human role in the redemption from Egypt?
What is the “Two Powers in Heaven” heresy, and what role does it play in the haggadah and its treatment of Moses?
To answer these questions and one other — was there ever an attempt to deify Moses? — we begin by searching for the allegedly missing main actor in the Exodus drama.
Meditation on kindling the festival lights:
Closing our eyes, we recall the darkness in the world — hunger, disease, poverty, loneliness, and war — and the human causes for this darkness: greed, envy, hatred, and fear.
We quietly resolve to take the gratefulness we feel at the moment — gratefulness for life, for health, for sustenance, for the love of family and friends, for our home, for the peace we enjoy, for our freedom — and translate these gifts into offerings of chessed, of compassionate generosity, so that our light will bring a ray of hope in the darkness of others.
New haggadah emphasizes need to be thankful for life
“It would have been enough for us.”
That phrase of the haggadah — in Hebrew, the more concise word “dayyeinu” — reflects the sort of gratitude that Rabbi Henry Glazer believes to be the central message of Judaism, and the soul of every ritual from a funeral to the Pesach seder.
“Freedom can be understood as the capacity to say thank you, to appreciate the giftedness of life,” he says.
With his new volume, “Dayenu: The gratefulness haggadah,” Glazer, who before his retirement served as rabbi at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center, has applied the principle of gratitude to every aspect of the seder.
Reuven Kimelman tackles evolving meanings of Passover’s rituals
“Why do we eat matzah on Passover?” asks Rabbi Reuven Kimelman, professor at Brandeis University, author of several books on Jewish liturgy, and scholar-in-residence at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.
I sense that this is a trick question, and decline to answer.
He presses me.
“Why do we eat matzah?” he repeats.
I reluctantly answer.