At the Seder: What If You Just Don’t Feel It?
by Harry Zeitlin
There are likely to be at least a couple skeptics at most seder tables. The story of the Exodus, with it’s other-worldly plagues, set in the midst of detailed and convoluted rabbinic explanations of a few Biblical passages, doesn’t mean much to those too attached to the blinders that don’t permit them to gaze beyond our contemporary, materialist world. Nostalgia only goes so far, and then a seder host is lucky if the damage is limited to bored looks and questions about when we eat.
The “dirty little secret” in the observant world is that it’s also a mighty challenge to inject much life and enthusiasm into the rituals and recitals, even for those of us who have been, once again, studying, cleaning and cooking in anticipation. Familiarity seems inevitably to breed contempt, or at least disengagement. Even deeply believing Jews, even those of us who professionally teach and try to inspire other Jews, are not immune to the gravity-field of ennui.
Perhaps we can repurpose the initial dose of nostalgia as a catalyst. After all, even though we’re enjoined each year to feel as if we, ourselves, are being rescued from Egyptian slavery, it’s hard to go back that far in time, into an almost legendary past we didn’t physically experience. Maybe the smells (olfactory, perhaps the most “primitive,” certainly the most evocative sense), the familiar songs, the comfort of family jokes and rituals can be utilized not merely to remind us, but actually to transport our spirits to seders past. And once we’ve cracked the secret of time-travel with this tiny and seemingly trivial initial jump, let’s keep going, all the way back to when we join our former, ancient selves and experience the fear, the disbelief, the insecurity, the terror and then the surprising relief of yet-to-be-known freedom.
With the passing of almost the entire Holocaust generation, almost none of us left can really understand the level of terror and uncertainty that I suspect are absolutely necessary components to reaching true freedom. Of course, we pray that our people never undergo any horror remotely approaching that in the future. However, the opportunity — at least vicariously and in yearly fractional installments — to experience what our fathers did in their final days in Egypt is designed to enable us to move forward into heights of freedom, independence and dignity, to a level even those later ancestors who experienced both sovereignty and the resultant indwelling of God’s Holy Presence, the Shechina, in His Holy Temple, never reached. The secret is to engage in honest feeling (let yourself be terrified at the mention of the plagues), deep conversation, relating but also actively hearing others as, together, we speak (read the words of our sages as conversation and descriptions of their experiencing God’s Infinite Complexity) our experiences on this journey.
All of our rituals and traditions, including — or especially — Pesach seder, are doomed to tedium if they’re relegated to mere re-enactment, whether we re-enact the grand drama of the Exodus or merely the comforts of our childhood. But if we honestly try to re-experience and relate, it can act as a springboard to filling our destiny, bimheyra b’yameynu. Not only the holiday and ourselves, but the entire Jewish people can now become truly alive.