How to Make This Year’s Seder a Meaningful One
For some of us, every minute of the two seder nights is an absolute delight. Even the preparation and the cleaning. There is no other occasion in the festive year quite like it. Different customs. The food. The songs. The exotica of it all. The seder nights remind us of our childhood search for the Afikoman, and the rewards for finding it. Family traditions and reunions. The familiar words. The intellectual delight of analyzing the text of the Haggadah, and finding new meanings, explanations, and fantasies of academic and not so academic interpretations and innovations.
If we are fortunate, the discussions are stimulating, challenging, and involve everyone contributing according to their interests and expertise.
Sadly though, for most Jews, it is nothing of the sort. If the pious want to say every word of a long text, everyone else is impatient, starving, and cannot wait to eat. No one cares about the words except the old bore, who is leading things the way he always has, and who insists on doing everything by the book. His father taught him it all, and he is not going to change one iota. And it takes very long. Most people present don’t know or understand the Hebrew. It is all irrelevant. The “know it alls” insist on disagreeing about how to do things, and then grumble and sulk when they do not get their way. Family tensions reemerge like a typical American family forced to get together over Thanksgiving. Visitors have no idea what is going on and need explanations, and page finders eager to help only make matters more confusing.
Communal seders are just as bad. They always start late. The rabbi wants to preach too much. The chazzan wants to sing too much. And everyone wants to talk to each other. No one is very interested in Torah, or, indeed, in having a discussion. Most have been dragged there for other reasons. There are too many people, too much noise, the food is often sub-standard, and the wine third rate. It becomes just a chore that we have to go through. The kids are running around, crying, shouting, or at best dozing off. Everyone is peeved, frustrated, and soon fed up to the teeth. So, as soon as the food is served (which cannot come too early) they will sneak out as quickly as possible. Who needs to hear Had Gadyah (sung badly) anyway? Do I care about a goat? No, I do not! I want to go to bed, and I am not going to stay to sing “Next Year in Jerusalem.”
I have a solution. It is true that there are obligations: To eat an olive’s amount of matzah (let’s not go into detail as to how much an olive’s measure is). Then there are the bitter herbs (you may have no idea how much disagreement there is about which herbs count as bitter). As for the four cups of wine, thank goodness we no longer have to put up with sickly sweet concoctions. We can now find really top, expensive wine of every quality. The other refinements (greens and eggs in salt water, haroset, and Hillel’s sandwich — which do not take up too much time) can be fun talking points.
But the real issue is the Haggadah. Do we really need to know how many plagues were multiplied on the Egyptians from God’s finger to hand to arm? And why repeat the song Dayenu in prose as well as poetry? The fact is that the Haggadah, like all our services, has been added to over the years. It is as if the longer we survive, the greater the amount of time we need to spend over multiplying words.
The Talmud is more interested in actual discussion and debate in an unstructured way. After all, the Talmud itself says that it is enough to say, “I was there.” And anything you say on the subject “has fulfilled your obligation to recount the exodus from Egypt.” And if you ask why this night is different, you do not have to say “Mah Nishtana.” Though that’s about the least boring part of it all.
So, my advice is to go minimalist. Don’t go by the book. By that I mean: don’t feel you have to say every word if you do not feel like it. Only recite those parts you really have to or want to. But then open it all up for first hand experience of being the underdog, refugee, or, indeed, slave. Have discussion and debate. I know, you will tell me that in this day and age of Democrats and Republicans unable to be civil, or Brexiteers regarded as suicidal traitors, you may be laying yourself open to fisticuffs or social ostracism. Even Israeli policies and elections are dangerous now. Make sure you have security guards handy.
Perhaps it is safer to stick to the text of the Haggadah after all.
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen received his rabbinic ordination from Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He also studied philosophy as an undergraduate at Cambridge University, and went on to earn his PhD in philosophy. He has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than 40 years in Europe and the US. He currently lives in the US, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.