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Don’t Let Your Seder Be a Bore

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avatar by Jeremy Rosen

Opinion

Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan hosted a mock Passover seder at the United Nations on April 6, 2022. Photo: Shahar Azran.

The text of the Haggadah that we use on Passover goes back a thousand years, although its origins are Mishnaic — 2,000 years ago. It celebrates the story of the Jewish people. After the initial era of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who encounter God, a nation develops that experiences slavery, freedom, and then accepts the disciplines of a moral behavioral code of life — not without struggle and constant backsliding. This is the story of seder night.

The genius of the Haggadah is that it involves everyone, from children to adults, in the ceremony. However, the text is only a hook to hang ideas on. It presents questions and answers. It recognizes that over time, both questions and answers change.

What does freedom mean? Is it about history — that we could still be peasants, disenfranchised untouchables? Or does it mean that it is our culture and traditions that have made us different both in a positive and negative sense? Is it an accident or a miracle that we have survived? Should we celebrate this or try to run away from it?

The Haggadah does not try to hide our failures or deny our triumphs. “We were idol worshipers,” “we were slaves,” but we were also pious brilliant scholars and fighters. The intention was that the text would only be the intellectual hors d’oeuvre. Scholars and students would spend the rest of the night in debate and discussion, not just on religious matters but on political issues and the steps to be taken to free one from the cultural and physical slavery of later oppressors.

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Over time, more was added to the Haggadah that might have resonated with mystics or scholars, but that now simply leaves many of us bemused, frustrated, and longing for it all to end as soon as possible to get on with the food and drink.

In religious homes, the interest in analyzing the text, bringing other sources and debates from classical Jewish rabbinic literature to bear, or coming up with one’s own solutions are all part of traditional table talk. But outside of a traditional religious household, most of the text of the Haggadah has become alien and irrelevant.

So, nowadays, if you find yourself amongst or hosting a reluctant group of participants, I suggest paring down the seder to the core paragraphs and blessings, and allowing all the guests to talk freely about their own personal experiences and voyages; of “servitude” and freedom, at home or work; of being forced to do what they did not want to; of all the issues of personal integrity and morality that lie at the core of Jewish life.

There is plenty to discuss this year, as evil rulers try to impose their imperial ambitions and political dogmas on others — overtly or covertly. Don’t let your seder night on Pesach be an empty ritual, remembered for its food rather than its ideas. Talk, debate, and discuss.

Happy Pesach, Chag Sameach, and of course, Shabbat Shalom.

The author is a writer and rabbi based in New York.

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