Enjoy the 4 days left to prepare!
The days go by so quickly and busily with all the practical things to do, – shopping, cleaning, koshering, polishing, cooking, setting the table – that one can forget to prepare for the Seder itself. Or one has it at the back of one’s mind: ‘I need to think about how to lead the Seder and how to keep everyone involved and interested’, but the time passes with so much pressure and rush that before you know it it’s Friday afternoon.
Here are two small thoughts. Read through the early chapters of the Book of Exodus, or the story-line section of the Haggadah (maybe it’s a rabbinic privilege but I always like to beg, borrow or buy a new Haggadah every year). In reading, ask the question ‘How does this story, of slavery, resistance, moral courage, repression, and eventual liberation through the intervention of God, speak to me, to our world, to the issues which confront us, this year, this day?’
If guests are coming, you might ask them to bring a picture, an object, a letter or a story which speaks to them of slavery and freedom. For within the greater narrative of our people and our history, we tell the smaller stories of our own lives. It is when the individual and the collective stories rub together that the Seder comes alight.
The Maror and the Charoseth
Almost everyone has their own favourite recipe for Charoseth. If you want to see what the options might be, just google ‘charoseth’ and choose the part of the world the traditions of which you want to copy this year. A couple of Seders ago Mossy made a delicious version according to the customs of Curacao. But I want to focus on an ancient tradition, going back at least to the time of the Geonim (8th – 11th centuries). It is described in the commentaries of the Tosaphot to the Talmud (Pesachim 116a): ‘The charoseth should be made out of fruits to which the community of Israel is likened in the Song of Songs: ‘Beneath the apple tree I roused you’; ‘As a slice of pomegranate [are your temples]’; ‘The fig tree has put forth its young fruit’; ‘I said I shall climb up the date palm’. Nuts [are included] because it says ‘I went down to the nut garden’; almonds (shekedim) because the Holy Blessed One was watchful (shakad) to bring the redemption.’ In other words, if the Song of Songs is about love then charoseth is its food.
By contrast there aren’t really any recipes for the maror; it just has to be bitter. It must also be chewed thoroughly; swallowing it neat doesn’t count as eating it.
According to the Talmud, we dip the maror in the charoseth to mitigate its sharpness. We then shake off the sweet paste and eat the now slightly less bitter herbs. There is something profoundly true about this. What makes bitterness, suffering and struggle of whatever kind bearable – if not the caring and tender attentiveness of love?
Something to Question:
‘People never learn from history’: is it true? Is history linear, progressing, albeit slowly and by the most indirect of roots, towards a better world with less war, misery and injustice, towards what Judaism has always dreamt of as the days of the Messiah? Or is history basically cyclical, repeating the same conflicts, blindness and bigotry century after century.
This tension is implied in the Haggadah itself. In one of the most powerful, emotive, and also troubling, passages we reflect on the experiences of the Jewish People over by now three thousand years: ‘For not just once alone have they risen up against us to destroy us, but in every generation they rise up against us to destroy us, and the Holy Blessed One saves us from their grasp’. It is not difficult to point to the many realities behind this perception. I’ve never attended a Seder without refugees from Nazism being present. History is composed of vicious cycles.
On the other hand, the Haggadah is in its entirety a journey towards redemption. God brought us out from Egypt and will lead us not only to our promised land, but ultimately towards a world where everything in its fitting place, each person, family, tribe, and nation. Even the earth itself will rejoice. This is the meaning of the blessing we say over the second cup of wine with which we conclude the long narrative portion of the Haggadah just before the meal: ‘Blessed are you God, who has redeemed Israel’, and there can be no such thing as redemption for one part of humanity without the redemption of the whole. It’s a question of faith: surely the world is progressing towards peace? Surely it’s our task to help shape history in that way?
But does that history bear out our hope? Does it justify such faith?