Enjoy the 3 days left to prepare!
How long is a Seder?
Every one knows the account of Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues in Bnei Berak who spent the whole night discussing the Exodus from Egypt until their pupils came and told them that the dawn had risen and that the hour had arrived for the morning Shema meditation. ‘The more you talk about the Exodus the better’, teaches the Haggadah.
But what if it’s not so simple, if there are small children to think about, or elderly relatives for whom it all becomes too exhausting, or someone in ill health who’s been looking forward to the Seder but can’t manage to sit for too long? How short can a Seder be and still constitute a real Seder? What must be included and what can one cut?
Here is a brief answer (but look at the Leader’s Guide to the Family Participation Haggadah by Noam Zion and David Dishon, p. 20) Don’t exclude a welcome activity which draws everyone in. You need to include the Kiddush, the greens dipped in salt water, the breaking of the middle Matzah. Then go to the Mah Nishtanah, the four questions, but you can create your own answers by telling the story of the Exodus in your own words. Here is the chance both to cut the text substantially, but also to be creative to suit and engage whoever is there and to raise, even briefly, key questions: ‘What’s freedom?’, ‘What does this story mean to us this year?’ Rejoin the Haggadah with Rabban Gamliel’s injunction that we must talk about the Paschal lamb, matzah and maror at the Seder and that we should each see ourselves as if we personally had gone out of Egypt. Then say the blessings for the second cup of wine, and eat the matzah, maror and Hillel sandwich. Next come the meal, Grace after Meals, and the third cup of wine. Welcome Elijah, and, though one should really say all of Hallel, choose your favourite songs for the fourth cup.
A Seder can be brilliant and long, but it can also be excellent, appropriate, and short.
Jewish lives in Egypt
The Haggadah tells the story of the Children of Israel in Egypt by quoting as its core text the brief account from Deuteronomy (ch. 26), and then elaborating on virtually every word. ‘There we became a nation’ says that core text. In fact it is Pharaoh who first calls us an am, a people; it’s interesting how often groups are defined by how they are perceived in the eyes of others, especially hostile others. The Haggadah’s elaboration notes that this sentence (‘There we became a nation’) teaches that the Children of Israel were mezuyyanim – they ‘stood out’ – in Egypt. What might this mean, and is it good or bad to ‘stand out’?
It might of course be overwhelmingly positive. One traditional interpretation is that we managed to preserve our distinctive identity, even in exile and even when we were degraded and turned into slaves. We kept our language, our names and our faith, and we married only among ourselves. We didn’t assimilate, and we didn’t dissemble to evade our fate. We were proud to be ourselves.
But to ‘stand out’ can also mean to be made to do so; one thinks of the Jews’ hat in the Middle Ages, of the yellow star, and the various distinctive marks which have been used throughout history to humiliate minorities and facilitate their oppression. One doesn’t always want to ‘stand out’ and it takes courage to wear those imposed badges with pride.
Or perhaps it’s more complicated. Jhumpa Lahiri wrote about her dual identity growing up as an American child of traditional Indian parents in theUSA; how was she supposed to combine the different customs and languages of home and school? ‘In spite of the first lessons of arithmetic, one plus one did not equal two but zero, my conflicting selves always cancelling each other out’. (Stories of Identity, pub. By Facing History and Ourselves, p. 38)
How can we create societies where one plus one does not equal zero, or humiliation, or assimilation, but two?
Something to Question:
The Exodus and Core Values
The Exodus from Egypt, irrespective of whether it happened in the way the Torah describes it or not, is the foundation story, the meta-narrative, of the Jewish People. All our other stories of exile and survival, of flight from persecution to freedom and sovereignty, are included and told within it or as further commentary to it.
In essence it’s a very simple story: we were slaves, we struggled for our rights and freedoms, with God’s help we stood up against tyranny and overcame it, we learnt through our own experience the universal importance of human dignity and justice. Time and again the Torah teaches us to do what is right and good because of what happened to us in Egypt: ‘remember’, it enjoins us, you yourselves were once slaves.
I am moved that this is the foundation story of our people. We begin not with power and victories in the field, but with the discovery of the universal need for dignity and justice, through the experience, on our own bodies, of injustice and indignity.
These are the core values of the Seder, and of Judaism. The challenge is to apply them and live by them, wherever we are in the world, in Israeland in the Diaspora.