Enjoy the week left to prepare!
There’s no real way around it; Pesach is the festival of the great clean-out. Removingchametz, leaven, from one’s home, especially from the kitchen, does involve a serious engagement with brushes, scourers, and the backs of otherwise rarely visited food cupboards.
But there’s a redeeming feature, which I’ve often over-looked in the past. I used to think that first one cleaned one’s home, then one told stories at the Seder. Now I realise that’s only half the truth. In fact, the stories begin with the cleaning out and the putting away:
‘Why not? It’s hideous!’
‘But my great aunt gave it to me before she died in 1997. Her family had it in Czechoslovakia.’
Before one knows it the story has already begun: who are we; where do we come from; what makes us who we are? Pesach is not only the festival of freedom; it’s also the festival of identity. Talking to ourselves as we sort through our kitchen, talking to one another, we’re deep into the story long before we sit down for the Seder meal. Experiencing this may make the cleaning easier, or at least give it another kind of purpose.
Something about the Seder
With all the shopping and cooking, it’s easy to find oneself with no time left to prepare for the Seder itself. But if you’re leading, or co-leading your Seder, then a couple of hours with the Haggadah a little beforehand is time well spent. It’s even worth sitting and imaging the Seder table. Who will be there? Who will not be there? Whose needs must be taken into consideration? For what age-groups and gangs of children must it be kept interesting and fun? Who may be unwell, so that the whole evening shouldn’t be too long? Who will be there who knows from personal experience what it means to flee from persecution to freedom?
Looking through the Haggadah with these realities and sensitivities in mind, it’s worth thinking: what should be stressed? What should be left out? At what point is it time for a song, game or puppet show for the children? Where can we leave the Haggadah to one side and have a contemporary debate about freedom (if David Cameron is coming, maybe the freedom of the press would be a good angle)?
Over the next days, I’ll describe what one might put in a short, and what might be the possibilities for a full and discursive, Seder. But if you’re running it, don’t let the duster or the cooking pot rob you of the time to prepare.
An issue to ponder
The Seder is the night of the story; the time when we tell who we are. The account of the Exodus from Egypt, how we were slaves and how God brought us out into freedom, is not just a story, but the story, the core, essential narrative of what Judaism is about. We refer to it on every festival, every Friday night Kiddush, every evening and every morning. From it the defining values of our Judaism, of our humanity, flow. What are they?
On one level, they can be described very simply: from injustice, inequality, and the lack of any kind of dignity we learn for once and for all time the essential importance of justice, equality, and dignity for all. We understand that the journey towards a world where these values are respected involves both human courage, – witness the role of the midwives who refused to follow Pharaoh’s command and kill the Hebrew baby boys; witness the defiance of Moses and Aaron – and God’s help and guidance.
On another level, there is nothing more challenging than the commitment which these issues entail. It’s all very well telling the story of ‘from slavery to freedom’, but how are we living it, for ourselves, our fellow Jews and our fellow human beings? What does it mean to be ‘the People of the Seder’?