April 5, 2012 admin

Countdown to Pesach (4)

Enjoy the 2 days left to prepare!


Something Practical:

It’s so often that someone says to me, ‘I grew with a Seder where an elderly relative raced through it all in what seemed like a combination of Hebrew and Yiddish and none of us could follow a single word. How do I make a Seder which is different, where, people, including the children, are actually involved?’

Here are some ideas which we’ve gleaned from all over the place and which have worked for us, or which others have told us they have tried. (This is no guarantee that they’ll work again! – Next year we’ll create a space on our web-site for a “Seder ideas” exchange.)

Ask people to pre-prepare, by: bringing an object which speaks to them of freedom; telling a family story about struggle, flight and freedom, inner or outer; saying how they feel the themes of the Seder (slavery, human dignity, justice, liberty, equality, religious minorities…) relate to today’s world; preparing a comment on a specific part of the Seder (the matzah, the maror, the charoseth, the four children, the ten plagues). [Advice: give people an indication of how long you’d like them to talk for.]

Use prompts to invite discussion; comparing Haggadah illustrations, bringing a relevant news story, using puppets for children (talking frogs and locusts etc…)

I once asked people at the start of the Seder to take on roles and be interviewed: we had Moses’ wife (‘He always has to go and get himself involved! No time for the family!’); Pharaoh’s wife, (‘He never could say “Yes”; he’s not a “liberation man”); and Elijah. It worked – once; I never quite dared try again.

A Seder can be both serious and great fun.


Something Textual:

The role of Pharaoh

There are difficult moments in the Exodus story. I’m often asked how a good God could first harden Pharaoh’s heart and then proceed to punish him for his obstinacy. Maimonides addresses this issue in his discussion of free will in the Laws of Repentance, noting that once a person has done evil three times out of their own free choice they effectively forfeit the capacity to choose differently thereafter. We become the slaves of our own bad habits.

I would also want to use this question to raise the issue of how literally we should take the way in which God’s involvement is described in the story. Perhaps the key point is that our ancestors, who created the narrative, understood that the commitment to freedom, justice and human dignity are deeply connected to our understanding that we ultimately belong to God. Perhaps we need not then take God’s hands-on, interventionist role totally literally.

But it’s to another aspect of Pharaoh’s conduct that I want to draw attention. The Haggadah quotes his first ‘speech to the nation’, the ancient equivalent of a political broadcast. ‘Behold the Children of Israel are a nation, many and more powerful than us. Come let us deal wisely with them…’ It is this incitement to racial hatred which I find so appalling, – and so similar to what happens in our day: There are too many of them; they’re here, in our country; they’re a threat; they are not just my problem but yours; I’m going to make you equally complicit in what we do to ‘protect ourselves’ from them. After this there follow with great speed a series of discriminatory measures: taxation, exploitation, covert, and then overt, murder.

God can’t be blamed for that.


Something to Question:

Freedom, – but for what?
It’s often noted that the Torah nowhere says ‘Let my people go’; the compete sentence is always: ‘Let my people go in order that they may serve Me’.

Similarly, although the rabbis gave Pesach the name zeman cherutenu, ‘the season of our liberation’, the key blessing we say after telling the story of the Exodus does not use the word ‘freedom’ but refers rather to ‘redemption’; God ‘ga’al Yisrael’, God has ‘redeemed Israel’. Freedom is not an end in itself; freedom is itself in service to the greater purpose of redemption.

What then is redemption? It’s a question we might ask when we open the door for Elijah: What do we mean by the ‘Messianic Age? What would we like the world to look like? Equally importantly, what part can we play in transforming our tiny corner of it so that it is more like it should be, like we dream that it might become?

At the second Seder we begin to count the Omer, which measures the days between leaving Egypt and arriving at Mount Sinai. Freedom leads to service. What can freedom achieve without a vision, without responsibility, without the commitment to create better people of ourselves and a better world for others, except squander itself?

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