As we head quickly into our season of liberation at the holiday of Passover, I wanted to connect with you all and offer some thoughts about the holiday. Some of us may be knee-deep in scrubbing and changing our kitchen, others might be trying some new recipes that don't involve leavened products (hametz) and others might be getting ready to host a seder (or two) or travel to be with friends and family for the holiday. Surveys have shown that Passover is the most celebrated of Jewish holidays, with approximately 70% of Jews taking part in a seder, and many people who aren't Jewish enjoy the experience of the seder, with its narrative drama, warm connections with family and friends, and delicious, unique foods.
But along with the joy, some find the holiday somewhat daunting: so many rules and regulations! What to eat, what not to eat, how to conduct the seder. To help lighten your angst about the holiday, here are a few things to consider. First, it is not incumbent upon us to go hungry for hours during the seder--we don't have to eat only the symbolic foods, and we don't have to wait forever into the evening to eat anything at all. Some of the best seders I've been to have offered trays of root vegetables during the early parts of the seder, so people can eat and be satisfied while conducting the rituals, but still leave most of their gastronomic square footage for the big meal to come later. Second, there is no commandment to read the whole haggadah! Unlike at Purim, where the commandment is to hear the "whole Megillah" being read, at Passover, we are only commanded "to tell the story", but not specifically to read all of the different parts of the haggadah. In fact, the only core requirements are to discuss matzah, maror (bitter herbs) and the shank bone on the seder plate.
There is no commandment to live the seder out as a history lesson alone; while the commandment is to tell the story, there's nothing that says you can't tell the story in a contemporary way. Surely we have many tie-ins and contemporary concerns that relate to the core themes of the Exodus story of liberation; there are so many ways in which we can think about the need to escape the narrow places created not by Egyptians, but by our own pettiness, our own constraints and our own fears. Now is not the time to shy away from the political! Think of the possibilities--here are just a few conversation starters: the plight of refugees--we once were strangers in the land of Egypt, and today we are in the position to help the stranger in our midst; the need for "all who are hungry (to) come and eat", the overthrowing of tyrannical rule, the many ills that constitute our modern plagues (we probably can list AT LEAST ten!). Even as we live in tremendous comfort and privilege, we are all too aware that there are so many ways in which we are not free. Some contemporary seder plates find the bitter herbs and matzah communing with some interesting "plate-fellows": an orange for inclusion of LGBT folks, fair trade chocolate symbolizing the need for fair labor conditions in developing countries, an olive to symbolize the yearning for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. What symbol do you want to include on your seder plate this year to highlight a piece of our world that still calls out for redemption?
At the Seder, we aren't telling a "new" story. We all know the basic plot line. We were slaves, we were redeemed, now we are free. It is a story of triumph over adversity. If we hadn't been redeemed, we wouldn't be here to tell the story. So, why don't we just celebrate from where freedom began? Why do we have to go back and tell the tale of our misery? Why not start the seder at the point of Hallel--the part where we sing praises to God for freeing us and prayers of thanks for the good outcome of the story? Because telling stories of moving from adversity to joy highlights for us the complex nature of the path toward healing. We all carry with us the shards of brokenness from our past as the ancient Israelites carried the shattered pieces of the first tablets--smashed when Moses saw the people worshipping the Golden Calf--along with the second set of unbroken tablets, throughout their journey in the desert. All redemption comes from a place of pain. The widow who remarries is not free from the devastating loss she suffered in losing her spouse; the person who struggles with infertility does not forget that journey even after conceiving and giving birth; finally getting a new job doesn't erase the difficult time of prolonged unemployment and economic struggle. Incorporating the stories of suffering into our narrative of redemption allows us to more fully appreciate what it is we are celebrating. Through recounting that "avadim hayinu"--we were slaves in the land of Egypt --we recall the many ways in which our ongoing struggles for freedom are informed by the pain and constraints of our past. Hopefully, the heightened consciousness of our own difficult path to liberation will inspire us to continue the work of helping others to be able to become truly free.
I offer this 11-page haggadah supplement from HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) for your consideration. Its theme is "Welcome the Stranger, Protect the Refugee." https://www.hias.org/sites/default/files/hias_haggadah_2018_color.pdf
I wish you all a time of meaningful connection, reflection, and joy at this Passover holiday.
With appreciation for this community,