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The power of the Seder

04/21/2022 11:53:30 PM


Rabbi Boris Dolin

Every year when we sit down to our Passover seders, I reflect on the great miracle of this experience. The miracle is not that the sea split as the Israelites were on their way to freedom.  That was pretty nice. The miracle is not even that there will be enough matzo ball soup left to make it to the end of the meal-something that in our family only sometimes comes true.  What always amazes me is how this holiday, with the wonderful mixture of food, ritual, song and conversation inspires so many people to celebrate.  I mean this from a statistical perspective, where the large majority of Jews, over 70% in America, and even higher in Canada, celebrate some sort of Passover Seder.  Amazingly, an equally surprising number of people also keep at least a semi-kosher for Passover home during the week, an unbelievable number when such a small number keep kosher throughout the year.

Of course I'm a bit biased as a rabbi. I tend to think that there is beauty in all Jewish holidays, and think there is a great appeal to celebrating the entirety of the Jewish calendar, especially those holidays that involve a good meal. 

So this year, I would like to take a step back from all of the challenges which we've experienced the past few years, the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and all the other brokenness we might have seen.  We can step for a moment intead into the experience of the seder itself.  What is it about this experience that holds us so close?  What can we learn form why we connect with the holiday, and what this can do to inspire us even more in the year ahead?

Of course, I'll throw it out right here at the beginning the most obvious reason why people celebrate this holiday.  Especially after a few years of online services, where people have been able to gather the community in the comfort of their own home, now this same place can be filled with people beyond the screen!

We know that there is a strength in the fact that Passover is a home-based holiday. This is a day when we turn our dining room tables into sanctuaries, putting out the best tables cloth and the fancy dishes.  We might brighten up the table with a few flowers for decorations, and of course filling the table with plates of great food.  Unlike other days where we might go to the synagogue to have an experience in a place that we often see as "designated" as a religious environment, on Passover we acknowledge that there is spirituality and holiness even in our own homes. We bring this experience into the place where we are most comfortable, where we can sit down with no fear of being judged, and where we can celebrate freedom in the place where we can be most free, and the most sure of ourselves

There is also the pedagogical power of the Passover seder. This is an experience which one done right, does not allow a one-way learning process. While there are plenty of people who just sit back and listen, the most involved seders are those where there are questions, arguing, wonderful connections being made, and a challenging mix of all many kinds of learning. 

I'm always brought back to the text of the Talmud which makes it plain and clear that even if we follow the text of the Haggadah, we should do whatever we can to make sure that everyone, especially the children remain interested, or if nothing else…awake:

...Our Rabbis taught: All are bound to [drink] the four cups, men, women, and children. Said R.Judah: Of what benefit then is wine to children? But we distribute to them parched ears of corn and nuts on the eve of Passover, so that they should not fall asleep, and ask [the‘questions’]. It was related of R. Akiba that he used to distribute parched ears and nuts to children on the eve of Passover, so that they might not fall asleep but ask [the ‘questions’]. It was taught, R.Eliezer said: The matzot are eaten hastily on the night of Passover, on account of the children, so that they should not fall asleep. 

-Pesachim 108b

Or later on, the Talmud tells us that before asking the Four Questions, someone should remove the seder plate from the table so that someone asks “ Why are you removing the seder plate from the table?”   With this “real” question, the more formal Mah Nishtanah can begin.  (This question has now become the annual tradition in my seder for my own father to ask at just the right time, and with just the right dose of sarcasm.)

But the core part of seeing the Seder as a pedagogical experience is the notion of the four children.  Anyone who has been a teacher, or a parent, or anyone who has ever explored their own ways of learning knows that there's so much truth to the description of the different ways that we learn.

The midrash of the arba'ah banim, the four children, gives us four people who ask about the tradition in very different ways. There is the wise, the rebellious, the simple, and the one who does not know how to ask. These are four unique personalities, who each need to be spoken to as individuals.  And the rabbis of the Mishnah in their wisdom understood this well. In Mishnah Pesachim, they lead us into the Seder by teaching u'lefi da'ato shel ben aviv melamdo – that parents are meant to share their Jewish identity with each child “according to his or her intelligence,” honoring their individual learning styles.  While it's not entirely the same in some ways, the rabbis are describing what the psychologist Howard Gardner and others now called multiple intelligences. This is a seemingly obvious idea for so many people today, yet one  that is so important for our lives and our interactions with others.  Each of us has our own way of learning, and more importantly in how encounter the world.

Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement put it clearly in his diary:

The Seder is essentially a lesson in education. It is a kind of model lesson to the Jewish people. It is intended to point to the spirit in which a people must learn to educate its young. If we study the Seder from that standpoint we note that it is intended to serve as a token of three important principles. Those principles are 1) Education can and should constitute a religious experience, 2) The parental responsibility for the education of the child should be prior to that of the state, and 3) the most important training which any education should afford should be a training in freedom. . . .

Or Dr. Ron Wolfson:

The Seder is a pre-packaged curriculum that considers the multiple intelligences. Dr. Ron Wolfson characterizes the Seder as "a talk-feast in four acts." And throughout these four acts, a variety of teaching methods are presented, making the Seder a model for teachers.

We could go on about the pedagogical and educational lessons that we can learn from the Passover seder. Yet I think what matters most is not that this is about how parents teach their children, or how teachers teach their students. The Passover seder is the ultimate vision for what a Jewish community, and in essence, a Jewish existence should be.  Now as we know, not every holiday is able to be celebrated in our own dining rooms with a table full of food, but the lessons of what makes the holiday so appealing can be important for us to hold on to.

I'll make this clear. Too much of Jewish life as it's experienced today is experienced as primarily one-way.  In many communities, thankfully not as much in ours, too many people come to the synagogue expecting others to pray and sing for them.  The Torah is chanted and questions are asked, but there is no obligation to step up spiritually or emotionally to fully participate in the experience. We've all been to a synagogue where very few people sing along, and the rabbi does most of the talking.  I do not believe this is the way things are meant to be.

We could argue that part of the challenge is that a synagogue sanctuary is not necessarily the most comfortable place for people to gather together. It is not a dining room, and it doesn't have the safe comfort of a comfy couch in one's home. For better or for worse, it more often feels like a place to visit, to sit, and to rise, to sit, and to rise…and to leave, when the service, or in better days, when the kiddush is over.  

But this is not how it was meant to be. It is important to remember that the Hebrew word for synagogue, beit knesset, does not mean “place of prayer” or place of sitting and standing and listening.  For most of Jewish history, the synagogue was a place to pray.  But it was also a place to eat, to socialize, to laugh and to cry, to celebrate in the ultimate Jewish living room the miracle of community.

A place of comfort, but also a place of confrontation. In the words of Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein, in his book Gonzo Judaism:

Judaism when presented in its best and most authentic light doesn't coddle--it confronts.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.  Who wants to be part of a religion that treats us with kid gloves?  By challenging us to see the world and ourselves in new ways, by taking us out of our comfort zones and placing us squarely into contexts that are sometimes unfamiliar and unsettling--that is how we evolve and mature.  With self awareness comes self affirmation, and a stronger and deeper appreciation of life. 

Yes we've tried our best over this pandemic to replicate the community experience even as we've been separated from each other. We've done a good enough job on Zoom, and we’ve managed to hold the sense of connection with each other the best we can. But there is simply no replacement for being face-to-face with other people.  That same sense of calm and joy that we feel when sitting around that seder table with our friends and our family is what we can and will experience once again in this holy space.

And I also feel it is on us as a community to make this a place that welcomes and celebrates all kinds of people, and all kinds of learners.  We need to accept that not everyone in our community, dare I say most people, may necessarily connect with this experience of a prayer service.  We can do all the work and hold on to the traditions and inspire with new and creative ways of praying and singing, but it may not in the end work for everyone. We need to bring back the food, the music, the social gatherings, and the inspiring open-minded learning which has always made our community so strong.

A few weeks ago I attended the Reconstructing Judaism convention in Washington DC, and was reminded in a very clear way that what we Reconstructionists do so well is we create a Judaism that is the ultimate year-long seder.  Through the services, the classes, the conversations at the conference, something became very clear. We hold on to tradition, but also inspire and enlighten with questions and creativity, while we open the door not just to people who do things the way they've always been done, but to those who are ready to create a new meaning from the traditions of the past. 

As I've said so many times before, what will bring us into the future and guarantee that we as a community stay strong is that like the four children in the Passover seder, we will have endless doorways opened to connect with our community.   I know many people may not feel safe or ready to come back in person right now, but when you do, I hope that like the Passover seder you will find plenty of questions to ask, and you will find your own unique way to connect and make your story part of the story of the Jewish people.

Sat, June 25 2022 26 Sivan 5782