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Breathing new life into an ancient Pesach ritual

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Religion

As a child, the seder is about staying up really late, but for many adults, it’s about how quickly you can get to bed. Youthful wonder is gradually replaced by disenchanted parenthood, and every year it can get harder to be inspired by the same old story.

Trying something new can get dampened by the weight of family tradition – “we’ve always done it this way” – but I think we all want our home recital of the Haggadah to be a more memorable experience provided we don’t overly extend it.

Too much discussion invariably frustrates the one or two who constantly ask, “When are we going to eat?”

But all is not lost! Here are four (for Pesach, it has to be four) creative ideas to spice up your seder without overstretching it. They will take a little pre-Pesach preparation, but might be more satisfying than cleaning out yet another rarely used cupboard that never had chametz anywhere near it in the first place.

1. Have a sofa seder

Why sit at the dining room table for five hours while not dining? It gets uncomfortable, and children fidget then droop. So why not do your seder in the lounge, and then move to the table for the meal? Our family have had sofa seders for many years, and it has had a transformative effect. Pillows and throws ensure everyone is comfortable; side tables can be used to hold wine glasses and bottles; and your coffee table can become the centre-piece seder plate.

The Ma Nishtana ends with the words, “but on this night we recline”. The Talmud (Pesachim 108a) tells us that lying on your back is going too far, but surely a soft sofa is more in the spirit than an upright chair? Children (and adults) may drop off for a surreptitious nap and then re-engage later without disturbance.

Pesach is zman cherutainu (the moment of our freedom), and that freedom is symbolised by reclining. We are encouraged to ditch the formality of the dinner table and take a more relaxed approach, at ease with ourselves, comfortable with being Jewish.

2. Dip all night long

Early in the proceedings, we dip the karpas vegetable in saltwater and make the blessing. Following many rabbinic opinions, this tantalising little appetiser is all we eat until the matzah than opens the meal. However, some have the ancient custom of eating crudités, with a whole host of different tangy dips, throughout the reciting of the Haggadah, not so much to ruin your appetite for the meal, but enough to stop you yearning for it.

You could also give sweet treats to the children as a reward for a word-perfect Ma Nishtana, asking their own questions, or correctly answering some simple Pesach-related teasers you have thought up. Vegetables and sweets are foods that don’t require grace after meals (benching), so they are fine to eat before the meal, although it’s best to add the boreh nefashot (after-food blessing) if you do.

3. Create an Egyptian feel

“We were slaves to Par’oh [Pharaoh] in Egypt …” (Deuteronomy 6:21) quotes the Haggadah. But which Pharaoh and when? According to TC Mitchell’s The Bible in the British Museum, the “Hebrew Par’oh is derived from Egyptian ‘pr-’ [great house] which was used from at least the 14th century BC to refer to the king.” So the Torah uses the authentic Egyptian term and not just Melech Mitzrayim (King of Egypt).

Though some archaeologists question the historicity of the exodus, many are persuaded by a whole host of data that suggests that the Pharaoh who enslaved us was Sethos I, and that it was his son, Ramesses II (1290-1224 BCE), who wouldn’t let our people go.

For instance, there is the Stele of Merneptah, who was Ramesses II’s successor, now in the Cairo Museum, made up of a 28-line hieroglyphic text which concludes with the triumphant poem, “Plundered is the Canaan with every evil; carried off is Ashkelon; seized is Gezer… Israel is laid waste, his seed is not…” Canaan, Ashkelon, and Gezer are written with the determinatives for “land” whereas Israel has the determinative for “people”. In Exploring Exodus, Nachum Sarna writes that this is “the first mention of the people of Israel to be found in any extrabiblical source, and the only one, so far, to occur in any Egyptian text”.

So why not adorn your seder with Egyptian imagery? Pyramids, statues, ancient temples, maps, and hieroglyphics. Google Images will lead you to numerous online pictures which you could print. Essential is a bust of Ramesses II which, along with many other Bible-related treasures, is on the British Museum website.

Or you could create an “edible Egypt” scene as a feature on your table. Pat some charoset into pyramid shapes; palm trees of parsley or spring onions (bathe them in water and their ends will curl); and sand dunes of matzah meal or desiccated coconut.

All this isn’t to glorify ancient Egyptian culture, but to bring to life the story of the exodus and give realism and texture to your seder.

4. Let freedom talk lead to action

Why, asks Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks in his Haggadah, do we begin the night with the invitation, “This is the bread [matzah] of affliction … Let all that are hungry come and eat?” Matzah, he says, also symbolises freedom, and the matzah of affliction is transformed to the matzah of freedom only by “the willingness to share it with others. Sharing food is the first act through which slaves become free human beings. In reaching out to others, we bring freedom into the world.”

So let your discussion about freedom at the seder prompt action. Encourage everyone around the table to commit to doing some acts of tzedakah (charity) or chesed (kindness). Freedom is truly tasted only when we act upon it rather than just talk about it. Then the lessons of seder night really will take us beyond that night, to freedom for all.

  • Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum is dean of the London School of Jewish Studies. www.lsjs.ac.uk

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Religion

The never-ending voice

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And Charlton Heston came down from Mount Sinai and gave us the ten commandments. Oops! Sorry, make that Moses. And he was carrying the tablets with the Big 10, repeated this week in Deuteronomy as part of Moses’ review of the past 40 years. He describes how G-d spoke those words in a mighty voice that didn’t end.

Rashi writes that Moses is contrasting G-d’s voice with human voices. The finite voice of a human being, even a Pavarotti, will fade and falter. It cannot go on forever. But the voice of the Almighty didn’t end, didn’t weaken. It remained strong throughout.

Is this all the great prophet had to teach us about the voice of G-d? That it was a powerful baritone? Is the greatness of the Infinite One, that he didn’t suffer from shortness of breath, that He didn’t need a few puffs of Ventolin? Is this a meaningful motivation for the Jews to accept the Torah?

Moses was the greatest of all prophets. He foresaw what no other prophet could see. Perhaps he saw his people becoming caught up in the civilization of ancient Greece, in the beauty, culture, philosophy, and art of the day. And they might question, “Is Torah still relevant?”

Perhaps he foresaw Jews empowered by the industrial revolution, where they might have thought Torah to be somewhat backward. Or maybe it was during the Russian Revolution, where faith and religion were deemed to be absolutely primitive.

Maybe Moses saw our own generation, with space shuttles and satellites, teleprompters and technology. And he saw young people questioning whether the good book still spoke to them.

And so, Moses tells us that the voice that thundered from Sinai was no ordinary voice. This was a voice that wasn’t only powerful at the time, it didn’t end. And it still rings out, still resonates, and speaks to each of us in every generation and every part of the world.

Revolutions come and go, but revelation is eternal. The voice of Sinai continues to proclaim eternal truths that never become passé or irrelevant. Honour your parents, revere them, look after them in their old age. Live moral lives, don’t tamper with the sacred fibre of family life. Dedicate one day every week, and keep that day holy. Stop the madness. Turn your back on the rat race, and rediscover your humanity and your children. Don’t be guilty of greed, envy, dishonesty, or corruption.

Are these ideas and values dated? Are these commandments tired or irrelevant? On the contrary. They speak to us now as perhaps never before.

Does anyone know this today better than us South Africans?

The G-dly voice has lost none of its strength, none of its majesty. The mortal voice of man declines and fades into oblivion. Politicians and spin-doctors come and go, but the heavenly sound reverberates down the ages.

Moses knew what he was saying. Torah is truth, and truth is forever. The voice of G-d shall never be stilled.

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Religion

Memory versus history

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Devarim is the parsha associated with Tisha B’Av, the Jewish national day of mourning. After Shabbos, we will recall the destruction of our holy temple nearly 2 000 years ago.

But why remember? The world cannot understand why we go on about the Holocaust, and that was less than 80 years ago! For more than 19 centuries, we have been remembering and observing this event, and it has become the saddest day in our calendar. Why? Why not let bygones be bygones? It’s history. What was, was. Why keep revisiting old and painful visions?

They say that Napoleon was once passing through the Jewish ghetto in Paris, and heard sounds of crying and wailing emanating from a synagogue. He stopped to ask what the lament was about. He was told that the Jews were remembering the destruction of their Temple. “When did it happen?” asked the emperor. “Some 1 700 years ago,” was the answer. Whereupon Napoleon stated with conviction that a people who never forgot their past would be destined to forever have a future.

Elie Wiesel famously once said that Jews have never had history. We have memory. History can become a book, a museum, and forgotten antiquities. Memory is alive, memories reverberate, and memory guarantees our future.

Even amidst the ruins, we refused to forget. The first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. As they led the Jews into captivity, they sat down and wept. “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept remembering Zion.” What did they cry of? Their lost wealth, homes, and businesses? No. They cried for Zion and Jerusalem. “If I forget thee ‘O Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its cunning.” They were not weeping for themselves or their lost liberties but for the heavenly city and holy temple. Amidst the bondage, they aspired to rebuild, amidst the ruins, they dreamt of returning.

And because we refused to forget Jerusalem, we did return. And because we refused to accept defeat or accept our exile as a historical fait accompli, we have rebuilt proud Jewish communities the world over, while our victors have been vanquished by time. Today, there are no more Babylonians, and the people who now live in Rome aren’t the Romans who destroyed the second temple. Those nations became history while we, inspired by memory, emerged revitalised and regenerated and forever it will be true that am Yisrael chai (the people of Israel live).

Only if we refuse to forget can we hope to rebuild one day. Indeed, the Talmud assures us, “Whosoever mourns for Jerusalem, will merit to witness her rejoicing.” We dare not forget. We need to observe our national day of mourning this Saturday night and Sunday. Forego the movies and the restaurants. Sit down on a low seat to mourn with your people; and perhaps even more importantly, to remember. And, please G-d, He will restore those glorious days and rebuild His own everlasting house soon.

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Religion

Exile is a state of being

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In parshas Massei, the Torah traces our journey in the desert by listing all 42 camps that we passed through. This is a forerunner for Jewish history. Even the most superficial knowledge of Jewish history reveals that a large chunk of it has been spent in exile. Under the nations of the world, the Jewish people suffered immensely. How are we meant to understand this? There are four main points to appreciate.

Chazal tell us that the Jewish people are so beloved by Hashem, that when they were sent into exile for their sins, Hashem accompanied them. The greatest demonstration of His love is the fact that the Jewish people have survived almost 2 000 years of persecution and numerous attempts to annihilate us. So great is this miracle, it surpasses the collective miracles of the exodus of Egypt and our wandering in the desert and in the land of Israel.

Second, when the Jews wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, their survival was supernatural – they were wholly dependent on Hashem. He rained down bread from the sky, provided a well of water, and protected us with seven miraculous clouds. This was the education needed to sear into our consciousness the perspective that Hashem is the source of everything, and we must strive to fulfil His will.

Land, prosperity, and institutions of statehood were put at the Jewish people’s disposal not as goals in themselves, but as a means for the fulfilment of the Torah. When Jews lost sight of their true purpose and began to emulate the ideals of the nations around them, worshipping wealth and prosperity, they were deprived of those things that they had begun to worship, leaving their land with only the Torah to guide them.

Exile was meant, first and foremost, to benefit and perfect us. The Jewish people witnessed powerful empires disappear while we endured, devoid of might and majesty, but loyal to Hashem. How many times have Jews been offered a doorway to earthly pleasure and security if only they renounce their loyalty to G-d? How many times did Jews scorn the lure of wealth and pleasure and even sacrificed their most precious treasures in this world – their wives, children, brothers and sisters – for Hashem?

Chazal tell us that a third benefit of exile was to inspire conversion. Indeed, there have been many great converts in our history.

Fourth, the Jewish people were scattered throughout the world for our protection. If we were all under the jurisdiction of one ruler, he would attempt to destroy us all.

Exile isn’t just banishment from Israel. Exile is a state of being that also applies to individuals. Every person experiences tranquil periods when he finds it easy to learn Torah and pray with concentration. Yet when times are hard, he struggles. It’s specifically at these times that he mustn’t become empty of Torah and prayer, rather, he must strive to sanctify “desert” periods.

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