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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

True kindness

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Our sages teach of the obligation of every Jew to ask, “When will my actions reach those of our illustrious patriarchs and matriarchs?” We see the prototype of kindness at the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, when Abraham and Sarah display remarkable hospitality towards three strangers travelling through the desert. Abraham bows down to each of them, and presents a more elaborate banquet than Bill Gates served this week at his daughter’s wedding – each guest received his own tongue. Why was this necessary? One tongue would have been sufficient. Why does Abraham go to such lengths to make each of the guests feel like a king? What motivated Abraham’s behaviour?

The Midrash describes Abraham’s meeting with Sheim, the son of Noach. Abraham asks Sheim, “What did you and your family do for the year you were in the Ark?” Sheim answers, “We were all involved with the kindness of feeding the animals 24/7”. Abraham realised that the foundation of the new world G-d was starting was kindness – olam chesed yibaneh (the world is built on kindness). Hashem’s training for the people who would build this new world was constant acts of kindness.

Abraham reasoned that if Hashem valued the kindness done to animals in the Ark, how much more so would he value it when the kindness was done to human beings who are created betzelem elokim (with a spark of the divine). Avraham clearly saw the fingerprints of the creator in the world. He saw the spark of Hashem in himself, and he was then able to see the spark of Hashem in others. Only those who recognise their own G-dly soul will recognise it in the human beings around them. Avraham and Sarah’s kindness wasn’t simply to help those less fortunate than themselves, they saw the divine spark in every human being, and they treated their guests like royalty, impressing upon them their own self-worth and uniqueness. Their kindness was designed to uplift people, to raise them up to recognise their inner greatness.

This is different to how most of us see others. We usually have zero tolerance for those who are slightly different to us in any way. We need to follow the example of our patriarchs and matriarchs in doing true acts of kindness by seeing G-d’s presence in the world, identifying the divine spark in ourselves, and recognising it in others.

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Religion

In the brave steps of Abraham

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In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, we read about the first Jew, Avraham, who resisted the tide of paganism, idolatry, and immorality. Society had moved away from monotheism and Avraham’s beliefs were ridiculed. However, Avraham stayed the course and in spite of great personal risk and at the cost of ostracism from his family, he spread the belief in one G-d.

The portion opens with G-d giving Avraham a direct command to travel out of his homeland and away from his family in order to spread his newfound message. G-d’s command to Avraham in this verse can additionally be seen as a command to us to leave the comfort of our insular lives and venture out to the world at large to transform it into a G-dly place.

While we may be satisfied by staying within the safe confines of the Judaism that we have grown up with, it’s no recipe for growth. G-d therefore tells us that if we enter the real world, our full inner potential will be realised, and our true, best selves will come to the fore.

Fighting the prevailing attitudes of the day has never been easy, but as Jews, we can be reassured that our forefathers have travelled this path before us. The Midrash teaches that “the actions of the fathers are a signpost for the children”. Another translation of the word siman or “signpost” is “empowerment”, and the Midrash teaches us that by risking their lives to spread the belief in one G-d, our forefathers made it easier for us to follow their example.

At this time of year, when we have hopefully been inspired by a month of festivals and are thinking about moving forward in our Judaism, we can be confident that we are following the advice of tried and tested authorities all the way back to Avraham.

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Religion

My kind of hero

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The world loves a hero. Every season, Hollywood invents new superheroes to fill the box-office coffers. Today, we even have a Jewish girl as the latest superhero. Now, superheroes are fantastic, but you’ve got to admit, they’re over the top, rather otherworldly and, realistically speaking, out of touch and out of reach. We can fantasise about flying through the skies in our capes, climbing skyscrapers with our webs, saving the world, or rescuing damsels in distress, but at the end of the day, it’s nothing more than wistful daydreaming. What bearing does it have on me and my life, me and my problems? Not much.

That’s why Noah always appealed to me. He comes across as a real-life hero, real in the sense of being human rather than superhuman and therefore realistically possible to emulate.

Rashi describes Noah as a man of small faith who had doubts whether the flood would really happen. He didn’t enter the Ark until the rains started and the floodwaters pushed him in. That explains why some people look down on Noah, especially when they compare him to other Biblical giants, like Abraham or Moses.

Personally, this is what makes Noah my kind of hero. He’s real. He’s human. He has doubts, just like you and me. Noah is a regular guy, plagued by doubts, and struggles with his faith. Which is precisely what makes him a hero. Because the fact is that, at the end of the day, his personal uncertainties notwithstanding, Noah does the job. He has faults and foibles, but he builds the Ark, shleps in all the animals, saves civilisation, and goes on to rebuild a shattered world. Doubts, shmouts, he did what had to be done!

Noah could easily be the guy next door. He is one of us. His greatness is, therefore, achievable. It’s not “pie in the sky”. His heroism can be emulated. If Abraham and Moses seem the superhero types too far-fetched for us ordinary mortals to see as practical role models, then Noah resonates with realism. After all, he had his doubts too, just like you and me.

There is an old Yiddish proverb that nobody died from an unanswered question. We can live with unanswered questions. It’s not the end of the world. The main thing isn’t to allow ourselves to become paralysed by our doubts. We can still do what must be done, in spite of our doubts.

Noah, the reluctant hero, reminds us that you don’t have to be fearless to get involved. You don’t have to be a tzaddik to do a mitzvah. You don’t have to be holy to keep kosher, nor do you have to be a professor to come to a shiur.

His faith may have been shaky. Perhaps he was a bit wobbly in the knees. But the bottom line is, he got the job done. My hero.

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