Breathing new life into an ancient Pesach ritual
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
Slave to the Omer – why counting makes us free
We are in the midst of counting the Omer – a commandment to count the days and weeks from the second day of Pesach until Shavuot.
Interestingly, the very first commandment we perform, marking our transition from slavery to freedom, is to count time, to count days.
Why is this? Rabbi JB Soloveitchik, in his essay, “Sacred and Profane”, offers a profound insight, as follows:
“The basic criterion which distinguishes free man from slave is the kind of relationship each has with time and its experience. Bondage is identical with passive intuition and reception of an empty, formal time stream.
“When the Jews were delivered from the Egyptian oppression and Moses rose to undertake the almost impossible task of metamorphosing a tribe of slaves into a nation of priests, he was told by G-d that the path leading from the holiday of Pesach to Shavuot, from initial liberation to consummate freedom, leads through the medium of time. The commandment of sefirah was entrusted to the Jew; the wondrous test of counting 49 successive days was put to him. These 49 days must be whole. If one day is missed, the act of numeration is invalidated.
“A slave who is capable of appreciating each day, of grasping its meaning and worth, of weaving every thread of time into a glorious fabric, quantitatively stretching over the period of seven weeks but qualitatively forming the warp and woof of centuries of change, is eligible for Torah. He has achieved freedom.”
A slave owns no time of her/his own. Every second of life is owned by a master, and therefore a slave can have no concept of responsibility because they have no ultimate choice of action. A slave may “choose” to go for a walk at 17:00 on Friday only to have that choice countermanded by the master at 16:59. Inevitably, a slave has no concept of their own time, their ability to choose to act in one way at a particular time, and to take responsibility for those actions in the fullest sense of the word.
So, the Jews needed to learn to own time, to feel its contours and use it so that they could learn responsibility.
One of the signs of real maturity is this time-responsibility awareness – just think of a child saying they will clean up their room “later”. Children lack a sense of true responsibility because they feel that there is always an infinite “later”, a period in which every wrong can be righted, every desire fulfilled, every mistake corrected.
A free adult recognises that they own a very limited amount of time, and that the gift of freedom is the choice of how to use that time. The burden of that self-same freedom is the responsibility for the consequences of that choice.
Finding faith in the hippo
This week’s parsha details the laws of kashrus. The Torah makes a brave statement by enumerating the one and only animal that has split hooves but doesn’t chew the cud. It’s a “brave” statement, because if a human being wrote the Torah, how would they know that the pig is the only one on the “face of the planet” with this characteristic?
Moses was born in Egypt, spent some time as a fugitive in Ethiopia, and died somewhere near modern-day Jordan. If we presume that he was the author of the Five Books without any divine inspiration, and he sucked the whole thing out of his left thumb, then how could he be so confident that there wasn’t a marsupial or wallaby in the furthermost corners of the planet that didn’t have at least one of these characteristics? This was almost 3 000 years before anyone even knew there was an Australia. If he was inventing the whole religion, he would have taken the more prudent course of being rather vague. He wouldn’t have blatantly listed the only four exceptions “from all the animals on the earth”.
With this great piece of Torah veracity in my mind, my faith was shaken when, on a trip to London’s Natural History Museum, (I know, it’s a pretty nerdy thing to do), I discovered that there was a hoofed animal, classified by zoology, that seemed to be an exception “overlooked” by the Torah – the hippo. It’s classified as an “ungulate”, a split-hoofed animal without a ruminant stomach that isn’t listed in the Torah as another exception!
I thought about this problem for a while, and then the solution came to me. Why should we allow zoology to dictate the classification of animals? The more I thought about it, the more I realised that hippos don’t have hooves like a pig or cow, they have toes (like camels). I know it’s more fancy to talk about ungulates, phylum, and genus. It even makes us look clever, but if we are really honest with ourselves, we won’t let zoological classifications stand in the way of our emunah in Hashem and His Torah.
Let’s start talking about Pesach
For the past few weeks, my family and I have been doing something really special. We’ve been getting together every Sunday night, sitting around the table, and going through the Pesach Haggadah.
It’s just me, Gina, and our children – our eldest, Mordi, his wife Avigayil, and Levi, Shayna, and youngest Azi. We have supper together, and then we get stuck into the Haggadah, discussing, debating, sharing as a family, covering everything from the four sons, the four questions and the ten plagues, to matzah, maror, and the four cups of wine.
It has been a truly memorable experience. We started this family tradition a few months ago, setting aside the Sunday night slot to connect as a family and share Torah ideas. It’s an open forum, a space for every member of the family to express their thoughts, ideas, and opinions. We’ve covered the Rambam’s 13 Principles of Faith and the weekly parsha, and now, most recently, the Haggadah.
Going through the Haggadah, which tells the story of the Jewish people and goes to the very heart of who we are as Jews, has been particularly special. We’ve fine-tuned our understanding of the story, and gained so many new insights and ideas. Just as importantly, we’ve grown closer as a family, and feel more connected to each other and Hashem. Now, as we head towards Pesach, we all feel that this is going to be a dramatically different seder experience. Our mindset is different.
The Pesach seder is perhaps the formative Jewish experience. The seders we had as kids seem to stay with us. Even as we grow older, we recollect them fondly and vividly. It’s so much more than a ceremony, a procession of rituals, it’s the rich soil in which our families and our very Jewish identity are formed.
Of course, as we grow older, there’s the temptation, given how familiar the story is, to slip into autopilot on seder night. But if we prepare, we can avoid this and enter the seder charged with inspiration and filled with rich new perspectives. In doing so, we can transform it into an incredibly powerful spiritual and emotional experience that changes us, that truly frees us from our tired routines and habits and brings us closer to one another, to G-d, and to our true selves. A rebirth in the deepest sense.
That’s why I would like to call on all of us to start these meaningful family conversations in preparation for Pesach, to discuss the ideas and themes and get a deeper understanding of the seder itself. Of course, we need to prepare our homes – cleaning and cooking are incredibly important because they help us to fulfil all the mitzvot of this special chag and ensure we have a proper, kosher Pesach. But the seder, too, needs preparation, and the more we prepare for it, the greater the experience is going to be.
There’s something that can help you get the process started. My family and I were so excited and inspired by our Sunday night learning sessions, we decided to record our Haggadah discussions. We’ve turned these recordings into a special Pesach series, called The Goldstein Family Podcast, which you can access via my website or wherever you get your podcasts. The sessions have been cut and edited into eight episodes ranging from 10 to 30 minutes each to make them as accessible as possible.
There’s not much time left before Pesach, but I would like to encourage you to devote some time to preparing for the seder, and our podcast can be a good place to start. Even just a couple of hours can make all the difference to your seder.
Especially at this time, after a year of being battered by a pandemic, we need the healing, the meaning, and the deep inspiration of the seder more than ever – the message of faith in Hashem, connection to generations past, the sense of rootedness it gives us in an uncertain world.
Let’s take this opportunity to prepare so that we can connect with the ancient words of the Haggadah – with the great origin story of our people – in ways we’ve never done before.
Gina and I wish you all a chag kasher v’same’ach – a beautiful Pesach – and deeply meaningful, enriching seders.
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