Pesach Seder- Just a Hot Mess
The minstrel of the dawn is here
To make you laugh and bend your ear…
Just sit him down upon that chair
Go fetch some wine and set it there
We are fast approaching the holiday of Pesach. There has always been something about Seder night that has bothered me to no end. And no, I am not talking about the taste of Matza. To best understand this it would be very helpful if you can grab yourself a Haggada. Take your time to go fetch one, I’ll wait…
Ok, we’re back. So we call this a Seder and the word Seder literally means Order because there is an order to the evening. 15 steps in fact which your Haggada nicely outlines somewhere near the beginning. But when we step back and look at the “order” of the evening it is anything but. In fact it seems to be quite disorderly. A hodgepodge in fact.
The Haggada is supposed to be the vehicle in which we tell the story of the Israelite’s Exodus from Egypt. That’s where it gets its name since LeHagid means “to tell over”. But when you look at it, it doesn’t do a very good job of that. It’s actually a lousy story-teller.
A story has four basic components: Firstly an introduction. Secondly the main part where there is development of the characters and drama between them. The third act is the climax and finally the fourth and final part, the resolution. But we don’t follow this script at all in the Haggada.
The evening starts with Kiddush. Ok I get that, we do that on all holidays. Then we do a few things, apparently to get the kids involved and their curiosity piqued. We wash our hands even though we aren’t really eating now – a fake-out of sorts. Then we eat a tiny piece of vegetable, Karpas which is called an appetizer but a lame one at that. (Imagine going to a nice restaurant and being offered a piece of parsley or potatoe as an appetizer. “We’re never coming back here!”) We then break the middle matzah (Yachatz) and hide the afikomen which of course every kid loves. Still no story though.
We then arrive at Magid (same root as Haggada) which means “to tell” and sounds like we are going to get down to the business of telling this story, or at least the first part, the intro. It does that somewhat by mentioning the matza but we don’t get very far before we interrupt the narration so we can invite anyone who wants to join us to our Seder. So we got a one-line intro so far. At this point, the kids get up and ask the famous four questions.
After that we read Avadim Hayeeni – “We were slaves to Pharaoh…” and we think maybe we will get to the story in earnest here. But noooooo, instead we’re told we really need to talk a lot about this event like those Bnai Brak rabbis did. Then we read about four different types of kids (and all the kids are looking at one another wondering which of them their parents think they are) followed by some Talmudic blurb telling us when exactly in the calendar we ought to celebrate Pesach. Still no story.
And now we finally get to some historical narration. But wait, it’s not about the Exodus from Egypt. No, it takes us way back before then, to Avraham the first Jew and gives us a prequel about the generations leading up to their time in Egypt, with a detour about God’s promise to Avraham about the upcoming Egyptian Redemption and future ones as well.
After this we really do get some narration about the event, but even then it gives us another prequel about Laban and Jacob. We finally get a summary of the Exodus through expounding four verses from the Torah leading to the climactic emphasis on the plagues. That’s followed by that odd Dayenu song which declares that any one stage of Redemption would have be enough, even though it wouldn’t have been when you think about it. It’s almost as if Dayenu emphasizes the lack of importance of the whole story in its totality by telling us that any one phase would suffice.
Finally we talk about the main symbols of the day: the Passover offering, the Matzah and the Maror, and we are told that we should see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt. We end off by praising God and drinking another glass of wine before we eat matzah and have dinner and praise God some more after the meal.
Not exactly a neat and tidy narration. But perhaps this is precisely the point the Haggada is trying to get across. We are not here to tell a story. This is not a recollection of an ancient event but something far greater. This is about Redemption. This is about the salvation, the deliverance, the definition and the very purpose of Am Yisrael. Redemption is not a one-off event that we memorialize and toast and merely recount. It’s an ongoing experience that we are all a part of and that continues to this day in every place, time and locale Jewish people find themselves.
The main clue to tip us off is the phrase, “In each and every generation one is obligated to see him or herself as if he or she left Egypt.” We’re all part of this. It stretches back to our very beginnings right up to and including today, in the here and now. That’s why the Haggada brings in Avraham and Laban and Jacob. Because they are all part of the ongoing saga that is the Jewish people – past, present and future. Redemption isn’t just about getting out of Egypt. That was certainly a big and pivotal part of it, but Redemption in its truest sense is the long and winding road both to and from Egypt and beyond.
This also answers the Dayenu dilemma that claims that any stage of the Redemption would have been enough. Exactly. We don’t need to personally be part of the whole saga. Being part of any one element is enough, meaningful, significant and momentous and gives us that grand sense that we have a role in the greatest drama in history – the drama of the Jewish nation.
And finally that’s why there is no resolution to this story. Because we have not reached one yet. The final chapter of our people has yet to have been written. We end off by declaring, Next Year in Jerusalem because it’s still Next Year. It hasn’t arrived in its fullest sense. It may have, more than at any other time in our history, but Mashiach is not here and we are still waiting and creating Next Year.
So when you sit at your Seder appreciate and understand that this is not some boring symbolic commemorative ceremony about an ancient event long ago and who cares. No, it’s a night to remind you that you are personally part of the longest, largest and most significant people and dramatic story ever told. You’re part of God’s people – Am Yisrael. You’re part of Redemption.
And you’ve got a story to tell.
The minstrel boy will understand
He holds a promise in his hand
He talks of better days ahead
And by his words your fortune’s read
Listen to the pictures flow
Across the room into your mind they go