By this time of year, it’s hard to have missed the abundant ads connected to “surviving” the upcoming holiday: Passover survival kits, Seder survival guides. For a festival celebrating the single most formative and climactic experience in Jewish collective memory, the language is decidedly odd. Whether from the intensity of prep or a distaste for unleavened food, the Festival is experienced by many as much more burden than blessing.
I’m reminded of the midrash describing just-freed Israelite slaves, muttering as they traverse the parted sea: “Mud in Egypt and mud at the sea- mud and bricks in Egypt and mud of the many waters at the sea.” (Exodus Rabbah 24:1) Amidst experiencing the greatest miracle biblically recorded, come bitter complaints about having to trudge through the mud!
It’s apparently quite easy to miss a miracle.
My objective here is to help assure that this isn’t our lot on Pesach – that the apparent minutia or madness of it all (recline here, not there, wash now without a blessing, now with, break the matzah, hide the matzah, eat lots of matzah) not muddy but rather maximize the holiday’s meaning.
The Passover Seder is a rabbinic creation in which pedagogy and theatre are powerfully wed. In efforts to fulfill the Haggadah’s central command (V’higgadeta l’vinkha, “and you shall tell your child”), the Seder stage is one on which anything goes….
Growing up, we draped the living room with sheets to create an exotic tent-like feel, dressed in costumes and gave out roles. We also followed the Iranian practice of whacking one another with scallions during recitation of Dayenu. Certainly, it has something to do with scallions evoking the Egyptian task-masters’ whip, but that was never the first explanation provided by my Iranian family to bewildered Ashkenazi guests. Rather, it connects with the Persian practice of taarof – the custom of politely but disingenuously declining an offered nicety. After each verse of this poem noting God’s bestowal of kindness after kindness upon us, we sarcastically say to God: “Dayenu: Oh, stop … really, enough, enough … it’s really too much.” Our scallion-smacking throughout the chorus in fact says, “oh go ooon!” as we feign satisfaction through insincere proclamations of “di-di-enu” “it would have been enough.”
The message was clear: we were taarof-ing with God – it would not have been enough. Scallions in hand, silliness prevailing, we were actually engaging with the deeper meanings of an ancient narrative and, in this case, with an ironic text.
But care must be taken that the drama not devolve into actual “theatre of the absurd,” a genre highlighting the existential meaninglessness of life. This is the key to understanding the theatre and pedagogy of the Seder as a whole.
The most salient example of seemingly absurdist theatre within the Haggadah is found in the opening paragraph of its core section, the Maggid (Telling). Generally known by its first words in Aramaic, Ha-Lachma Anya (“this is the bread of affliction”), it consists of four statements:
This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. / Let all who are hungry come and eat – all who are in need, come join in this Passover gathering. /Now we are here; next year may we be in the Land of Israel! / Now we are slaves; next year may we be free!
The absurdity of these statements is generally explained by interpreting them figuratively. There’s nothing strange, we insist, about extending a welcome to the hungry who are out of earshot because the invitation intends those (ourselves included) yearning spiritual nourishment; nothing problematic about reciting these lines even while sitting in Jerusalem because we speak here of an aspirational, end of days, “Land of Israel,” not arrival in Ben Gurion airport; nothing “off” in identifying as slaves, because we’re all enslaved to excesses and unhealthy habits from which we dream of release.
Fine. The above is all true and beautiful – but only if it spurs us to act in the here and now. It’s not enough to be only aspirational, to only dream, enjoying the quaint rituals and ancient texts without allowing them to pierce us with their underlying urgency. Lo dayenu. We’re not going to “get there”–a time devoid of affliction–and in spite and because of this, we must see ourselves on an ever-inspired journey toward those ends. Role-playing our ancestral oppression in Egypt is meant to be productive - to pry open our eyes, unblock our ears and soften our hearts to suffering within and around us. We must literally feed the hungry … all the while knowing we won’t end hunger.
The four clauses of the Ha-Lachma implore us to: remember where we came from, feel obligated by that narrative of affliction to support others, move ever-closer to where we are truly meant to be and, work toward liberation of ourselves and others. In preparing for your Seder this year, in between schlepping chairs and grating apples, spend time reflecting on what these four commitments might look like in your life.
The Seder is a pedagogic and theatrical masterpiece, but only if we’re paying attention. Both mud and madness, moments of boredom and the bizarre, are built into the Seder to get us to look out–at those around and beyond our table–and inward in search of meaning and miracles. Notice those moments of comatose or confusion and let them push you to ask a question, share a thought, challenge what’s been read or said …
With whip-like shallots, at the Dardashti household, we tried to beat the slave mentality out of one another and out of ourselves – the mentality seducing us to say dayenu, things are good enough without having to trudge through this mud, staying in Egypt would have been just fine. It would not have been. And neither would merely leaving Egypt.
Midrashim about Biblical ancestors crossing the sea while missing the miracle come to warn us that while it’s possible to simply “get through Pesach” wet, muddy and grumbling, this Festival, with its ironic “dayenu” theme, implores us to continuously seek a next miracle – to see our lives as one.
MICHELLE DARDASHTI is the Rabbi at Brown RISD Hillel and Associate University Chaplain for the Jewish Community at Brown University.