I remember sitting in my father’s car, waiting for him to return from visiting patients while I was trying to memorize the Four Questions for the Seder (or the Vier Kashes, as my parents called them in their Galitzianer Yiddish). I had recently turned 9 and had just learned to read Hebrew that year. Though I attended Seders long before that, my stream of Seder memories really begins with that memory in the back seat of my father’s Oldsmobile 88. Passover, and the Seders in particular, connected me to a past of mythological import. The melodies my mother and father sang connected me to the grandparents I never knew, connected me to the obliterated past that they were fortunate to survive.
Part of the power of Passover is its ability to encapsulate and convey so much so succinctly. The combination of the Haggadah and the ritual foods, the melodies, and the framework of questions that lends itself to relating personally to the story – all come together to create a visceral experience that places us in a continuum that starts with our foundational myths and continues beyond us to the dream of a future Utopia or redemption. By myth, I don’t mean a bubbe-mayse or fairy tale, but rather a story that tells a truth greater than historical facts, that conveys deep meaning and addresses the broad sweep of life. This power of the Seder experience is what makes it the most celebrated of Jewish rituals, whether it is conducted with an adapted or completely revised Haggadah or whether it has morphed into simply a meal with matzah eaten in memory of one’s past Seders. There are Haggadot written from a feminist or socialist perspective, Haggadot that address modern day Pharaohs, and even Haggadot from whose pages God is as absent as Moses from their pages. However, the universal tale of liberation that is central to the Haggadah remains perennially inspiring.
Our tradition, structured as it is around canonical texts, has often evolved through divining new insights in older formulations. The fact that Hebrew had no symbols for its vowel sounds until around the year 800 CE, facilitates many striking rereadings of Torah that open the texts further. One of my favorites rereads the phrase for “the Exodus from Egypt,” (yetzi’at mitzrayim) as yetzi’at meytzarim, exodus from “narrow places”; these could be physical or psychological confines – the innumerable ways in which we limit ourselves or in which external circumstances constrict us. Suddenly our ancestors’ Exodus becomes emblematic of every sort of confinement, and our confrontation with the Biblical story includes within it our contemporary conditions.
The word Haggadah literally means “telling.” The book’s name comes from Exodus 13:8 that says “you shall tell (v’higgad’ta) your child on that day” (the 15th of Nisan) about the Exodus from Egypt – literally “when I went out from Egypt”. That phrase “when I went out from Egypt” is central to the Haggadah. One of the peaks of the Seder is when we recite that “in every generation one is obligated to see him/herself as if s/he personally went out from Egypt.” Identifying with the story, experiencing it as our story, not only as the story of our ancestors who lived 3,300 years ago, is a crucial component of the Seder. That section introduces the eating of matzah, maror and haroset – foods that are meant to give us a tactile connection to the experience of the Exodus. Our tradition is filled with practices that try to both spiritualize the physical and express the spiritual through the physical. Rather than being merely a system of disembodied beliefs, our tradition is built around practices that give our bodies physical memories of our spiritual experiences.
Much of the structure of the Haggadah is focused around teaching the next generation by having the youngest ask the Four Questions near the beginning of the Seder, and having various elements of the Seder provoke questions (such as what is the meaning of this or that special food), of hiding the afikoman, of the kid-friendly songs at the Seder’s end, etc. So much of the Seder experience has to do with our mouths – either the words that come out or the foods that go in. One commentary explains that the word Pesach (Passover) should be understood as peh sah (conversing mouth) and Pharaoh (Par’oh) with its letters switched around to reveal its hidden meaning of peh ra (evil mouth).
Language is central to our tradition, starting from the very beginning of the Torah in which God creates the universe via divine speech. Words have great power. What we say and how we say it affects our consciousness. As with the words of prayer, the more familiar we are with the words we recite, the more we can inhabit them and allow them to transport us. The great questions remain from generation to generation – the answers evolve over time. So much of the culture in which we live is fixated on the fashions of the moment, on the ephemeral, whereas Passover tries to connect us to the eternal. May this Passover be a joyous one. Hag kasher v’same’ah!
MARK ELBER is rabbi of Temple Beth El in Fall River.