There’s nothing stale about these insights and ideas that Jewish leaders take a contemporary spin on the core Passover story. The Seder is full of fresh insights and many great ideas with contemporary resonance that you and your family can explore.
by Rahel Musleah
This year, Rabbi Jill Jacobs might put a tomato on her Seder plate. As executive director of T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, formerly Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, Jacobs visited migrant tomato-pickers in Florida and was inspired by their dedication to ending modern-day slavery in the fields, halting human trafficking and promoting fair labor practices.
For Jacobs, the commitment of a seemingly powerless group to liberate itself from oppression is a contemporary version of the core Passover story. Rather than viewing the Haggadah as an ancient story with little resonance for our times, or as a stale and overly familiar text, Jacobs and other Jewish leaders find the Seder chock-full of fresh insights and downright revolutionary ideas. Here are the top 10 (not necessarily in any order) to explore at your own Seder.
1. You Are There
In every generation, we should feel as if we ourselves had left Egypt: Bechol Dor Vador Chayav Adam Lirot et Atzmo K’ilu Hu Yatza Mimitzrayim
The Seder doesn’t just recall a one-time historical event, says Rabbi Jacobs. “The past is not something with a beginning and an end. In Judaism, the past imposes obligations for the present.” She contrasts the way she was educated about the Revolutionary War. “Growing up in Boston, I’d hear about the brave heroes of the American Revolution, but no one said, ‘Because you come from that tradition, you have a responsibility to help others in revolutionary movements.’ The idea that we as Jews are asked to feel as if we personally experienced the event of leaving Egypt is spread throughout Judaism. We recall it daily in our liturgy, and it’s the reason for many of our mitzvot.”
At the Seder, Jacobs suggests, “Step out of the Haggadah a little. Don’t just read it in a rote way. We can ask ourselves where we have experienced oppression and where we have experienced liberation. How can we bring about liberation?” Instead of handing out tchotchkes for afikomen presents, let the person who finds the matzoh choose an organization for a tzedakah donation or initiate a group discussion about where to donate. Create a theme for the Seder (such as modern-day slavery) and connect it to a targeted organization.
Bringing alive the experience of liberation beyond the Seder means questioning and deciding where and how to commit personal resources—time, money and professional engagement. For Jacobs, working with Rabbis for Human Rights (rhrna.org) entails directing 1,800 member rabbis from across the Jewish spectrum to fight human rights violations in the United States, Canada and Israel.
2. Don’t Rejoice at Your Enemies’ Suffering
We diminish our cups of wine by ten drops at the mention of each of the plagues, lessening our joy at liberation to recall the humanity of all of God’s creatures, including the Egyptians who drowned.
“The natural response to suffering would seem to be revenge towards the oppressor, but the Torah instructs us to do just the opposite: to love and care for the stranger. We are even cautioned against hating the Egyptians. “It’s counterintuitive,” notes Jacobs. “Instead, we are told, ‘You know how it feels, so don’t do it to others.’ The Jewish response is to take care of the most vulnerable among us.”
Rabbi Lisa Goldstein, executive director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (jewishspirituality.org), notes that diminishing our joy at our enemies’ suffering is only one part of the story. After the meal, we beseech God to pour His wrath on our enemies (“Shfoch chamatcha al hagoyim”). “Our first response is to show compassion [chesed] even to people who are cruel to us,” says Goldstein. “Our other response is a cry for justice and accountability [g’vurah]. When we think of how to make a difference in the world, we need both. The fact that the chesed piece comes first is inspiring—but they are both there. The challenge is to discern when we need what.”
On a practical and personal level, Goldstein asks, how do we relate to those from whom we ourselves are being liberated? The Israelites left Egypt physically, but today, it’s much harder to completely separate from what has held us back. Learning to balance when we need more accountability, strength and separation, and when we need more softening and acceptance of imperfection, will help us move forward in more healthy and wholesome ways, she says.
3. The Haggadah as Parenting Manual
The Four Children are examples of how to reach children with different styles of learning.
“We misunderstand the purpose of the Haggadah. It’s not supposed to be a libretto, a prayer book or a Torah reading,” says Noam Zion, co-author of A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah, and A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices. “It’s a how-to manual for parents who don’t know how to create an educational experience on their own. Reading it out loud from cover to cover would be like reading a teacher’s manual out loud. That would be boring. But using it is interesting.” The story of the Four Children, for instance, is a midrash on individualized learning, a diagnostic tool to identify what kinds of kids are at the table. “When we can identify how they phrase their questions, we will know how to answer. It’s parenting for dummies,” says Zion, director of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Resource Center for Jewish Continuity in Jerusalem.
Zion points out that while the concept of the Seder was developed by the rabbis of the Mishnah by the second century, the first written text (in the form of a Haggadah) did not appear until the ninth century. The rabbis’ purpose was to get children to ask questions that would then elicit the story of the Exodus, retold as a dramatic first-person re-enactment according to each child’s ability to comprehend, with edible symbols as props in a multisensory experience incorporating eating, seeing, doing, acting and feeling, says Zion. The Haggadah only offers bits of the story and sample questions; it assumes further unscripted dialogue will ensue.
“The Seder is a state-of-the-art, hands-on, experiential learning tool that matches the best cutting-edge, contemporary guide for how we want to teach kids,” agrees Tara Mohr, co-author of A Woman’s Passover Companion: Women’s Reflections on the Festival of Freedom and The Women’s Seder Sourcebook: Rituals and Readings for Use at the Passover Seder (Jewish Lights). “The critical role children play in the Seder—asking questions, hiding the afikomen—offers rich territory for exploring the special role they play in our lives in general and uncovering what they teach us about freedom. She cites a quote from the Passover Companion about hiding the afikomen, written by one of her co-authors, Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld: “In this game of hide and seek, we remind ourselves that we do not begin to know all that our children will reveal to us. We do not begin to understand the mysteries they will uncover; the broken pieces they will find; the hidden fragments in need of repair.”
4. Look How Different This Is!
The Four Questions: Mah Nishtanah Halaylah Hazeh Mikol Haleylot
The mitzvah of the Seder is to arouse the curiosity of children through art and games and songs and foods, says Zion. In fact, Maimonides advises that parents should orchestrate all kinds of anomalies at the Seder so children will ask why. That’s the door to telling the story. Some Sephardic families pick up the Seder plate and take it out of the house momentarily. That’s also the reason behind the afikomen games. But today, Zion says, “We’ve gotten used to the maror [bitter herbs] and matzoh at the Seder. We no longer ask why.” He cites an example of a playful and successful way to elicit questions. “An Israeli psychologist says to his kids: ‘If you ask questions, I’ll be forced to throw candies at you.’”
Like Jacobs, Goldstein suggests that an unexpected food on the Seder table will evoke more questions. (The orange, which originated in the 1980s as a symbol of inclusion for gay and lesbian Jews and has since come to signify support for women in ritual roles, is no longer puzzling to most.) One year Goldstein placed coffee beans on her Seder plate. She had just returned from an American Jewish World Service trip to a poverty-stricken area of Honduras, where she learned about fair-trade coffee. “This is an area where people are still enslaved and we can do something about it,” she says.
Though these actions might seem trivial, they can have deep spiritual implications, Goldstein points out. “Spirituality is really about expanding awareness,” she explains. “Like any other spiritual tool, the Seder can be done for the sake of doing it.” She cites the Hasidic sage Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, who said that anything rote removes you from the place of gratitude that leads to praise. Levi Yitzchak was not necessarily suggesting we change the ritual, Goldstein explains, but warning that if we approach it with a sense of “here’s the same old ritual again,” we forget every moment is new, unique and a gift from the Creator. Adding new and surprising things in the Seder—sometimes as simple as a new intention—can wake us up and expand our awareness.
5. Be Grateful
That Would Have Been Enough: Dayenu!
“I love thinking about Dayenu in a deep way,” says Mohr. “Usually, we treat it in a silly register because of the nature of the repetition. But Dayenu invites you to think about gratitude, a concept that’s getting attention today as a practice of well-being.” Mohr, 33, a San Francisco-based expert on women’s leadership and well-being, advises applying the strategy of Dayenu to our own lives. “Would you be willing to say if I had my job, but not a spouse, that would be enough? If I lived in a country that’s safe, but I don’t have community, that would be enough? Dayenu challenges us to think of our gratitude at each stop along the way.” Create an opportunity for everyone at the Seder to say his or her own personal Dayenu, she suggests.
Goldstein notes that the focus of the Exodus story is often the enslavement—and not the liberation. The Hallel, the psalms of praise, most of which follow the meal, is left out at many gatherings, adds Goldstein. “The Seder is brilliant because it starts with shame and ends with praise. We need to end in a place of praise. That’s what will give us the vision, inspiration and imagination to move out of a place of ‘stuckness’ to imagine a place of liberation. When you least expect it, things turn around.”
6. Conversation Can Spur Change
The Haggadah tells us about five rabbis in B’nai B’rak who sat up all night discussing the story of the Exodus, until their students came to warn them that it was time to recite the morning Shema.
According to Rabbi Ayelet Cohen, the most revolutionary aspect of the Haggadah is that it’s a collage of many different voices, a collection of stories from the Talmud and a compilation of biblical and liturgical quotations. “The most common misunderstanding is that it’s just the story of the Exodus,” says Cohen, director of the Center for Jewish Living at the JCC of Manhattan. “One of the most damaging misconceptions in Jewish life is that there is only one version of one story, and that the stories of women’s experiences and those of others who are marginalized because of economics, physical ability, age, sexual orientation, or gender identity are not part of that Jewish story.” The Haggadah teaches that there isn’t just one story, she says. “That’s the telling we are obligated to continue.”
The story of the rabbis in B’nai B’rak exemplifies the concept that every conversation has the potential for being sacred. “You never know when you gather with other people where the conversation will go and how it might inspire change,” says Cohen. “There’s opportunity for great meaning in interacting with another.” To incorporate other voices into the Seder itself, Cohen suggests including new texts, like the supplements created by the American Jewish World Service or T’ruah. Participants can also share their own stories and experiences of oppression and narrowness, liberation and hopefulness. If people are hesitant, keep questions specific. (“Share a moment you felt you were unable to do what you wanted”; “Share one example of injustice you felt in your own life.”) Remind them they have something of value to tell.
One interpretation of the five rabbis’ conversation is that they were so inspired by discussing the biblical liberation that they began planning a rebellion against Roman oppression, which culminated in the second-century Bar Kochba Revolt. “The Haggadah is about telling a story that’s literally revolutionary, that will help us figure out how to be more free,” Goldstein notes, adding that the Hasidic world understood Egypt as a place where our awareness was in exile. “By telling the story, our awareness awakens.”
Prepare guests ahead of time to tell a story, bring a newspaper article or a novel that may inspire a vision of what liberation might look like. Matching people to their interests is key, says Zion. If a guest is interested in politics, draw that out; an artistic person can share illustrations of the Four Children (many are included in Zion’s Haggadah); a psychologist can discuss different types of children. Orchestrate and delegate responsibilities beforehand to maximize participation.
7. Create Community
The “order” of the Seder: Kadesh Urhatz
The structure of the Seder is revolutionary in its interconnectedness, notes Silber. “We do Kiddush, but we don’t eat right away. We stop and tell the story. It’s an integrated framework.” He draws a parallel to the way we live life. “Human beings usually compartmentalize, but our goal is full integration in our lives. We shouldn’t live fractured lives.” The intergenerational, personal home environment in which the Seder is conducted also represents a change from many Jewish rituals which are carried out in a public space, says Silber. “It’s not an artificial space, empty ritual or connection. It touches who you really are, your authentic self, your deepest moral concerns, and concerns about life.”
The meal, too, is more than just background, says Silber. “It’s a social event that bonds people. By remembering the first Jewish community, we form a community of our own. Sharing study and personal thoughts creates a community in which people respect one another, listen to one another, and respond.”
8. Make Your Own Midrash
We are commanded to tell the story of the Exodus, and whoever elaborates on the story deserves extra praise. Mitzvah aleinu l’saper bitziyat Mitzrayim; V’chol hamarbeh l’saper bitziat Mitzrayim harei zeh meshubach
The Haggadah encourages us to create our own midrashim, to tell our own family tales. “The point of the storytelling is not the facts,” says Zion. “It’s about identity. What makes this night so different that we still want to celebrate? Why do we choose to be Jewish today?” The questions not only provide opportunities for Jews by choice and others who are just beginning to engage in Jewish activities to share their personal journeys, but also open a dialogue between parents and children. “If parents don’t talk in the first person about their Jewish choices, how will kids learn? Parents must model for kids to listen,” says Zion. Storytelling can also include paperback dramatics and even clips from the animated film Prince of Egypt, an adaptation of Exodus, if families are comfortable with using electronics on the holiday.
Zion stresses that despite the emphasis on children, the Seder is not just for kids. Teens can have serious discussions about freedom and slavery. “Most people consider themselves somewhere in between the wicked and stupid child, so they feel uncomfortable leading the Seder. Whatever Seder they do, when they own it, they are the wise [good] child.” Unlearning all the things we have “mislearned” about the Haggadah is the first step to creativity, he says.
According to Rabbi David Silber, author of A Passover Haggadah: Go Forth and Learn (JPS) and founder and dean of the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education in Manhattan, “It’s our responsibility to look at this ritual and try to figure out how the tradition continues to speak to our time. Something about it is eternal and touches everybody, no matter what.” The wise and wicked sons both ask, “Why should we care?” That’s the question of the Seder, and that’s our question today, he notes.
9. Open the Door.
All who are hungry come and eat: Kol Dichfin Yetay V’yechol
The Haggadah encourages inclusiveness, inviting people who don’t have enough to join the meal. Later, opening the door for Elijah acts as an invitation to give thanks together to God. Cohen notes that these words and actions open our eyes and ask us not to be afraid to notice pain and injustice. In contemporary times, they allow for the opportunity to advocate for justice around issues of food, being aware of what to eat and buy. “For children who see homeless people on the street, the Seder creates a safe and appropriate opportunity to ask questions and consider how to make the world a place of less scarcity and more generosity,” she says.
10. Women Are the Hidden Source of Power
The afikomen is redeemed after being hidden: Tzafun
The theme of hiddenness permeates the Passover story, says Mohr. Yocheved hides her infant son, Moses; Pharaoh’s daughter conceals his identity; the midwives covertly save the male Israelite babies. “Though there were limitations on women’s power in the public sense, it is often manifested in quieter, more concealed ways,” says Mohr. “In many ways, women’s actions drive the plot of the story, even though it seems their roles in the Torah are marginalized.”
Today women in the Western world are liberated (though not necessarily fully empowered), but Mohr says she hears echoes of the lives of her mother and grandmother: “Women worked within their circumstances. It’s beautiful to celebrate, honor and appreciate the quiet, one-on-one service women have done and continue to do. Often, it is women working as teachers, therapists, social workers and nurses that keeps the fabric of our society together in terms of well-being.”
Rahel Musleah is an award-winning journalist, author and speaker. Visit her website, rahelsjewishindia.com.