You say you’ve been intending to look for a Haggadah that will “speak” to you and your Seder guests? We have a last-minute suggestion.
by Sue Tomchin
With Seder looming on Monday evening, we want to introduce you to a valuable resource, especially if you want to add punch and poetry to your Seder: The Velveteen Rabbi’s (VR) Haggadah for Pesach.
The Velveteen Rabbi is the nom de plume of Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, named in 2016 by the Forward as one of America’s most inspiring rabbis.
Currently the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, Mass., and co-chair of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, she also works individually with clients to help them discern the presence of the sacred in their lives. An accomplished poet with four book-length volumes of poetry to her credit, she began blogging in 2003 as the Velveteen Rabbi, and is still at it. Just take a look at the insightful piece she posted this week about the meaning of the karpas, the greens we dip in salt water at Seder.
The threads of Rabbi Barenblat’s various endeavors coalesce in her Haggadah. As she writes on her website: “This Haggadah grew out of my desire for a Seder text which cherishes the tradition and also augments that tradition with contemporary poetry, moments of mindfulness, a theology of liberation, and sensitivity to different forms of oppression.”
The VR Haggadah evolved from a feminist Seder project Barenblat was part of while an undergrad at Williams College in the early 1990s. She completed her first full version of the Haggadah in 2001 and by 2004 was sharing it online. Over the intervening years she has revised it many times.
“I know some people use my Haggadah whole cloth and some use excerpts with whatever Seder they are doing,” Barenblat told me when I spoke to her this week. “I am thrilled that it speaks to people. I hope it provides inspiration so people can relate to the story not as something that happened then, but as something happening now.”
“Anyone can be changed by the themes of the Seder,” Barenblat added. “It can resonate if you are ready.”
The VR Haggadah contains the essential Seder elements, but isn’t rooted in any one branch of Judaism. And one doesn’t have to be affiliated to find it meaningful. Though not a feminist Haggadah as such, women will find themselves reflected in the text through poetry and readings by Barenblat and others.
The Seder conveys “the core story of Jewish peoplehood,” while helping us to understand our relationship to the world, Barenblat explained. “We define ourselves as we were slaves and God brought us out. The leap we make is that, just as we needed freedom, everyone needs freedom. We can help others work toward liberation.”
As she writes to powerfully at the start of her Haggadah:
Long ago at this season, our people set out on a journey.
On such a night as this, Israel went from degradation to joy.
We give thanks for the liberation of days gone by.
And we pray for all who are still bound.
This year, what has especially been on her mind, Rabbi Barenblat said, is the plight of the world’s refugees. “We left Egypt as refugees and so often through history Jews have been refugees. Today there are 65 million refugees in the world.” She noted that HIAS has created a meaningful Seder supplement exploring this issue.
The Seder texts can help us look outward to those whom we can aid, but they can also help us to consider our own lives and to identify the things that may be keeping up trapped in Mitzrayim, “a narrow place,” she noted.
“Let this holiday make us mindful of internal bondage which, despite outward freedom, keeps us enslaved,” she thus writes in the Haggadah.
“What you’re going to get out of Seder is in proportion to what you are willing to put in,” she said. “When you come and take a risk for the evening and open yourself up to the experience, the worst thing that can happen is to lose one evening of your life. Or, it can be a transformational experience that leaves you enriched and changed.”