Galilee Diary: Blood and fire and pillars of smoke
…So I know the sea was not split in vain Deserts not crossed in vain – If at the end of the story stand Daddy and the kid Looking forward and knowing their turn will come.
-from “The Kid of the Haggadah” by Nathan Alterman (trans. Arthur Waskow and Judy Spelman)
It is interesting to consider the power of the seder. The Jewish people don’t agree on much – and the Jewish people here in the land of Israel seem constantly to be screaming at each other over issues of religion and ideology, even to the point of violence. But on seder night they all sit down and do pretty much the same thing at the same time – and in many cases, they even do it together across religious and ideological fault-lines, as family often trumps belief: We may be “left” and the cousins or the in-laws may be “right,” but this night is different from all others. There is an interesting range of combinations of the rituals observed and not observed by Israeli Jews, but surveys show that very few – from the ultra-ultra-Orthodox to the most atheistic secularists – skip the seder.
There are more editions of the Haggadah than of any other Jewish book – around 4,000 print editions and some of the most beautiful illuminated manuscripts of the middle ages. And every year new ones come out. This year, for example, the Midrashah, a pluralistic study center at Oranim College, has issued a women’s Haggadah; but there are always new traditional versions as well, with new commentaries and illustrations. And the Haggadah is pretty much the only book in the traditional Jewish corpus that is illustrated, so a lot of artistic energy has been invested in it over the centuries. Our custom at seder is to make sure everyone at the table has a different edition, so people have to be alert and to help each other keep the place – and the differences in text and translation and illustration raise interesting questions for discussion.
The Haggadah really is a remarkable piece of liturgical/educational engineering, with its integration of experiences for all the senses, of text and music, of history and theology, of family, of generations, of past and future, of the heavy and the light. And although it consists of a skeleton of core texts and actions and foods, it has invited, through the ages, endless embellishments and adaptations: Melodies, artwork, additions, commentaries, foods, folk and family traditions of “how it is done.” It is constantly changing, and every seder is different, yet it is the same from century to century and continent to continent.
Which is not to say, of course, that there aren’t lots of people, especially in Israel, who attend out of obligation and find the ritual dry or incomprehensible, or who try to “get it out of the way” quickly so as to get down to dinner, or who feel the obligation to mumble all the words even if no one is listening or understanding. The Haggadah is full of mechanisms designed to prevent such phenomena (songs, four questions, maror, afikomen hunt, etc.), but we are an ingenious people, so there is always someone who will find a way to sabotage all these safeguards and make the seder boring or oppressive. Fortunately, the proliferation of creative Haggadot, and of workshops by the liberal movements and the pluralistic study centers, are helping many families make their sedarim more user-friendly and thus meaningful.
The bottom line, whether you are secular or Reform or ultra-Orthodox, is to “see yourself as if you personally had come forth out of Egypt.” That’s all. And if we could all do that – then Elijah might really stop by with some good news…
Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah.