This is an edited version of a piece I wrote a few years ago, I come to it at the end of Pesach not the beginning because I think we should take time to reflect on what we learned and felt during the last week and on how you made the Seder your own. I hope you will think about the importance of the ritual and time spent with family, friends and often a few strangers as we celebrate the Exodus story.
Recently I have noticed a real uptick in the number of items finding their way into the Passover Seder for contemporary Jews. Last year I wrote about the orange, a symbol originally meant to remind us of the LGBT community's rightful place in Klal Yisrael, which quickly morphed into being about women, with its own apocryphal story. We had already seen the Kos Miriam, Miriam's cup come to the table to remind us of her role in the redemption of the people. But lately we see more and more produce finding its way to the table. Olives, a symbol not only of peace but a staple in the Middle East is said to be a symbol of hope for the end of the Arab/Israeli conflict. Locks to reflect on modern slavery, bananas, tomatoes the list goes on.
One could ask what it happening to us as a people. We can think of the song Tradition, from Fiddler which pleads we do things because that is the way they have always been done. That would be a wrong read of both the Seder and the development of what it means to be Jewish. Tradition, which is not only something we receive from our parents but the gift we give our children, is and should be influenced by every generation. In the Seder that has clearly been the case. Look at any 3 Haggadot (Prayer book for the Seder) in any Jewish bookstore and you will see the influence of various times on the service. Things entered and exited over the history and of course important events in the lives of the Jewish people found a reminder and a home in meal. Right before Pesach my Rabbi, Cantor and I remarked on the changing dynamic of the Matzah of Hope that used to include a picture symbolic of the USSR and called for solidarity with Soviet Jewry. Others bring in the Shoah (Holocaust) with sections on remember the 6 million. There are Humanist haggadot that never reference God and some that still leave Moses relegated to a fairly minor character. Each served a purpose and spoke or continue to speak to a people who see the narrative of the Exodus as meaningful and connect it to the way they see the world.
Even I have rewritten the section of the service as we begin to close the evening and invite Elijah the Prophet into the home. First, borrowing from someone else, our Elijah's cup is empty for most of the Seder and we each add a little or our wine to the cup for we all must participate in our own redemption, not wait for a miracle. We also have cleaned up this section. When we open the door, the lines of Bible we read include "Pour out your wrath on those who do not believe". When Passover was a time when Jews were most vulnerable to being attacked in Christian communities of the Middle Ages this act of defiance was a powerful statement for faith in God and the coming redemption. However, those words having little meaning to me in my current context, have rewritten it as a call for a true multi-faith expression asking God to pour out God's love to all who seek truth, community and cooperation. Many haggadot do not translate these words into English others simply eliminate them. I think it important to at least acknowledge this powerful moment of our past.
Every year there seems to be a new and trendy expression of something for the Seder table. But I wonder about all these new things becoming so quickly institutionalized and will they in fact lose their meaning and/or take away from the meaning of the Seder historically. The orange is a perfect example of how a meaningful act can be so easily be changed to do exactly what it was placed on the Seder plate to avoid. The orange evolved from an attempt for a group of lesbian students to create their own Seder. They put a crust of bread on the Seder plate as a powerful message that they were seen as having no place in Jewish life. Susannah Heschel suggested that gays and lesbians to not violate the community of Judaism as the bread would a Seder but add something different and suggested the orange, including creating a ritual of spitting out the orange's bitter seeds as a way of symbolically spitting out the bigotry and hate. In less than 10 years the story was changed that a male rabbi was talking about women in the Rabbinate being like bread on the Seder plate and the orange became a symbol of women's roles in Judaism, completely disappearing the importance of the symbol to gays and lesbians.
Some say the more we generalize the story of the Exodus the more we water down Jewish peoplehood. The Seder is about us. It is our narrative, there is enough time in the year to think about the plight of others. In fact we need be careful as many are trying to decouple Judaism for the land of Israel, the ultimate end of the Passover celebration, NEXT YEAR IN JERUSALEM means that we long to find the land of our people as a place we too can take ownership of for ourselves. I am not sure I agree but I do think that as we think about what the Passover Seder means to us we should certainly consider thinking about some questions we sometimes ask at our Seder.
What part of the story is most important?
What part of the story do you like best?
What part of the story is about you?
What part of the story can we leave out and still have the whole story?
I don't want to argue that the Seder can't be changed, modified, and added to, in fact it always has been and always will be. I encourage it because it has to be meaning for you. Being trendy about adding something because a famous Rabbi or your local cool Education Director did it doesn't make the ritual meaningful. There is a reason we do the Seder in the home, the Seder is yours. There are rituals far and wide that fit neatly into family Seders. But in the end the ritual is empty without a clear meaning. Add more fruits to your seder if you will, ask the questions that prompt us to think beyond ourselves, but do it with great concern and kavannah (intention). Don't do it to be cool or because that is how it has to be done. It doesn't. Remember, we are all supposed to see ourselves as having personally come out of Mitzraim, What is your Mitzraim?