Screenshot from the class worksheet / courtesy of Sixth & I
Continuing a tradition from last year, where I attend a Sixth & I event for Passover prep! This one, convened over Zoom last Thursday and led by Senior Rabbi Aaron Potek, also focused on the conversational aspect of the holiday.
Specifically, the class was about how to lead a seder, and in that vein, the rabbi zeroed in on the most persistent obstacle: “annoying relatives” who keep asking when the meal will arrive. 😛 In the traditional Passover seder, the meal (Shulchan Orech) is step 11 out of 15. So, it’s bound to be a late arrival in any instance, even in a short seder.
The difference between a 30-minute seder and an 8-hour seder, Rabbi Aaron continued, is step 5: the telling of the Passover story (Maggid.) Many haggadot, (plural of the book called a Haggadah, or “Telling”) contain long narratives from the Book of Exodus, parceled out appropriately amidst the asking of The Four Questions. It’s up to each seder group whether they will recite everything, recite some portion and then divulge into discussion, or whittle it down to “they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!”
For seders that incline more towards the longer options, the rabbi suggests sprucing up some of the other ceremonial foods. Particularly step 3, the appetizers (Karpas,) usually parsley (which is dipped into salt water to dramatize the tears of the Israelites during enslavement). But in fact, any vegetable is appropriate—even potatoes!
Food is a big part of any Jewish holiday, and with Passover we have a whole plate of symbolically rich edibles or thereabouts. But food isn’t really the main point of the seder, Rabbi Aaron said. Nor, per se, is the retelling of the Exodus story. Rather, it’s the reliving of that story, and interpreting the themes as befits our own lives and world. (In more traditional words, to experience the Exodus as if it happened to you…because in the cyclical nature of Jewish memory, it kinda did.)
It’s a message that sits well with me. I haven’t had an orthodox Jewish education—literally or figuratively—and am uncomfortable with being forced to merely recite a bunch of stuff in Hebrew. I like the idea of challenging myself to make the holiday more resonant, and participants more engaged in the act of retelling. Rabbi Aaron pointed to tract in the Babylonian Talmud (Pesachim 115b) when the rabbis discuss removing the Passover table so that guests may ask why it was taken away. Thus this becomes a unique interpretation of the Four Questions.
That being said, to argue with the Talmud, removing a table merely to incite questioning seems like a closed loop. It’s better, Rabbi Aaron said, to look at the Passover story psychologically. Broaden the scope to the major themes of personal redemption, freedom, justice and how to make change happen. As a participant pointed out, likely many seders this year will bear reference to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
One can also argue with the traditional aspects of the story, like judging the archetypal four children who ask the Four Questions, celebrating (and mourning) the drowning of the oppressors, and etc. This is an example of what the rabbi called “the paradox of the Passover evening,” in that it taps into both suffering and freedom. Like matzah, which is both a symbol of affliction and redemption. There are lots of niggles to discuss, or perhaps rewrite, as the case may be. Maybe the four children could be morphed into four different types of Jews today.
Rabbi Aaron’s remarks lasted for about an hour, followed by a half-an-hour of question and answer. At the end of it, I definitely felt ready to tackle this holiday and make it my own. Even better, to know that my style of unique engagement could be construed as authentic Judaism.
For DC (and worldwide) mishpacha: check out the Gather The Jews Passover Guide for upcoming events and ways to commemorate the holiday. Passover (or Pesach in Hebrew) begins this year on Friday evening. Chag sameach.