For many people, this year’s seder will be special for the simple reason that we will be able to be together in dining rooms and living rooms instead of Zoom rooms. However helpful it was to stay connected electronically during the pandemic, there is no replacement for the sights, smells and tastes of an actual seder. As the most observed holiday on the Jewish calendar, Passover serves as an important tool in the transmission of our deepest value of freedom. You might think that the simple act of being together now would enable us to say Dayenu — It is enough. But is it?
The Passover seder was created 2,000 years ago by the same rabbis who essentially created a new version of Judaism. Faced with the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people, they created a Judaism that was portable, enabling Jews to carry it wherever the winds of misfortune would take them. As a tolerated minority, Jews lived a life apart — interacting economically with their non-Jewish neighbors but with a separate religious and cultural existence.
The word seder means “order” because it describes a highly organized text and series of rituals. It is by far the lengthiest piece of liturgy that Jews recite at home, without the benefit of clergy who lead the liturgy in the synagogue. We use a mnemonic as a helpful aid to keep the “order” straight. Yet what makes the seder extraordinary is that it is an ambitious attempt to inculcate in the Jewish people a desire to seek freedom. The tradition asks us not just to remember the story of Egypt. The point isn’t to imagine what it was like for our ancestors to be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt. At the seder, we are meant to experience slavery and freedom as our experience. We were enslaved, and we went free. How to make it our experience? We literally ingest the experience. We eat the bitterness of maror. We drink the sweetness of wine. We eat matzah as a reminder of the food we ate in Egypt and that we carried on our shoulders — our sole possession as we fled Egypt. It was all we needed because we were free. At the seder, we live like queens and kings, reclining like Cleopatra.
We walk the walk and talk the talk of freedom by asking questions. Why is this night different? Why do we dip? Why are we hiding the afikomen? If we eat bread 51 weeks a year, why can’t we eat it tonight? The rabbis understood that the future always depends on the next generation, which is why children have such a central role in the seder.
Somewhere over the centuries, the ambitious goal of experiencing slavery and freedom got lost. In many seders today, there is only one remaining question: When do we eat? The four questions, which originally were just sample questions, have been memorized by generations of Hebrew school children. The fact that they are never answered makes clear that they are not real questions but rather simply part of the ritual. The rest of the text is read quickly or skipped. A few parts are sung. Everyone argues over whether any child should be called wicked. By the time we arrive at Dayenu, it has been more than enough.
Perhaps in the Middle Ages, the seder still worked as a vehicle for elevating the importance of freedom. When people then began the night with the words of ha lahma that proclaimed that matzah is the bread of affliction, they knew what affliction was like. When they continued and announced that now we are slaves, next year may we be free, now we live in exile, next year in the land of Israel, they were expressing the threatening uncertainty that hung over their lives.
But now? It might seem offensive to proclaim our enslavement in 21st-century America. Some may debate whether we are part of the privileged in America, but we are certainly not enslaved. Let us acknowledge that increasingly, there are people sitting around our seder tables who have ancestors who were actually enslaved in the not-so-distant past. It also seems strange to say the words at the end of the seder: “Next year in Jerusalem” because we could be living there this year.
Certainly, the seder is enjoyed as a time for family and friends to gather together. There are family traditions — certain recipes that are made each year or certain parts of the Haggadah that are assigned annually to the same person. At all such family gatherings, people who are no longer alive are remembered. There is a reason that so many people come together, if only to eat some matzah and see family. Yet, the seder can be all those things and still be an opportunity to remember how crucial freedom is in Judaism. Slavery and freedom are the founding story of the Jewish people. The Sefat Emet, a 19th-century Hasidic master, teaches that the whole Torah is all about one thing: freedom. He suggests that the 613 commandments are actually 613 practices helping us to be free.
My recently published book, Judaism Disrupted: A Spiritual Manifesto for the 21st Century, argues that Judaism needs to be disrupted to respond to our radically changed world. We live in an open society that encourages inclusiveness rather than boundaries. Instead of the portable Judaism created by the rabbis, we need a permeable Judaism that interacts with the world around us and recognizes that larger world lives not just in the next neighborhood or even next door. Now that world includes members of our family.
Let us return to the words of Ha Lahma. Kol dikhfin yeitei ve-yeikhol, kol ditzrikh yeitei ve-yifsakh: All who are hungry, let them come and eat. All who are in need, let them come celebrate Passover. This invitation is spoken in Aramaic, the lingua franca of the time, not in Hebrew, so that everyone who is hungry feels invited to join our abundant meal. This hunger could be literally for food or any other essentials in life they are lacking. The hunger can be a spiritual hunger, as articulated by the prophet Amos: “Behold the days are coming, that I shall send forth hunger in the land, not hunger for bread, nor thirst for water, but desire to hear the words of God.” (Amos 8:11)
“All who are in need, let them come celebrate Passover” suggests that beyond what is lacking, whether food or larger purpose, there is a positive element that may be missing — the freedom that is at the core of Passover. In either case, we acknowledge that until everyone is free, none of us can be fully free. We remind ourselves that we need to re-experience enslavement and the journey to freedom. We need to examine how we as individuals are still held back by chains of our own making. We need to understand that every human being is seeking freedom. We need to recommit to struggle for a society that finally lives up to its professed ideals.
How do we do that? By seeing the seder as an opportunity to explore the meaning of freedom today.
What does it mean that we welcome all four children to the seder? How do we respond to the questions of the challenging child (formerly known as wicked)? How do we engage those who seem silently indifferent who don’t want to ask questions? How do we listen to each other respectively so that everyone feels free to express their opinion? How do we express those opinions without being hurtful to others?
Must freedom for some people always come at the expense of another people? Is it ever possible to achieve mishpat shalom — a justice of peace where everyone wins?
Does more freedom mean I have fewer restrictions on what I can do? Can I do whatever I want (obviously, within some limits)? Or does freedom mean I am free to fulfill my obligations to society without hindrance?
Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke of four freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Notice that two are freedom of and two are freedom from. Would you add any other freedoms to that list? Often forgotten is that FDR understood that freedom from want to mean more than having enough to eat. It is also a human right as in: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of him/herself and of his/her family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.” Article 25.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[
Each year, Passover calls us to echo Abraham Lincoln’s words calling for “a new birth of freedom.”
How is this seder different from all other seders?
It needs to be a rebirth of freedom.