The Ultimate in Experiential Judaism
We all know of the clean-up leading into Passover. Anybody viewing it from the outside would call it spring cleaning with a search and destroy mission. No cheerio is safe during this time!
The process of cleaning has spiritual elements in that chametz is likened to our yetzer hara – base inclinations – of which we must rid ourselves and humble ourselves to see beyond ourselves. We, as a people, unite in this mission to get back to our roots.
Finally, after all of the preparations, we sit down to begin our seder. Unlike every other holiday though, before we start our festive meal with all of its trimmings, we begin by retelling the story of Abraham and his father Terach and of our sojourn into Egypt. As the halacha (Jewish law) states, we start with our ignoble beginnings and end with praise of Hashem, thankful for Hashem saving us, giving us His Torah, and bringing us to Israel, our homeland.
As we approach the meal, before we start on our matza ball soup, we must first have our matza, reminding us of how the Egyptians rushed us out (so much so that the dough didn’t have time to rise), maror (bitter herbs) reminding us of the ultimate bitterness of the experience, and finally the Hillel sandwich. Only then can we truly act like free people and enjoy our meal.
Clearly, it is not enough to retell the story; the Rabbis wanted us to have a sense of what it was like, thus the demand to eat both matza and the maror. Not to mention the vegetable at the beginning of the seder dipped in salt water, reminiscent of our tears.
History is important but making it real and relevant is of the greatest import. It brings the experience and story to life and is one of the most experiential holidays that we celebrate.
After we conclude the seder, we are supposed to continue speaking about what happened in Egypt and the ultimate redemption, until sleep overtakes us. The truth is that after four cups of wine, plenty of carbohydrates and the late hour, it will not take long to fall asleep. But it is a departure from the norm. Why would the Rabbis instruct us to behave in this manner?
Recently, I began my course called “A Bird’s-Eye View of Jewish History.” It is an eight-week course, but I have found that to cover 4000 years of history in eight hours is very difficult. There is so much to present and try to link together to bring history to life. The further that I get into the course, the more that I realize what I need to impart to make the audience truly understand what happened.
I believe that the Rabbis were trying to impart that same understanding. They knew that the more we talked about our time in Egypt and exodus, the more there was to tell. How did we end up in that situation after being invited to dwell in the land? Why were the Egyptians afraid of us after 100 years of being citizens?
So, as we all sit with our family and friends this Passover, I invite you to try this experiment. Take any part of the seder that interests you and discuss it. There is a lot of information online that can help bring the seder to life and make you feel like you’re in the moment. It may be the best seder yet.
Have a chag kasher v’sameach- a happy and healthy Passover.
Rabbi Fred Nebel
Director of Jewish Family Services