by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
For some of us, every minute of the two Seder nights is an
absolute delight. Even the preparation and the cleaning – the anticipation. There
is no other occasion in the festive year quite like it. Different customs. The
food. The songs. The exotica of it all. The Seder nights remind us of our
childhood search for the Afikoman and the rewards for finding it. Family
traditions and reunions. The familiar words.
The intellectual delight of analyzing the text of the Haggadah and
finding new meanings, explanations and fantasies of academic and not so
academic interpretations and innovations.
If we are fortunate, the discussions are stimulating, challenging
and involve everyone contributing according to their interests and expertise. The
history. The constant return of hatred
and struggles – “they” still try to destroy us as “they” always have and yet we
have survived. Don’t forget the role playing and the acting. Freedom and slavery. We were there then and here we are now. This
is, of course, the ideal.
Sadly, for most Jews it is nothing of the sort. If the pious
want to say every word of a long text, everyone else is impatient, starving and
cannot wait to eat. No one cares about the words except the old bore who is
leading things the way he always has and who insists on doing everything by the
book. His father taught him it all and he is not going to change one iota. And
it takes very long. Most people present don’t know or understand the Hebrew. It
is all Double Dutch and irrelevant. The “know it alls” insist on disagreeing
about how to do things and then grumble and sulk when they do not get their way.
Family tensions re-emerge like a typical American family forced to get together
over Thanksgiving. Visitors have no idea what is going on and need explanations
and page finders eager to help but only make matters more confusing.
In many homes it is the one occasion in the year when
everyone gets together, and you invite as many guests as can fit into your
home. It is a great jamboree, an orgy of hospitality. But bereft of anything
spiritual or mystical. It’s a party. A Jewish party. If, on the other hand, you
want to void the hassle and the hustle, you can go on a cruise (if your wallet
permits). But you may feel sea sick and be stuck in a hotel surrounded by
people you don’t know or do but don’t care for.
Communal Seders are just as bad. They always start late. The
rabbi wants to preach too much. The
chazzan wants to sing too much. And
everyone wants to talk to each other. No
one is very interested in Torah or, indeed, in having a discussion. Most have
been dragged there for other reasons. There are too many people, too much
noise, the food is often sub-standard and the wine third rate. It becomes just a chore that we have to go
through (usually) for only one night a year if we are lucky. The kids are
running around, crying, shouting or at best dozing off. Everyone is peeved,
frustrated and soon fed up to the teeth. So, as soon as the food is served (which
cannot come too early) they will sneak out as quickly as possible. Who needs to
hear Chad Gadyah (sang badly) anyway? Do I care about a goat? No, I do
not! I want to go to bed and I am not going to stay to sing “Next Year in
I have a solution. It is true that there are obligations. To
eat an olive’s amount of Matza (let’s not go into detail as to how much an
olive’s measure is). Then there are the bitter herbs (you may have no idea how
much disagreement there is about which herbs count as bitter). As for the four
cups of wine cups of wine, thank goodness we no longer have to put up with
sickly sweet concoctions. We can now
find really top, expensive wine of every quality, degree and cru sanctioned by
almost every single Beth Din in history. And if you care about the alcohol in
your blood, there are grape juices with reduced sugar content, too. The other
refinements (greens and eggs in salt water, haroset and Hillel’s
sandwich – which do not take up too much time) can be fun, talking points.
But the real issue is the Haggadah. Do we really need to
know how many plagues were multiplied on the Egyptians from God’s finger to
hand to arm? And why repeat the song Dayeynu in prose as well as poetry?
The fact is that the Haggadah, like all our services, have been added to over
the years. It is as if the longer we survive, the greater the amount of time we
need to spend over multiplying words.
The Talmud is more interested in actual discussion and
debate in an unstructured way. After all, the Talmud itself says it is enough
to say, “I was there.” And anything you say on the subject “has fulfilled your
obligation to recount the exodus from Egypt.” And if you ask why this night is
different, you do not have to say “Mah Nishtana.” Though that’s about
the least boring part of it all.
So, my advice is to go minimalist. Don’t go by the book. By
that I mean: don’t feel you have to say every word if you do not feel like it.
Only recite those parts you really have to or want to. But then open it all up
for first hand experiences of being the underdog, refugee or, indeed, slave.
Have discussion and debate. I know, you will tell me that in this day and age
of Democrats and Republicans unable to be civil or Brexiteers regarded as
suicidal traitors, you may be laying yourself open to fisticuffs or social
ostracism. Why even Israeli policies and elections are dangerous now. Make sure
you have security guards handy.
Perhaps it is safer to stick to the text of the Haggadah