This week, when you sit down at your Passover seder table to tell the story of our people, I ask that you pause to reflect on the question of which story it is that you are telling.
For some, the Haggadah recounts the story of how in every generation a Pharaoh figure arises to destroy the Jewish people – a reminder to us all of the importance of standing vigilant against the perennial threat of antisemitism. For others, the take-home message of the seder is not vigilance, but empathy – that as Jews we must forever identify with the heart of the stranger, because after all, we too were once strangers in a strange land.
For some, the Passover story is a reminder of divine providence and power – how by means of God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm we were freed from Egypt. For others, the focus of the story is not God but humanity – the central charge of the seder to see ourselves as if we personally came out of Egypt.
For some, the core of the story is slavery; for others, emancipation. For some, it is about freedom and self-determination; for others, about commitment and belonging. For some, the Exodus is a reminder of the special relationship between God and the chosen people. For others, the Haggadah teaches that in spite of our being idol worshippers, God nevertheless freed us from bondage. For some, Passover is the holiday of Dayenu,“It would have been enough” – we should be satisfied with our portion. For others, it is a tale of the redemptions that yet lie ahead, the fights still yet to be fought – we are never satisfied till we reach the Promised Land, and maybe not even then. “Next year,” we conclude, “in Jerusalem!”
So, too, the Passover symbols – there are as many explanations as there are people at seder tables. Is the matzah a reminder of the haste in which we left Egypt, or is it – as we state at the beginning of the seder– the bread of affliction, a reminder of our servitude? Is the haroset a reminder of the mortar with which we built the pyramids, or is it there to sweeten the sting of the bitter herb? Is the salt water meant to symbolize the tears of the slaves or the luxurious act of dipping our food, something only a free person can do? Do we dip fingers into wine with each plague to savor the vengeance exacted on our Egyptian oppressors, as a reminder of the dipping and daubing of blood on the doorposts, or to remove a drop of wine from our cups, an admonition against taking joy at the downfall of our foes?
I could go on, but the point is one and the same. Not only does the Haggadah contain a multitude of narrative threads, but each thread and each ritual contains a multitude of interpretive possibilities. If the point of the Passover seder was merely to relate a concise national narrative – as the joke goes, “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat” – the seder would be much shorter and much clearer. If the point of the Haggadah was merely a recitation of history – it would not contain all its symbols, sidebars, and questions. Every nation has a history; most have competing histories, including our own – witness America’s dueling 1619 and 1776 projects. Jews, no different than any people, have multiple narratives of self-understanding. We have just baked those narratives into a single Haggadah document. As scholars will tell you, there is an archaeology to the Haggadah: It is a layered compendium or kaleidoscope of Biblical texts, Mishnaic texts, medieval texts, and modern texts – interwoven and stitched together, the seams visible to close readers – containing and maintaining a diversity of ages, sages, and sensibilities.
But the Haggadah is more than that. Much more.
The Haggadah is not just about history or even memory. It is a pedagogic exercise par excellence in which we overlay our own stories onto the shared template of our people’s foundational narrative. The Hebrew word haggadah doesn’t mean “story”; it means “telling.” Interesting as that may be, it is even more interesting when you consider that the first thing we do in the maggid/telling section is not tell but ask. The Haggadah begins with a question – Mah nishtanah? What makes this night different? – and ends with a question – Mi yodea? Who knows? More of an invitation than a recitation, the Haggadah is engineered to elicit comments and debate from its readers. Unlike every other liturgy, the Haggadah not only allows for interruption but welcomes it. Unlike every other liturgy, the text of the Haggadah is directed not toward God but to the people sitting across from you at the table and, for that matter, toward ourselves. It reminds us that our stories are not only endlessly diverse, but endlessly evolving, as in the case of the sages whom we read about in the Haggadah, all of whom continued to find new meanings in each word.
Most of all, the Haggadah is a reminder. A reminder that our stories, interpretations, and insights – diverse and evolving as they are – sit side by side, literally and figuratively, with the stories, interpretations, and insights of every other seder participant. Each person, regardless of age, stature, knowledge, or wisdom, is an equal stakeholder. Much as we all love the rhetorical device of the four children, its point is not merely to prompt us to identify with one child or another; its point and power is to remind us that all four children figured out a way to sit at the table together. I have no idea if Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Tarfon actually liked each other. I just know that they made space for each other – debating until the break of dawn – their insights preserved in the text together with those of other rabbis. The Haggadah is not just a story of one of us; it is the story of us – all of us –– across the generations, across the range of opinions – on the one hand authentic and unique to our personal lived experience, on the other hand inclusive and interconnected with the lived experiences of others. As a teacher of mine once commented, there is a lexical correspondence between the Hebrew word Haggadah and the Hebrew root gid, meaning “sinew” or “tendon” – that which binds or connects. That is what the Haggadah is: a story that invites other stories, that connects those stories one to another – an indigenous, authentic, and inclusive tool of identity formation that binds each of us to a larger narrative and binds the Jewish people together through the ages. It is a document that has kept our people together, in all our diversity, throughout history. By the metric of its readership and impact – it is perhaps the most important document in the library of the Jewish people.
Today, the Shabbat immediately preceding Passover, is called Shabbat HaGadol, the “big” Sabbath. For periods of Jewish history – dark periods – when rabbis would only preach once or twice a year, this was the shabbat given over to a “big” sermon, devoted not only to the themes of the upcoming Passover holiday, but also to the urgent issues of the day – the underlying conditions, the presenting symptoms, and the prescriptive recommendations for that which ails our people. Today, on this Shabbat HaGadol, I need not look far to see the crises, schisms, and ruptures facing our people – in Israel; between Israel and diaspora Jewry; and, for that matter, between America and Israel. With no hyperbole and no joy, I do believe we are at an inflection point in our people’s history. It is just weeks away from the seventy-fifth anniversary of Israel’s birth, and I am worried, very worried, whether Israel will reach its one-hundredth. As many have pointed out over these past few weeks, it was at about this interval that the American experiment came perilously close to its conclusion with the Civil War. As many have pointed out these past few weeks, there are eerie parallels between the internal divides presently tearing our people apart, and those that preceded the fall of the second Jewish commonwealth in 70 CE. God forbid that such a thing should happen to the Jewish people on our watch. God forbid that history will look back on our generation as the generation under which the dream of Jewish sovereignty and peoplehood came crashing down by way of a self-inflicted and altogether avoidable injury.
Tempted as I am to get into the particulars of judicial reform and Knesset politics, I will resist the urge. There is no shortage of coverage, the news is changing by the minute, this will be a marathon not a sprint, and – let’s face it – you just didn’t hire me for my insights on Israeli constitutional law. But what I will share on this Shabbat HaGadol, is that beneath all the tumult of the unfolding events is the pain-filled observation that everyone seems to have forgotten the dialogical model and message of the Passover seder. How we need to heed its message now! The seder reminds us that though we may share a common narrative, each of us reads that narrative differently; that the truths that are self-evident to one person are the source of hurt and anxiety to another, and that all reads – eilu v’eilu – reflect the will of the living God. Long before our present day, the seder understood the dangers of narrowcasting. None of us are creations ex-nihilo; we are all products of experiences and stories that have shaped not just our self-perception but our prescriptive recommendation for the world in which we live. The seder reminds us of the importance of our stories, the importance of sharing our stories, and the importance of listening to the stories of others.
The seder reminds us that far more important than the quick victory of a conversation-stopping zinger is the spirit of earnest and enduring inquiry – a well-placed question that reveals our own uncertainties even as it challenges the counter-certainties of others. As Heschel taught: “That we are closer to God when we are asking questions than when we think we have the answers.” The seder reminds us of the importance of listening to views different than our own. As the saying goes, we have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much. The seder reminds us not only that every voice has a seat at the table, but that a person can sit down at a meal as one thing and get up from the meal as another and that to do so is a sign not of weakness but of strength, growth, and maturity. The seder reminds us that we are all members of an extended mishpokhe, a family, and that if we can see the world through the lens of family, we can stop thinking of winners and losers and start asking what is in the best interest of the whole. The seder reminds us that the success of our efforts is ultimately measured by how well we pass on our stories to the next generation, that our stories become their stories. Most of all, the seder reminds us that important as the aspiration for freedom may be, those freedoms must co-exist alongside other people’s freedoms. L’hiyot am hofshi, to be a free people, b’artzeinu, in our [shared] land – the dream and condition for the seder, for the Jewish people, and the Jewish state.
Every year, it is important to fulfill the mitzvah of the Passover seder – this year more than ever. If you can, invite someone new to your seder, not just someone who has never been to your seder (or any seder), but someone whose views differ from your own. If you can’t invite someone new, or if you will be a guest at someone else’s seder, then bring a new Haggadah with new interpretations. Leave a seat empty and go around the table pointing to it, asking the question of whose voice is not being heard at your seder[MH1] . Check yourself as you tell the story – your version of the story. Allow for your views to be challenged; invite the questions, interpretations, and comments of others; make space for their views and let them sit comfortably and uncomfortably alongside your own. Know that doing so does not diminish your humanity but expands it. The seder is a massive exercise in values clarification, a night to be our best selves, to imagine our world not as it is – but as it ought to be. We may not be able to change the world, Israel, or the Jewish people from our seder tables, but we can, at the very least, be the change we seek to see in the world, from which, hopefully, a more systemic and far-reaching vision can emerge.
Why is this Shabbat called Shabbat HaGadol? The answer comes from the final verses of today’s haftarah reading, announcing that on the great redemptive day, yom ha-gadol, when the prophet Elijah arrives, the hearts of parents will be turned towards their children and hearts of children towards their parents. In other words, there will be a great reconciliation, and our hearts will prove capacious enough, supple enough, and loving enough to make room for the hearts and truths of others. It is a redemptive vision that is more elusive today than it ever has been. Maybe, just maybe, if we open our doors – and our hearts – wide enough for the spirit of Elijah to enter, in years to come people will look back and tell the story of us and say that it is because of us that we were able to bind the wounds of our people, that our people were saved, and that redemption finally arrived.