How to Make This Year’s Seder Not Like Any Other Night

by Brian on April 7, 2015

in A Parent in Israel,Jewish Holidays and Culture

Freeform SederThe run up to tonight’s Seder included a remarkable – and decidedly disturbing – discovery in the Blum house: no one in our family really likes Pesach. Actually, it was worse. Some of us really hate Pesach. The preparation, the cleaning, even the Seder itself doesn’t rank highly on our list of peak Jewish experiences.

How could this be? Everyone likes Passover, right? After all, it’s the holiday that nearly every Jew observes, in one way or another. In Israel, 82 percent of Jews who self-identify as secular still attend a Seder. And, of course, 100 percent of self-identified religious Jews find themselves reciting the Haggadah. Were we alone in doing, but disliking, the holiday? Or are there closet Seder haters like us?

The truth is, this is not the kind of news you want to blurt out. It’s like saying “I know you’ve been eating in my kosher home for years but I forgot to tell you we serve bacon on our milk dishes.” (That was an example only, OK?) So I didn’t survey friends and families on how they felt about the holiday.

To be sure, there are plenty of reasons even the most fervent might find Pesach to be a pain. I understand the value of telling and retelling the origin story of the Jewish people, and eating matzah, the bread of affliction and hurry, is an excellent, highly tactile way of helping you feel as if you, yourself, came out of Egypt, as the Haggadah commands. But why does it have to be for seven days? The matzah message comes through loud and clear after one. All the rest is constipation.

Then there are all the magical elements that inevitably have me scratching my head in befuddled annoyance. If you immerse an everyday fork or a knife or a metal bowl in a pot of boiling water and pay some bearded guy a bunch of shekels, it will magically come out kosher for Pesach. How does that work, scientifically, I mean? Does the heat somehow expel the formerly meat or milk status of the utensil? If so, why doesn’t my cutlery reset to its default state every time I wash the dishes at home in hot water or use the dishwasher? And why could my grandmother bury forks in a flowerpot but me, I have to dutifully traipse down the street to the guys manning the pot and pay up?

When it comes to the ritualized obsessive compulsiveness over Pesach preparation, I can emphasize with the kvetching and disdain. But the Seder itself – that was supposed to be the pay off: family, food and a Haggadah filled with Ridley Scott produced twists and turns. Come on, who doesn’t like sticking their finger in a wine glass and flinging blood while pointing at their siblings and yelling, “you’re the wicked child!”

But now it was on the table. A family discussion had laid bare that many of us found that even the Seder was less than awe inspiring. The main part of the Magid, which tells the story of the Exodus from Egypt in excruciating detail – with its one-upping rabbinical scholars explaining why it wasn’t 10 plagues, it was 50, no it was 250! – followed by Hallel (praising God) and more Hallel and even more Hallel; it just seems to go on and on and our family wanted to flip the off switch.

Yet with Pesach just days away, in-laws flying in from the U.S. and an impressionable young couple already invited, we had to do something. I called up Naftali, a friend who had joined us for Seder several years earlier and had done his fair share of Torah learning. I shared our story. While their situation wasn’t as dire (their kids are both under four; they haven’t had time to move past the wonder of just getting through the first verse of Ma Nishtanah), Naftali admitted something I’d never considered.

“You know,” he said without blinking, “we don’t actually say all the words. In fact, we skip most of the Magid.”

“Skip the Magid?” I thought. Is he crazy? Doesn’t it say somewhere that you are commanded to hear every word? (Actually, that’s regarding the reading of the Megillah on Purim, so my bad.)

Ayeka-2But as I thought it over, it seemed he might have a point. Rabbi Aryeh Ben David agrees. Ben David runs Ayeka, an organization he calls a “Center for Soulful Education.” A couple of years ago, he sent out a pre-Passover email. The headline of one section was “Don’t Teach – Evoke.”

“The Seder is not a learning event,” Ben David wrote. “If the rabbis had wanted us to learn, they wouldn’t have asked us to drink four cups of wine (they weren’t talking about grape juice). We have 364 days of the year to learn about the Exodus. The Seder is an experience to evoke our hearts and souls.”

He gave further instruction to Seder leaders: “Please do not metamorphosize into the ‘Rabbinic Scholar’ for one night a year. Your job is not to preach and impress everyone with your erudition, but to create a safe space for others to share.”

Aryeh Ben David is a friend and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t suggesting we drop the text entirely, but with his implicit permission, I made a command decision. Why not mix it up a bit? Or more than a little bit. Why not totally go with the flow?

If a youngster at the table starts signing Ma Nishtanah out of order, don’t stop him, just do it. Ditto for Dayenu. Even if you haven’t gotten to the 10 Plagues, if it’s time to say, “That would have been enough!” so be it. And you know all those songs at the end of the Seder – Had Gad Ya and Echad Mi Yodea – the ones we look forward to all night but when it’s finally time to sing them, everyone’s too tired or too drunk or both? So sing them earlier, sing them at the top of the set. You can always circle back and include something you’ve missed. Or not. And always make time for a corny joke from Safta. (A favorite from past Seders: if a doctor carries a black bag and a plumber carries a toolbox, what does a mohel carry? A briskit!)

I don’t think we’ll change the order so much that we start with the Shulchan Orech (the meal itself) although it is an intriguing idea. But for some years now, we’ve been serving meaty artichokes instead of pale parsley for karpas, which goes a long way towards staving off hunger. And the hard-boiled eggs frequently arrive before we’ve slathered maror on haroset in a Hillel sandwich.

Chabad-House-Kathmandu-300x224Four years ago, we spent Pesach in Nepal, where we joined the world’s largest Seder sponsored by the local Chabad. With 1,100 Israelis attending that year, nearly all secular, it was an unprecedented opportunity to make the Seder meaningful to a uniquely captive audience who couldn’t care less about sticking to the traditional order. But the rabbi’s mission was different: he aimed to yotzei the assembled multitude – to ensure that they heard every word – and he subsequently raced through the Haggadah as if it were a “greatest hits” album, speed reading the entire story in under 50 minutes (including the songs).

I didn’t know it then, but the seeds of our freeform Seder were planted in Kathmandu. By opening up to the moment, allowing in surprise and embracing flexibility, might we more fully realize another key principle of the holiday: to feel truly liberated? That, after all, is the main order of the day.

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