PASSOVER AND THE POWER OF JEWISH CONTINUITY, BY MARK GERSON
Passover and the Power of Jewish Continuity
By Mark Gerson
March 20, 2021 12:01 am ET
After hundreds of years of slavery, it is the Israelites’ final night in Egypt. They are ready to escape to freedom. Their leader, Moses, imparts a final piece of guidance, one that is also to serve as a lasting edict: He instructs them to tell their children about this Exodus from Egypt. But there are many different ways to tell a story, let alone one as rich, complex and dynamic as the Exodus. Moses didn’t offer precise instructions. So thousands of years ago, Jews created a book known as the Haggadah, which means “telling.”
The Haggadah serves as the script for the Passover Seder, the ritual meal that Jews around the world will celebrate on the night of March 27. As much as any other book, it has been responsible for assuring the continuity of Judaism. The Haggadah does this “horizontally,” by creating an experience that every Jew in the world shares at the same time, as well as “vertically” through history. If a 3rd-century Yemenite or an 18th-century Russian were to walk into a Seder in Miami or Tel Aviv today, they would know exactly what was going on and be able to participate.
If the Haggadah were just a holiday manual or a dinner program, it would have disappeared a long time ago. Instead, it offers a condensed compilation of centuries of wisdom—the Greatest Hits of Jewish Thought. It is one of the greatest guides ever written for living a meaningful, fulfilling and happy life.
Near the beginning of the Seder, for instance, the Haggadah declares: “All who are hungry, let them come and eat; all who are needy, let them come and celebrate Passover.” But why would we issue an invitation when the event has begun and everyone is seated?
The answer is that the invitation is addressed to those already present to bring a certain part of themselves. The Hebrew word for “face” is a plural, suggesting that each of us has many faces, many selves. The self being invited to the Seder isn’t the confident one, which even occasionally feels invulnerable. Rather, it is the self who, as Deuteronomy says, “does not live by bread alone” but needs to alleviate its spiritual and ethical hunger.
Because most Jews attend a Seder every year, it offers an occasion to contemplate our younger selves. We realize how different we are now from who we were in the past and acknowledge that our future self will say the same about our current self. We can create that future self with the guidance of the Haggadah.
One of the mechanisms for doing so is the most familiar food of the holiday—the matzah. When a significant amount of salt is added to yeast, the yeast doesn’t rise, and the result is the flat, crackerlike bread known as matzah. On the night before Passover, Jews purge their homes of bread and introduce the matzah in its place. It is an opportunity to ask: What in my life do I want to discard? What do I want to preserve, and what do I want to last forever—even after I am gone?
Thoughts about preservation and permanence naturally lead to the subject of education. One of the best teaching tools in the Haggadah is the Four Questions, which point out some of the differences between an ordinary meal and the Seder: for example, “On all other nights we eat any vegetables. Why on this night do we eat only bitter herbs?” The Four Questions are traditionally recited by a child and are intended to arouse the curiosity of children. Yet no child has ever leapt from their chair, exclaiming, “Wow! I can’t believe we are eating bitter herbs tonight! Tell me more about the Exodus!” No, because generic instruction does not inspire. As King Solomon advised, each child must be educated “according to his way.”
The Four Questions are in fact meant to invite children to ask more questions of their own. The 13th-century rabbi Zedekiah ben Abraham noted that the Seder plate should contain “toasted grains, types of sweets and fruits to entice the children and drive away their sleepiness so that they will see the change and ask questions.” In my own home, we throw marshmallows to children who ask good questions. Does a child like baseball? Put a pack of trading cards under their plate. Is a child mischievous? Whoopee cushions are kosher for Passover!
Before long, the Seder arrives at the ten plagues, which God used to punish Pharaoh for continuing to enslave the Israelites. The book of Exodus says that the first two plagues, blood and frogs, were “everywhere in Egypt.” But rather than attempt to get rid of the plagues, Pharaoh’s magicians exacerbated them by creating more blood and frogs. Why? Because Jew-haters are often willing to accept increased suffering if it means inflicting greater pain upon Jews. This explains why Hitler used his dwindling military resources in late 1944 to round up and kill the Jews of Hungary.
The Haggadah has enabled the Jews to tell the story of the Exodus to their children for more than 100 generations because it isn’t simply meant to be read. Rather, the Haggadah involves a combination of activities: listening, speaking, being heard and responding anew. It is truly a conversation, in which the participants converse with those at the same table, those at Seders all over the world and those who sat at Seders in the distant past.
It is counterintuitive that a conversation should guarantee continuity. After all, participants in a conversation can’t know where it will end up, let alone how it will change them. Yet it is the unpredictable vehicle of a conversation that has enabled the endurance of the Passover celebration. This is another vital lesson from Passover: The secret to stability is structured dynamism. No wonder Jews celebrate Passover, the Festival of Freedom, at an event called the Seder, which means “order.” That miraculous balance, curated by the Haggadah, has kept the Jewish people on the same page generation after generation.
—This essay is adapted from Mr. Gerson’s new book “The Telling: How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life,” published this month by St. Martin’s Press.
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Appeared in the March 20, 2021, print edition as ‘Passover and The Power of Jewish Continuity.’
Have a zissen Pesach! Jerry Weissman