We tackle the hardest of dilemmas. How can we personally identify with an ancient script? Legend and myth large. We say, “Yes – G-d personally took me out of Mitzrayim.” What would make a Hebrew follow G-d out to the unknown, to the desert? There was a choice. Only two million out of ten million people began the hard trek back to the homeland. The rest enjoyed their freedom in quiet pleasure, eating Egyptian leeks and delights. They did fine. They disappeared into the abyss of meaningless Egyptian life, remembering their heritage while being pardoned of the destiny. They don’t have Seder plates. They have no need for a Haggadah. They don’t discuss the emancipation of a nation. We remaining Jews have a democracy; on Seder night, every household invites itself to be a guiding teacher on the pathway to being free. Each family recognizes symbols that define their own personal stories as liberated. We are told to peer at the matzo, the maror, and the paschal sacrifice – to point to them and declare their significance. And so the passion-play of the Haggadah is recited home-by-home.
When they call out the four sons, they really mean the children of Israel – B’nai Israel, of which we all are. We are not talking about sons, really, but of fathers, who prepare the Seder in an open dialogue with the questions that are raised. These questions need one answer: “this is the path to G-d and G-dliness.” There is no such thing in Judaism as an evil son, only evil parents who do not speak with voices that guide. The Torah says of the wayward son that he needs community involvement to re-find his path. So we are beset with four types of Seders, all trying to hold Judaism in a direct line from then to now.
The first letters of the words Chacham (wise), Rasha (evil), Tam (pure/innocent), and V’she’aino yodea lishol (the ones who are questionless of the Haggadah) recombine to spell the word heirut, freedom. Heth-resh-vav-tav.
The discussion of the wise Seder involves each of the other Seders. Being freed means freeing others. Freedom comes with action, with courageous action. The questions of this night are strange but their answers stranger. “Ma nishtanah?” What has changed about this night from any other? The answers are about food, when they should be about us. We must be changed. These may seem like simple questions, but we are actually re-enacting a Roman banquet, the most luxuriant of the time of the falling of the Temple. Each home is a symposium. The one who leads the discussion of the Seder wisely answers at the feast: matzo. Every other night we can eat any sort of bread. Tonight it’s the food of affliction. We are all impoverished, deprived; we are all in need of G-d., and we’ll always follow what He demands of us. The details of the mitzvot are the bliss of life, and there I put my fervor, goes the Seder that is led wisely. Another approach is to answer that on every other night we can eat all sorts of vegetable, but here, maror: the bitterness of bitter herbs. I follow G-d to reach ethics; my Judaism is for moral consciousness. So many of us consider this the cause and purpose of the Torah and the prophets. The preoccupation of this Seder is evil in the world. We fret that once evil and oppression are removed from among the people, it will spur the people to let go of their essence as a nation. Judaism is not always defined by its situation; situations are always in flux.
The tam’s Seder is the one that says that our purpose here is to restore the Temple. He points to the chakiya. Thus he points to the chagigah (the egg) on the Seder plate, which represents the sacrifices made on this holiday in the Temple. The egg is dipped and soaked in saltwater. Many Sephardic homes instead dip the paschal shankbone in saltwater at their Seders. “Everything to Tzion; everything to the universal center of redemption of the people of Israel, and of mankind.” These are the messianics among us, who only look at the end of days as possible to today, and who see the potential of Jerusalem on high as already in reality. What answer is there in the “ma nishtanah” as to why we never dip but tonight, of all nights, we dip twice? The two washings of the hands, the dipping of the karpas in the saltwater. The transformation of beauty even into lament. But the other dipping isn’t the “Hillel Sandwich,” it is the korban Pesach, the dipping of salt and the sacrifice into hope. The blood on the doorpost is to say we keep false gods out of our homes. We don’t assimilate to our own extinction. We hear the word of G-d in our thresholds and in the very stretch of the homes we build. The lowly lamb is elevated in the family’s complete service to the Almighty, and the rabbis tell us to each reach our direction to G-d from wherever we stand today. The fourth Seder, which has no questions in it – the rabbis say, “just lean to the right!” This is the Seder that congregates just to eat the feast and rest on the cushion, but the rabbis accept that. “I’m coming to be part of the nation, and agree to be led to the higher heights.” This is the family that feels a’plenty from abundance; as Jews they want to follow G-d. Whereas the Rasha’s Seder, which occupies itself with the evils of the world, never experiences redemption, because cruelty never abates. The other Seders all believe that G-d brings holiness to the world.
We are told that there are two ways to find G-d, through fear or through love. Yirat Hashem or Ahavat Hashem. Fear compels a desperation from which we pray to deserve another opportunity of closeness. Love is the exuberance of seeing desire as a gift from the infinite. In each of us, the life-force is so strong, passions waiting to be tapped. We desire a spouse who has fascinatingly solved the fears in their soul of being distant from G-d. We fall in love with the holy in the other. The spiritual anxiety of relationship with G-d is the vigilance of not being lost and distant. And thus in every relationship there is caution of valuing the precious. In moral rectitude, a person has to keep his love and hate in check and within reachable boundaries. The Chacham is the one who finds holiness in reiterating the specifics of mitzvot. The V’she’aino yodea lishol shows up. The Rasha is concerned with alienation but never really seems to resolve it. The Tam is the one who finds G-d in wonder. Passion flows to the one who has innocence despite experience. It is love to be in awe and amazement of the other. And so our Judaism says this to us on the Seder night: define your context with G-d and your direction to the homeland.
The last point to make is that the Seder plate employs two of each of the symbols. Two matzot, two maror, and two symbols of sacrifice. The Seder is split in half. The sages tell us that the Passover story begins in depravation and degradation (genut) and leads to awe and praise (shevakh.) Thus we have two matzot – one, the matzo of the afflicted that becomes the afikomen, and two, the matzo of the holiday over which we recite the Motzi. The two marors symbolize the damaging effect of slavery on each and every Israelite, but also the fortifying way we face the bitter anti-Semitism that confronts each generation. The second is the chazeret – the returning bitterness that never disappears but will be overcome. The shankbone represents the courageous separation of Israel from Egypt to remain staunchly steadfast with the Almighty. The egg symbolizes the wonder of all the sacrifices that reach the Holy Temple and the story of the Jew throughout time. We praise G-d to live honourably with the priceless beauty of freedom. Shabbat Shalom.