Wholly Holy: Enthrall and Release in the Haggadah


Wholly Holy: Enthrall and Release in the Haggadah

Chad Gadya sounds too close to Haggadah to be coincidental, doesn’t it? And the rabbis say that the Torah should rightly begin with the First Commandment to the Israelites upon their first blush of freedom. Set their calendars to Jewish time rather than pagan hours. Free people control their calendars. Slaves have no time of their own.

Why do we need all these little secular stories within Genesis? The forefathers had puny interests even though they knew G-d. They dealt with trifling concerns in their interactions with others. Abraham had to bargain about burial plots. Isaac like his father had to contend with woman-violating despots. Jacob barters with G-d about raiment and security issues. Children murder and sport with each other. Where is the lofty? However: in the contest of G-d vs. Pharaoh, G-d Reclaims the slaves, He Says, in order “that they shall serve Me.” Manmade work by an uncivilized civilization vs. Avodat Hashem, serving the Master of the Universe through prayer, study, and deeds of lovingkindness. G’milut chasadim.

At the seder, every participant is enjoined to liberate him- or herself. We re-live the narrative twice each Passover. We don’t read a past-tense story but are rather commanded to auto-emancipate in the present. It is a subjective night, not a political nor a sociological one. “Why aren’t we freer?,” we ask. “What holds us back?” G-d Demands a befreeing. You imagine you’re already free, but you are delimited regardless here and there. You need this ritual to honestly introspect what shackles you. The allegory of the four sons is really about four attitudes of being a participant at the seder. We begin with the wise child. Wisdom places a goal in life to find G-d, to divine Him. The passion play is merely our foil for human transformation. “Ma nishtanah halailah hazeh” means “what will change me this night?” Liberation is a push-me, pull-me.

The seder ceremony is decidedly designed to transform. Our sages say that it trajects from g’nut (deprivation) to shevach (bounteous salvation). Every Jewish schoolchild knows of his or her core root origins, commencing in slavery and emerging as part of a goy kadosh, a holy nation. It reminds us of how Yosef HaTzaddik, Dreamer of Dreams, knew that he was innately a prince. Yet his siblings bound him in slavery and sold him into Egyptian servitude. He rose and fell and resurfaced as overlord of the whole region.


I know the underground of helplessness. These past three years. At the seder, I ask what will undo this heavy hair that blankets my torso and limbs. Inside I am flying, as always I did. But as I gaze down at my supine body, my arms cannot flap, are unflappable. And I am platypus-stuck, droopy mouth going nowhere. Even my voice is hiding. I am ensconced in an onliness of my own. How do I manumit at the seder? Only by envisioning my in-vision. I won’t give it up!


On that terrible night long ago, the once-made slaves put a sign of blood on their doorposts, rejecting the “god of the month club.” They tied a goat to the other lintel. That little Egyptian god Aries had no place in their homes. As the night howled with death and mayhem, Pharaoh saw the complete structure of Egypt collapse. Remember that earlier on, G-d Promises Abraham to broadside anyone who curses his progeny. By cursing you, He Says, they curse themselves. The people of Israel never looked back after they left. The Haggadah disregards the half-century we lived and built on the foreigners’ soil.

The night concludes with Elijah being summoned to redeem all of mankind after the intolerable enslavement of our people. This radicalizes the powerless to overwhelm their slavemasters. The masters are the petty ones who need redemption. They view life in such a narrow way, so lowly, as the powerful over the powerless. Judaism says that all man-centered systems are inhumanly degrading. Creation begins with angelic proportions, where there is room for everyone to belong to the celestial host. The portion of paradise we intake depends upon our capacity for pursuing and realizing holiness in this world.

Study, prayer, and acts of lovingkindness (Torah T’filah and g’milut chasadim) are meant to bring out an inner knowledge of human intimacies and intricacies. Can we intensely and intently develop our parenthood, our spousal love, our deep and abiding friendships, our honoring of elders — our very humanness? Are we people who pursue righteousness? Or do we merely aspire to the empty concerns of a distracted life? When will we ever feel the power of our own beauty? It all begins with our ideas of power and powerlessness, of citizenship and what we believe to be the height of mankind and womankind. How can our lives reach beatitudes? Why image anything but?


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