Shabbat HaGadol 5774
Rabbi Fryer Bodzin
Pesach is a challenge. We all know that. The preparation is hard on some. The eating restrictions and additions are hard for some of us. Some of us travel. Some of us live in homes with various degrees of kashrut observance. If you have been there, that is never easy. Some of us are getting older and changing over dishes has become too much of a burden. Some of us have kids who just don’t care.
But one challenge that we all share, if we are aware of it or not, is the way in which we celebrate our Pesach Sedarim, as presented in the Haggadah, whether scholarly or Sammy the Spider.
We have inherited a tradition that includes:
a) a festival about preserving memory
b) rituals that are about imagination.
How are we supposed to remember the story? What happens when ritual becomes destructive? What happens when the ritual overtakes the memory? Lots of Jewish families get together for a meal sometime in April that is indistinguishable from Thanksgiving. There is no talk of Moses, Sea of Reeds, God or miracles.
What is it that we remember on Pesach? We are supposed to remember the Exodus from Egypt. But how does Chad Gadya tell the story of the Exodus? How does Zayda’s wine stained Haggadah help us remember that we were once slaves? Have you ever stopped to wonder: what is the connection between sponge cake and the miracles?
On Pesach we tell a story in order to preserve it. In fact, our central anxiety around Pesach is not whether or not we can eat legumes for this special week, (that is a relatively new phenomenon), but rather the central anxiety of Pesach is the fear of forgetting.
So we have created an abundance of rituals that enable us to remember.
But with that, comes the concern that we will not remember why we are doing what we are doing. It is, according to Dr. Yehudah Kurtzer, an unhealthy obsession that we all have. We try to remember the historical event with play acting and storytelling and getting kids involved. But sometimes, we end up being too far distanced from the historical event of Yetziat mitzrayim.
When such a radical imagination is incorporated into the ritual we know as the Passover Seder, are we still remembering the story?
I think the answer is yes. We just need tools to remember. Just like we need a sefer Torah and chumashim to remember the words of the Torah, we need a Haggadah to remember the story of Pesach. There are too many of us, spread out around the world, thank God, to maintain an oral tradition. And to keep it interesting, fun stuff was added to it.
But we always use tools to remember. We have alarms and Microsoft Outlook, and Lett’s pocket diaries, and Franklin Covey organizers, and red rubber bands, and calendars and photographs and phonebooks and post it notes. We use multiple sensory mechanisms to remember. We are only human, why shouldn’t we use tools to help us remember the story of Passover, when our ancestors left Egypt?
In the second chapter of the book of Exodus we read the following:
A long time after that, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites were groaning under their bondage and cried out. And their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God. God heard their moaning and God remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites and God took notice of them.
Even God needed a sensory act in order to remember. Therefore, when we use memory tools on Pesach, be it the frog song, or reciting the Maggid section word for word, we are acting b’tzelem Elokim. When we sit at the Seder table, with all of the silly and serious memory mechanisms that are artfully weaved into the Haggadah, we are acting in the image of God.
If the God that you believe in is completely omniscient, then let me offer another well known example of God needing a little something to jog God’s memory.
Exdous 12: 13
And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you; when I see the blood, I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
God needed the sign? God did not just know? According to the verse, the red blood helped God remember on a night when there was a lot on God’s agenda to do. If doors with red blood were spotted, then it would make God’s job easier. Red door-don’t smite, move on.
In the introduction to the New American Haggadah of 2012, Jonathan Safran Foer writes that the Haggadah is not a work of history or philosophy, not a prayer book, user’s manual, timeline, poem or palimpsest-and yet it is all of these things. The Torah is the foundational text for Jewish laws, but the Haggadah is our book of living memory.
We need a Haggadah and a couple Seders to remember, just like God needed the blood on the doors.
Living memory to me means we begin each Seder with both a communal and a very personal set of memories. Every time we sit down at a Seder table, we bring with us not only our understanding of what happened in Egypt, but we bring with us every Seder experience we ever had-as children standing on chairs asking the four questions, and sad memories of the years when our parents were too frail and Seder move to our homes, the year too many dishes broke, the year the oven decided not to work, the years of snow, rain and heat. We bring with us the memory of a Pesach that was too early and a Pesach that came too late. We think back to those first Seders with our children’s girlfriends and boyfriends who we now love like our own children. We bring with us memories of afikoman hiding spots and we look around the table and desperately miss those people who are not with us anymore.
When we sit down for Seder, we bring with us a chaotic symphony of personal memories, but fortunately the Haggadah always guides us back to remembering our ancestors’ experience, our collective memory of Avadim Hayinu l’Paroah B’mitzrayim.
Therefore, on this Shabbat haGadol, just days before we once again sit at our Seder tables, let us all remember:
Slaves, that is what we were-slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. And wrested free, were we, by the Lord God-of-Us, lifted out of that place in the mighty hand of an outstretched arm.
And if the Holy One, blessed is He, had not taken our fathers out of Egypt, then what of us? We, and our children, and our children’s children would be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.
Were it that we are all learned and enlightened, all of us rich with the wisdom of old age and well versed in the Torah, still the obligation to tell of the Exodus from Egypt would rest upon us.
We were once slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. Now we are free people.