Pesach has always been my favorite holiday: family, friends, food, ritual and stories. And as a teacher, I’ve always found that Pesach provides the model for the best and worst in Jewish education.
The Haggadah and the Seder experience provide amazing opportunities: an engaging story that is personally relevant with multiple points of access and modes of telling it. Often, however, that complexity and flexibility are wasted.
Too many times, the Seder is like a poorly taught class and the Haggadah a misused textbook. Participants, like students in the classroom, go through the Haggadah paragraph by paragraph reading aloud – each person concentrating more on counting ahead to see what they might read next, trying to figure who’ll be the wicked child this year and who’ll be the wise child, rather than paying attention to or engaging with the text. Other times we see the table rushing through to see how quickly we can get through the ritual to say that we’ve done it and then on to the meal. As in many classrooms, there are wasted opportunities for engagement.
The Haggadah is designed to elicit conversation, to let us share our own stories as they mirror the story of our people. In fact, the Erfurt manuscript of the Mishnah tells us not only that “In every generation, a person is obligated to see himself or herself as if he or she came out of Egypt,” but rather “a person is obligated to point to or demonstrate having come out of Egypt.”
The text of the Haggadah gives us many opportunities to do just that. We can reflect upon our own stories of overcoming, the things that have bound us physically and spiritually, much like the stories of our people bound both in servitude to Pharaoh and servitude to false gods. When remembering the plagues of Egypt, we can reflect upon the plagues of our own day. To the ancient list of things that would have been sufficient, dayenu, we can add to that our own, reflecting what would be enough for Jewish life in the 21st Century.
The Haggadah also realizes that there are numerous ways of experiencing the story. For those who need physical symbols to relate to the story, we have “Pesach, Matzah and Marror” and the other symbols on the Seder plate.
Others experience through song the story of liberations ancient and modern. Still other, auditory learners, want to hear the story of our liberation from Egypt. For those who want to see Pesach as a lens through which we can view Jewish history, we find the extended midrashic treatment of the text we would recite when we brought our first fruits to Jerusalem and the Temple, understanding the many persecutions we have faced and survived.
One or two nights each year, we become teachers, students, storytellers and listeners. We find ourselves in the text of our story of liberation and we find the text in the story of our own lives and experiences. On Pesach, the real question is, how will we tell the story this year, how will we make our timeless tale new and meaningful to our lives today?
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Candles should be lit for Shabbat on Fridays, March 20 at 7:36 p.m. and March 27 at 7:43 p.m.; for Passover and Shabbat on Friday, April 3, at 7:50 p.m.; for Passover, on Saturday, April 4, after 8:48 p.m. and Thursday, April 9, at 7:55 p.m.; for Passover and Shabbat on Friday, April 10 at 7:56 p.m.; and for Shabbat on Fridays, April 17 at 8:03 p.m. and April 24, at 8:09 p.m.
Editor’s note: Rabbi David Feder, the principal of Louisville Beit Sefer Yachad, has volunteered to provide Torah commentaries for Community.