Pesach Day 1--Keeping our Seders interesting

Passover Day 1 5779
Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel

What was the first question asked at your seder last night?
For too many, it might have been “When do we eat?” For many Jews, the seder is something to be suffered through. Haggadot like the “30 minute Seder” capitalize on this. Throughout the Jewish world, Pesach and the seder has been captured by every organization. There are the foodie seders, the refugee seders, the hunger seders, the food safety seders, the anti-slavery seders, the protect Israel seders, the anti-Iran seders, the psychological/self-help seders, and many, many more. Whatever happened to the Seder discussing our establishment as a Jewish people, our leaving the tyranny of Egypt, receiving Torah and our journey towards the Promised Land?

What is going on with our seders? Are they boring because they never change? Or have we mixed so many things into them that we forgot what a seder was? This year our family’s seder was different--it was with many of you! In previous years we have had family seders, requiring focus on the youngest present. Now I had to ensure with Cantor and our committee that across generations, we were all engaged. Either way, the theme is liberation, the goal is to remember that WE were slaves and NOW we are free to observe Gd’s mitzvot.
The 12th chapter of Exodus commands us to remember, commands us to observe the festival. The Torah does not speak of Seder. That took a few more generations. Yet, even without the ritual meal, the Torah teaches us the importance of education. It teaches us the importance of creating the connection between generations. It shows us the themes of the festival--creating a separation from this week and the rest of the year, celebrating freedom.
יד וְהָיָה הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה לָכֶם לְזִכָּרוֹן, וְחַגֹּתֶם אֹתוֹ חַג לַה": לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם, חֻקַּת עוֹלָם תְּחָגֻּהוּ. 
14 This day shall be to you one of remembrance: you shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD throughout the ages; you shall celebrate it as an institution for all time.
טו שִׁבְעַת יָמִים, מַצּוֹת תֹּאכֵלוּ--אַךְ בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן, תַּשְׁבִּיתוּ שְּׂאֹר מִבָּתֵּיכֶם: כִּי כָּל-אֹכֵל חָמֵץ, וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל--מִיּוֹם הָרִאשֹׁן, עַד-יוֹם הַשְּׁבִעִי. 
15 Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the very first day you shall remove leaven from your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day to the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel.(
That last part sounds like a pretty big deal. If you eat bread/chametz on Passover, you might as well call it a day. Your soul has been cut off from the Jewish world, from Israel, from Gd. It is a pretty harsh punishment, and yet Rabbi Aaron Alexander of Adas Israel in DC reminds us that:
To receive the punishment of karet one has to:
a) Eat a significant amount (olive's worth) of full fledged hametz (not a mixture).
b) do it with intention to sin, be-meizid. (See MT, Laws of Hametz, 1:1-7)

That puts a different spin on it. Eating chametz on Passover is something we DO NOT do, yet to get the most severe punishment, we must do it intentionally and demonstrably. It must be a clear, intentional act, as opposed to eating a product that might have a trace amount of something mixed in. Of course, our goal on Passover is to observe as perfectly as possible, to skip anything that has any ingredients that are even questionable, yet our Jewish lives are not ruined if we make a mistake!

Returning to our seder, I think we have both problems I opened with. For some of us, we spend so much time trying to make the seder new and innovative, we can forget the original words of the Seder! Others who do the same thing every year, may simply get bored. We may become like the wicked child, saying this happened to YOU and not to me. They forget that the wise child used similar language, YET she also included herself. She asked what did OUR Gd command to all of you, asking for the specific details, demonstrating her interest in the proceedings and her identification with the command that we should see ourselves as escaping Egypt ourselves. To truly celebrate the Pesach, we must have some interest in the proceedings.

On the bottom of page 115b of Talmud Pesachim, the Talmud asks “Why do we lift up/remove the table?” Rabbi Yannai responds “SO that the children will notice something strange and they will ask (why is this night different?)” In our Haggadot, that is when we lift the Seder plate. Our rabbis did not lift the plate--they lifted the whole table! Now that would raise some questions. They were trying to do something different, to spark discussion, and we have codified and ossified it. In order to make our sedarim meaningful, we have to change things up from year to year. Use a different Haggadah tonight, ask some new questions. Don’t do the same things two days in a row. Use the AJWS/AIPAC/RAC/TRUAH/MERCAZ/Elijah’s Journey seder supplement, but don’t stop there. Don’t totally ignore the rest of the material.

Do things to lighten the mood and prepare. Pesachim 108b/109a says we give roasted grains(kosher for passover) and nuts before the Seder, so that they will stay awake to ask the four questions. Men should enjoy the wine, women should get new clothing for the holiday. One commenter even says the men get wine so they don’t worry about paying their Passover-incurred debts!! Whatever the reason, your seder should have at least some moments of levity! While freedom is a serious subject, it doesn’t mean the entire evening should be dark.

The Seder itself is a journey based on educational theory. It is experiential. It helps us to truly see ourselves in the shoes of our ancestors. Within the haggadah there is a debate about the thrust of the seder. Are we talking about freedom from slavery? Or the shift from idolatry to worshipping GD? The seder has so much choreography because it is about getting us out of our normal routines. Yet, even if our seders are the same every year, we are still telling the story, our story. Reminding ourselves of our family history, of our highs and lows and that both are natural parts of life is an important lesson for all of us. Every one of us has good and bad times in our lives. The seder reminds us that it gets better. (And also that it can get worse.) In every generation there have been those that wanted to destroy us, but in every generation with Gd’s help, with our own help and with the help of righteous gentiles, we have overcome.

So change your seder every year--or keep the same family traditions every year. Read Maxwell House or buy a new Haggadah. Whatever you do, have another seder tonight. The second chance is your opportunity to do things differently. If the first seder stays the same, change the second or vice versa. Don’t be bored, embrace your history. Tell your story. How did you family get here? How did our ancestors escape Egypt? Where in the world is redemption needed? By upholding our traditions AND introducing new ones, we can truly be liberated, in every generation. Then you can have your Passover cake and eat it, too!