Resources from the Rabbi

PESACH 5781 – Some thoughts and questions for our Sedarim

Prepared by Rabbi David Ebstein for Pesach 5780

The word for order in Hebrew is of course, seder! The seder has many sections that are recited and discussed in order. The script for our seder is of course, the haggadah, which translates as “the telling.” While there is one agreed upon order for the seder, there are infinite ways to tell the story of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. Consequently, there are literally thousands of haggadot, each of which focuses on a different theme, or emphasizes one part of the seder that the author thinks is crucial. 

Despite religion’s penchant for order, the world we live in is not in the same order it was last Pesach. This is the first year that Rena and I will be holding a Seder to which we did not invite our children and their significant others. While we will be celebrating Seder with our children  via Zoom, it is simply not the same. 

Nevertheless, I am looking forward to reading the haggadah and singing the songs I learned in my childhood. Although this year’s seder will be different from every other seder that I have experienced I find it reassuring to tell the same story, year after year. Below are some comments and questions that I hope will enhance your seder and help to make it interesting and challenging.

1) For the past few years, I have begun to study mussar literature….Jewish ethical literature that focuses on a human being’s character traits, or soul-traits. One of the important traits of the mussar/ethical tradition is order, an important theme for Pesach.

When people become worried about making sure their lives are in perfect order, they can become obsessed. But as Dr. Alan Morinnis* states, “the majority of us feel that it would be a very good thing if we were more orderly, whether that means straightening up our papers or cleaning out the refrigerator or planning our lives more systematically.” 

This year, the seder provides order in one small part of our lives while outside, the corona virus has changed the order of everything. Instead of embracing others, we must keep our social distance in order to stay healthy. Instead of inviting people to our seder, we have to tell our guests not to come. This is an unfortunate, and in some cases, a tragic reality that we must accept in order to stay healthy. The principle of pikuach nefesh, (the actual or even the potential saving of human life), should take precedence over any other commandment in the Torah.

Do you feel you lead an orderly life? What keeps you from becoming more orderly? What has it been like creating/maintaining a sense of order in your life during the plague of corona?

2) While we are protecting our bodies (pikuach nefesh), I wonder how this is affecting our souls (pikuach neshama). How has the corona plague affected your soul and the souls of those whom you love and cherish?

3) In the story told in the haggada, our enemy is clear; we can visually imagine the Egyptian taskmasters and the armies of Pharoah chasing the Israelites. COVID-19 is invisible to the naked eye, and at this point in time, there is no way to meet this threat head on. How are you fighting against the corona virus? 

4) The word haggadah means “relate,” “tell,” “expound.” But it is closely related to another Hebrew root that means “bind,” “join,” “connect.”(אגד ) By reciting the Haggadah, Jews give their children a sense of connectedness to Jews throughout the world and to the Jewish people through time. Every other nation has been united because its members lived in the same place, spoke the same language and were part of the same culture. Jews alone, dispersed across continents, speaking different languages and participating in different cultures, have been bound together by the Pesach narrative, which they tell in the same way on the same night(s). As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says in his Haggagdah (The Jonathan Sacks Haggada, pg. 2), “More than the Haggadah is the story of a people, Jews are the people of a story.” 

Rabbi Sacks reminds us that telling stories is a critical aspect of our Jewish identity. He mentions an American psychologist, Jerome Bruner who believed that narrative is central to the construction of meaning, and meaning is what makes the human condition human. The haggadah tells the story of the Jewish people, but within that overall narrative, is your own, very valuable story that tells others who you are and what you mean. Moving away from Corona for a moment, what is your personal narrative, your story? Is it one of insurmountable obstacles, or is it redemptive, a story in which you meet challenges and problems and find ways to overcome them? How have you overcome difficult moments, despair and challenges and found ways to not only survive, but thrive?

5) In the haggadah, God frees the Israelites with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. The Israelites go from physical and spiritual slavery to the desert where they are free to worship God.  Are you comfortable with the hero of the Passover story being God? Do you wonder why Moses’ name does not even appear in traditional haggadah texts? Are you aware that no women are mentioned in the Haggadah?

6) The beginning of the Maggid section of the haggadah reads as follows: “This is the bread of affliction (ha lachma anya) that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat-let all who are in need join our Passover. This year we are here; next year may we be in the land of Israel. This year we are slaves; next year may we be free people.” 

In 1948, before the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, Rav Kook, the first chief rabbi of Palestine, commented on this passage in his haggadah commentary: “Despite the fact that we are in exile with all of its difficulties, we must remind ourselves about the exodus from Egypt. Because the exodus from Egypt will implant within us, in our exile, the fruit of hope, faith and trust within our hearts. For now we are slaves, and we still hope to be redeemed quickly so that next year we can be free people in the land of Israel.” 

I find Rav Kook’s commentary to be very uplifting during these days of pandemic. Most of us have never lived through such unsettling, anxious times, and it is easy to despair. Rav Kook teaches us that this section of the haggadah can be understood as hopeful and optimistic.  Just as the Jewish people never lost hope, neither should we. As we raise the matzah and say “this is the bread of affliction”, we acknowledge the pain and suffering we are feeling. But the matzah is also a symbol that radiates hope and reminds us that one day we will be free of these dark times.

7)  Dayenu – Enough, God!   by Rabbi Naomi Levy

Let those who are ill find healing – Dayenu
Let our worries be calmed – Dayenu
Let the weak and the vulnerable be protected – Dayenu
Let all healers find paths to bring healing – Dayenu
Let scientists grasp a higher knowing
That will lead to a cure – Dayenu
Let there be an end to this plague, God – Dayenu
Fill our hearts with hope
And our souls with faith,
Our bodies with health
And our homes with love.
Unite our world to bring on a day of freedom
Let the seeds of rebirth take root tonight
And grow in blessings
In Your light.
Dayenu – Enough, God.

  1. In a moving teaching on the 4 children, Jordan Namerow offers 4 possible ways our children are responding to the pandemic. Each of them has questions, each of them respond differently to this crisis. There is the inquisitive child, the compassionate child, the resilient child, and the worried child. It might be more accurate to understand these 4 children as 4 aspects of each of our children (and each of us!). Below, is some solid advice….straight from the Talmud! 

אל תצר צרת מחר כי לא תדע מה ילד יום שמא מחר בא ואיננו נמצא מצטער על העולם שאין שלו. מנע רבים מתוך

 ביתך ולא הכל תביא ביתך רבים יהיו דורשי שלומך גלה סוד לאחד מאלף

The Gemara quotes additional statements from the book of Ben Sira: Do not suffer from tomorrow’s trouble, that is, do not worry about problems that might arise in the future, as you do not know what a day will bring. Perhaps when tomorrow comes, the individual who was so worried will not be among the living, and he was consequently upset over a world that is not his. Prevent a crowd from inside your house, do not let many people enter, and do not even bring all your friends into your house. Reveal a secret to one in a thousand! Yevamot 63b! 

  1. We’ve Got This… קטן עלינו

  1. A final thought from Rabbi Avi Weiss**

“My parents would always end the Seder by singing the Hatikvah as an expression that the redemption, especially with the establishment of the State of Israel is already upon us. The words ring powerfully these days – od lo avda tikvateinu – we will forever be hopeful, we will overcome.

Yes, with patience, trust and will, we’ll make it. Patience, no matter how long it takes; trust in God, in our healers; and personal resolve, as the rabbis say, ein davar she’omed bifnei haratzon – nothing stands in the way of the will. On this Passover, too, we pray that we will begin the journey from twilight to dawn, from darkness to light.

* Dr. Alan Morinnis, author of Everyday Holiness, pgs 87-97

Pesach Guide 5781

Passover Resources from JTS

Omer Counter

I heard that Rabbi Jeremy Fine has prepared some material and I think it can enrich your sedarim. The focus is on families and kids. I asked Rabbi Fine if I could put his material on our website and he graciously agreed. I hope you enjoy this material as much as I did! Please note he also attached a file on the 9th plague. -Rabbi David

Seder Around the States

Toys on the Table

Disney Haggadah

From Darkness to Darkness_ The 9th Plague

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