Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – April/2011

I’m posting this a bit early, because I’m also going to post an article from the Jerusalem Post magazine that perfectly illustrates my point.

No holiday encourages fanatical Jewish behavior like Passover.  It’s not bad that many people keep kosher for Pesah much more strictly than they keep kosher the rest of the year.  However, the almost pathological behavior of scouring the home of every microscopic crumb of leavening can obscure the beauty of the meaning of the holiday.  I hope the following exchange will help you enjoy a serious Seder without having exhausted yourself by its preparation.

Dear Rebbe

Question: We had two wonderful seders, but this year particularly, it seemed that the last two days of preparation – Sunday, a day which lasted twelve hours as we turned the kitchen over and Monday, the day we spent in preparation for the first seder – left us crippled with exhaustion and pain.  It was very much like forced labor with this uncompromising deadline.  I kept thinking, “why did we leave the fleshpots of Egypt? Let’s return to Egypt where we eat for free.”  And then I remembered Rush Limbaugh’s warning that socialism is slavery and nothing comes for free, so I put my head down and continued scrubbing.

But a serious thought crossed my mind.  Is this our age showing?  What will Pesah preparations be like when we are seventy or eighty and have no children to do this work.  As it was, at age 63, I found myself incapable of davening either day.  I tried, but I couldn’t focus my mind.  I don’t understand how one can do it all, I certainly can’t. I think even we lived next to the shul, I would not have had the strength to make it through the davening.

We had a student at our table on Tuesday.  He doesn’t observe much, but he goes to shul on major holidays and his self-image is one of a Jew who is loyal to our traditions.  Once we got to the meal, he took out his cell phone and started to send a text!  I told him to put it away and he sheepishly set it aside.  I understand that teachers in classrooms have similar problems with students who can’t seem to let go of their cell phones. But I was surprised to see its appearance at my seder!

Answer: I think you have bought into the Orthodox trend to make Pesah more and more difficult by multiplying the humrot, the ways to be more and more restrictive in Jewish observance.  Marisa and I, over the past several years, have cut way back on the cleaning, returning to the Mishnaic model of Pesah.  You clean the rooms that you eat in – you don’t need to search out and sterilize every surface of the house.  You rely on biur hametz, the ritual destruction and nullification of hametz, so if you miss a few crumbs here and there, you have not endangered your eternal souls with karet, spiritual excommunication.  Our kitchen doesn’t look like a 1950’s spaceship, covered in $100 worth of aluminum foil.  We clean counters and pour boiling water on them, relying on the fact that we don’t cook on the counters or eat food off of them.  Self cleaning ovens are great.  We are relaxed about the refrigerator – hametz doesn’t contaminate like the bubonic plague.  We don’t serve a 6 course gourmet feast – 3 courses is enough! – so we can focus more on the hagaddah and less on the food.  We, especially on the 2nd night, are not hung up on the hagaddah.  At the proper candlelighting time, we tell the story of Pesah in a very abbreviated way.  In keeping with the mishnah’s instructions to tell the story from degradation to redemption, we basically tell the story by reading the key passages of the Hagaddah from Deuteronomy 26:5-8, reciting the plagues, the teaching of Rabban Gamliel and the beginning of Hallel.  Before candlelighting, we do the 4 questions and 4 children and singing songs.

Regarding the student – before the Seder, send out a note to your guests making your expectations clear.  Here’s a sample, sent by one of my colleagues, Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff:

To our Seder Guests

I am delighted — and honored — that all of you have agreed to join me at this year’s Passover/Pesah Seder.

For me, the Seder has always been one of the highlights of the year — and one of the most important rituals of the Jewish faith.  It is a reminder, to me, of the fact that we cannot change history, but to a very large extent, we can control its impact on us, so that memory becomes a springboard to move us forward toward better times, not a trap, to hold us prisoners of the past.  We understand that no one can be told to “forget and move on,” but we can help others, and ourselves, understand HOW to remember, so that our memories become a blessing, not a curse, and history becomes part of a rich and treasured heritage, that reminds us of the hope we must have for the future….  And so, at the seder, we remember stories of Israelite slavery in Egypt. But we learn not to hate Egypt, but instead, to hate slavery…and value freedom.  We learn from our memories of pain not to hate others, but to reach out to them, including all those treated like strangers, or feel like strangers, so that their pain might be less.

This is a reminder, in part, of the fact that the essence of the seder is discussion.  The evening is based on the Biblical verses that command us to tell the story.  “Haggadah,” the book that helps us remember the story and its traditions, comes from the Hebrew word for “telling.”  “Seder,” which means “order,” reminds us that there is a traditional order to the evening’s discussion, but, as the Haggadah states, “the person who elaborates is to be admired.”  In other words, no two seders are ever alike, because all those involved elaborate in terms of what the very ideas of slavery and freedom mean to them, and how their individual memories can come together with the memories of the Jewish people — or humanity itself — so that, as we remember, we share the lessons we have learned from the past, and then join together to work for the future.

As I look forward to seeing all of you, here are a few “house-keeping” notes:

“Bringing” do’s and don’t’s.  Please do NOT bring any food, drink, or flowers.  The laws of Passover food and drink are so complicated, and we are stocking up with so much, that there is no room for anything else (even flowers!).  However, DO BRING something: bring a story you might have of another Passover seder — or another holy day that taught you something that has helped you struggle with values and ideas, and with life; bring a question — about Passover, about Judaism, or about faith; bring an insight about the different kinds of slavery that still exist, and what freedom really means…. These will be gifts that all of us will treasure, for the seder, and for the future. Just as we focus on freedom from Egypt at our Seder, we also focus on freedom from various other enslaving devices of modern day society, such as cellphones and texting devices.  I ask that you refrain from using such devices at the table, so we can focus on being fully present for each other.

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