As much as florists enjoy gathering a bouquet of beautiful flowers, I love collecting new and innovative ideas about the Pesach Seder. This is not just my own meshugas; look at all the new haggadot that come out each year, sharing insights that shine a new light on this passage or that paragraph. I once sat next to Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twersky at a dinner (pardon the name dropping), and noting that he had just published a new Haggadah (which is fabulous by the way), I asked him why he thinks there is a proliferation of new haggadot each year. “Because each year, the ‘rasha’ becomes a “chacham,” he answered without hesitation. I guess we all have a book in us somewhere.
May I share a few new insights with you, right before the seder? Let me begin with a couple from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, of blessed memory, whose 18th Yahrzeit we observe this Friday, the fourth day of Pesach. Then one from the Midrash, and finally one I heard from a friend in the Carlebach shul in Maale Adumim where I daven. These will be quick, so as not to pass the 18-minute mark.
Rav Soloveitchik 1- What is the reason we have the egg on the seder plate? There are several, but the Rav reminds us that an egg is a symbol of mourning, and that the day of the week on which the first day of Pesach begins is the same day of the week as Tisha B’Av, the annual commemoration of the destruction of both holy Temples in Jerusalem. But we didn’t need the Rav for that, as it is clear from the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law. What the Rav taught, which relates to the idea of mourning, is that the originally predicted 400 years of slavery was decreased by 190 years to 210 years. Now, what happened to those 190 years? Did they just disappear? The Rav answers no, those 190 years had to be sprinkled and distributed throughout the rest of Jewish history, and so we mourn for successive generations upon which the wheel of misfortune landed.
Rav Soloveitchik 2- When God made a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15, called the “covenant between the pieces,” He detailed what would happen to successive generations- they will be strangers in a land not theirs, they will be cruelly enslaved for 400 years, I will judge the nation whom they will serve, and after that they will leave with great wealth. While we can’t expect every detail in this brief synopsis, the Rav notes the absence of a reaction that we would have expected from the newly freed slave nation- riots, looting, overthrow, and revenge. Isn’t this what we witness today, as Middle East tyrannies are being toppled by the oppressed, who then create havoc and act out the biggest nightmare of every despot? Could we not excuse the Israelite nation if, after 210 years of brutal slavery, they would have done the same? And yet, what do the former slaves do? They sit quietly in their homes, singing praises to God, thanking Him for all the miracles and wonders, grateful had He done only a fraction of what he promised. In their conquest over the instinct of revenge, taught the Rav, they gained their greatest freedom.
Midrash (use a cream, it’ll go away). Why do we have 4 cups at the seder? According to the Sages, each represents a stage of redemption by God, as recorded in Exodus 6: I will extract them…I will save them…I will redeem them…I will take them as My people. It was a stage by stage process, and for each predicted and achieved stage, we raise a cup, and with each cup, we introduce the next (deeper) discussion of the Exodus and God’s role in it. The Midrash adds a new layer of meaning, reminding us that in the early chapters of Exodus, the Egyptian Pharaoh has exactly four commands regarding the Israelites (let’s get wise with them, the midwives must kill all the boys, everyone must kill all the boys, no straw for the bricks). With a depraved indifference to human life and suffering, Pharaoh barks these orders as the divine god he thinks he is. Why do we have 4 cups during the seder? There is a bigger God than Pharaoh, and each of his chametz-boastful blusterings were matza-flattened failures (floury language mine).
My friend in shul- Andy wanted to put a different spin on the “rasha,” the so-called evil son, who really gets a bad shake at the seder. What does this barefoot, tattooed, heavily pierced, orange-haired (any more derogatory images come to mind?) child ask? “What does all this service mean to you?” The haggadah jumps on him: To you and not to him/her...smack his teeth and say, if you were in Egypt, because of your attitude, you wouldn’t have been redeemed. Nana nana, boo boo, so there (poetic license). My friend had a wonderful twist on this child, in suggesting a different tone the child may be using when asking his/her question. Maybe it’s not the impatient and ridiculing tone- what does all this stuff mean to you? Why do you bother with this garbage? Rather, what does all this stuff mean to YOU? To each and every one of you? Maybe this child has been through the hagaddah every year, and has found no answers that are satisfying- about Judaism, about life, about anything. This child may be seeking an out of the box response, and is sincerely asking for people around the table to reach in themselves, and describe personally, what all this means to them. These testimonies- personal, introspective, even inarticulate ramblings about the meaning of this seder and the entire Pesach enterprise…shared by people around the table…..off the page but from the heart…maybe this is the story the “rasha” is looking for.
I wish everyone a joyous and meaningful Pesach!
For more about Rabbi Elan Adler, check out his website at ElanAdler.com