Not the main course

Rabbi David Silber and Rachel Furst’s new volume includes delicious morsels of wisdom that can be distributed at the Seder.

Haggadah  and Matzah 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Haggadah and Matzah 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
We now have Haggadot for vegetarians, feminists, children, adults, socialists and Israelis, and every year new ones come out. The Haggada is the book that appears in more different editions than any other book in the Jewish library, and the stream of new editions never seems to stop.
This year’s Haggada is done by Rabbi David Silber, founder and director of the Drisha Institute, assisted by Rachel Furst.
If you open it from one side, you have the traditional text with some brief historical notes and explanations. If you open it from the other side, you find eight thoughtful essays on different aspects of the Seder. These essays use the intertextual method of study, in which passages in one part of the Bible are used to illuminate passages in another part of the Bible.
It is an interesting method, and in several places it enables us to understand passages in the Haggada in ways that we never did before. This section ought to be read by the Seder leader during the 30 days before Pessah, for it will provide a fresh perspective that can help to enliven the discussion at the Seder table.
Let me warn you that this Haggada is not meant for children. There are no pictures, no riddles and no games. Nor is it meant for the unlearned reader. There are no transliterations, and therefore those who cannot read Hebrew will have difficulty.
But it does have a number of literary and historical insights in it that will make the Seder interesting to those who are willing to put in the work of studying them.
This Haggada does not respond to many of the challenges to the text that modern readers raise. For example, you would think that someone like Silber, who has devoted so much effort to the creation of an institute where women are empowered to study Torah, would have included some discussion of the role of women in the Pessah story or in our own time. And yet, there is hardly any mention of this topic.
Another example: the passage: “Pour out Your wrath upon those gentiles who do not recognize You” is one that some moderns find troubling. Some Haggadot justify it by explaining the world in which it was composed, a world in which the Seder was interrupted by attacks, based on the mad myth that Jews use the blood of Christian children in making their matza.
Noam Zion’s A Different Night acknowledges that this is one of the very few outcries for vengeance in all of Jewish liturgy, but then adds another prayer, one that asks God to “pour out Your love upon those gentiles who do recognize You.”
The reader is given two prayers, one that is an echo of the dark and dangerous medieval times, the other a hope for a different kind of world.
This Haggada neither justifies the anger of the traditional text historically, nor offers a counter-declaration that is gentler.
Instead, all it says is that just as the first half of the Seder began by inviting strangers to join in, so the second half begins with a parallel invitation. That is really not enough to satisfy the soul of the modern person. A Haggada for our time has to deal with the issues of our time, and has to do more than simply record the history of the document up to the beginning of modernity.
The eight essays in the other half of this Haggada are much more helpful. For example, consider the essay in which Silber draws parallels between the story of Lot and the destruction of Sodom and the Exodus from Egypt.
The Torah says that Lot welcomed the mysterious strangers who come to Sodom and served them matza. Rashi comments that this is because they came on Pessah.
At first, this comment sounds bizarre. The story occurred long before the Israelites even got to Egypt. What can it possibly have to do with Pessah? And yet Silber shows that there are so many linguistic and thematic parallels between the story of Lot in Sodom and the story of the Israelites in Egypt that one can be seen as a prefiguring of the other. The first hint is that when Lot chooses to live in Sodom, the Torah says that it is because it is like the land of Egypt in its fertility. In both places, God hears the cry of the oppressed and comes down to rescue them. In both places, the leaders of the community have instilled fear of the outsider. In both places the people are brutal and cruel to newcomers.
Lot is a person who is somehow caught between his two identities. On the one hand, he is a nephew of Abraham, so he practices some kind of hospitality, like his uncle. On the other, he is a citizen of Sodom, who shares some of its values.
The Israelites whom we meet in Egypt are also caught between two identities.
They are eager for freedom and ready to follow God, but they identify with their masters and whenever things go bad for them in the wilderness, they yearn to go back to Egypt. The people of Sodom say to Lot: Who made you a judge over us? And the Israelites say the very same to Moses when he tries to help them. And there are more parallels in the two stories.
But there is one central difference, which outweighs all the parallels. Lot is exiled and disappears. He is never heard of again after the rescue. In contrast, the Israelites who left Egypt – or at least their descendants of the next generation – get to the Promised Land and carry on the covenant.
Silber is suggesting that the careful reader, who hears the echoes of the story of Lot in Sodom while he studies the story of the Israelites in Egypt, will understand not only the similarities, but the central difference: that the Israelites live on because of the eternal covenant which connects them and God, while Lot does not.
This is the kind of lesson that can enliven the Seder table and make the meaning of the Exodus more comprehensible. For these essays, this book is to be appreciated.
It cannot be the main course at everyone’s Seder, but it has some delicious morsels that will enrich the experience of those who are able to imbibe them.