The Pesach Haggadah — A window into the Jewish struggle both past and present

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By Rabbi Malcolm Matitiani

The week-long festival of Pesach celebrates the liberation of our biblical ancestors from Egyptian bondage and their deliverance at the Sea of Reeds. 

After the destruction of the Second Temple the ancient Pascal lamb or goat that was roasted over an open flame and consumed with matzah and maror, was replaced with the Pesach Seder. The emphasis of the rabbinic celebration of Pesach is to relate the story of the Exodus from Egypt. While vestiges of the ancient Pesach sacrifice remain on the Seder table (the bitter herbs, three matzot and the shank bone), the modern post-Temple celebration of the liberation of the Israelites is indicative of rabbinic Judaism that places importance on the spoken and written word. The tannaim (rabbis of the Mishnah) replaced the animal and meal offerings mandated by Torah with formalised prayer and the study of biblical and rabbinic texts as ways of worshipping God (as well as the performance of ritual and ethical mitzvot). 

Thus, while we are reminded of the biblical celebration of Pesach through the utilisation of the symbolic foods that are placed prominently on the Seder plate, our commemoration of the Exodus is observed by reciting the Haggadah. It is noteworthy that the text of the Haggadah is a testimony to rabbinic Judaism that was formulated by the tannaim and amoraim (rabbis of the Talmud) and evolved by the rabbis and learned Jews of subsequent generations. The Haggadah incorporates the Torah account of the Liberation of the Israelites from Egypt into a labyrinth of midrash, aggadah, songs and children’s rhymes celebrating God’s beneficence, the notion of human freedom and dignity, the destruction of human tyranny and the valiant stand of the Israelites against the Egyptians, the Jews of the first century CE against the Romans and the Jews of Europe against the evil that engulfed the continent from 1933 – 1945.

The Haggadah is a living document which allows for additions of texts and rituals making it open to the inclusion of 21st century issues. Thus at many Progressive sedarim each person drinks a glass of water in addition to the traditional four cups of wine, to celebrate the mythical Miriam’s well. According to rabbinic tradition a water bearing rock followed the Israelites during their wanderings in the wilderness due to the merit of Miriam whom the Torah (Exodus 15:20) describes as a prophetess. The well dried up the day Miriam died. This midrash is one of many that illustrate the importance of Miriam in the Exodus and wilderness sojourn narrative. By toasting Miriam with a glass of water towards the end of the Seder, liberal Jews attest to the significant role women have played and currently play in Jewish history and communal life.  

Many Jews of all streams introduced the innovation of leaving an empty place at the table to highlight the plight of Jews who were not free to practise Judaism. This custom began as a protest against the appalling treatment of Jews by the Soviet authorities who imprisoned anyone who wished to make a new life for themselves in Israel. 

The orange has made an appearance at many Progressive sedarim to remind us of the ongoing struggle for the unconditional acceptance of members of our community that are often excluded because of their sexuality, gender or ethnicity. 

The theme of human freedom that pervades the festival of Pesach leaves the door open for more creative texts and rituals that address the social ills of disease, poverty, climate change and many other issues that adversely affect human freedom and dignity. Thus the Haggadah is not just a collection of midrashim, aggadot, songs and children’s rhymes from the past but a vibrant and essential piece of Jewish liturgy that inspires us to strive for a true and complete tikkun olam.

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