Your seder might need a refresh

By Rabbi Emma Gottlieb

Most folks know that Passover is the one of the best observed of the Jewish holidays. 

Jews who rarely enter a shul, if at all, are still likely to attend a Passover seder. This means that our sedarim have the potential, more than any other Jewish moment in the year, to bring meaning and engagement to Jews who might not otherwise connect with Jewish ritual or Judaism as a religion. Even those of us who attend shul weekly are likely to appreciate a seder that is lively, engaging and relevant to our lives today, rather than one that feels like a relic of ages past. As the famous playwright Arthur Miller noted, “Jews are very impatient with doing the same thing over and over again.” 

I’m not suggesting that we must all change beloved family traditions or halakhically mandated rituals. Rather, there is an authentic and time-honoured tradition of adding rituals, readings and symbols to the Passover Seder to reflect our contemporary lives and respond to current events. The Haggadah itself teaches us that even if a person is wise and learned, and even if they know the Passover story inside and out, it is still important (some might even say required) to tell and retell the story of our slavery and freedom. 

Since we think about slavery and freedom differently in 2023 than we did back in 223 C.E., 1223 C.E. or even 1923, it makes sense that we would bring the context of our own lives to bear on the Passover story, just as our rabbis did back in the time of first envisioning the Passover Seder. For example, some families I know invite guests to tell or compare their own family story to the story of the Israelite Exodus (for example, the story of their Lithuanian ancestors coming to South Africa). 

A tradition like this can help us to see ourselves as part of the historic continuum leading from Egypt to today. It also has the added benefit of helping those around the table get to know one another better and build closer and more meaningful bonds (not the bonds of slavery but the bonds of kinship!). In lots of households, a fifth question is added to the traditional four — often reflection on a current event. For example, we might ask, “Why on this night especially, is it important for us to name and respond to contemporary instances of slavery in our world?”, which could lead to a very relevant and meaningful discussion of current events and our Jewish imperative to respond to suffering, affirming the claim that “not until all are free, can we be free.” As for our the symbols on our Seder Table, might it not be a beautiful contemporary post-apartheid tradition to adorn our tables with Protea flowers or other symbols of South Africa, to pave the way for a moment of recognition for this country’s own unique history of oppression and freedom? There are a ton of rituals, poetry, games, and teachings to be found online or in recently published haggadot (if your Haggadah is from the 20th century, it’s time for an update!). This year, instead of schlepping to the Seder and patiently waiting for the food to be served, let’s make the extra effort to add a moment or two of contemporary relevance to an already powerful, sacred, and beloved ritual.

Chag Pesach Sameach — May we be free to explore Judaism in all of its ancient beauty and modern significance!

Temple Israel

• Published in the April 2023 Edition – Click here to start reading.

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