I always feel jealous of Jews around Passover. They get to have a Seder meal and they tell a really exciting, scary, and moving story. I even like eating matzo. (I know, I know.) Why is this?
1 Part of this is the Seder ritual itself. It’s not just a dinner party, it’s a religious ritual. There are prescribed actions that must be performed and all of the objects have symbolism. They get to eat exotic foods and light candles and pray in a foreign language.
2 There are few such rituals in the US. For Thanksgiving, we get together and eat, and that’s about it. Sure, we may watch TV together or go shopping, but that’s just super lame compared to a Seder.
3 The ritual of the Seder goes back thousands of years. At the same time, it is flexible. Different people and groups are free to make their marks on the Seder. Rabbi Hillel introduced the idea of eating a matzo and bitter herb sandwich as a way of fulfilling both mitzvoth. Today, some Jewish feminists are adding a Miriam’s cup ritual to honor Miriam the prophetess and the role of Jewish women.
4 The exodus story is very much an American story. I saw God In America, a PBS miniseries about religious freedom in America. (It was excellent.) There was a historian who said that the story of America was the Exodus story. People leave a place of bondage and oppression, travel great distances, experience freedom, and form a nation.
5 Of course, the Israelites, according to the story, travel first to Mount Saini to receive the law. In America, we forged the law ourselves. There are some Americans who attribute an almost divine quality to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. (Wrongly, of course, but they do exist.)
6 This story gives America a strange relationship with Europe. It is the motherland, but it is also Egypt, for many people. It is the place where our ancestors experienced oppression, a place where our ancestors needed to escape, cross the Atlantic Ocean (the Red Sea) and then experience freedom.
7 It also shapes how we view America. America is not only the place where the streets are paved with gold, it is a land flowing with milk and honey.
8 The story of the exodus also resonates strongly with the experience of slavery in the South. It’s a fascinating twist on the story. A people are in a place of freedom and travel thousands of miles to experience bondage and oppression. Then, when they are freed, they must find freedom not in their homeland, but in Egypt itself. They must share Egypt with the Egyptians. What does that mean? This question looms large in the American experience.
9 At the end of the Seder, the celebrants declare “Next year in Jerusalem!” It’s not so much about the literal Jerusalem; even Jews in Jerusalem still say it at the end of the Seder. Jerusalem clearly calls to mind a distant ideal. For Jews, this would be a future Messianic age. There is the tension between the horror of the past (and perhaps the present) and the promise of the future.
Those are my random thoughts about Passover. I hope no one found them offensive, they were not intended to cause offense.
A Happy Passover to everyone!