February 21, 2024 /
I find the Passover Seder to be such a fascinating ritual. Passover is the single most observed holiday in all of world Jewry. Here at the Temple, we don’t even hold Shabbat Services when they line up with the first-night seder – it would be the one time during the year we wouldn’t make a minyan. Yet even in this great “uniter,” no two seders are the same. Why? Because there are many different types of haggadot.
The Passover narrative recalls our people’s history from entrance into Egypt until God took us out over 400 years later. But our story goes beyond the mere recollection of these details. The Passover story is a universal message about what it means to be enslaved and then freed. The Passover narrative is a message that speaks to us in every generation and every age.
If you type “haggadah” into the Barnes and Noble search engine, you’ll get roughly 450 results to weed through. Do we really need 450 different haggadot? Are they really that different? If they all tell the same story, why are there so many haggadot out there?
Out of those 450 different haggadot, what is different about them? Well, there are haggadot geared for women’s seders that recognize the lives of our matriarchs, who sacrificed just as much as our patriarchs, if not more. They use the Passover narrative as a metaphor for the constant struggle for equal rights and point out that while women’s rights have come a long way since the 1960s, there is still a lot left to be done. There are post-Holocaust haggadot, in which our traditional text is brought into modernity with additions interspersed about life in the ghettos and the concentration camps, Kristallnacht and Babi Yar. When they tell the story of the four children, they also introduce a fifth child. This child represents the children lost in the Holocaust, the ones who did not survive to be able to ask any questions. For this child, we ask the question, “why?” which we can’t answer. This haggadah and others like it encourage activism in the world today to try and stop the genocidal acts occurring all over the world. The list of different haggadot topics goes on and on. These haggadot speak tales of redemption, but they also talk of modern-day Pharaohs, plagues, and oppression.
Unfortunately, as many ways as there are to talk about freedom, there are just as many ways to talk about enslavement, persecution, and greed. Even though we live in a society that holds the ideals of liberty and tolerance at its core, crimes based on greed and hate still plague us today; look no further than the front page of any newspaper. Why are there so many different interpretations of the haggadah? Because there are so many kinds of enslavement that still exist in the world.
All of these haggadot, both new and old, hold in common one shared theme: that we were slaves in the land of Egypt and then released. However, we balance this with the acknowledgment that we are struggling with new forms of enslavement every day. So I now pose two questions for you to ponder at your Seder table in just a few weeks. What enslaves you today? How would you translate that into your interpretation of the haggadah?
Philip N. Bazeley