Dear TEE community,

The Passover Seder is a widely beloved ritual. Not surprisingly, it is the one observed by the most number of Jews. Combining elements of family, festivity, and good food, for many of us the Seder is a happy occasion to which we look forward each year.

This year, however, the Seder may be different from all other Seders. As the war between Israel and Gaza continues, the haggadah’s story of suffering and liberation takes on new meanings. In Jewish tradition, Pharaoh and Egypt represent the epitome of abusive power yet even the Talmudic rabbis were disturbed by the violence of the story. A famous midrash relates:

Our Sages taught: At the very hour that the Egyptians were drowning, the angels wanted to sing before the Blessed Holy One. God said to them, “My children are drowning in the sea — yet you would sing in My presence?!”

And, of course, many of us have always struggled with God’s hardening of the Pharaoh’s heart, so that the suffering of the plagues continued, most disturbingly the death of the first born. The collective death and destruction experienced by the innocent residents of Egypt — human and animal alike — resonate all too clearly with the overwhelming number of deaths and destruction in Gaza. In the past these have been abstract questions, this year they are all too real.

Each year at Thanksgiving the American press is full of stories about “how to talk with your (fill in the blank of oppositional politics here) uncle.” This year the Jewish American press is running comparable pieces about the Seder, although the “difficult” person at the Seder is more likely to be a younger member of the family, more critical of the State of Israel than their elders. Whatever the situation, disagreement is, of course, a cherished Jewish tradition, which the Seder itself gives us a model for engaging in constructively. Asking questions rather than giving answers and approaching one another with a desire to learn are all fundamental to Jewish conversation. The purpose of Jewish disagreement is not to get at the truth but to discover more truth.  

As the Book of Exodus makes clear, questions surrounding the use and abuse of power, the complexity of freedom, and whether the liberation of one people must come at the expense of another, are as ancient as human society itself. As much as our tradition encourages us to envision a world of peace and justice “speedily, and in our day,” we know we will not resolve these issues in our lifetimes, let alone at our Seder tables. Nevertheless, I hope that your Seder experiences this year encourage you to consider these issues in a way that leads to greater truth and mutual understanding.

Our own congregational Seder will focus on the message of Dayeinu — recognizing and appreciating the freedoms we have accomplished and how far we have come, even if we have not yet achieved a messianic age.  Our Haggadah acknowledges continued suffering in the ritual of taking wine from our cups for each plague and the wedding ceremony acknowledges the imperfection of relationships in the broken glass. Yet each is meant to be a gathering for celebration and I think that is especially  important and necessary at such a difficult time. So I hope you will be part of that celebration with us.

Wishing you a happy and very meaningful Passover,

Rabbi Drorah Setel