Passover’s Lesson? It’s an Open Book

By Joshua Halberstam

Published April 15, 2005, issue of April 15, 2005.
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Soon we will sit down for the Seder and do what Jews do well: talk, eat and talk some more. And as we’ve done for 2,000 years (almost precisely so), we will turn to the Haggada for the story of our Exodus and then proceed to improvise stories of our own.

Indeed — I’m tempted to say, alas — the Haggada has increasingly become a Rorschach test for personal agendas. In homes everywhere, the holiday’s central narrative is transformed into metaphor, a useful tool — even an excuse — to address other “more pressing,” more comfortable topics.

Commentary on the Haggada is of course an honored, even essential, feature of the reading. That much is not new. Indeed, in an almost wildly postmodern comment, Rebbe Naftali of Ropczyce suggested that the basic text itself can have a new referent without altering a word. Noting how our drawers are already overflowing with Haggadas, he asked, “Why then do we continue to print new ones every year?” His answer: “No doubt, last year’s wayward son of the Haggada’s four sons has repented, so we need a new edition with a new rasha to take his place.” Nonetheless, while classical commentaries do offer passing insights into the general human condition, their driving focus was always the explication of the text itself. The discussants around the table and the children hovering underneath and nearby are encouraged to imagine that event — the one about the Jews leaving Egypt — not some other tale or moral lesson.

We can, perhaps, distinguish broadly among a few of these current new Seder targets and their promoters’ motivations.

The Political Narrator: Here the participant grandly and quickly extrapolates from the Exodus of the Israelites to the more universal themes of political sovereignty, liberation, slavery and freedom. In this telling, the essential value of the Jewish Seder is its illumination of other social strivings. Of course, many groups have long harkened to the biblical Exodus narrative and echoed the clarion call of “Let my people go” as an inspiration for their own struggles; the black civil-rights movement is but one moving example. But many of our own Political Narrators are — let us not be coy — uneasy with a focus on the Jewish story of exile and redemption, deeming the saga too parochial. And so they redirect the evening’s theme to their own respective, favored cause. In this vein, some in the past have celebrated Seders devoted to the freeing of workers from the bondage of capitalism, while others have performed union Seders, anti-war Seders and, more recently, freedom Seders, feminist Seders, gay-rights Seders, Israeli-Palestinian Peace Seders, ethnic-unity Seders — a Seder for every social campaign.

The Psychological Narrator: In this renovation, the Passover story becomes a stand-in for the vicissitudes of our internal lives. Here we are treated to psychological analysis of our personal exile from our truer selves, our inner Diasporas and the quest for inner redemption. This approach, too, has a long pedigree. The idea of the nation or state as the individual writ large is pivotal to Greek philosophy, and it reemerges in contemporary political literature, as well. Within Judaism, and especially in the kabbalistic framework, the Jewish people are often conceptualized as an individual in the throes of complex “personal relationships” with the Divine. But the more immediate thrust for rereading the Haggada as personal journey is the recent explosion of books and pulpit sermons that see the Bible’s protagonists primarily as psychological case studies. And so we are invited to examine their dysfunctional families, to expound on their fractured intimacies, and to analyze their narcissism and self-deception. And so, too, this Seder achieves its primary meaning and importance as yet another source for personal introspection.

The Religious Narrator: The redemption from slavery is not only a pivotal historical event in Judaism but a central religious event, as well. The Torah itself, for example, traces the grounds for the Sabbath as marking the Exodus from Egypt. A discussion of matters of the spirit would seem, therefore, especially appropriate at the Seder. But the Religious Narrator, too, converts the Exodus narrative into something else, a parable whose purpose is primarily religious instruction. In traditional homes, one hears a parade of commentaries that anachronistically insert the minutiae of Halacha into the Exodus account, rendering the storyline itself nearly unrecognizable.

The Kotzker Rebbe once said: “I’ve heard a hundred different wonderful interpretations of the command, ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ but people forget the other, most basic reading of all, namely: ‘You shouldn’t steal.’” Perhaps we need to similarly remind ourselves that notwithstanding its myriad adaptations and uses, the Seder when we once again tell the story of a specific exodus of a specific people. All the rest is commentary.

This curmudgeonly exhortation deserves a coda. Boredom is a threat to any celebration, and exclusiveness a violation of the holiday spirit. Two other remarks of the Rebbe of Ropczyce about that wayward son bring home this challenge.

The rebbe explained why we mention these four sons of the Haggada in the order we do: the wise son, the evil son, the simple-minded son and, finally, the son too dimwitted even to question. The rebbe said that the wise son pleaded to the redactor of the Haggada, “I can handle sitting next to my wicked brother — though wrongheaded, at least he’s interesting. But please, don’t make me spend the evening sitting next to a simpleton. Anything but that tedium.”

And what is the transgression of the wicked son? He thinks he is apart from his community. But he misunderstands, says the Ropczycer. Removing yourself from your people is not a unilateral decision. We say to this wayward son, “You might think you’re no longer part of the family, but our tradition includes you in our Seder anyway. We have a seat at the table waiting for you, right here next to your brothers. Join us and say your piece. We make room on the inside even for the outsider.”

And so as we each approach our Seder with our own set of concerns, let’s make sure to recount the same Exodus story we’ve been reciting for millennia. If we do, we’re sure to make room for all our other interests, as well.

Joshua Halberstam has just completed a novel, “A Seat at the Table.” He teaches philosophy in New York City.

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