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Shel Ma’alah, Shel Matah: Seders Ideal and Real

At this point in the Pesach lead-up, a liberated woman’s mind turns from the inside of her refrigerator, which she is examining with curiosity — what year did I buy this pesto? — to her hopes for this year’s seder. For some women, this leads to the avid purchasing of new haggadahs or the creation of art projects that simulate the 10 plagues or thinking up “homework assignments” for invited guests (“Describe a time in your life when your heart felt hard”).

Behind this flurry of activity — in the kitchen and at the crafts table — is the desire that the seder be a night entirely set apart, a taste of the world to come. In our clean houses, with our special Pesach dishes, our seder plates full of the symbolic and the evocative, and this very compelling story of our liberation from slavery in front of us, the expectations for a sense of transformation are high.

And yet the actual experience of the seder for many of us, can fall seriously short of this.

Am I alone in the feeling that our expectations of a meaningful transformative seder ritual remain, year after year, unmet?

There are two reasons for this. The first is that the many hours spent cleaning, cooking and shopping are uninspiring to me. (Debra Nussbaum Cohen and Allison Kaplan Sommer wrote recently about Passover cleaning on this blog.) Even as I do the minimum required by Jewish law, it is exhausting. I spend the days prior to Pesach caught in a trap of my own making.

On one hand, I think Pesach preparation should be radically reconstructed. Instead of preparing for freedom by cooking, cleaning, and spending money, we should busy ourselves undertaking projects that result in real freedom for real people. On the other hand, I fail, year after year, to actualize this. Far from sitting at the seder table feeling prepared for freedom, I spend much of the evening feeling that I have once again succumbed, by my own lack of imagination and courage, to a herd mentality that has led me far from the holiday’s themes. Maybe if my house were a bit less clean and my table not so shiny, it would be because I had been helping someone in need.

The other challenge is the seder itself. Let’s face it, any ritual for which everyone gets a speaking role is risky. I am sure there are two or three families out there who spend hours having rich discussions, who strike their own right balance of ritual and spontaneity, where there is not a bit of family tension about who is serving and clearing, and where the evening ends with singing all of the songs. That would constitute the seder shel ma’alah — the heavenly seder. But what most of us attend it is the seder shel matah — the (decidedly) earthly seder. Among the features of this seder are eye-rolling teenagers, exhausted children up way past their bedtimes, relatives whose religious observance or lack of religious observance is a source of tension to other family members. And don’t forget the uncle who thinks the whole thing should be 10 minutes long. Amid all of that, consider yourself lucky if you have one good discussion during the telling of the Passover story and a rousing chorus of Adir Hu.

Trust me that I feel unending gratitude to be a Jewish woman. I just cannot access that gratitude by cleaning my house. The gratitude I feel for my family is without words, and yet I would maintain that we are not very talented at group ritual. So my goal this year is not to expend too much energy on the chasm between shel ma’alah and shel matah — that which is real and that which is ideal.

My apartment will be a work in progress; our seder there will be a blessing by virtue of everyone being around the table. I will breathe. I will take it all in. And hopefully, I can use some of the energy getting more serious about freedom — to try to see myself, in some limited way, as an agent of change in the world, casting my awareness and my resources on those whose needs for freedom remain unmet.

Rabbi Joanna Samuels is a Conservative rabbi who serves as the Director of Strategic Initiatives at Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community.


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