One of the most interesting aspects of the Passover Seder is the tension between remembering the Exodus of the past and making the Exodus relevant to the present. The question I am struggling with this Passover is how to balance the value of remembering a past event without having to interject my own modern interpretations, with the value of making it relevant both in order to preserve its memory and turn memory into action.
The Haggadah expresses both values. While we are told “each person must view him or herself as if he or she left Egypt,” the Haggadah also spills a significant amount of ink on the portion that begins “Se u’Lemad,” “go and learn,” the section contained in Maggid in which the minute details of the Exodus are discussed. The text focuses on the fact that “Avadim Hayyinu”, “we were slaves,” in the past tense, while also focusing on “Ata B’nei Horin,” “now we are free,” the present ramifications of the past, and the responsibilities contained therein.
The authors of the Haggadah, were correct in that both values are necessary. Historical events, especially tragedies, are not simply relevant because of what happened afterwards. Large scale tragedies should be remembered in their own right; they need no further clarification. The slavery in and subsequent exodus from Egypt is memorable and worthy of discussion even if the Torah had ended after Parshat Beshalah, the portion that discusses the actual exodus. As the Seder poem Dayenu teaches us, that would have been enough.
However the Haggadah makes it clear that it is not enough; the story continues until this very day. As long as there is injustice in the world the story is continuing. The Seder is both an intellectual discussion over the past and a call to act in the present. Maggid cannot begin until we proclaim that “all who are in need should come and eat!” Working to fix society is part and parcel of the Seder. One of the oddest lines of the Haggadah comes right after the line inviting in those in need. We proclaim “now we are slaves, next year we will be free!” Are we not already free? Did we not leave Egypt thousands of years ago? The fact that there are people who are wandering the streets, hoping someone will invite them in for a Passover Seder is a reflection not only on them but on us. We are slaves because we live in a broken world.
At the Seder there is a dialogue between the message and the medium. The message of the Seder is in the present, while the medium is the past. We know we left Egypt in the past, but what Egypt are we leaving today? We know what the four cups of wine symbolize—the various aspects of the Exodus. But what does the fifth cup of wine, which is poured but not drunken, represent? Living in the postmodern era we know that both the message and the medium are equally important. The medium provides a framework for the message, and the message sheds light on the medium, which otherwise may have been ignored.
How people balance this tension is obviously different, however we must avoid ignoring either side. We should not throw the Haggadah by the wayside and focus solely on today without examining the Torah’s framework, even if we have many questions on this framework (especially if we have questions!). However, as exemplified by the rabbis in the Haggadah who were up all night during the Seder, just reading the words of the Haggadah is hardly sufficient.