Especially at this time of year, as Passover approaches, memory suffuses me, remembrances of Passovers past, of Seders at my grandparents’ house, the seemingly grand table, its heavy, carved legs and dark wood expanse napped in sparkling white for the holiday.
Our extended family gathered round, aunts and uncles and cousins, my grandpa seated at the head, reclining on a pillow, my grandma — did she even have a seat at the table much less ever use it? — scurrying back and forth to the kitchen readying the festive meal for the precise moment we reached the climax of the evening’s retelling. Grandpa droning on, racing through the entire Haggadah in Hebrew without once stopping to ask a question much less answer one, punctuating his performance with frequent shushing as stomachs grumbled and little ones squirmed in their seats, or even worse, quietly misbehaved under the table.
And then Seder at my parents’ home, a serious but more concise version, my father including us all in dutifully reading the story of the Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom from the original Union Haggadah in English, my mother at the table with us as we sipped sweet wine, dipped, and dipped again, nibbled parsley and gobbled haroset, and then reached my favorite part, the crunch of matzah and the bite of bitter and sweet of a Hillel sandwich. The Haggadah now is at home in my book shelves among my collection of haggadot with memories not only of Pesach but of my parents’ own journey from Orthodox to Reform Judaism, and then my own back towards more traditional observance.
So it goes, and then on to Seders in our house, the first rushed affairs as we took on the seemingly formidable task then gradually gaining confidence to lead the annual rite. The discovery of the 30 minute Seder – a revelation – and then adding our own personal riffs on the story, along with frogs and bouncing matzah balls, snacks for the kids to allay hunger pangs, provocative questions, new rituals, an orange on the Seder plate, a cup of wine for Miriam, and a fierce hunt for the afikomen as our own family grew and our table expanded to include our own family of friends.
But, of course, Passover is so much more than nostalgically looking back in time to Passovers past. Even as the holiday commands us to reenact the ancient story “as if we were slaves in Egypt,” — with its ingenious incorporation of tastes and textures as well as stories and songs – it also solemnly commands us to “tell our child on that day.”
So each year, the Seder prods us to fulfill both sacred obligations, to remember the past, and the wondrous journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, to be wholly present “as if” we were slaves, but also to inspire Passovers future, what is yet to be.
And so, the Seder becomes both script and springboard, as CLAL’s Rabbi Irwin Kula describes it, its precise order connecting us to our shared national story and strengthening our identity as Jews, its embodied rituals opening up space for innovation that can heighten its meaning for us today, maybe even a tomato on the table this year for oppressed farm workers laboring in the fields.
So it goes, from generation to generation, spanning the expanse of time and place, the story continues, re-imagined, refreshed, renewed with each retelling.