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The Seder Began Something

The First Shoots of Spring - and Hope

The Seders are behind us, but the exploration of what it really means to be free is not.

The Passover Seders and the entire holiday are always a balance between celebration and serious, sometimes difficult, reflection. We rejoice in spring, Divine Providence, freedom, redemption, and the pleasures of feasting and fellowship. We reflect on political Pharaohs today, persistent lack of freedom for Jews and others, the “inner Pharaoh” that each of us houses, threats to annihilate Jews “in every generation,” and the dangers of violating Proverbs 24:17 by “rejoic[ing] and gloat[ing] when your enemy falls.”

This year, the War in Israel, Gaza, and beyond demonstrates the relevance of these themes in ways that are both powerful and heartbreaking. The Festival of Freedom is terribly fraught when Jews continue to be held captive in Gaza. It is terribly fraught to gather for celebratory meals and to sing, “Let all who are hungry come and eat,” one of the signature phrases of the holiday, while people remain hungry in Gaza. We long for hope – represented in the first buds and blossoms of spring, in the parsley on the Seder plate, and in the contrast: “Now we are here; next, year, in the land of Israel. Now we are slaves; next year, free people.”

Our Exodus from Egypt was only the beginning of redemption. During Passover and year-round, Jews imagine and sing about a complete redemption: a Messianic era of justice, peace, security, and freedom for all. The Land of Israel is, we pray, “the beginning of the flowering” of our redemption. Each spring, we clean out the arrogance and self-puffery (chametz) that can delay freedom for ourselves and others. Each spring, we watch nature remind us that what may look dead (trees, dreams, dialogue, a peace process) can yet flourish and become fruitful and beautiful.

The transition from “slavery to freedom, from subjugation to redemption, from sorrow to happiness and from mourning to celebration” does not end on the Seder night. It begins there. It continues throughout Chol Hamoed (the intermediate days of the holiday) and culminates on the final day of Passover with a Haftarah reading from Isaiah (10:32-12:6) that imagines a world fully and gloriously redeemed. The Hafatah includes this image of revival and hope: “a shoot shall grow out of the stump of Jesse, a twig shall sprout from his stock, and the spirit of God shall rest upon him.”

God promises a world of justice for the vulnerable and safety for the innocent. There will be no infighting among the Israelites and no war with any neighbor. Some of the Bible’s most beautiful imagery of peace is in these verses:

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,

The leopard lie down with the kid;
The calf, the beast of prey, and the fatling together,
With a child to lead them….
In all of My sacred mount
Nothing evil or vile shall be done,
For the land shall be filled with devotion to God
As water covers the sea.

On the eighth day of Passover, many Hasidim celebrate a Se’udat Mashiach (Feast of the Messiah), which includes four cups of wine and the eating of matzah – reproducing and expanding on the Seder.

Ultimately, that is our mission: to reproduce and expand on the seder. Not just during each year’s seders, but through all the days of the holiday. Not just on Passover, but throughout the year. Not just for this year, but for “next year in Jerusalem.” Not just for Jews, but for “the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Not just in this broken world, as we now know it, but in a future, perfected world, in a time to come.

About the Author
Debra Orenstein, rabbi of Congregation B'nai Israel in Emerson, NJ, is an acclaimed teacher, author, and scholar-in-residence. She is editor of Lifecycles 1:Jewish Women on Life Passages and Personal Milestones and Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life (Jewish Lights). A seventh generation rabbi, she was in the first rabbinical class at The Jewish Theological Seminary to include women. She earned a Certificate in Positive Psychology and teaches online. Visit RabbiDebra.com to learn more.
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