Avi Weiss

The seder with Israel at war

With Israel at war, here are some humble suggestions on how to make the Seder more spiritually meaningful. Our goal is to inspire creative thinking, relating different elements of the Seder to these heavy but uplifting times.

Yehi Ohr – Let There be Light: Perhaps we should open the Seder with the Psalmist’s words, beorcha nireh ohr – “In Your light, there is light” echoing God’s first words in the Torah – yehi ohr. October 7 fell on Shabbat Simchat Torah, when we read this very passage from the beginning of the Book of Genesis. “There was darkness on the face of the deep,” the Torah tells us, and yet, God proclaims, “let there be light.” No matter the existential danger we face, we believe light will push away the darkness – we will overcome.

Children’s Haggadah: The Haggadah’s opening sections, the Talmud tells us, are child friendly. Indeed, what we normally do before a festive meal we do twice at the Seder. We drink two cups of wine, wash our hands twice, break matza twice – with the first time especially geared to children, in the hope of piquing their interest. It all reaches a crescendo with Mah Nishtana. Here the Haggadah instructs, “a child asks his or her parent.” In the end, no matter our age we are all children. And perhaps the parent is the Parent of parents – God, the Av Harachaman. We ask why? How? And more expansively, when, when will this end? No one, even great faith leaders is immune from asking such questions, as they see fit. This reminds me of the funeral for the five members of the Dutch Schijveschuurder family murdered in the Sbarro terror attack of 2001. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, speaking in front of the coffins looked heavenward and asked, “Dear Beloved God, I do not ask why, but I do ask ad matai (until when).”

She’eino Yode’ah Lishol: The child who can’t ask stirs within me the image of Nathaniel Felber, a chayal injured years ago. He cannot speak, and yet he speaks – slowly typing on his computer. This brings to mind another moment during this war, when visiting a soldier who was seriously wounded, withdrawn, hardly talking. Dr. Josh Altman turned to him and lovingly said, “Just take a small step today, tomorrow another small step, and then another small step. In time, you will look back and see how far you’ve come.” The soldier’s eyes lit up. With a smile, he looked at Josh and said “I love you” – and they embraced. This may be a good moment in the Seder to offer a prayer that all the wounded be healed, experiencing a “renewal of body, a renewal of soul.”

Spilling Drops of Wine: When recalling the punishments meted out to the Egyptians, drops of wine (symbolic of blood) are spilled as a reminder that the loss of any life, even enemy life, is not to be celebrated. While feeling deep sympathy for truly innocent Palestinians caught in the crossfire, I know, this year, I will feel no such compassion for the murderers, the rapists, the decapitators, the pedophiles, the defilers of Jewish bodies. For me, the spilling of the wine is the tragedy, the sadness that human beings could sink to such low levels, losing every shred of their humanity, if you will, “losing their blood.”.

Bechol Dor Va’Dor – In Every Generation: We reenact the Exodus by seeing ourselves as enslaved. We are there; it’s happening to us. This Seder, we will point to an empty chair at the Seder table. It awaits Noa, who was brutally kidnapped on that dark Shabbat. Her Ima Leora, stricken with cancer, has appealed to political leaders to facilitate her daughter’s freedom. The chair awaits Hersh, who was taken hostage with his arm blown off. And Eden Alexander, a chayal boded, an American lone soldier, who enlisted in the IDF, putting his life on the line for Israel, for all of us. He did so not out of obligation but out of choice. This is a time to raise our voice and, in the spirit of Moses speaking truth to power, call out for all the hostages, “Let My People Go – Now.”

Korech: Maror, symbol of the bitterness we experienced as slaves in Egypt, is wrapped with  matza, symbol of freedom, and consumed as a sandwich. Such is life. Opposites – slavery and freedom, death and birth, mourning and celebration – often interface. As Yehuda Amichai wrote, “To make love in war, and war in love.” In this spirit, I think of Alon, a jewelry maker, who lost his son Adir. Although in deep mourning, Alon was moved by weddings taking place on army bases in the midst of the war. As he explains, “I decided I’m going to donate a ring. On Facebook, I wrote the first soldier who is ready to propose I will give a ring. When a second called, I couldn’t turn him away. Since then it’s 81 rings. They pick it up and the best part is to get a hug from the soldiers. Hamas wanted to take our life to prevent the building of a house in Israel. And what I’m doing is the opposite. Adir won’t build a home in Israel, but because of him a lot of people will. Adir is still with us and this is my win.”

Haloch Yelech U’vacho – Those Who Walk and Cry: The psalm before the Grace After Meals (“A Song of Ascents”) speaks of crying while walking, reminding us of the countless military funerals held this past year. As throngs gather, suddenly there is silence, not an empty silence, but a silence pregnant with meaning. The rabbi leading the ceremony can be heard reciting a mournful prayer. Behind him walk soldiers, carrying the coffin of their fallen comrade. And behind them, the family, crying, walking, and sobbing, haloch yelech u’vacho.

Nishmat Kol Chai: Towards the end of the Seder, we recite the Nishmat prayer: “The soul of all that lives shall bless Your Name, Lord our God” – reminding us of our universal responsibilities. This segues into the dream of Leshana Ha’ba’ah B’Yerushalayim – next year, this year in Jerusalem, the eternal, undivided capital of the Jewish people, equally and lovingly open to all. This moment in the Seder is a good time to reflect on the horror and profound irony of Iranian missiles flying over its own holy site, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which was protected by Israel’s air defense.

Chad Gadya – One Kid: At our Seder this year, we may understand this final song differently. Chad is echad – one; Gadya from le’hagid, to tell. Thus, Chad Gadya offers an opportunity for Seder participants to tell stories related to what they and others did during this time that made a difference, contributing to the repair of our people and the world. I will tell the story of Iris, who, after her hostage son, Yotam, was mistakenly killed by the IDF, publicly welcomed the soldiers involved in this tragic accident:

…“At the first opportunity…you are welcomed to come to us, whoever wants to. And we want to see you with our own eyes and hug you and tell you that what you did — however hard it is to say this, and sad — it was apparently the right thing in that moment…And nobody’s going to judge you or be angry. Not me, and not my husband Raviv. Not my daughter Noya. And not Yotam, may his memory be blessed. And not Tuval, Yotam’s brother. We love you very much. And that is all.”

At the shiva, I saw Iris sitting alone with four soldiers in deep, private conversation. When finished, some of us sat silently with these holy men – strong, with M16s over their shoulders, in tears.

Hatikvah: With all we’ve experienced, we still hope. And so, at the Seder’s conclusion, why not sing Hatikvah? No other nation calls its national anthem “The Hope.” One wonders, what is the pathway to feeling hope? The pathway is to talk hope, do hope, act with hope. From the action, hope will rise. Then, with God’s help we will turn Ezekiel’s prophecy of the Dry Bones, “our hope is lost” (avdah tikvateinu), to the Hatikvah’s “Our hope is not lost” (od lo avdah tikvateinu).

Our Seder this year takes place in a dark but remarkable time. Today, we are not studying history but living history. We are enlisted in Israel’s army. Not all of us wear green fatigues, but all of us are trying to do our share, giving, giving to our people, to our homeland, declaring:

Yehi Ohr – Let There Be Light.

About the Author
Avi Weiss is the founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Bronx, N.Y., and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat rabbinical schools. He is a co-founder of the International Rabbinic Fellowship and longtime Jewish activist for Israel and human rights.
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