What a familiar Haggadah tells us this year

The Haggadah text is so effective and meaningful because it is so familiar.

In 1973, after the Yom Kippur War, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir was invited to be the guest of honor at a dinner in New York hosted by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.  Rabbi Shlomo Riskin was there and witnessed the following exchange.

During the dinner, the Prime Minister already was looking looked bored as an unplanned presentation was added to the program.  She was given a new copy of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan’s interpretation of the Haggadah.  In this new version, the Egyptian slavery was replaced by the Holocaust, and the State of Israel was center stage as the Israelites travel in the Sinai desert.  Mrs. Meir skimmed quickly through the Haggadah and returned it, saying “Thank you very much, but I’m not really interested.”

The American leaders making the presentation were shocked.  “But you are not Orthodox, and this new rendition makes the story more relevant for a generation that experienced the horrors of the Holocaust followed by the creation of the State of Israel!”  Golda’s response was priceless: “No, I am not Orthodox, and I never will be. Nevertheless, I do host a Pesach Seder each year, especially for my grandchildren. What is most important to me is that my granddaughter at the Seder uses the same words that my grandmother said at her Seder.”

The beauty of the Seder is that the very familiar words are relevant in all times and situations.  Here are some thoughts on what the Haggadah says to us during this extraordinary year of the Coronavirus pandemic.

הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא דִּי אֲכָלוּ אַבְהָתָנָא בְאַרְעָא דְמִצְרָיִם

This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in Egypt…

This year, we have a deeper, personal understanding of affliction.

 כָּל דִכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכֹל

Let all who are hungry eat…

Usually, we make this declaration as a reminder to open our homes for the Seder and beyond to those in need.  This year, we cannot welcome a guest or even family members.

הָשַּׁתָּא עַבְדֵי, לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בְּנֵי חוֹרִין

Now, we are slaves. Next year, we shall be free.

This year, we are burdened, constricted, and restricted. Next year, please God, we will, quite literally, be free, outside, and together.

מַה נִּשְׁתַּנָּה הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה מִכָּל הַלֵּילוֹת

How different is this night from all other nights! Why is this night different from all other nights?

This year, we know how and why this night is different.  And, yet, we still have so many questions.

בָּרוּךְ הַמָּקוֹם, בָּרוּךְ הוּא

Blessed is the Place (Omnipresent), Blessed is God

This year, our places, our homes, require blessing.  We have a new appreciation for space and place.

מִתְּחִלָּה עוֹבְדֵי עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה הָיוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ

In the beginning, our ancestors were idol worshippers

This year, we look to the past for new insights into the present and guidance towards the future. Our ancestors have withstood challenge before. So, please God, shall we again.

וְהִיא שֶׁעָמְדָה לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ וְלָנוּ

This has stood for our ancestors and for us

What is “this?”  Maybe “this” is faith.  Maybe, as we raise our glasses for this passage, “this” is our ability to raise our cups to celebrate no matter the circumstances.  This year, we need to rely on “this” more than ever and maintain confidence and joy in the face of fear and uncertainty.

וַנִּצְעַק אֶל־ה’ אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵינוּ, וַיִּשְׁמַע ה’ אֶת־קֹלֵנוּ

We cried out to the Lord, God of our ancestors, and God heard our voice

This year, we double down on the need to call out in prayer for those who are ill, for those who are suffering, and those heroes on the front lines providing care for those at risk and in need.  And, this year, we know God will hear our voice.

אֵלּוּ עֶשֶׂר מַכּוֹת שֶׁהֵבִיא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא עַל־הַמִּצְרִים בְּמִצְרַיִם

These are the ten plagues that God brought against the Egyptians

This year, we can better understand the power of a plague.

כַּמָה מַעֲלוֹת טוֹבוֹת לַמָּקוֹם עָלֵינוּ

How many levels of kindness has God bestowed upon us!

This year, despite the difficulty and uncertainty, we appreciate all the kindness God continues to bestow upon us, the little gifts we can find in everyday life.

דַּיֵּנוּ

It would have been enough for us!

This year, we each have our own personal “Dayeinu!”  Enough sickness.  Enough time inside.  Thank you, God, for everything, but it’s enough.

בְּכָל־דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת־עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם

In every generation, a person is obligated to view themselves as actually leaving Egypt.

This year, we can appreciate the feeling of anticipation for the moment of redemption. We yearn for freedom and a release from our current circumstances.

לְפִיכָךְ אֲנַחְנוּ חַיָּבִים לְהוֹדוֹת, לְהַלֵּל, לְשַׁבֵּחַ

Therefore, we are obligated to thank, praise, and laud

When the moment of redemption comes, we will sing and rejoice.  This year, we sing with gusto in anticipation of better times and knowing that, please God, we will have much for which to praise and be grateful.

לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בִּירוּשָלָיִם הַבְּנוּיָה

Next year, in a rebuilt Jerusalem!

This year, we are acutely aware of how much we yearn for next year.  This year, despite our situation and surroundings, we can sing with confidence that, next year, we will celebrate a joyous Pesach Seder unlike any other before.

About the Author
Rabbi Elie Weinstock is Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City. A believer in a Judaism that is accessible to all, he prefers "Just Judaism" to any denominational label.
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