Because of Pesach, our history can never recede into the past and become merely a page in a history book.
The Haggadah says,
“In every generation a person must regard him- or herself as if they emerged from Egypt”.
We are all there amongst the Israelites who yearned for freedom, departed from the House of Bondage, crossed the Sea, and set off through the wilderness for the Promised Land. We are with Moses and Miriam. We groaned under the taskmasters, we sang as we started our new life.
There is no family that does not have its own historical memory of countless later events, no family that has not had its own experiences, no family that does not have a tale to tell.
Once upon a time our children were too impatient to have time for their grandparents’ and parents’ memories, but we now live in a new generation when history is an intrinsic part of self-identity. So a suggestion – as you sit at Seder, chat with the people you know about their own personal memories; create your own individual Pesach at a date that links with your own story, and re-live the events that made you what you are.
Bookshops, library shelves and family heirlooms all accord pride of place to illustrated Haggadot. The pictures are usually of medieval origin, though the more recent versions intersperse the age-old Haggadah text with scenes from modern Jewish history, especially the Israeli experience.
Some of these Haggadot are really too beautiful to use. Others are too complicated to be practical: imagine trying to weave your way through pages of illustrations in order to find the Seder procedure and text.
However, it is not merely the question of practicality that these Haggadot raise. They force us to ask the question of whether they infringe the rule in the Torah about not making the form of anything in heaven or earth.
As the Haggadah is not a sacred book in the same sense as the Tanach, considerable licence was allowed by the rabbis. An example is the Darmstadt Haggadah with many beautifully coloured illustrations on its 58 parchment pages. They depict animals and human beings including the company at Seder and even people going hunting, though the hunting is certainly a halachic problem – someone said that a Jew who says he enjoys hunting cannot really be Jewish!
The illustrated Haggadot tell us about where Jews have roamed, and about the story of Jewish culture. They take us to Holland, Russia, the early kibbutzim – and even outback Australia. The Spanish Haggadah in a British library shows Rabban Gamliel sitting on a seat under a canopy that resembles evangelists and scribes in Christian art; the Sarajevo Haggadah shows the rasha as a Moorish warrior; 19th century Haggadot depict him as a supporter of the Haskalah.
Whichever Haggadah you use is your choice, but if you have one with illustrations you might find yourself discussing the pictures as well as Yetzi’at Mitzrayim.
WHEN DO WE EAT?
Judaism is not the only culture to combine a fraternal meal with philosophical discussion. Ancient Greece developed the Symposium, though the context was not so much a meal as a drinking feast. The Romans for their part coined the phrase “cum panis”, common bread, from which derives the term “company”.
Judaism, however, elevated table talk into a religious requirement. It believed that a group who eat together and talk Torah turn the table into an altar; those who merely eat and discuss no Torah look like idolaters (Avot 3:3-4).
The Pesach Seder is the best example of the Jewish concept of fraternal eating combined with religious discussion. But it is not a mere ritualised philosophical exercise. The discussion plunges us into the events. It reconstructs the slavery and the Exodus, it gives us the taste of the bitterness of bondage and the sweetness of release, and it enables us to reach our own conclusion that none can be fully free until everyone is free.
There may be people who want to rush through the talk and get straight to the food. The poet would have called them people “with soul so dead”.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com