Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Why is this Night Different? Seder 5767

Our Seder at Sunset 14-15 Nisan 5767
April 2, 2007

Some of our guests socialize in the living room before the Seder

Once all the preparations are done, the fun part of Pesach begins. Bruce and I have had a Seder every year of our married life. Preparing Seder is important, but it is the guests that make the Seder work. Every year, I say that I am going to keep the number down to a managable 12 - 14 people, but that never happens. Someone always asks to bring guests of their own. And it always works out wonderfully when they do!

Of course, while some of the guests socialize, others wander into the kitchen to help me finish setting up. On Seder night, I am always up to my elbows in last minute tasks, but somehow, it all gets done.

Here is our Seder plate on the table. It has all of the usual symbols plus an orange. Later when we tell the meaning of the shankbone (it symbolizes the lamb sacrificed of old so our ancestors could mark the doorposts of their dwellings so that the angel of death could pass over them), and the matzah (the bread baked in haste when they fled Egypt), and the maror (bitter herbs--to symbolize the bitterness of slavery), we also tell the modern midrash of the orange on the Seder plate.

The Orange on the Seder Plate: A Modern Midrash

by N.

Sometime after the war, a famous rabbi was asked if women would ever read Torah. He said: "A woman belongs on the Bimah (raised platform where Torah is read) as much as an orange belongs on the Seder plate." The rabbi's wife heard him, but she didn't say anything. Months went by. When Pesach came, the rabbi's wife worked as hard as Jewish mothers do, removing chametz and preparing for the Seder. The rabbi cleaned his study. When he came out to take his place at the Seder table, there was an orange on the Seder plate! We are not free until all are treated equally as complete human beings, regardless of gender.

Elisheva's commentary on the midrash: A midrash is a story that amplifies the meaning of some aspect of Torah, or of Jewish law. This midrash is in the grand tradition. There have been many times where our rabbis have made pronouncements or tried to stop folk customs, but have been unsuccessful. They did not approve of some of the customs that developed around Purim, for example, and also Hannukah. But the people Israel maintained the customs and elaborated on them, and the rabbis had to accept that. The same was true in the middle ages, when Maimonides tried to impose a creed--Adon Olam. But many Jews, including the famous Nachmanides, rejected having a creed. So we sing Adon Olam, but it is not a creed that we all agree upon. In Judaism there is no higher authority that stands between a Jew and G-d. There is no orthodoxy in the stict sense of "right dictum" but rather an orthopraxy, that is "right practice." And there are differences of opinion about what is indeed "right practice." Remember--two Jews, three opinions! So we place an orange on our Seder plate to demonstrate that women do belong on the Bimah, and are on the Bimah in the majority of Jewish congregations throughout the world.

The purpose of the Seder meal is discussed in Torah. We are commanded: "You shall tell your child on that day..." So our rabbis set up a feast modeled on a Greek feast, but with many important differences. The purpose of all of the symbols and actions of the feast is to pique the curiousity of the children so that we can tell the story. Hence the "Four Questions" asked by a child or children begins the mighty Maggid, the Telling.

"How different is this night from all other nights! On all other nights, we eat leavened bread or matzah, why on this night, only matzah? On all other nights, we eat all kinds of vegetables, why on this night, only maror (bitter herbs)? On all other nights, we do not even dip once, why on this night do we dip twice? On all other nights, we eat sitting upright or reclining, why on this night, only reclining?" These questions call attention to the symbols and actions of the Seder and we answer by telling the story:

"We were slaves to pharoah in Mitzrayim (the narrow places--Egypt), but Adonai our G-d brought us forth with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. And if the Holy One, praised be G-d, had not taken our ancestors out of Mitzrayim, then we, and our children, and our children's children, would still be slaves to Pharoah in Mitzrayim. Now, even if all of us were sages, even if all of us were elders, even if all of us were learned in Torah, it would still be our duty to tell the story of the Exodus from Mitzrayim. Moreover, whoever elaborates upon the story of our Exodus is worthy of praise."

Because everyone who elaborates on the story merits praise, at our Seder, during the Telling (Maggid), everyone who wants to read gets a turn reading some of the story. The story is told in four different ways in order that everyone will learn something new from it.

Since the Maggid is so long, some people think that the four questions are: "When do we eat? When do we eat? When do we eat? When do we eat?"

We eventually do come to the time for eating. But first--as N. says, there's always a 'but first!--there is the ritual of the washing of hands. This is not a matter of cleanliness--it is assumed that one comes to the table with clean hands--it is a matter of raising our hands to a higher level because Judaism is a religion of the home, and in our homes, the dining table is called a mikdash katan, a little altar. Our service to G-d takes place at the table, starting with the ritual eating of bread, so we do a ritual handwashing before eating bread, or in this case, matzah. The custom is that one does not speak between washing and eating as they are one act, so when there is a large crowd, the first person to wash must be quiet the longest! This is hard on Jews--so there is always a mad rush to be last! However, we always manage to find someone to go first--and I am always last, since I help with the blessing.

At last! Food. Food is very important in every Jewish holiday, but at Pesach, it takes on greater meaning. The dinner is usually elaborate and served in courses and must be prepared according to the strict kashrut standards of Passover.

I am always the last to sit down--which means sometimes my most special dishes are already gone. I have learned to set back a little of my favorite kugels and such so that I do get a "bissele." My husband watches this in amazement (I guess men don't plan like this) and usually says, "My dear wife has a Yiddishe kop." (Translation: I married a really smart woman). Personally, I think my midwestern upbringing has something to do with it. Midwestern women are very practical.

But, wait, the mean is NOT the end! After the meal come some of my favorite parts of the Seder. During the Maggid, the children steal the afikomen, the broken middle matzah that symbolizes the passover lamb that was once sacrified in the temple. We cannot finish the meal until we can share the afikomen, so, in the interest of preserving what's left of our waistlines (Passover cooking is not on the FDA's food pyramid), we pay a prize to get the hidden afikomen back.

Then we say the blessing after meals, and then, we open the door for Eliyahu (Elijah), herald of "the great and awesome day of Adonai, when the hearts of the parents will be turned toward the children, and the hearts of the children toward the parents." The children are sent to open the door, and someone usually makes sure the amount of wine in Elijah's cup is lessened when they return. This year MLC had the honor, but she did not hear the word "lessen," so she chugged the whole cup! It was Manischewitz, wine. Poor thing missed her Quantitative Analysis lecture yesterday.
It is our custom to sing Elijah's song while holding hands--and after three cups of wine, we all sway a little. It is a Jewish 'Kum ba-ya" moment.

But my favorite part of the Seder is the singing of Chad Gadya (Only One Kid).
The commentary on the song in our Haggadah is beautifully written, and it is always MLC that reads it. Part of it says: "To find in the Haggadah--so full already of miracles and marvels-- a peaceful place on the last page...And this very Haggadah whispers, 'Join us, you're welcome belong among my pages full of smoke and blood, among the great and ancient tales I tell.' So I know that the sea was not split in vain, deserts not crossed in vain--If at the end of the story stand Daddy and the kid, knowing their turn will come." (By Robert Alteman).

And then we sing the song, each verse longer than the last, so that it is hard to sing the last verse all in one breath! (It is like the English "House that Jack Built).

We end the Seder saying: Next Year in "Jerusalem!"
And we sing Adir Hu (G-d of Might).

The guests depart with kisses and lots of food. The extra chairs are folded away.

Then there are the dishes...

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