I remember one particular seder (the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover meal) as I was growing up. My grandfather sat at the head of the table, surrounded by all the different family members... and I had the honored position (at six years old) of sitting just to his right. We used the old blue haggadah (the special Passover "prayerbook") that Maxwell House used to give away each season. It didn't have many pictures, the English translations were "old style," and for a six year old it seemed so long!
In the middle of the seder, I turned to my grandfather and tugged at his sleeve. He leaned over to me and I whispered, "Zayde, there is so much stuff here. What does it all mean?" My grandfather, an Orthodox Jew, whispered back, "Arthur, you have to find the pieces that speak to you. It's like a puzzle. Search until you find the words that are right for you. Then, you will understand what it all means."
It took many years, including writing my own haggadah, before I fully understood what my grandfather told me.
The seder is really dinner theatre. The guests at the table are the actors in the play. The script is the haggadah. And the food and drink on the table are the props. Starting from this premise, it all becomes a little easier to understand and a lot easier to maneuver through.
The most important line in the entire haggadah is this: "In every generation, each individual should feel as though s/he went out of Egyptian slavery personally." These words encapsulate the rationale for participating in a seder: Only by having the personal experience of servitude does an individual truly appreciate the gift that freedom is. And the best way to have that experience is to choose those ways of talking about Passover that speak to you and your guests around the seder table.
The main section of the haggadah is called magid (recite) for a reason. Reciting the Passover story is the very heart of the seder. Our purpose for having a seder is to remind us of that time so long ago which began with our people being slaves to pharaoh, then continued with their exodus from Egypt and their forty years of wandering in the desert, and culminated with God giving the Jewish people the Torah at Mt. Sinai. We learn of the formative years of our foremothers and forefathers; how they were foreigners in a strange land; how through fortitude and forbearance they foresaw good fortune forever if they would listen to God.
As anyone who has attended a seder knows, the number "four" is very important in the seder celebration. The rabbis who developed the structure of the Passover seder over 2,000 years ago knew that "tricks" had to be used to help people remember the order and details. One of those tricks was to use the number "four" throughout. (While another number could be used, my guess is that the number lent itself to enough-but-not-too-much information/variety.) We have four cups of wine, four promises by God, four questions, four children. In addition, there are four different ways of telling the story of Passover. This fact is key to making the seder meaningful to us.
Four cups of wine: At a seder, we are to drink four cups of wine. Each cup symbolizes a different promise of redemption from slavery made by God to the Jewish people, as mentioned in Exodus 6:6-7. As we drink the wine, we discuss the different meanings of both the promise and the actual redemption. By drinking the wine (or grape juice), we symbolically participate in the actual promise and redemption.
Four promises by God: These are the quotes from the book of Exodus mentioned above. Each is similar (I will take you out of Egypt; I will deliver you from Egyptian slavery; I will redeem you; I will take you as a nation), yet each as a distinct meaning and message. The goal is to personalize these promises and to internalize their meaning.
Four questions: During the seder, usually the youngest child present asks four questions (Why do we eat matzah? Why do we eat bitter herbs? Why do we dip our food in salt water and charoset [an apple, nut and wine mixture]? Why do we recline?). These questions, which relate to the actions of the "play," are meant to solicit conversation about the "props" and their significance. Each relates to a different aspect of the Passover story.
Four children: In the haggadah, four children are described (wicked, wise, simple, and unable to ask questions). We are instructed to share the Passover story with each, according to his (or her) ability. We start where the child is, and bring the child to where we want to be—to remember that the story is about our liberation from slavery.
We talk about Passover in different ways because each of us looks at the world in a unique way. We see things differently. We hear things differently. Because the story of the Exodus from Egypt is so important, our rabbis and teachers wanted every person to understand the meaning of this event.
So, four different ways of explaining the story developed. If one way of understanding didn't work for somebody, there were still three more approaches we could try. By having different "learning methods," we are guaranteed that everybody at the seder can gain a greater appreciation for what this holiday and its symbolism are all about.
The four ways are: 1) the four questions; 2) the four children; 3) the retelling of the Exodus; and 4) describing the three symbols of Passover (maror, or bitter herbs; zeroa, or roasted shankbone; matzah, or unleavened bread. The bitter herbs represent the bitterness of slavery. The shankbone represents the lamb that was slaughtered on the eve of Passover and whose blood was put on the doorposts of the Hebrews, so when the angel of death passed by, these homes were saved from the last of ten plagues. It also represents the sacrifice that was offered in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. The unleavened bread represents the bread the Jewish people had to eat in haste when they left Egyptian slavery, not having time to allow it to rise.) These four approaches actually teach different lessons. And each supposes a different level of knowledge and interest. None is necessarily better than the others. Each is just another way of looking at this special celebration.
Going back to the play metaphor, there are actually four different scripts that we have in our haggadah. While traditionally we read all approaches, we should really focus on those that speak to us. If we learn best by asking questions, use the four questions. If we are better able to understand by analogies, read the four children. If we like history and discourse, use the retelling of the Exodus. And if we relate best to symbolism, then read about the three symbols. The key is to use the haggadah as a starting point. Have your own discussions. Create your own meanings. Find the relationship between the Jewish people leaving slavery and your own life. If there are many people at the seder, they may have different questions or approaches that speak to them. Feel free to explore them. Feel free to improvise your "play," based on your "actors!"
In a traditional haggadah, there are fourteen sections. Consider them to be chapter headings. In order, we bless the Passover day; we wash our hands in anticipation of the celebration; we eat greens, representing the springtime; we divide the matzah, and save the rest for dessert; we tell the story of Passover, we wash once more before our meal; we eat the matzah; we eat bitter herbs; we eat a special "sandwich" of matzah and charoset, remembering the same act done by a great ancient rabbi; we eat a festive meal, containing no bread or leavening products; we eat the "middle"matzah, to end our meal; we bless our meal; we recite songs of praise to God and celebration; and we conclude the seder with a prayer for remembering the meaning of this holiday.
Discover which of the four ways of telling the story is right for this year's seder and focus on those sections. As long as you a) somehow tell the story; b) somehow communicate that this is relevant to us today; c) eat the foods in which our ancestors found meaning (greens, bitter herbs, charoset, and matzah), then all the rest will come naturally. Find a good script that you like (meaning: choose a haggadah carefully—options include political, feminist, psychological, gay/lesbian/transgendered, theological, spiritual, children's, family and many more. While your local bookstore may not have a large selection, you can find more options on the Internet). Figure out where the props go and what pieces of the script to read. Invite the guests. And then, have a very happy Passover.
For a free copy of the haggadah that Rabbi Nemitoff has edited (you will be charged only $2.50 for postage) contact him at: email@example.com.