Sunday, April 12th, 2009
What if I skip the next few paragraphs? Would anyone notice? If they do, would they mind, or be glad?
These are the questions that can often cross your mind when you lead a seder, as I’ve found myself doing for the past 20 years or so. It’s not a role I’ve ever sought out, and I’d much rather share the responsibility with others, but it seems to fall on me by default.
Like many other long rituals, it requires fortitude and commitment, which can be difficult for those who bore easily, lack faith or just don’t, perhaps for reasons not of their own choice, have a long attention span.
I’m squarely in that last category, and will readily confess to taking short cuts around most prayer rituals, although I am far more devoted as an adult than I was as a restless child and teenager.
Two of the toughest rituals are the Purim megilla and the Passover seder, not least because they are lengthy liturgies poised between spiritual and physical fulfillment — namely, eating. Strict observance of Purim requires fasting on Taanis Esther all the way through the megillah reading, with all its numerous interruptions to blot out Haman’s name.
Likewise, fulfilling the full mitzvah of the seder means a long liturgical reading both before and after the meal. While there’s nothing wrong with an Erev Pesach snack before the seder, the reading is often done with delicious food on the table or beckoning from the kitchen via aroma, posing a willpower test, and leading to the infamous joke that the Fifth Question is “When Do We Eat?”
I’ve never been good with willpower, but for reasons I can’t fully explain, I’ve been a seder stickler for the 20-odd years I’ve been conducting them. While it’s often tempting to skip a paragraph or two and wonder who, if anyone, would notice, I’ve never willingly omitted a word of the Haggadah.
I grew up in a Modern Orthodox home with no religious relatives outside my immediate family, and so I vividly recall the annoyance that can creep into the room somewhere between “Ha Lachma Anya” and the eating of the korech, or bitter herb sandwich, which I always look at as the first real appetizer of the meal. It gets even worse after the meal, when people need a real incentive to stay at the table, especially when the grogginess of three and four cups of wine kicks in.
As a kid, the seder was led by the fastest Hebrew-reader in the family, my older brother, who tried valiantly to balance the need to keep things moving with the encouraged commentaries and discussions, despite protestations from the guests. For most secular Jews, the simple gathering at a seder table and the consumption of matza for at least one or two nights fulfills the observance of Passover. No need for lengthy passages no one understands.
Although my public-school educated, but devoutly religious father could not read much of the Haggadah in Hebrew, I vividly remember his passion for it in his English recitation, especially the part in which he spoke in God’s voice: “And I will smite all the firstborn, I myself, not a seraph;. And against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments, I myself, not a messenger!”
As he aged my father would often nod off during the post-meal portion as general fatigue mixed with wine-drenched drowsiness set in. But never once did he utter the words “hurry up” or suggest skipping anything.
It is probably that memory more than any other, even the protestations of relatives at having to eat late and their departure soon after dessert, that affected my view of the seder.
In the early years of my marriage my wife and I would host both sets of parents at our home, or take the mercifully short walk from one of their homes to the other to split the seders, and share the experience together, and I inevitably ended up leading by default. I don’t remember the last time my brother and I had the opportunity to have a seder together. Often we alternated nights at our parents so they wouldn’t be alone either night.
In his absence I became de facto fastest Hebrew reader, and always took the responsibility seriously. While I might be lenient davening for myself, how could I take a shortcut in the name of others? As any seder leader knows, some parts get more participation than others. “Dayenu” rocks. Hallel can be a drag. “Ki L’Olam Chasdo” draws blank stares. “Chad Gadya” is always a hit, and a suitable finale number. Like a director or ringleader, the challenge to the seder leader is to keep the audience engaged during the lags in the action.
For the past four years my immediate family and I have spent Passover in a large hotel setting, without our parents, surrounded mostly by strangers and by a few repeat guests who have become friends. It saddens me to be without the family elders at this transgeneration-oriented ritual, but I have been outvoted.
Three years ago was my most meaningful seder ever, seated with a group of Russian-born, yeshiva educated day camp counselors at the hotel who had a joyous passion for the seder that was nothing short of inspirational. To someone who spent his youth marching for the freedom of Soviet Jews every Solidarity Sunday outside the UN, it was like harvesting the fruits of my efforts and all those thousands of others who tore a gaping hole in the Iron Curtain. For the first time in years I didn’t feel the need to lead or be in control to make sure nothing was left out. The seder was in very good hands.
Two years ago, my wife and I and our three kids were seated alone, for the first Passover ever. The lack of company seemed unnatural, but it gave us the new experience of focusing only on each other, and for my wife and I, a chance to collect the dividends of our yeshiva tuition dollars.
This year, a larger table, again shared with teenage counselors, this time several of them born in Iran – another inspiring celebration of redemption and freedom and of a commitment to heritage that endured difficult circumstances.
Again, in my role as de facto and somewhat reluctant seder leader, I soldiered on from the more difficult passages, struggling to be heard over the din of a busy ballroom, trying to rush to the fun parts, and to get to the meal quickly for the kids’ sake. (Why is there no allusion to the Fifth Son, the one who is too cranky to ask?)
But even with my tired voice cracking and the effects of wine and too much food making it difficult to keep my eyes on the page, I recited every word until Chad Gadya.
Just because my father couldn’t be with me, doesn’t mean he couldn’t have a place at the table.
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