When we think of the challenges of hosting a seder, the physical – the cleaning and cooking – immediately spring to mind. Another challenge is negotiating the tension between the meal’s ritual requirements and the obligation to make the story actually speak to the participants who are there.
The lengthy Maggid section of the Haggadah is supposed to accomplish that. It is our inherited script, and in its own often stilted and idiosyncratic way, it is intended to “tell the story of the Exodus” by utilizing a series of ancient texts from the Mishnah and Midrash. When all is said and done, that is what we are supposed to be doing on seder night, as our ancient ancestors did. We are commanded to gather together as a clan around a feast that recalls the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb, and, utilizing the central symbols of the Exodus story as determined by the ancient rabbis, tell the story.
In so doing, we fulfill the command of the Torah. In a number of places, notably Exodus 12:26 and 13:14, the Torah specifically commands us to tell the story of the Exodus to our children. Doing so is a religious obligation, not merely a charming custom. The Haggadah was developed to facilitate this task. We use the script to tell the story. It is a measure of the Haggadah’s success through the ages that so much of it is familiar to so many of us.
But still, the fundamental challenge of telling the story effectively remains. For me, it involves letting go of the Seder experience with which I grew up.
The loving home in which I was raised was Modern Orthodox. Our seder was presided over by my late uncle who, though having physically left Russia many years earlier, never really left there spiritually. For him, the Haggadah was a text to be read from beginning to end, like any other liturgical service in the Jewish prayer book. Some was sung, most was mumbled, women were largely absent from the table once we got nearer to the meal, and children, besides asking the Four Questions, didn’t really have a special role to play. To be sure, there were never, ever, any non-Jews at our seders when I was growing up. The mere idea would never have occurred to my uncle, or, for that matter, to my parents.
Today, the seder my wife and I host couldn’t be more different, in many ways. Our goal is to involve everyone to the greatest extent, and like so many do, we give everyone at the table a chance to read a portion. We encourage questions. If there are five or six children at the table, they are all encouraged to bring the songs that they have learned in school to the table, as well as the explanations. And perhaps the biggest difference is that we regularly have non-Jews at our seder. My daughters have brought home close friends from college for both Shabbat and seder meals, and we also have invited prominent community people to our seder table. Just a few years ago we were honored to host the Bishop of Brooklyn and Queens, along with a priest and nun who work closely with him. This year, we were delighted to welcome our Congresswoman Grace Meng and her husband, who could not have been more gracious guests. Their presence enriched our discussions enormously, and made us all rededicate ourselves to the seriousness of the matter at hand.
What I am slowly coming to believe is that the Maggid section of the Haggadah, much like the morning prayer service, has certain prayers that must be recited no matter how creative one is being, like the Ten Plagues, Dayenu, and Rabban Gamliel’s discussion of Pesach, Matzah and Maror. But at the same time, some of the longer sections that take Biblical texts and expand on them midrashically are tired, and reciting them just for the sake of reciting them makes involving the different groups at the seder that much harder a task.
We are not being true to the Torah’s obligation to “tell the story” unless we find a way get those attending the seder to hear it. My uncle’s greatest concern was that we say every word so as to be “yotzei"; to have fulfilled our obligation to recite the Haggadah in its entirety. When it comes to Maggid, I’m much less focused on completeness, and much more interested in that magical moment when someone – younger or older – says something related to the Exodus story that shows that they really “get it.” I’ll trade a moment like that for a whole lot of text, because that’s when we’re fulfilling the Haggadah’s emphasis on developing the capacity to empathize with the generation of the Exodus. In every generation we are obligated to do just that.
Every family that regularly makes a seder develops its own idiosyncratic practices and inside jokes, and they are crucial to the memories of seders that we carry with us into adulthood. My family certainly had them, even as we plodded though the Haggadah. Most probably because of my upbringing and early Jewish education, it’s taken me a long time to get to where others arrived long before me. When you don’t have a tradition of faithfulness to the traditional text, it’s easier to innovate.
But even this far down the road, I like to think that I’m still a work in progress. I love our family seders… and I hope that next year’s edition won’t be identical to this one’s. It’s never too late to learn.
Mo’adim L’simcha! Enjoy the rest of the holiday!
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.