Crashing The Seder Story
Tue, 03/27/2012
Special To The Jewish Week
A traditional seder plate. Are new, symbolic additions part of the holiday spirit, or are they “unwelcome guests?”
A traditional seder plate. Are new, symbolic additions part of the holiday spirit, or are they “unwelcome guests?”

Always, despite the children’s hilarity and the happy anticipation of the feast, there comes to the seder a palpable and bitterly unsmiling Guest. Sometimes she is aged and hoary, and sometimes far younger, as ruddy-faced as freshly spilled blood. Most often she is the querulous hag who has attended the seder for centuries; her name is Historia. But when she is newly arrived, and insinuates herself among the grownups in her torn dress smelling of gunpowder, or sticky with plastic explosive, she is called Politica. Silent, she attempts to hide inside the Haggadah’s wine-stained pages. But she is always discovered, and forced out, and made to speak. Whatever her age, her voice is a plaint and an admonition, and her argument tends to unite, and frequently divide, the company in decisive ways. She speaks out, at the very least, twice. Nor does she merely speak; she entreats, she instructs, she remembers:

In every generation all of us should regard ourselves as though we personally had come out of Egypt. As it is said: This is on account of what the Lord did for me when I went forth from Egypt. It was not our ancestors alone whom the Holy One redeemed; we also were redeemed together with them. As it is said: And us did He take out from there, in order to bring us hither, to give us the land which He had sworn to our fathers.

And in still graver tones, and more fiercely, we hear her once more:

Pour out Thy wrath upon the nations that know Thee not and the kingdoms that call not upon Thy name: for they have eaten Jacob and laid waste to his dwelling. Pour out Thy fury upon them, and may the kindling of Thine anger overtake them. Pursue them with anger and destroy them from under God’s skies.

How these passages from the burning throats of Historia and Politica can inflame the seder! What unwelcome Guests they can be! And why? First, because the Haggadah is in essence a book about divine redemption, not auto-emancipation. It is the Holy One, Blessed be He, who redeems — not a revolutionary leader, not a popular rebellion, not a socioeconomic theory. The Haggadah is by no means a secular narrative. To try to turn it into an inspirational handbook is to denature it.

And second, the Haggadah is unequivocally a book of Jewish memory. It counsels us to remember not only Egyptian bondage, but all the criminal acts of canard and oppression and bloodshed that have followed: the Crusades, the Inquisition, the pogroms, the blood libels, the Protocols, the Holocaust, the eight-decades-long wars against Jewish sovereignty, the jihadists’ cult of massacre, the pervasive anti-Zionism that aims to delegitimate and put an end to the Jewish state (sometimes even in the perverted name of human rights). And if the Haggadah did not remember from generation to generation, if it did not invoke wrath against the murder of innocents, it would invite deafness to the tenets of mercy, it would condone by indifference.

These twin utterances by Historia and Politica are what the Haggadah means; and when they are diluted, or made to evaporate in pretty fragrances, or metamorphosed into generalities, or dressed in garments loose enough to clothe any ideology or outlook or mood or fashionable whim, then the Haggadah will be consigned to what it merits: faddish irrelevance.

The Haggadah is a book composed in exile to protest exile, and to protect against iniquity. Prophetically, but also pragmatically, it closes with the words “Next year in Jerusalem.” Jerusalem is a real city; it is not a symbol or a metaphor. The Haggadah does not require commentary. It is its own commentary. It may not be distanced from the seder and the seder’s spontaneities; it is the life of the seder, it is the wine that is drunk, the food that is eaten; it is what the children do. One must feel, bodily, experientially, the trickling of the matzah crumbs down the front of one’s clothes. Sentiments and aspirations, however gratifying, are not the whole of it. It is not an instrument for personal grievance or personal advancement. It must wrest its being from those ever-present revenants, Historia and Politica. It is not solely a beautiful idea. It is an experience, like freedom itself. •

Cynthia Ozick’s latest novel is “Foreign Bodies.”