Embracing the Seder

by Rabbi Debra Rappaport

When I worked as a congregational rabbi, I observed that, even in good times, Jewish anxieties surface in the days leading up to Passover. So here we are this year, with a lot to be anxious about. The level of distress in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, and the growing antisemitism here at home are forcing many of us to look at the Passover ritual with new eyes.

I am grateful for my many teachers this year, who have helped me see the choreography of the Seder as a deep practice for resilience.

Thanks to Rav James Jacobson-Maisels at Or HaLev for lifting up the Seder’s threefold repetition of b’chol dor vador, in every generation. (See the link for the actual texts from the Haggadah; interpretations mine.)

1. In every generation, not just in ancient Egypt, people rise up to destroy us – and God saves us.

This starts with putting us, today, into a much longer historical trajectory. We are part of a story much older and longer than today’s crises.

I have ignored this verse until this year, because it didn’t feel true to my experience. But now I see it with new eyes, as a teaching that gives us a chance to feel the fear, name the grief. This dynamic is real for the Jewish people. We can sit with our shock that this is really happening again, and know that the story or our people’s resilience can hold us.

2. In every generation, b’chol dor vador, each person must see ourselves as if WE came out of Egypt, and to teach our children that this story is personal.

For me, the emphasis this year is not on “we were slaves” but on “we cried out” and put the wheels of change in motion. Whether we see God or humans at the center, the story holds transformation for the better. The invitation here is to share our stories of survival through hard times; to name and teach others about what has sustained us through difficult times.

3. In every generation, we extoll the wondrousness of our Creator. (Nishmat)

This is the moment, after the meal, for wonder and gratitude. If we’re still in our thinking brain at that point, it directs our minds to the wondrousness of all life, just as it is. Or maybe we’re just expressing ourselves in song.

Rabbi Sheila Weinberg reminded me that the Seder is filled with symbols of paradox, as we literally hold both/and for the same ritual items. Matzah, the bread of affliction, is also the bread of redemption. We eat the fresh sprouts of spring representing new growth, dipped in tears of grief and suffering. It is incumbent upon us to embrace the joy along with the suffering, as in life both are simultaneously true. 

Rabbi Amy Eilberg’s insightful article, How to Talk about the Elephant in the Room at This Year’s Seder, does a beautiful job naming “the elephant in the room”: some at our tables will likely see our people in the traditional role as oppressed, and others may see Israel as the oppressor, and all will feel strongly about it.  Rabbi Eilberg ties both sides meaningfully to the essence of the Seder, and offers some lovely suggestions about how to hold that tension in loving and relational ways.