Reflection at the Passover Seder Table
I have just been reading a book called ‘Thinking Institutionally’, by Hugh Heclow.
It is all about the role of institutions in our lives and how they shape us.
Tonight, we forgo the new and innovative, and ask what we owe to the past, because this is the night of passing on the story of the Exodus – the story of the Jewish slaves who fought for and won their freedom with Moses’ and God’s help – to the next generation. One way to evaluate whether the Passover ritual meal has been a success if whether those who have participated, and especially the children, feel connected to this ancient story. Do we feel that it was our great-great-great-great (etc) grandparents who were enslaved, and now are free? Do we feel it is our story too?*
The book suggests an orientation towards life that encourages us to thoughtfully take delivery of what has been handed to us.
Heclow suggests that while we may want to live with the freedom of not being accountable to anyone else, when we receive a tradition handed to us faithfully, we live as encumbered people – in a relationship with a story of the Jewish People that preceded us, and will outlast us too.
Tonight, I wanted to ask us to reflect on the institution of the telling of the Pesach story at the seder table. What role has this telling and re-telling (you would have thought we were bored of retelling the same story once a year for 3,000 years) played in the life of the Jewish People? How have the seders, customs and stories that we have been part of through our families, shaped us? What stories do we carry in the particular ways we tell and re-tell the story in our family? And how do we hope our children to tell and re-tell the story to our grandchildren? How will this story continue to shape them?
So, my first question is, who taught you the story of Pesach? What did they want you to understand about it? Why?
And now, I would like to create a little thought experiment by inviting 2 guests to the table.
First, this chair, on whom sits all of our grandparents.
And, on this chair, sit all of our grandchildren.
Our grandparents (some of whom passed many years ago) turn around to look at us and ask: What have you decided to do with this Pesach story that we have given you? Are you mindful of it? How are you are taking care of it in your times?
And our grandchildren look at us from the other side of the table (all of whom are still to be born), look at us and say: How have you transmitted the Pesach story/seder that was invested in you by your grandparents, to us? Is it in better order than you received it? What do you want us to learn and remember about this story for us to pass on?
That is when a ritual meal becomes a collective moment of building the next generation. At the table sit our ‘150 year present’, stretching back 75 years (or more) to when our grandparents were born, to 75 years in the future, when our grandchildren will die.
How faithfully we choose to share, live and be moved by the story will determine whether the institution is passed down, and whether it means anything to our grandchildren at all.
*I am not making a truth claim about whether the Exodus actually happened. At the very least, we know that the Jewish People have been celebrating this national, foundational story, through seder ritual meals, at the very least since the prophet Samuel in 11 BCE.