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Maxwell House Haggadah: "Not a Fan" #670

03/26/2021 04:40:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

"Shabbat HaGadol — the Great Shabbat
Maxwell House Haggadah: "Not a Fan"

I’ve been thinking, these past few weeks, about past Passovers, with both the good and “complex” memories they invoke.

Exhibit A is the Maxwell House Haggadah, which since 1932, has guided families through one of the most storied holidays in Jewish tradition. More than 50 million copies are in print.

But in so many ways, the Maxwell House Haggadah has been imperfect. Few, if any, photos. Few explanations. Too many prayers that have little to do with the Pesach story.

To be clear, the reason we assemble for a Passover Seder is yes to tell the story of our liberation from Egypt — but most importantly, to transmit the tradition of freedom and social justice to our children and grandchildren.

The Talmud makes it clear that almost every aspect of the Seder is tailored to inspire children to ask questions.

“Why are we here?”

“What is the meaning of those things on the plate?”

“What does this have to do with me?”

“Why is this night different from all other nights?”

But in modern times these questions, have too often been replaced by:

“When do we eat?”

“Why is this so boring?”

“Why can’t I use my cell phone?”

“Why is Uncle Moshe reading so fast?”

One of my rabbinical school teachers noted that during the 1880-1920 migration of European Jews to America, one segment of the Jewish population stayed behind in higher proportions.

It was the rabbis.

You may remember the plot of the classic movie, The Frisco Kid. The newly formed Jewish community of San Francisco needs a rabbi. They contact a seminary in Europe, but rather than send its best, the yeshiva ships over a schlemiel played by Gene Wilder — and the comedy begins.

America was often termed by the European rabbis as the traife medina — the unkosher country: Cowboys, rogues and criminals.

So who did we learn from? In most cases it was our parents and grandparents. But often, while many of our beloved and well-intentioned ancestors knew the rituals, they did not know the reasons. Too often the reply was, “Because that’s the way it’s done.”

While that provided for wonderful family connections and memories, today, children increasingly ask the question, “Why?”

Too many parents or grandparents blame themselves for not knowing the answers. 

An organization known as JewBelong has made it a point to rescue many Jews from the throws of Jewbarrassment with an underlying declaration:

“You are not to blame.”

Friends, this is Shabbat HaGadol – the Great Shabbat. In ancient times, rabbis delivered sermons only twice a year — once between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and this Shabbat — the one preceding Pesach.

In past years, I have devoted a lot of attention on this Shabbat to the idea of cleaning the chametz from our souls. Indeed, we devote a lot of focus prior to Passover toward removing physical crumbs from our homes.

But this is also a time to get rid of our spiritual bloat. 

Rabbi Alexandri shared in the Talmud that the one thing preventing each of us from completing God’s will is the “yeast in the dough” of our souls — more specifically, arrogance, haughtiness, jealousy, stubbornness, pride, unbridled passion and lust.

This Passover will again be different from all other Passovers. This will be the second year that most families will be limited to small Seders — less food, fewer guests. We will miss the smells, the traditions and even the political debates.

Yet this year, within smaller, more intimate settings — as the possibility of returning to some level of normality approaches — we have the unique chance to return toward Passover’s true meaning.

For not only do we need to review the original 10 plagues, but we must also encourage discussion around the table regarding today’s plagues.

Let’s think for a moment. What plagues afflict us in 2021?

Have we picked up some new ones during the past year? Have we also developed some insights regarding possible antidotes during this time of reflection and isolation?

In addition, rather than classifying children into the four traditional categories of wise, wicked, simple and those who do not know how to ask, maybe we need to be asking ourselves what we and teachers can do to inspire our children.

This will not happen by rattling through the Maxwell House Haggadah, but rather through new versions and additional readings. Better to go slower — do less, but do it better.

What should our outcome be as we sit down for this year’s in-person or Zoom Seder? Perhaps we need to discuss and identify within a free and relaxed atmosphere:

Who are the enslaved, and how can we help?

What makes this night of Passover different from all others?

What have we learned by working, convening, praying and reflecting in new ways?

These are the values we want our children to carry forward?

Through the next year, hopefully our lives will continue to edge towards a greater degree of normality. But we will never be the same. A year lost in some ways, but a year gained in others.

Let us carry those lessons forward this Pesach. Let us reflect upon what we have learned. Let us use our Seders as opportunities to discuss what being free really means.

Those messages of transformation are not found on a page. They come from the heart. 

There is a structure to the Seder as we move from memories of slavery toward a vision of freedom. There is no need to rely on Maxwell House. Download readings, look for alternatives, use prompts, props and videos. In short, do it your way. We can all be teachers. 

Let us make a special effort to express our love for family and friends, and to give thanks for our possible liberation from the Covid plague. Let us also remember to articulate the words, “thank you.”

During Passover, we all become rabbis, as we remind ourselves and others how precious life and freedom truly are. 

For today — as parents and grandparents — we have the capacity to shape tomorrow’s memories. What will our children remember?

As they were for us, let those memories be sweet.

Shabbat Shalom, Chag Sameach – Happy Passover.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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