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Call for a Newer Seder #722

04/15/2022 03:05:43 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Pesach 2022
Call for a Newer Seder

A few weeks ago, a congregant asked me what I regarded as the most insightful Jewish movie of all time.

Her opinion was that it was Fiddler on the Roof. And who could argue?

Phrases like “May God keep the Czar far away from us.” “I realize it's no shame to be poor, but it's no great honor either,” and “How did this tradition get started? I'll tell you. I don't know.” are quoted almost daily by Jewish people.

But I have a slightly different take.

For me, the most insightful Jewish movie of all time is the Frisco Kid. It is the story of a naïve rabbi from Poland, Avram Belinsky, (Gene Wilder) who makes his way across America to serve his new congregation in San Francisco.

What does a conversation about Jewish movies have to do with the arrival of Pesach this evening? 

While in rabbinical school many years ago, I attended a class taught by noted writer and historian, Jerome Chanes. He noted an important fact about Jewish American history:

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, while hundreds of thousands of Jews immigrated to the United States from Europe, one segment of the population did not follow — the rabbis. 

Heads of seminaries and other senior rabbis cautioned their colleagues against travelling to the United States, which they termed “the traifa medinah,” roughly translated as the impure country, otherwise known as the “Wild West.”

While some rabbis did emigrate to the United States, it was somewhat rare — hence the theme of the Frisco Kid. Rabbi Belinski — the bottom of the rabbinical barrel — makes his way across America by horse, and on his journey evolves into a mature, wise and experienced spiritual leader.

It’s an interesting phenomenon that carries forward into Passover.

Where did many of us learn our religion from growing up? It wasn’t from the more learned rabbis who ventured across the Atlantic. Rather, it was from our parents and grandparents.

But often that generation did not know why we followed many Jewish rituals. We were told, “This is the tradition.” Or, “This is the way we do it — don’t ask.”

Yes, many of our Seders growing up were memorable. We recall our ancestors — many of them who have since passed away — leading us in song and ritual. Like the naïve Polish rabbi, we learned about life and Judaism on the fly.

But often, Passover Seders felt like a blur of Hebrew — with the only two questions on many minds. These were, “When do we eat?” Or, “When will it end?”

Indeed, the two top questions we at CTI receive as people consider attending our annual community Seder is, “How long will it last?” And, yes, “When will we eat?”

I grew up in a traditional home. We spent many Seders at my grandparents. Seders were long. Every reading was covered. Every song sung.

Yet, I cannot recall during decades of Seders, my father ever saying, “I learned this teaching from my rabbi.” Rather, we were taught — and this continues to this day — “This how my Zaidie did it.”

On many levels, how beautiful that idea is. How wonderful that many of the melodies we sing to this day at our family Seders come from the old country.

But is it enough?

As the Jewish world transitions from an “old-country“ focus to a reality centering more around Israel and America — the idea of pulling traditions solely from our grandparents reminds us that in many ways, modern Judaism sorely needs updating.

And like our parents and grandparents did, it is up to us to take the lead.

For while focusing solely on the plagues of blood, frogs and locusts may have been relevant during previous millennia, today’s younger generation asks for more.

“What are today’s plagues?” “What are today’s Dayenus?”

War, Covid, racism, food insecurity, homelessness, environmental decline?

Jews have recalled for thousands of years the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt, but the question remains for a never generation “who remains in bondage today?

In addition, we are living in times where many are victims of human trafficking or enslaved by addiction. As we review the idea of chametz in our homes, we are reminded that there are many of us who carry an excess of inner chametz — internal bloat, grudges and stubbornness.

Are Passover Seders too long? Perhaps. But the issue is not so much length, but relevance.

It is therefore up to all of us who organize and lead Seders to think outside the Maxwell House box.

It is okay to shorten the Seder. There are prayers and psalms of praise you may choose to condense or pass over. There are songs you may not know.

There is no dishonor in that. All the Torah asks is that you make the Seder relevant and meaningful to your children, grandchildren, guests, family and friends.

This is the main message of today’s Passover as we embrace the blessing of freedom and reflect upon what we can do to carry that gift forward.

Most importantly, in addition to past and modern plagues, we need to consider what the antidotes are to the plagues of our time: Equality, human rights, respect — coexistence, safety of our children, the collective health of our community and country.

As we approach the first night of Pesach, let us find relevant readings connecting the ancient plagues to the theme of freedom.

While Fiddler on the Roof may provide us with nostalgic sayings and maxims from the old country, the message of Rabbi Avram Belinski remains true.

We may enter this world as naive, but over time, along our journey, we gain wisdom. 

Pesach Seders should not solely focus upon length or Hebrew, for that does not bring a new generation closer to our tradition.

Rather, it is about communicating an ancient message, that the quest for freedom that began thousands of years ago is ongoing.

Therefore, let us prepare for our Seders not so much by cutting, and omitting, but by replacing some of what we deem out of reach with pertinent and uplifting readings and discussions.

Let us have the courage to include at the Seder table discussions relating to the freedom struggle of the Ukrainian people, Covid as a plague, among other topics — both physical and spiritual.

What does Pesach mean today? Let each family discuss and decide.

For change and continuity are the ultimate themes of Pesach, as we embrace and elevate the message of freedom, l’dor v’dor — from generation to generation.

Chag Sameach. Happy Pesach. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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