(an excerpt from the sermon given on Shabbat HaGadol, 5776)
The seder is for many a wonderful time of family reunion. And for many it is a time of anxiety, when the complexities of family dynamics come to the surface again. Seating arrangements may be strategically assigned, so that this one and that one are at opposite ends of the table. It may be something that happened long ago, something someone said or did – or didn’t say or didn’t do — and no one can even really remember what or how or why. It may be a matter of politics — this sibling leans right, this one leans left, and everyone else holds their breath when the table talk turns to politics. Or maybe there is the unspoken pressure of living up to family expectations. Looming above the table are many questions: How have we disappointed one another? Who is withholding love from whom? Who feels judged?
Or perhaps it’s the weight of who isn’t at the table this year that makes for a layer of tension. Whose seat is empty now? How will we manage without his voice for that particular passage from the Haggadah or her voice for that particular song? The pain of their absence looms over the table and we worry about how to carry on without them.
The Very First Seder
It may assure us to know that the first seder of all time was no different. There were differences of personality, widely different politics, different levels of achievement, and various lines of love and conflict. There were insiders and outsiders. There was regret and rivalry. Those gathered around that first seder table desperately wanted to earn one another’s respect. They, too, worried about the future of the Jewish People and they missed their teacher, Yochanan ben Zakkai. He had been their anchor. Now without him, they were floating apart from one another. All these “family dynamics” swirled around the first seder table. Our Haggadah paints the scene for us.
It is written: “It happened that Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Tarfon were reclining in Bnei B’rak, discussing the Exodus from Egypt all through the night until their students came to them and said, “Masters, it is time to recite the morning Shema.”
Two thousand years ago, against the backdrop of some of the darkest days our people has known, Israel was under Rome’s heavy fist. We are told that these five great sages gathered together – perhaps at a dinner table, others say in a dark cave, hiding from the Roman officials, since Torah study had been outlawed.
They were locked in fierce debate all through the night. Who were they and what were they talking about?
Rabbi Eliezer broke from the family farming business to pursue a life of Torah. He was Yochanan ben Zakkai’s finest student and eventually excommunicated because his brilliance got in the way. Rabbi Joshua was his rival. He excelled not only in Torah, but also in mathematics and the sciences. Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah came from a wealthy family, from an esteemed line descended from Ezra the Scribe. Rabbi Tarfon was known for his humility. He often disguised himself so he would not receive the praise and privileges due to a scholar. Rabbi Akiva was poor and a late bloomer. At the age of forty, when he fell in love with the boss’s daughter, Rachel, she agreed to marry him on the condition that he get himself a Torah education.
The truth is these five rabbis were never around the same Pesach table. Like the painting of the American Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull, these founding fathers were also not all there for that pivotal moment in history. It’s a fantasy designed to instruct us that while great minds clash and personalities collide, the outcome can be something important and enduring. These five sages were not all there joyfully debating Torah and the Bar Kochba Revolt. We “photoshop” them into the scene and credit them a team of rivals which set into motion the Rabbinic Judaism we inherit to this day.
Our Haggadah creates the fiction in order to instruct us to know that everyone has a place at the seder table. Every question is a good question. The wise and the wicked, the simple-minded and the skeptic, the marginalized and the remembered – all are assured a place of dignity on this night.
[feature_box title=”Audacious Hospitality” title_color=”fff” header_color=”369″]Pesach is when we open our doors and announce, “Let all who are hungry come and eat!” Who is hungry for companionship and belonging? Who is hungry for Jewish experience and Jewish learning? I hope you have plans to include a new guest – someone without family in town, someone who is new to Judaism or new to Canada, someone who isn’t Jewish but would find meaning in our narrative of going from hardship to freedom. Soon, God willing, we will host new refugees. In anticipation, you may wish to animate your seder with excerpts from this good resource from HIAS.
This year, we at Holy Blossom Temple open our doors for the Third Seder to break matzah with vulnerable citizens of our city. And on the Seventh Night of Pesach we will feast on the music and art of the Haggadah.
If you have an open place at your seder table, please let me know. If you would like to be included at the seder table of a fellow-congregant, please let me know. This is how we provide for one another in sacred community.