The main Passover meal, observed the first night of the holiday in Israel, and the first two nights elsewhere, is known as the Seder. This Hebrew word is invested with layers of meaning. It conveys the notions of organization, structure, sequence, order, a whole that is at least the sum of its parts if not more. Indeed it follows a series of steps in celebrating the anniversary of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.
Those who experience it as host, guest, or observer learn to recognize certain tics which have come to characterize the evening. All of these were captured recently in a widely-viewed YouTube video that immortalized every classic Seder syndrome. There is the kid who is too shy to ask the Four Questions, as opposed to the kid who wants to recite them in every language known to man; the guy who thinks the matzahs are too hard or too soft; the family member who wants to offer commentary on every line of the readings and the one who has no patience for any substantive insights; finally, there is everyone’s favorite, the liberal who is uncomfortable with the Egyptians being judged too badly or the Israelites being praised too much.
These scenes are no less poignant for being ubiquitous. This accounts for the profusion of Hollywood offerings built around this family gathering. The 2006 film When Do We Eat? with Michael Lerner and Lesley Ann Warren complicated matters by mixing in adult themes, but the musical score was compiled beautifully from the compositions of the late Shlomo Carlebach. (Okay, I’m cheating a little here: the music director, Stewie Wax, is a friend of mine.)
An odd variation on this phenomenon was Sidney Lumet’s 1989 film, Family Business, in which Sean Connery played the patriarch of a Jewish family with an Irish surname who are career criminals. Dustin Hoffman plays the son who is trying to avoid that fate for his son, Matthew Broderick. Their meeting at the Seder is fraught with irony, in that the father is not playing the assigned role of teaching virtue to his progeny.
What we often miss is that the Seder itself is a movie. In subtle ways, we start the evening empathizing with enslavement and we end the evening vicariously enjoying redemption. The early observances focus on the downside and the later observances focus on the upside.
Perhaps the most powerful shift occurs within the matzah itself. Instead of bread, the thin matzah wafer is eaten throughout the holiday. It is made by kneading flour and water into dough, with no added seasoning or flavoring, then flattening it out to be baked in an oven for less than eighteen minutes. The matzahs are set in the center of the table but they are not eaten until after the narrative of the Exodus is recited
Yet the matzah itself is described twice, once at the opening of this saga and once near its end. At first we say: “This is the bread of affliction (or poverty) which our forefathers ate in the Land of Egypt.” At the end we say: “This matzah which we eat commemorates our redemption from Egypt, because when God appeared to the Israelites and redeemed them, there was no time to delay, so the dough could not be left to rise and they baked it into wafers.”
Thus the very same piece of food has two connotations, changing personality as the story develops. At first it is on the table to remind us of the affliction and poverty, when there was nothing else to eat. Eventually we use the selfsame matzah to celebrate the intensity of the day of departure, when our flight to freedom was so urgent that there was no time to bake regular bread.
The message here is that the same experience can be invested with varieties of content based on varieties of context. We can mope when recalling the clunker we had to drive around the campus when we were poor college students. Yet we thrill to recall that we were in such a hurry to get married in the middle of the night the only way to get to the Justice of the Peace was to rent a lemon from a college buddy. Same car, different feel; same physical act, different sensation; same experience, different memory.
The Passover observance teaches us both lessons, staying humble and hopeful when things are down while being enthusiastic and passionate when things go well. Sounds like a production with a happy ending.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons