Every generation is different. Every generation is born into a world that is different from that of its elders. So it's no easy job, passing on the values of previous generations to a new generation; passing on the traditions… and a sense of purpose, if we have one. Things that were solemn righteous truths to our parents, are often seen as 'holy cows' by our children, and become objects of ridicule, and meaningless in themselves. We may send our children to schools. But we don't always know what they will pick up there. Nowadays, in these post modern times, many a parent spends "quality time" with his or her children, watching a TV show together with them, or a sports event.
It is our tradition to tell our story, one night in the year, at a great banquet, at the start of the holiday of Passover, to our children, and the children who've come after them. Not only do we tell the story of our slavery in Egypt, many years ago… but we go all the way back to the story of our forefathers, Abraham and Sarah who began the traditions that we follow to this day. We tell our children, that Abraham came from a home of idol worshipers. But understood that there was a reality beyond what was conventionally accepted in his day. And we go on to tell the story of the Jews… some of it general, and encompassing generations in one line… and some of it in detail.
Even the smallest children have a part to play in this very intricate ceremony. We start with one of the youngest children asking the four questions, which begin with that most important question: "Why is this night different from all other nights?" In some houses, the question is sung… and in other houses the question is asked simply… sometimes by a child who is too young to read, and is trying to remember as best he or she can, the words that were taught by father or mother. And the father or grandfather, or one of the oldest of those who are gathered around the table, begins the answer, "Many years ago, our parents were slaves in Egypt".
This banquet is known as 'the last supper' by our Christian neighbors. It has a slightly different context for them. But for us, it is the ceremony in which we recount every year, those things that are most important and most sacred to us. The banquet is called 'the seder' in our tradition. In Hebrew, 'seder' means order, and thee is a very special order about the food and ceremony involved. There is always a shankbone on the table, to remind us of the sacrifices which were brought to the holy temple, when Israel was a great nation, three thousand years ago. And there are hardboiled eggs, which remind us that the world is round, and that what goes around comes around, and to remind us of the integral qualities of life and death, and there is a bowl of salt water which reminds us of the tears of our forefathers, and of the Red Sea which we crossed with the Egyptian army at our heels. And there is horse radish which reminds us of the bitter taste of slavery, and there is a very unique concoction called harosit, which is made of nuts and dates and wine, apples and cinnamon, honey. It reminds us of the mortar that was used between the bricks and stones in the building of two cities, when we were slaves. It has a very sweet taste to remind us that you can get used to anything, and that sometimes you can enjoy even slavery, and want to go back to it after you've left it. And of course, most important is the unleavened bread, which reminds us that when we left Egypt, there wasn't even time for the bread to rise, and we took the unleavened bread (which we call matzas) with us, and that is what we ate in the first days after our exodus.
Of course, thee are many different interpretations of each aspect of the story. And the participants are encouraged to discuss the many ways in we can understand the symbolism of the ceremony. Past discussions at this ceremonial banquet are remembered and discussed. In each generation we tried to relive the experience of slaves wrestling to be free of slavery, and of the real work that is past reaching freedom… the building of a society on the foundations of a value system, which includes the respect for our maker, and the responsibility for our fellow man and for our environment. Many peoples have fought for freedom. But all too often, that freedom has become an end in itself. And once achieved, the society has begun to come apart, as people became occupied with the continuous search for greater freedoms.
So our seder has the rigid ceremony of particular blessings, and the outline of what is said round the table… and particular food stuffs, and our very best clothing, and pillows on our chairs (to remind ourselves that we are free), but alongside of all the ritual, there is a lot of room for improvisation, and the expression of different views, and the effort to interpret the story so that it makes good sense for this generation too. I've listened as one of my friends explained that the Pharaoh in the story is our ego, and the slaves are our desires. There are many ways of understanding the story, and like in the story of the blind man who is trying to get to know, and appreciate the elephant, we all see a part of the whole, and by discussing it with our friends and our children, and listening to what they have to say about the same subject, we get to know it better, and it doesn't become worn out and expected or boring. It stays alive.
It's a long story… and a long meal, with many courses. One might expect the children to all fall asleep, early in the progress of the banquet. So a little drama has been added for the kids. It is well known, that a very special matza (unleavened bread) is eaten at the end of the meal, to conclude the banquet. And this is a matza that has been blessed and put aside at the beginning of the meal, and there is no way we can conclude the banquet without it! The children know that if they take this particular matza as a hostage, they will be able to negotiate a reward when the adults are in great need of it, to conclude the meal. Father knows that the children have stolen it in the past, so he hides it in some very good place, but the children always manage to find it, and they hide it in a better place, and then wait for the ceremony to come to its conclusion, at which time they will negotiate for their own reward. This adds a lot of excitement for the children, and provides some rather entertaining drama towards the end of the evening. Something that shouldn't be missed.
Photography is not considered appropriate at the orthodox seder, so there will be no photos shown as illustration of what this ceremony is like. You will have to picture it in your mind's eye, as I have told it here… And believe me, I have told you only a small part of what goes on. My family will come from all parts of the country to convene at the farm, where my son makes his home, in Eish Kodesh. I am just about to set out, lap top and camera in my bags 'for later', though I don't know how much time I will have for such things. The pictures I have posted here, come from that beautiful piece of the country. They were taken a few years ago, and in the meantime, life has only gotten better. The homes are a bit fancier, but the spirit is the same that used to be. It is a place where I am usually very happy and contented.