2011-04-06 / Religion Column

The seder teaches us to see the good and say, ‘Enough for us’

RABBI JEFFREY ARNOWITZ
Congregation Beth El

It happens every year at seder tables all over the world. Having followed the winding narration of the Hagadah for over an hour, all the while being teased by the smell of brisket and matzah ball soup wafting in from the kitchen, we reach the Dayenu poem whose refrain repeats, “It would have been enough.” Just then someone leans over to his neighbor and says, “It would have been enough it we only told the story for half an hour, right? I’m starving.”

The Dayenu is often overlooked as little more than a cute song that means we are almost up to the eating part. It’s unfortunate, since this poem provides one of the most poignant strategies for achieving our own freedom today—being able to say, “dayenu, it’s enough for us.”

The rabbis who designed our seder had a remarkably difficult task on their hands. Our seder grows out of the period just after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. Without the Temple, the Pesach sacrifice, the centerpiece of the biblical Passover ritual, could not be offered. Therefore, the rabbis created our seder meal to take its place, a ritual feast incorporating many of the symbols that went with the sacrifice commanded by the Torah, such as the matzah and maror, or bitter herbs. But they didn’t stop there. They also added a wealth of new symbolism to Passover—the Four Questions, the haroset, the afikomen, and the greens and salt water to name just a few.

It is no wonder that these ancient sages needed to create some new Pesach symbolism. The Temple was destroyed, the Jews were scattered all over the known world, and in no place were they sovereign or free. How do you create a ritual to celebrate the freedom and redemption granted by God while living in conditions so antithetical to those ideas?

The rabbis did it by embracing the shades of gray they were experiencing in their lives and exploring them through the complexities of the Passover story. The seder’s retelling of the Passover story is unnecessarily complex. But a simple retelling of the story wasn’t the goal. The goal was to create a ritual that celebrates freedom but also concentrates on the suffering and hardship that led to that freedom. In fact, those difficult realities are the centerpiece of a good portion of the seder.

“This is the bread of affliction,” we announce, as we eat matzah, reenacting the tale of our ancient slavery and redemption, making it our own. And at the end of the telling of the story, the Hagadah adds, “In every generation, every single one of us should feel that he or she had actually been redeemed from Egypt.” Why? The rabbis understood that we each have our own metaphorical Egypt with which to contend.

So, what’s the lesson the rabbis are teaching by focusing on the difficulty of our history as much as the redemption? The seder forces us to accept that nothing is black and white. By fashioning the seder this way, the rabbis created a ritual just as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago.

The inherent message of the seder is that every triumph comes at a price. Freedom will always come with the possibility of corruption, and with choice

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