Thursday, March 25, 2010

My Incredible Shrinking Seder

[Toronto Torah for Parshat Tzav / HaGadol is here]

Like most kids who went to day school, my siblings and I grew up learning brief divrei torah to report at the Seder.

As we got older, those divrei torah morphed into our own questions and answers, and more fleshed-out ideas we had researched. And Maggid grew.

So it was that, through our collective family efforts, the Maggid part of the Seder grew into a two-to-three-hour saga, and we rushed through everything else in order to make more time for this Seder centerpiece.

The idea of extending Maggid with discussion made sense; after all, doesn't the Haggadah report that even the most wise sages must discuss Yetziat Mitzrayim? Do we not say, "One who increases" his discussion is praiseworthy? And don't we emphasize the story of Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon discussing Yetziat Mitzrayim all night in Bnei Brak?

Then, when I got married, began to host my own seder and had children, I decided to keep the discussions but shift them to Shulchan Orech, the meal portion of the seder. This way our kids could see more of the seder - a talmudic requirement, I might add - and people would stay interested even if they lacked the sophistication for the discussions.

But along the way I wondered: Really, what were they discussing in Bnei Brak all night? It wasn't the question of why Ha Lachma Anya is in Aramaic, or why Rabbi Eliezer wasn't with his family, or which lines really don't fit in Dayyenu. Theoretically, it could have been a debate of the essence of the mitzvah of sippur yetziat mitzrayim [re-telling the exodus], and whether our Koreich sandwich means we agree with Hillel on sandwiching or not - but all night, and every year? Couldn't they just agree to disagree? And would that same annual debate really absorb them to such an extent that they would risk missing Shema? Entirely possible, yes... but I felt I was missing something.

This year, when I began to prepare Pesach shiurim, I pulled my עולת ראיה Haggadah of Rav Kook from the shelf. I had made notes on a few points in it over the years, but I had never learned in through, beginning to end. I have several Haggadot like that, but I decided that this year I would use Rav Kook's thought. And it changed my Seder forever, for two reasons.

1. As I've mentioned elsewhere, Rav Kook sees the food parts of the seder as the essence, and the purpose of Maggid is to fill in the story of how our suffering and degradation made our redemption possible. [Not only how suffering preceded redemption, but how it enabled redemption; a major kabbalistic theme.] The emphasis is on the actions of Kiddush, washing, dipping, eating, and how those elevate our appreciation for the nation we have become, and the nation we have yet to become.

2. Rav Kook understands the height of the seder not as an intellectual appreciation for the texts describing geulah [redemption], but as a spiritual elevation that results from experiencing geulah. He sees us coming closer to HaShem:
generating kedushah,
washing ourselves of our individual impurities,
dipping food/necessity into dip/pleasure,
breaking the matzah to symbolize material needs [לחם עוני] and spiritual pleasure [eating afikoman על השובע],
cleansing our national state,
eating the simple bread associated with leaving Egypt as a new nation without any impurities,
seeing how the bitterness brought us to redemption,
making a sandwich to symbolize the necessity for servility as well as freedom,
eating a meal of pleasure at this spiritual height,
thanking Gd for our food at this new height,
using our newly exalted state to praise Gd with הלל,
and finding ourselves accepted to Gd, נרצה.

In this view, the seder is not about the textual analysis, it's about spiritual growth. Extended textual analysis is a tool, and if it causes that growth, wonderful - but if text causes us to lose sight of the bigger picture, then it's time to shrink the Maggid. Not necessarily into the mold of a sixty-second seder, but into an experience that truly brings us to experience Redemption and grow to a new height.

Chassidic, I know. I'm okay with that.


  1. you'll notice, that most of the time, Rav Kook begins and ends with the same words, after having brought you through the universe, then into your soul, and then ends up with the same dibor hamaschil, or a pasuk that we always (should have) known or quote from tefillah which now makes total sense, or soul sense in its simplicity and its depth,
    Shkoiach, great post
    MErcaz Harav published a sefer just on the simanim from olas reiyah with a perush.

  2. The practical and difficult challenge is how to get all at the table to pursue this agenda? Intellectualizing, and leaving it at that, is far easier. And even that can be hard to expect at times.

  3. We really miss the intellectualizing part, frankly, that we used to enjoy in the seders we held in our 20s, but with very small children there's not much to access except the immediate physical actions. if we're lucky, we'll get to have some discussion with the other parents while the kids are eating.

  4. Izbitza-
    Yes, interesting point, and thanks for the tip on the olas re'iyah!

    R' Mordechai-
    Very true. In a way, it's the lazy person's approach to being energetic.

    But do you get to have the spiritual part with the kids?