Rabbinic Reflections: Passover, a Jewish civics lesson

Everyone votes at a Passover seder, the traditional formal meal on the first night of the holiday. Who will engage in lucid conversation about policy questions meant to advance the seder project and potentially advance the Jewish people? Who will play outsider and reject the rules and format, but nevertheless conform to the project simply by asking how nothing has changed? Who will sit and listen and ask merely why all this and when will it be over? Who will be either so new or so confused by what is being shown as to not even know where to begin?

The seder is a night of questions. Ostensibly, the questions are meant to trigger a telling of the Exodus story, from slavery in Egypt to freedom on the way to Mt. Sinai and the Land of Israel. The goal of the seder is for the leader to retell the story so that each of us can see ourselves as if we were slaves in Egypt. Getting from our own personal stances and multiplicity of personal identities to identification with the Jews of the Exodus is more challenging than simple bearing witness to the retelling.

To make sure we experience identification with the Jews of the Exodus ourselves, the rabbis designed the seder to be the most educational encounter possible. Everything is steeped in meaning: the foods all have symbolic meaning, the format is designed for driving conversation, wine flows to loosen tongues, songs break up the narrative, gimmicks and prizes exist to keep children around, and more. Many traditions make the telling of the story so interactive that everyone even gets whipped with scallions by the person next to them.

One of the ways of getting everyone to engage in the seder is to give the leader advice on dealing with four kinds of children: the wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the child who doesn’t know how to ask. None of these constructed identities is without problems. The point rather is to say that they all belong at the table. We need wonks and wise-crackers. We need someone to challenge us to think anew about what we tell and how we tell it. We need to see what questions we have buried and what questions are burning within us. The seder demands our presence, even if we are complaining, precisely because who we are is at stake.

It is not enough to be proud of being Jewish or to have a strong Jewish identity. Passover demands that we identify with the Jewish project of human redemption. There are still slaves today all over the world. Many others are enslaved in addiction. Many more are not yet free to live as equals. Still others have given up hope in their own lives. All of us, all, need some form of redemption.

Regardless of how we vote at the seder, if we sit at the table, we will be asked how each of us can redeem a portion of our own lives and a portion of the lives of others. These questions are not just pertinent this presidential election year, they are asked by Jewish ritual and wisdom every year, in every generation.

How will you identify with the journey from slavery to freedom embedded in the Exodus story? How can you encourage others to identify as well? And, what will we each learn from this communal project that we can then use to benefit humanity?

Wishing everyone a meaningful, happy Passover.

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About Rabbi Jeremy Winaker

Rabbi Jeremy Winaker is the former head of school at the Albert Einstein Academy in Wilmington. Prior to that he was the senior Jewish educator at the Kristol Hillel Center at the University of Delaware for four years and he served as the rabbi for Bet Torah in Mt. Kisco, N.Y. and Adas Israel in Washington, D.C. He’s also one of several rabbis taking part in a radio show, The Rabbi Speaks, on WDEL. Rabbi Winaker lives in Delaware with his wife and three children.

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