Rabbinic Reflections: The Passover table

The people who disagree most are sitting together. The stakes are really high. The recent past was fraught with machinations and secret deals. It is not just politics, not just leadership, not even worldviews; it comes down to their sense of purpose in the world. And we have a record of it.

The Passover Haggadah, the guidebook for the seder meal, gives order (the literal meaning of the Hebrew word seder) to the Exodus storytelling that marks the Jewish celebration of spring and redemption from slavery. One of the many paragraphs that often get skipped these days recounts how five great rabbis once had a seder together in B’nai B’rak that lasted through the night. The Haggadah only mentions a teaching of one of them by name even though much more of the Haggadah could easily have come directly from that night.

I happen to be reading a book called “The Orchard” by Yochi Brandes (and translated from the Hebrew by my friend Daniel Libenson) that brings these famous rabbis to life in such a rich way. A key moment in the plot is the very seder in B’nai B’rak. Brandes sets the table with heart-thumping tension as she weaves Talmudic tales into a history in which the disagreements between these rabbis will determine the future of the Jewish community’s relationship to its own past and future to a nascent Christianity and to Rome.

Rabbis Eliezer and Joshua have been on opposite sides of the School of Shammai and School of Hillel divide; they represent the culmination of each school’s guidance for the Jewish future. Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya served as the nasi (the president) when Rabban Gamliel was deposed for treating Rabbi Joshua unfairly; in Brandes’s telling Rabbi Eliezer gives Rabbi Elazar his appearance as a 70-year old. Rabbi Tarfon represents Rabban Gamliel who has been reinstated as nasi. In the novel, the seder takes place in Rabbi Akiva’s home as he is a central figure in the political intrigue between the key leaders.

I mention all that to say that we could learn something important for our day from the idea that these conflicted sages sat together all night talking. In Brandes’ story, that seder does not end well, but in the Haggadah, we are led to believe otherwise. Leading rabbis who training, outlook, reputation, and teaching differ greatly were telling the story of the Exodus together all night. Their students had to tell them dawn had come.

How often do we avoid conversations with those with whom we disagree? How often do we even sit with those with whom we disagree? This famous seder is a reminder that we can and should sit with those with whom we have differences big and small. We do not need to talk about topics usually debated to utter discomfort or instead left in echo chambers. We do need to talk about foundational stories, how we see them, how we understand them, and how we live because of them.

Right after the paragraph about the rabbis, we read about the four kinds of children at the seder. We are reminded not everyone thinks alike or connects the same way. None of these children is ideal. Yet, if we put ourselves in each of their mindsets, the Exodus means something different. The Passover table offers its own redemption by reminding us to talk about freedom, to talk about differences, and to talk with others. It is a timely opportunity, if not this year then next.

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About Rabbi Jeremy Winaker

Rabbi Jeremy Winaker is the 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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