What is your personal Egypt this year? What do you talk about at the Passover seder when you consider freedom? Passover is a time for remembrance, but it is also a time for making memories relevant, and at many seders in Los Angeles, there is a practice of incorporating meaningful events of the day into the ritual dinner. In light of the past year's political trials and natural disasters, it's not hard to imagine a list of today's plagues, which are visited not just on our enemies in the tradition of Passover, but potentially on us all: flooding, war, terrorism, dependency on oil, famine, fast-spreading viruses, fallen leaders ... and the list goes on.
Making memories relevant means incorporating meaningful events of the day into the ritual dinner.
"How do we transform the seder?" Rabbi Lee Bycel asked two-dozen rabbis of all denominations at a recent pre-Passover meeting sponsored by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. "The seder is a time of challenge and controversy. It's a time that pushes us with questions. It's not comfort and convenience and waiting for the meal. For me, what Pesach is about is where are you as human beings? The Pesach story unfolds throughout history; the question is not waiting for God, but are we doing enough?"
As special adviser to the International Medical Corps, a global humanitarian nonprofit, Bycel is devoting much of his time to raising awareness of the ongoing genocide in Darfur and the Sudan, and he told the rabbis that the seder is a time to talk about the genocide, to force everyone to write letters to their senators and representatives, to donate money, to stop the violence.
To that end, the American World Jewish Service has printed up a special Darfur haggadah filled with specific references: "Who knows one?" is answered: "One is the Janjaweed militia.... Four is the deliberate use of rape to destroy and humiliate families.... Six is the over 400,000 people who have already died."
This modern haggadah will be used at the Seder for Darfur on April 9, as part of the Let My People Sing festival.
The biggest enslavement today?
Addiction, says Rabbi Mark Borevich, the head of Beit T'Shuvah, a Jewish recovery facility that treats hundreds of addicts a year.
"I see addiction as the modern-day Egypt, because it's so pervasive in our community -- not just drugs and alcohol, but sex, gambling and pornography," he says.
Beit T'Shuvah will host three seders for a few hundred people -- and at the third one, on Friday night, they will perform their own in-house "Rent"-like musical called "Freedom Song," about the story of leaving Egypt, then and now. (It will be performed at Beit Teshuva, Friday April 14 and at Craig Taubman's One Shabbat Morning at Adat Ari El in Valley Village on April 15.)
And it's not just traditional addiction we need to free ourselves from, Borevich says, but our enslavement to technology and other modern-day ailments. "There's this constant search for the next good fix. That's telling me that people are not happy with who they are, and that's the breeding ground for addiction."
Some seder leaders apply the personal to the global. David Abel, co-founder of the Jewish Television Network and editor of the managed-growth newsletter The Planning Report, along with his wife, architect Brenda Levin, leads a political Passover liberation seder in their Griffith Park home. They invite as many as 40 guests -- a group that reflects the diversity of Los Angeles -- Russians, Latinos, Hungarians, Ethiopians, East Indians, Chinese, Armenian, South American and more. Early on Abel asks guests to tell where their grandparents are from.
"This is to show that everyone is sort of an immigrant with a history," he says.
As the seder progresses, guests read aloud from dozens of excerpts Abel has compiled, including poetry, letters, texts and even NPR audio clippings that "show that this struggle to move from slavery to freedom is a universal aspiration," he says.
Vanessa Paloma, a performance artist who specializes in the connection between spiritual traditions and contemporary expression, leads a pre-Passover seder workshop on April 9 to teach people how to create their own personal liberation. What do you want to liberate yourself from? A bad relationship with food? Low self-esteem? An unhealthy relationship? She addresses these issues through the seder rituals: Kadesh would be about sanctifying oneself; Urchatz, washing without saying the blessing, is cleansing yourself without speaking; and Maggid, the portion of the evening where you tell the story of Egypt, people journal their own burdens, and create a movement -- "of liberation so that we can actually physically reenact what the liberation will look like."
What's most important is to use the seder to ask questions -- real questions -- says Rabbi Miriyam Glazer, professor of literature at the University of Judaism.
"We ask but we're not asking," she told the Board of Rabbis. "How many of us, do we ever really answer it? What is a real answer?"
A Poem On the Meaning of Passover
"Musings on Seder night.
How Different this night is from all other nights, we asked.
And most of us grew up and we won't ask anymore and others go on
asking all their lives, like those who ask
"How are you?" or "What's the time?" and go on walking,
without waiting for an answer.
How different all night, like an alarm clock whose ticking quiets and puts to sleep.
What's different? Everything's different. The difference is God.
Musings on Seder night. The Torah speaks of four sons:
one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who doesn't know how to ask.
But it doesn't mention one who is good nor does it mention one who loves. And that's a question that has no answer and if there was an answer I wouldn't want to know it. I, who was all those sons
in different combinations, I lived my life, the moon shone on me needlessly, the sun came and went, and Passover holidays
passed without an answer.
What is different. The difference is God, and his prophet, Death."
-- A reading from Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai's "God's Change, Prayers Remain Open Forever," from his 2000 book, "Open Closed Open" (translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld).