April 5, 2012
The Passover Seder: When we all must become children
“One is obligated to see themselves on the Seder night as if they are actually now leaving Egypt.” -Maimonides
“The child at the Seder asks: “Why is this night different from all other nights? On all other nights we eat leavened or unleavened bread but on this night only unleavened. On all other nights we eat regular vegetables but on this night bitter herbs….”” -The Talmud
If the Passover Seder meal is one of remembering that God redeemed the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery, why not do precisely that? Read the Biblical account of the Exodus (which we do not); ask about slavery and freedom, divinely brought plagues and miracles, nationhood and history. Why all the questions about why this night is different?
Children live in the present, their questions straight forward; they observe and ask, observe and ask. According to some Jewish sources we do strange actions at the Seder meal, like dipping our food, drinking many cups of wine and delaying the meal, precisely so that the children will notice and ask: “Why is this night different?”
“When your child shall ask you: “What is all of this ritual?” Then you shall answer them, “With a strong hand did God take us out of Egypt.”” -Exodus 13:14
God did not take “us” out of Egypt, God took our ancestors out, and that was over 3500 years ago.
The past is long gone, yet always at hand. Only the present is real, yet always a product of our past. The Passover Seder is paradoxical, a meal of recalling the 3500 year old Exodus, an experience very much lived in the present: “Why is this night different?” It is the child, who always lives in the present from whom we must learn this.
One hundred years ago Sigmund Freud and his circle of psychoanalysts discovered that though we live in the present, we do so almost entirely conditioned by experiences we have had, and ways we have lived, in the past. The past can not really be integrated or changed through remembering what is past; it must be experienced and understood in the powerful present. The past is formative but, as a memory, impotent. The present integrates our past. The here and now is colored by our past but much more powerful. Thus the present can lead us to insights about the past and about whom we are, more so that remembering and analyzing past experience.
The Passover Seder is like the process of psychotherapy. Its function is to understand, to clarify, to integrate the exodus of the past in our present lives, yet this can only be accomplished in any real way, though living in the present.
We do not ask: Why did we leave Egypt? How did we leave? What did it mean to leave Egypt? Why did God think it so important that the Jews be enslaved and redeemed? Such would only be an intellectual process of remembering the past.
Instead it is the child who asks: Why are we dipping twice now? Why are we reclining now when we eat? Why the flat unleavened bread?
Children know how to be in the present. All they have is now. On Passover we must all be children. Living the past in the fully present we must leave Egypt in our lives now -a gift from the past.
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