In anticipation of the festival of Passover next Friday evening, I was looking through the Haggadah, (which is not only a rich retelling of the Exodus story, but is also a Midrash, a commentary, on that story) trying to tease out some of the many lessons that stand out for me this year. Here are a few:
1. The importance of asking questions.
Isidor I. Rabi, winner of the Nobel prize in physics, was once asked, ”Why did you become a scientist, rather than a doctor or lawyer or businessman, like the other immigrant kids in your neighborhood?”
Dr. Rabi answered, ”My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘So? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’ That difference – asking good questions – made me become a scientist!”
The entire Seder is based upon the idea that the children in the home might see the table set differently than normal and ask why that was the case. In other words, each spring we are reminded how important it is to ask questions. An intuitive mind opens the door to seeing the world in a new light. And while that may, at times, be disconcerting, it is the only way we grow as human beings and as Jews.
2. The importance of embracing life’s challenges.
On the seder table there are all sorts of ritual foods. Among them is, of course, the salt water. It is reminiscent of the tears our ancestors shed at the suffering they endured. “Why,” one might wonder, “would we remember the sad, trying times at a meal celebrating freedom?”
“Simple,” the Haggadah reminds us. “Life can be hard,” the seder tells us, “but denying life’s challenges does little to change our current reality. Only when we acknowledge and embrace the difficulties can we hope to someday overcome them.”
The presence of the salt water reminds us to see challenges as opportunities for learning and growth.
3. We are not in this alone.
At one point in the seder we read:
Kol dichfin yeitzei v’yeichol—let all who are hungry come and eat.
This seemingly simple line, one which is often merely recited as part of the story-telling, is a powerful reminder that we are ultimately responsible for one another. At a time when our society has taken individuality to the extreme, the Seder reminds us that, even as we eat a delicious meal in the safety of our homes, we still have a responsibility to those who are struggling.
4. Sometimes we need to stop talking and start taking action.
According to our story, the Israelites ate matzah because they departed Egypt so quickly that their bread did not have time to rise. They COULD have waited for the bread to bake, but they understood that the time had come to act, and so they departed before that could happen.
Ideas for how to have positive impact on the world are important but they only become relevant when we jump in and turn those ideas into action.
Sometimes, that requires a leap of faith. But without taking that leap, nothing changes.
5. Sometimes it is important to let enough be enough.
Once of the strengths of the Jewish community is that we are never fully satisfied. We see the world as it is but we also see the world as we want it to be and then roll up our sleeves and get to work trying to turn that vision into reality. The seder reminds us that while that constant striving to make the world better is part of our Jewish DNA, it should not preclude our taking a step back and appreciating what we already have.
The singing of Dayeynu reminds us that even during the most difficult of days there is much for which to be thankful.
6. Freedom is a call to responsibility.
Not long after our ancestors escaped Egyptian bondage they stood at Mt. Sinai and entered into the Covenant with God and with one another. The confluence of these events reminds us that the freedom our ancestors gained at the end of the Passover story was not a license to sit back and do whatever we want. Instead, it was an opportunity to serve one another and God. That idea seems to be in short supply in our country as we see people increasingly using individual freedom as an excuse to show disregard for the wellbeing of others. Our annual Seder meal challenges us to break from the social norm and recommit ourselves to acting on behalf of those in need.
I could go on but my point is this: too often we open the Haggadah and simply read the words on the page. This year I encourage you to dig a bit more deeply into the text of the Haggadah. Recognize the lessons it offers, and once the meal is served, spend time discussing which lessons stand out most to you and how you, and I, might turn those lessons into action.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen