The seder as time machine
March 13, 2015
The Passover Haggadah -- with which I have spent a fair amount of time, in its variety of forms -- teaches us that the Exodus from Egypt is not something which happened "once upon a time" to "them" back "then," but something which continues to happen right now for us.
עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְריִם -- "We were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt," the Haggadah teaches. Not "Our ancestors were slaves." Not "maybe our ancestors might have been slaves, though we're not sure, because the historical record doesn't entirely support the claim..." We were slaves. We ourselves.
In the text which describes the Four Children (one who is wise, one who is wicked, one who is simple, and one who does not know enough to ask), we are instructed to tell our children that we do this because of what God did for us when God brought us out of Egypt. Not for our ancestors. For us.
The seder is a time machine. It moves us through time and space (both of which, intriguingly, can be described with the Hebrew word עולם.) As we enter into the ritual of the seder, we re-experience that journey from constriction to liberation which is core to our sense of ourselves as the Jewish people.
As the traditional text teaches:
בְּכָל־דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת־עַצְמוֹ, כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרָיִם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר: בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה יְיָ לִי, בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם. לֹא אֶת־אֲבוֹתֵינוּ בִּלְבָד, גָּאַל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, אֶלָּא אַף אוֹתָנוּ גָּאַל עִמָּהֶם...
In every generation one must see oneself as if one had personally experienced the Exodus from Egypt. As it is written: "You shall speak to your children on that day, saying, this is how the Holy Blessed One redeemed me from Egypt. It wasn't merely my ancestors who were redeemed, but the Holy Blessed One also redeemed us with them..."
It was not merely my ancestors who were redeemed, but the Holy One of Blessing also redeemed us. The Exodus isn't something that happened (or didn't happen) there-and-then: it's something which we can experience now in our own spiritual lives as we move from constriction toward freedom.
In Rabbi Dan Fink's words, "Pesach is not about remembering the distant past; it is about re-experiencing that past in the present time. It is not the story of our ancestors long ago; it is our story." We don't just retell; we re-experience. We make the experience present for ourselves again.
When we celebrate the seder together, we're connecting ourselves with everyone who has ever celebrated seder and everyone who will ever celebrate seder. Our ancestors and our descendants, and our fellow-travelers around the globe at this holy moment of interconnection. Seder links us all.
Sitting down at the seder table is a little bit like stepping into the TARDIS. (Keen eyes will have spotted the familiar blue box among the haggadot depicted at the top of this page.) If we throw ourselves into the experience, it will whisk us away into mythic time. It places us right in the story.
Liberation is still happening. Our hearts are still crying out from our narrow places, and God still hears those cries and answers them with expansiveness. We are always setting forth on a journey with an unknown destination. We are always being called to trust; to step into the waters before they part.
Where will the TARDIS take you this year? How will it feel to re-live the Exodus now, as the person you are becoming, with the experiences the last year have brought you? The haggadah may look like a plain bound book, but it's bigger on the inside -- and if you let it, it will carry you somewhere amazing.
Step into the TARDIS three weeks from tonight -- the first seder this year falls on the evening of Friday, April 3.