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I’m in a Seder Frame of Mind 

11/04/19 15:33:37


It’s that time of the year – with Pesach just a week away I am in a Seder frame of mind. Despite the number of Seders I have led – my parents handed them over to their zealous teenage son when he was 16. Despite the number of communal Sedarim I have attended, including one or two multi-faith communal Seders, a magnificent interfaith Youth Seder event hosted by our Victorian Jewish Governor, Linda Dessau at Government House (which included gefilte fish and kneidalach); a few military Seders in Grootforntein a remote Namibian town (courtesy of the South African Defence Force). Despite this all I remain enamoured by Seders. The preparation may be arduous, the pressure palpable, but the pleasure and profundity are simply irresistible.


The Seder is more than a resplendent ritual. It’s a family experience, a unique Jewish immersion, a great feed and if you are lucky an intellectual feast. Every Seder is different, shaped by the individuals attending; each year is different moulded by the communal and historical events swirling around us.


A Seder is an act of remembering, the recital of a story – our story as Jews, our family night of memory and memoirs. I love the sweep across the centuries in the Haggadah: from Abraham to Moses; from the second century Hillel and his discovery of the sandwich, maror placed between two pieces of Matzah (long before Lord Sandwich, the 4th Earl of Sandwich in 1729 who placed a piece of roast beef between two slices of bread), to the Amoraim of the 3rd century; from the Covenant to the crusades…


I love the way our commentaries on the Haggadah are a story of Jewish history in themselves. Every age has produced its own idiosyncratic commentaries from the medieval detailed Halachik data to the grand social justice themes that characterise many contemporary Haggadot.


The Haggadah counsels that each person in every generation should see themselves as personally having emerged from Egypt. What better way of doing this than imagining yourself into the Egypts of today - Myanmar for the Rohinga, Manus Island for the hapless stranded migrants, North Korea or Zimbabwe for its citizens. What better way of doing this than reliving the Egypt of your mind, the dark confined places you may have found yourself in? The Haggadah reminds us to move from the Nile (or as has been said, Denial is a river in Egypt) and nihilism to hope and redemption. The word Haggadah means to relate, explain or tell, but as Rabbi Sacks points out it comes from the Hebrew root that also means “to bind, to join, to connect”; hence a gid is also a sinew (see Genesis 32:25 re the Gid Hanashe), a tough fibrous tissue that connects muscle to bone. The Haggadah is a tough, uncompromising story of suffering, angst and pain, but it’s also a tale that connects us to our community, to our history, to one another.


Sedarim can be tough in another way, they can become rowdy family affairs with recalcitrant relatives. Spending time with family members you don’t often see or necessarily like can mean tensions arise more easily. And after 4 cups of wine you can’t be sure what’s going to come out. As the proverb puts it “the wine goes in, the secrets come out.”


I can recall some Seders which felt more like gladotorial contests than gregarious get-togethers! It’s supposed to be a joyful, generous time to relax, learn and connect but it can occasionally degenerate into chaos and recrimination. It takes a firm and loving leader to bring everyone back to the order ,the Seder, the ceremony of harmonious order.


Despite this danger, I love the way the Seder weaves itself into our lives. It’s inventive and creative (Who Knows One?), its challenging and confronting (In every generation they stand up to kill us…). It’s also light and loving (its songs and its joyous customs) replete with legacy and learning.


So I’ll take the Seder and I actually enjoy the fact that outside of Israel we can have two; by the second time round it seems more relaxed… For me, it’s a case of we are still doing alright as a people, we are still beseder (as in “I’m ok mate”) if we can take off a night or two to retell the greatest story ever told; if we can ponder the great themes of slavery and liberation, freedom and human dignity, if we can sit around the table with our families and friends and unwind into the long night; if we can bind ourselves to Jews across time and continents; if we can celebrate the gift of being alive today; if we can do all of this then we can surely be Beseder!


Shabbat Shalom,

Ralph Genende

Mon, 18 January 2021 5 Shevat 5781