No doubt the Haggadah is the most renewable of Jewish texts because its message of freedom from oppression is so universal, so relevant in each generation. With more than 7,000 known variations, our guide to the seder is the most translated and published of all Jewish texts.
Two new editions attracting attention this year are an Ethiopian Haggadah, where the theme of slavery-to-a-new-life-in-Israel is as current as the day’s headlines, and the trendy “New American Haggadah,” edited by novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, who notes that while the Torah is “the foundational text for Jewish law, the Haggadah is our book of living memory. It doesn’t merely tell a story, it demands a radical act of empathy — I would argue the most profound demand made by any book of any kind. We are asked not to receive a story, but to be characters within it, to feel as if we, ourselves, are being liberated from Egypt.”
It’s true that the first two nights of Passover give us the unique opportunity to engage, deeply and personally, in the ancient story and in reflect on its relevance today.
That’s why we worry about the popularity of a third Haggadah on the market, entitled “The 30-Minute Seder,” whose very title captures the zeitgeist of our nonstop, driven society.
Who has time for a lengthy reading of a text that dates back more than a thousand years in an age of instant news, delivered to our faithful smartphones in milliseconds?
Surely there are passages in the traditional Haggadah that are less than stirring, with the sages debating how many miracles really took place in the Exodus story, for instance. But on the one or two nights of the year that Jewish families gather at the table in such a purposeful way, fulfilling the biblical command to tell the story of our ancestors’ ordeal in Egypt and rescue through Divine intervention, we owe it to ourselves to make the moment last, and to put ourselves into the story.
Maya Bernstein, director of education at the San Francisco-based UpStart, which supports Jewish creativity, quotes the Sfat Emet, the 19th-century chasidic rabbi who wrote that the story of the Exodus “becomes good and praiseworthy through the telling.” Bernstein posits that “the purpose of Passover is not to keep telling the same story over and over, but to risk telling new stories.” (See Opinion, page 26.)
In other words, improvise and energize. Ask each other to share a seder memory from childhood, to describe how the theme of freedom resonates personally, or which historic Jewish figure you’d like to have at your seder table and what you’d ask him or her. The possibilities are limited only by our imaginations, and our patience. Take advantage of a spring evening shared with family and friends, and with Jews around the world, harking back to the moment of liberation that still resonates with us, as a people and as individuals. And take your time.