Haggadah: A Program for a Passover Seder

                                    Prepared by Burton Weltman

Introduction.

Narrator: Welcome to our Passover Seder.  The ceremonial portion of this event will be relatively brief, but please munch on matzo and any other eatables within reach as we go through this Haggadah.  The goal is to commemorate the holiday, not to fast or to get tipsy by drinking wine on an empty stomach.

The purpose of this Seder is to celebrate the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery under the Pharaoh in ancient Egypt.  The story of this event is contained in the Torah, the Jewish Bible, which is the founding document of the Jewish people.  The story is almost unanimously considered by historians to be a myth.  That is, the Hebrews probably never existed as a people, and the events in the story never happened.  Nonetheless, we Jews generally regard the Biblical Hebrews as our ancestors, and we treat the Passover story as part of our Jewish history.  That is, just as the Pilgrims are considered precursors of the American people, so we consider the Hebrews as precursors of the Jews.  And we celebrate their story as part of our heritage.  How this can be is one of the conundrums of being a Jew that we will explore today.

This Haggadah reflects a secular Jewish tradition that stretches back many hundreds of years.  As part of that tradition, we will welcome each other by singing the Hebrew song “Havenu Shalom Aleichem.”  The words translate as “We bring peace to you,” which is the goal of our Seder for each other and for the world.

Havenu Sholem Aleichem,

Havenu Sholem Aleichem,

Havenu Sholem Aleichem,

Sholem, Sholem, Sholem Aleichem.

A Seder is part ritual, in which the same ceremonies are performed each year, and part discussion of the meaning of Passover.  Conventional religious Haggadahs have taken the discussion part of the Seder and essentially ritualized it with, for example, the standardized four questions that children are supposed to ask and the standardized answers they are given.  The net effect is merely to rejoice in the holiday.

In the secular Jewish tradition, we don’t celebrate our holidays by merely rejoicing, we also reflect upon them. We rejoice in the ideals that our holidays represent, but we also consider the pros and cons of the events they commemorate.  And we take the occasion to reflect on how well we ourselves live up to the ideals our holidays represent.  As a result, our Passover Seders include not only a retelling of the story and a rejoicing in the events, but also some questioning and critiquing of them.  Our Seders also include discussion of the relevance of the Passover story to our lives today.

Since our lives today are different than those of people in the past, the meaning of the Passover story may be different for us than it was for them.  In turn, our Seders and our Haggadahs may be different from theirs, and our Haggadahs may change over time.  Next year’s Haggadah will likely be different than this year’s.  It is in this spirit that this Haggadah is offered for our Seder today.  I have included some things that we have traditionally seen in our secular Haggadahs, but also added some things that I thought might be appropriate to us today.  If at any time during this Seder, you want to comment on, correct, contradict, question or add to anything that is being said, please do so.

 

Part 1. The Passover Story: Dayenu.

Narrator: We will begin the formalities by singing some verses of a traditional Hebrew song, “Dayenu,” that well summarizes the story and the moral of the story of Passover.  Dayenu literally means “Enough!” and figuratively means “It would have been enough!”  The song is usually rendered as a victory song, rejoicing in the success of the Hebrews and the devastation of the Egyptians.  It is, however, better seen as an ambivalent expression of thankfulness for the liberation of the Hebrews, but also regret at the harm that was done to innocent Egyptians.  The conventional interpretation does to “Dayanu” what the popular interpretation has done to the song “God Bless America,” transforming it from a solemn prayer for God to help a troubled country in the midst of war and depression, as it was originally intended by Irving Berlin, into a jubilant celebration that God has blessed America, and that Americans are God’s chosen people.  “Dayenu” has some fifteen verses that recount the liberation of the Hebrews and their passage to Palestine.  We will peruse only a few in keeping with the spirit of “Enough.”

SING “DAYENU.”

Ilu hotzi hotzianu, hotzianu mimitzrayim,

Hotzianu mimitzrayim  Dayenu

Dy, Dy, Dayenu,

Dy, Dy, Dayenu,

Dy, Dy, Dayenu,

Dayenu, Dayenu.

 

Had He brought us out from Egypt and not executed judgment against them,

It would have been enough. Refrain.

 

Had He executed judgment against them and not destroyed their idols,

It would have been enough.  Refrain.

 

Had he destroyed their idols and not slain their firstborn,

It would have been enough.  Refrain.

The writer of the song seems to be saying that it would be fine if the song had only one verse.  That is, the Hebrews only wanted their freedom, and if God had only done that for them, it would have been enough.  He did not have to do any of the other things for the Hebrews and for Himself (smashing idols satisfies God’s pride and not something the Hebrews really needed).  And He did not have to inflict all the harms on the Egyptians and other peoples the Hebrews encountered on the their way to settling in Palestine.  Enough would have been enough.

Reader #1: The basic outlines of the Passover story as it is told in the Torah are simple.  Once upon a time, a group of people called Hebrews, a name that merely means nomads, were allowed to settle in Egypt by a benevolent Pharaoh, the king of Egypt.  The Pharaoh was grateful for the services that a Hebrew named Joseph had rendered to the country.  The Hebrews prospered in Egypt but many generations later, a cruel Pharaoh turned on them, enslaved them, and even killed their first-born sons.

Reader #2: This cruelty and oppression inspired a Hebrew named Moses to lead his people in rebellion.  According to the story, Moses, with God’s help, tried to persuade the Pharaoh to let the Hebrews leave Egypt.  When the Pharaoh refused to free the Hebrews, God and Moses inflicted on the Egyptian people a series of ten plagues in an attempt to pressure the Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go.  These plagues included killing the first-born children of the Egyptians.  This coercion, which we might today call terrorism, was ultimately successful, but not until the Pharaoh and his army were drowned by God in the Red Sea.

Reader #3: The song “Dayenu” recites the major events of the traditional Passover story with each event followed by the chant of “Enough!” or “It would have been enough!”  It rejoices in the liberation of the Hebrews, and the subsequent founding of the Jewish people, but it also raises questions about whether all of the killing and suffering inflicted by God and Moses on the Egyptian people was necessary and justifiable.  As descendents of those Hebrews, these are questions we must ponder even as we rejoice in the liberation of our putative ancestors.

Reader #4: “Enough already” the song seems to be saying.  Enough of slavery, killing, hatred and revenge, all of which were inflicted on the Hebrews by the Pharaoh, but were also inflicted on the Egyptians by God and Moses.  In the Passover story, innocent people on both sides suffered from the actions of their leaders.  We must ask “Couldn’t it have been otherwise?”     

Narrator: Let us drink the first glass of wine in sorrow for the innocent people who have suffered in the past and who are suffering today, and with a commitment to “Enough already!”

Part 2.  Passover History: The Four Questions.

Narrator: The Passover story has for centuries been an inspiration for Jews seeking liberty and justice, and for other oppressed peoples struggling for human rights.  The story was taken up by African-Americans fighting against slavery in the nineteenth century and seeking civil rights in the twentieth century.  We Jews are grateful that a story from our history has been helpful to others.  The song “Go Down Moses” is an African-American spiritual that was composed by slaves during the mid-nineteenth century.  The song proclaims the ideals of freedom and justice that are honored in our celebration of Passover.  It is a song of hope that defies oppression.  We will sing a few verses.

SING “GO DOWN MOSES. “

When Israel was in Egypt’s land,

Let my people go!

Oppressed so hard, they could not stand,

Let my people go!

 

Go down, Moses,

Way down in Egypt’s land;

Tell old Pharaoh

To let my people go!

 

So Moses went to Egypt land,

Let my people go!

He made the Pharaoh understand,

Let my people go! Refrain.

 

You need not always weep and mourn,

Let my people go!

And wear these slavery chains forlorn,

Let my people go!  Refrain.

 

Reader #5: The Passover story was composed over a long period of time.  The events in the story are supposed to have taken place around 1300 BCE.  A story about them was passed down for centuries by word of mouth until around 800 BCE when it seems that versions of it were first written down.  The version of the story with which we are familiar in the Torah was compiled around 400 BCE.

Reader #6:  The development of the Passover story was something like a game of telephone in which a person whispers something in the ear of his or her neighbor, who in turn whispers it to his or her neighbor, and so forth.  This went on for something like thirty generations.  We have almost that many people at this Seder.  Just imagine if we played a game of telephone here, and what would happen to a story as it was whispered from the first person here to the last person.

Reader #7: There is no historical evidence that the events in the Passover story ever happened or that Moses ever existed.  The story was invented after the supposed fact, and was one of many stories about the origins of the Jews that was passed down through the centuries.  A version of the story was included in the Torah as a means of shedding light on the meaning of Judaism.  Since parts of the story are unflattering toward the Hebrews and their God, this raises questions about what the compilers of the Torah wanted Jews to think about their predecessors and about themselves.

Reader #8: For example, as part of the back story to Passover, the Torah says that one of the services that Joseph performed for the Pharaoh, that won the Pharaoh’s favor for the Hebrews, was devising a scheme of taxation that effectively entrapped the Egyptian peasants into debt slavery to the Pharaoh.  Joseph, thereby, helped enslave the Egyptians even as he was winning freedom and prosperity for his own people.  When the Hebrews were themselves enslaved, does the Torah intend us to see that enslavement as turnabout, and as an example of the principle that what you do unto others is liable to be done unto you?

Reader #9: The Hebrew God as He is portrayed in the Passover story is also very different from God as He was worshipped by Jews at the time they compiled the Torah.  In the Passover story, He is a tribal god concerned only with the welfare of the Hebrews.  He is extremely jealous of other gods, and is very strict about how He is worshipped.  He repeatedly killed or had Moses kill Hebrews who were not performing rituals exactly the way He wanted.  And He repeatedly had Moses and Joshua massacre people and commit genocide against peoples who occupied land He wanted for the Hebrews.

Reader #10:  In contrast, the Jewish God as He is portrayed in later portions of the Bible, and as he was worshipped when the Torah was compiled, is a universal god who is seemingly concerned with the welfare of all peoples, and is concerned more with peace and justice than with ritual correctness.  He is the God of the prophet Isaiah who preached about turning spears into pruning hooks, and the prophet Amos who preached the responsibility of Jews to work for the welfare of all humankind.  He is a very different God than in the Passover story.  Why?

Narrator: This is something that we can explore with a version of the “Four Questions” that are traditionally asked by the four types of children who are supposedly found at Seders: the Curious Child, the Scornful Child, the Confused Child, and the Wise Child.

Reader #11: The Curious Child asks why the rabbis would have included in the Torah a story about the origins of Judaism that portrays our ancestors and the God they worshipped in such a negative light?

Reader #12:  As with many important questions, there is no one final answer to this one.  The Torah is generally considered the first religious book that was composed in the form of a history.  It is ostensibly a history of the Hebrews and their God, and a prehistory of the Jews.  But it was not written by one person or group of people.  It is made up of different stories that were first told in many different times and places.  The rabbis who compiled the Torah had to choose among a plethora of stories in deciding which stories to include and which to reject.

Reader #13: These rabbis were scholars who knew the distinction between history and myth, and between fact and fiction.  But they did not have many historical facts about the Hebrews and the origins of Judaism to put in their book.  So, it is likely that the rabbis chose stories that they knew were myths, but that they hoped would portray some underlying truths about Judaism.  It is also possible that they deliberately chose stories that would portray Judaism as a progressively changing way of life in which even the Jews’ image of God got better.  And maybe they portrayed their ancestors as having many faults so as to inspire Jews of their day, and Jews like us today, to try to become better over time.

Reader #14:  The origins of the Jews as they are portrayed in the Torah can be compared with the origins of the American people.  The United States was founded on many social evils, including the enslavement of Africans, genocide against Indians, imperialism against Mexicans, and the subjugation of women.  We have to acknowledge these evils as a formative part of our country’s history even as we reject them.  But our country was also founded on ideals of liberty, democracy, tolerance and justice for all.  These ideals have inspired Americans in the past and inspire us today to better ourselves and our society.  Similarly, in the face of the evils attributed to God and the Hebrews in the Torah, Rabbi Hillel, the founder of modern Judaism, summarized the moral of the Bible with a version of the Golden Rule: “Do not unto others what you would not have them do unto you.”  That is a worthy ideal to take away from the Passover story..

Reader #15: The Scornful Child asks why do I need to know about the past?   Who cares about those mythical Hebrews and how they are portrayed in the Torah?

Reader #16:  Who we are and what options we have in our lives are largely influenced by our histories.  You need to know the past to know who you are.  The story of those Hebrews is part of our cultural history, part of what we Jews think of ourselves, even if it never happened.  What they stood for is in us, for better and for worse.  Their story also provides a benchmark against which we can measure ourselves.

Reader #17: The Confused Child asks how can it be that we honor our ancestors but also criticize them?  How can we rejoice at Passover but also question whether Moses was a terrorist?

Reader #18: We celebrate holidays such as Passover because they represent ideals that we hold dear.  At the same time, the Passover story warns us that we must not adulate our leaders or our ancestors.  The story portrays Moses as a great but fallible man.  He did not fulfill the Passover ideals, nor did the other Hebrews, but then neither have we.  If our ancestors had fully realized those ideals, or if we did ourselves, then ideal behavior would be commonplace and not worth celebrating.  It is because we rejoice in the ideals that our ancestors represent, but also need to reflect on their shortcomings and our own shortcomings, that we celebrate a holiday such as Passover.

Reader #19:  The Wise Child asks how we can apply what we have learned about the history of the Passover story to our lives today, to help us to be better people and make a better world?

Reader #20: The Passover story is both a cautionary and an inspirational tale.  In the sometimes ugly actions of the Hebrews, it cautions us not to let concerns for our own welfare overwhelm our consideration for others.  At the same time, the story inspires us to be considerate to others as the best way to be considerate to ourselves, to love our neighbors as extensions of ourselves.  In the actions of the rabbis who included in the Torah a Passover story that is not entirely flattering to the Hebrew people or their God, it cautions us to be humble about our ancestors and our origins.  At the same time, it inspires us to tell what we think is the truth, even if it may seem humiliating.

Narrator: Let us drink the second glass of wine in honor of all those people, both Jews and others, who have been inspired by the Passover story to struggle for liberty and justice, and in gratitude for those who have retold the story so that we can celebrate it today and our children can celebrate it in the future.

Part 3. The Passover Symbols: Never Again.

Narrator: Passover is a celebration of people who struggle against oppression.  Throughout history, oppressors have attempted to reduce their victims to a condition of helplessness and hopelessness.  Yet time and again, oppressed peoples have taken advantage of whatever opportunities their circumstances allowed to create lives and cultures that ennobled them.  We see that in the story of the Hebrews in Egypt.  We also see it in the song “Go Down Moses” that is an example of the culture of liberation created by enslaved African-Americans.  Likewise, during the Nazi Holocaust of World War II, Jews persisted in creating worthwhile lives and cultural dignity even as they were being enslaved and annihilated.  In honor of those Jews and all persecuted peoples, we will sing the Yiddish song “Zog Nit Keynmol,” which translates as “Never say…,” as in “Never say die” or “Never give up.” The song was written in 1943 following the massacre of Jews by the German army in the Warsaw Ghetto.  It is a song of hope that defies the odds.       

SING “ZOG NIT KEYNMOL.”

Zog nit keyn mol, as du geyst dem letsn veg,

himlen blayene farshtein bloye teg.

Kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebente sho,

s’vet a poyk ton undzer trot: mir zayen do!

 

Never say this is the final road for you,

Though leaden skies may cover over days of blue.

As the hour that we longed for is so near,

Our step beats out the message: we are here!

 

This song was written with our blood and not with lead,

It’s not a little tune that birds sent overhead.

This song a people sang amid collapsing walls,

With pistols in hand, they heeded the call.

 

Therefore never say the road now ends for you,

Though leaden skies may cover over days of blue.

As the hour that we longed for is so near,

Our step beats out the message: we are here!

 

Narrator: You have plates on your table that contain various culinary symbols of Passover.  They represent a commitment to “Never saying die” no matter how dire the circumstances, and to saying that “Never again” shall we allow such horrible things to happen if we can stop them.

Reader #21: The bitter herb or maror represents the hardship of the Hebrews and the Egyptians under the cruel rule of the Pharaoh.  Let us say “Never again.”

Reader #22:  The lamb shank bone or z’roa represents the first-born Hebrew children killed by the Pharaoh and the first-born Egyptian children killed by God, all of whom were sacrificial lambs in the Passover power struggle.  Let us say “Never again.”

Reader #23:  The karpas or celery dipped in salt water represents the resolve of Hebrews and Egyptians to sustain themselves despite their tears for their murdered children.  Let us vow to never say die.

Reader #24:  The egg or beytso represents new born Hebrew children, Egyptian children and the children of peoples everywhere who are the hope of us all for the future.  Let us vow to never say die.

Reader #25: The matzo represents the creativity of the Hebrews and other oppressed people who are able to adapt to difficult circumstances in their struggle for liberty and justice.  Let us vow to never say die.

Narrator:  Let us drink the third glass of wine in honor of those who never say die in the face of oppression, and as our commitment to saying “Never again” to oppression.

Part 4. The Moral of the Passover Story: What is to be done?

Narrator: Passover is a founding holiday of the Jewish people.  According to the story, a ragged bunch of Hebrews came out of Egypt and gained their liberation from what was then the mightiest power in the Middle East.  These Hebrews then supposedly wandered for some forty years in the desert, and eventually conquered the territory of Canaan to establish the first state of Israel.  Over the course of the next millennium, these Israelites developed a way of life and a religion that we can recognize as Jewish, and that marks the beginning of the Jewish people.  Even though the Passover story is a fable, it is the beginning of a long history that leads to us and is part of us.

Passover is, however, a difficult holiday.  Part of the difficulty is that we have to sit through a lengthy ceremony before we can eat dinner.  But, it is also difficult because the story is full of contradictions and raises many questions that cannot be definitively answered.

The Passover story forces us, for example, to question at what price to others we would gain or protect our own freedom.  Was the torture of the Egyptian people a legitimate means to gain the freedom of the Hebrews from the Pharaoh, who,  after all, tyrannized the Egyptians as well as the Hebrews?  Today, we must similarly ask whether it is legitimate to accept as “collateral damage” the deaths of innocent civilians who have been bombed in the course of attacking terrorists that threaten the United States?

The Passover story also reminds us that it is all too easy to pass over from being one of the oppressed to being an oppressor, as the Hebrews did when they enslaved and exterminated other peoples after gaining their own freedom.  Today, we must similarly ask if it is legitimate to invade other countries, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, in order to protect ourselves and ostensibly liberate those peoples from oppression?

Finally, the Passover story reminds us that it is all too easy to pass over from defending oneself against racism and ethnocentrism to practicing racism and ethnocentrism against others, as the Hebrews did in their conquest of Canaan, and as too many Israeli and American Jews are doing today in their treatment of Palestinians.  How can we avoid doing unto others what we would not have them do unto us?

These are vexing questions.  But then being vexed by endless questions and quandaries seems to be part of what it means to be a Jew.  And so it is not surprising that the moral of the Passover story seems itself to be a question: What can we do to end oppression in the world, so that we can finally say “Never again” and mean it?  That we can someday answer this question is the hope with which we live.

Towards that end, let us sing the Hebrew song “Bashana Haba’ah” which translates as “In the year that will be…,” meaning that when all is well, this is how it will be.  It is a song of hope that will hopefully  become for our descendants a self-fulfilling prophecy.

SING “BASHANA HABA’AH.”

Bashana haba’ah.

Neishev al hamirpeset

V’nispor tziporim nod’dot.

 

Od tir’eh, od tir’eh,

Kama tov yihiyeh,

Bashana bashana bab’ah

 

Soon the day will arrive

when we will be together

and no longer will we have to live in fear

And the children will smile without having to wonder

if on that day dark clouds will appear.

 

Wait and see wait and see

What a world there can be

If we share, if we care you and me (twice)

 

 Let us drink the fourth glass of wine to a world without oppression.  And then let’s eat.

 

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