A Program for a Passover Seder
Prepared by Burton Weltman
“And thou shalt remember that thou wast a slave in Egypt.”
Preface: Secular Judaism and a Secular Haggadah: An Explanation.
This is not your grandparents’ Haggadah, assuming your grandparents were Jews and were fairly conventional in their Passover celebrations. This is a secular Haggadah. The purpose of this preface is to explain the assumptions about Judaism and Passover that are reflected in this Haggadah.
A Haggadah is a script for a Passover Seder. A Seder is an annual Jewish holiday that celebrates the liberation of a people called the Hebrews from slavery in ancient Egypt. The Hebrews are considered by Jews to be their ancestors from whom they ostensibly derive their religion and the Hebrew language. The word Haggadah is Hebrew for telling, and the purpose of a Seder is annually to retell and reexamine the story of the Hebrews’ liberation from Egypt and their migration to settle in Palestine. The holiday is called Passover – Pesach in Hebrew – because in the story God passed over the homes of the Hebrews and spared them when he punished the Egyptians by killing their first-born children (Exodus 12:13-14).
The Passover story is contained in the first five books of the Jewish Bible. The Jewish Bible contains some twenty-four books. The Christian Old Testament is derived from the Jewish Bible. Most of what we consider the Jewish Bible was compiled in written form during the fifth century BCE, but Jewish tradition holds that oral versions of the first five books, including the Passover story, were composed by Moses who led the exodus from Egypt around 1200 BCE. For this reason, the first five books are sometimes called the Five Books of Moses, but other times called the Pentateuch. The word Torah is also sometimes used to denominate the first five books, but other times is used to refer to the whole of the Jewish Bible, which is also called the Tanach. The difficulties that we Jews have had in settling on a name for our Bible is, in turn, reflected in our differences in interpreting it.
Passover has been celebrated since ancient times, but what is today considered the traditional form of a Haggadah appeared in the later Middle Ages. Most Haggadot (the plural of Haggadah) still take this form today. The traditional Haggadah prescribes a religious ceremony full of thanksgivings and prayers to God. Since there are many different strands of Judaism, Haggadot vary depending on whether the celebrants are Orthodox, Conservative, Liberal, Reform, Reconstructionist, or otherwise. But most Jews follow the traditional God-centered form. Except for secular Jews.
Secular Jews are humanists who regard Judaism as a human-made culture rather than a God-given religion. Secular Jews consider themselves to be part of an ethnic group that shares a common history, literature, several languages, music, art and other cultural creations. Although much of Jewish culture has historically revolved around religion, and religious references are embedded in the culture, secularists do not believe that Judaism depends on religion. They believe that the culture holds up and holds together without God. In a similar manner, Irish culture has historically revolved around the Catholic religion but being Irish does not depend on being Catholic.
Secular Jews do not necessarily reject the idea of God but merely think that Jews can relate better to people, both Jews and non-Jews, by leaving God out of the discussion of public events and social issues. Most acknowledge that the idea of God can be a source of solace and inspiration in the private and personal lives of believers. Some may be believers themselves. But they worry that when God is used as a justification for actions in public life, the idea of God can become a source of divisiveness and strife. Since groups of people often have different ideas about God, when one of them claims that God has commanded something, that command can set them against each other, Jews against Jews, Jews against Christians, Protestant Christians against Catholic Christians, Christians against Muslims, and so forth.
As a result, secular Jews distinguish themselves from other Jews by leaving prayers to God out of their celebrations even as they share other aspects of Jewish culture with religious Jews. Like religious Jews, secular Jews consider the Jewish Bible to be the founding document of the Jewish people. But secular Jews approach the Bible differently than do most religious Jews, and this is reflected in our Haggadot.
The Jewish Bible is peculiar for a religious text in that it was written in the form of a history of the genesis of Judaism. Starting with stories about the creation of the world, it proceeds with stories about Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and many others down to the return of some of the Israelites from captivity in Babylonia during the fifth century BCE. It is at this point that the Bible was compiled out of many stories that had come down through the ages, initially in oral form and then in writing. And it is at this point that secular Jews date the beginning of Judaism and Jewish history.
The Bible’s main storyline begins with Abraham after some false starts, the first ending with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and the second ending with the annihilation in Noah’s flood of almost every living being in the world. Abraham ostensibly lived around 1800 BCE and is portrayed in the Bible as the progenitor of the Hebrew people. His Hebrew descendants were later enslaved in Egypt, and their escape from Egypt and conquest of Palestine are memorialized in the Passover story. The Hebrews are, in turn, described in the Bible as the ancestors of the Israelites who lived in Palestine after the Hebrews conquered that land around 1200 BCE.
Like the Hebrews before them, the Israelites’ religion was based on priests sacrificing animals and vegetables to God. Israelite worship centered in a Temple in Jerusalem, which required adherents to live in or close to that city. When northern Palestine was conquered by Assyrians around 725 BCE and the rest by Babylonians in 586 BCE, the temple was destroyed and the Israelites were scattered around the Middle East, very few of whom ever came back to Palestine. These events created a crisis in Israelite culture and religion.
Following their expulsion from Palestine, the Israelites developed in exile a form of worship that took place in local synagogues presided over by rabbis, rather than a main temple run by priests. Synagogues were essentially schools, rabbis were teachers. Worship centered around studying the newly compiled Bible, a book that people could take, read and contemplate anywhere. Contemplating ethical questions that derive from the Bible is what most people today recognize as the practice of Judaism. Religious Jews put God at the center of this practice, secular Jews put humanity at the center. In either case, this is what is meant by saying that Jews are a people of the Bible and Jewish history begins with its compilation.
The Jewish Bible is a difficult book to understand, and both religious and secular Jews agree that the it requires interpretation. They disagree, however, on how to interpret it. The Bible is full of stories and statements, many of which seem random, or are obscure or inconsistent with each other. The very first lines of the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, contain, for example, two different versions of the creation of the world, one after the other, with no explanation of why there are two stories or which one is correct (Genesis 1:1-2:8). The Bible also portrays many of its leading characters, including God, as behaving in objectionable ways. Abraham, for example, who is ostensibly the forefather of the Jewish people, is portrayed as prostituting his wife in a cowardly attempt to protect himself, and unnecessarily so as it turns out (Genesis 12:10-20).
Most religious Jews approach the Bible as the literal truth and insist that what seem to be inconsistencies can be reconciled. They also idealize, even idolize, the main characters in the Bible, even when the characters do things that seem wrong to us. Religious Jews have developed complicated intellectual procedures and composed elaborate explanations that ostensibly reconcile inconsistencies in the stories and rationalize objectionable behavior of the characters. They approach these interpretative problems as a challenge to their faith and see their admittedly sometimes strained solutions as proof of their devotion.
Secular Jews, however, along with many Reform Jews, approach the Bible as a collection of largely fictional stories that are to be interpreted symbolically and critically. They hold that by including two different creation stories at the opening of the Bible, the Bible’s compilers were signaling to their readers right from the start that they did not intend the book to be accepted literally. Their inclusion of inconsistent stories about the Hebrews and the Israelites was also an indication that the compilers did not consider these stories to be actual history. In turn, the inclusion of unflattering stories about Hebrews and Israelites was a way of emphasizing that they were not Jews. We Jews came from them, and we may even have reason to atone for some of their actions. But they were not us and we should be better.
Secular Jews regard the Bible as a sourcebook of paradigmatic ethical dilemmas and existential problems that the Jews’ ancestors faced and that Jews still face today. Rather than trying to reconcile and rationalize the stories, secular Jews try to fathom the intentions of the compilers when they incorporated these stories in the Bible and try to understand what the stories might mean to our lives. In interpreting the Bible and preparing our Haggadot, secularists look particularly to the principle enunciated some two thousand years ago by Rabbi Hillel, who is widely recognized by both religious and secular Jews as the greatest interpreter of the Jewish Bible.
Hillel summarized the teaching of the Bible in a version of what is known today as the Golden Rule, which he defined as “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.” The Golden Rule is a well-nigh universal principle, with versions incorporated in some eighty philosophies, religions and cultures around the world. Hillel claimed that the Golden Rule was the underlying moral of the various stories in the Bible. It is a rule of empathy that binds Jews to each other and to other peoples.
The Golden Rule is also the founding principle of secular Judaism. Using Rabbi Hillel’s Golden Rule as a guideline, secular Jews attempt to interpret the meaning of the Bible stories, evaluate the behavior of the main characters in the stories, including Moses and even God, and decide what the stories say about Judaism and being a Jew. The Golden Rule is not, however, a formula that provides easy answers. It is a benchmark for ethical analysis and moral choice but not a guarantor of results. As a result, secular Jews approach the Bible as a sourcebook of questions about life, rather than as a fount of definitive answers. Being Jewish means continually asking questions about current events that can be compared with and related to the Bible’s stories, but never being completely satisfied with the answers one comes up with.
Passover is essentially a holiday about a story, and it is a story that raises important ethical questions. The Bible adjures us to retell this story about the liberation of the Hebrews each year. But any story can be told in many different ways, and the way one tells it indicates as much about the teller as about the characters and events in the story. The Passover story is, thus, not only about Moses and the Hebrews but about the Jews who later compiled the Bible. Why did they write about things in the way they did? What does it say about them? Passover is also about us as we compose our Haggadah and retell the story. A Haggadah must address issues facing the world at any given time and Haggadot must, therefore, change with the times. The purpose of this Haggadah is to relate the Passover story to current events and present-day ethical questions. How we deal with these questions during our Seder should say things about us
For purposes of reference and support for the historical statements in this Haggadah, or for just further reading, I recommend The Sacred Chain: The History of the Jews by Norman Cantor (HarperCollins, 1994), particularly Chapters One through Three. I also recommend reading the Books of Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy in the Bible. For those interested in a brief history and discussion of secular Judaism, that elaborates on some of the themes in this Haggadah, I have written a short essay entitled “An Unorthodox View of Jewish History: Why are Jews still here at all and why aren’t there more of us?” which can be found on my Blog at historyaschoice.wordpress.com
“And this day shall be for you a memorial.”
Introduction: The Passover Story.
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.
A traditional Haggadah contains some fourteen segments and a traditional Seder can go on four hours, seemingly forever when you are waiting for dinner, with a good deal of prayerful repetition and rejoicing. This Haggadah has an introduction and four parts which have been adapted from the traditional format. It incorporates the four glasses of wine that are traditionally consumed at a Seder. You are forewarned to confine your consumption of wine to the limits of your tolerance for alcohol without becoming inebriated, because the Haggadah designates a Narrator who conducts the Seder but also designates Readers for various parts of the story. So, your reasonably sober participation in the ceremony is required. The Haggadah also includes suggested discussion questions, but you are encouraged to contribute questions of your own and to comment on, correct, contradict, query or add to anything that is being said.
As a way of setting the tone for the Seder, 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. We also sing in remembrance of loved ones who have passed away, may they live in our memories and rest in peace.
Sing: Havenu Shalom Aleichem.
Havenu Shalom Aleichem,
Havenu Shalom Aleichem,
Havenu Shalom Aleichem,
Shalom, Shalom, Shalom Aleichem.
Narrator: The purpose of this Seder is to memorialize the story in the Bible of the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in ancient Egypt. A memorial is a remembrance of events that can both celebrate and critique them. The events are honored in their honest retelling and reevaluation.
Reader #1: The back story of Passover in the Bible begins with a man named Joseph, a descendant of Abraham, who settled in Egypt. Joseph performed some important services for the Pharaoh, among others helping the Egyptians to weather years of bad crops by saving grain from good years in storehouses. Joseph became the Pharaoh’s prime minister and brought his family to settle in Egypt. The family prospered and multiplied for many generations until there came into power a new Pharaoh who decided to enslave the descendants of Joseph, by then a numerous people called Hebrews. The Hebrews were regularly abused thereafter, and the Pharaoh at one point even ordered the killing of all Hebrew boys. (Exodus 1:8-23)
The Passover story itself begins when a Hebrew named Moses was approached by God and told to demand that the Pharaoh free the Hebrews. Moses did God’s bidding and when the Pharaoh refused to free the Hebrews, God inflicted a series of ten plagues on the Egyptian people in an attempt to coerce the Pharaoh to do so. God’s last plague was killing the Egyptians’ first-born children while passing over the homes of the Hebrews and sparing their children. After this plague, the Pharaoh allowed the Hebrews to leave but then changed his mind and chased after them with his army. With God’s help, Moses parted the Red Sea, enabling the Hebrews to get across, then closed the sea and drowned the Pharaoh and his army.
Reader #2: According to the story, Moses and the Hebrews then spent some forty years wandering in the desert between Egypt and Palestine. In the course of their wanderings, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and Moses composed an oral version of the first five books of the Bible, including the Passover story. At God’s insistence, the Hebrews committed genocide against several peoples who stood in the path of their journey, the people of Sihon, for example, of whom Moses said “we spared nothing but the livestock which we took as spoil” (Deuteronomy 2:33-36). There was also the slaughter of the Amalekites (Exodus 17:13-16) and the Midianites (Numbers 31:7-24). Because of some minor offense Moses committed against God’s dignity, Moses was not himself permitted to reach the promised land, and he died just as the Hebrews reached Palestine (Deuteronomy 32:48-52).
As they entered Palestine, God told the Hebrews that if the current occupants surrendered to them, the Hebrews should enslave them, but if the inhabitants resisted, the Hebrews must kill them. After reciting a hit list of ethnic groups that he wants slaughtered, God says “I shall exterminate these” and he commands of the Hebrews that “You must not spare the life of any living thing” (Exodus 23:23-24; Deuteronomy 20:10-17). Consistent with God’s commands, the Hebrews enslaved and exterminated the various inhabitants of Palestine and occupied the place themselves (Deuteronomy 7:21-25). This is the basic Passover story as it is told in the Bible.
Reader #3: Although many observant Jews consider the Passover story to be literal truth, it is almost unanimously considered by historians to be a myth. There is no evidence that the Hebrews ever existed as a people, or that the events in the story ever happened. Josh Mintz writing for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz summed it up several years ago saying “The reality is that there is no evidence whatsoever” for the story and there is not even “one shard of pottery (the archaeologist’s best friend) with Hebrew writing on it.” Although the ancient Egyptians were meticulous chroniclers, “Egyptian records make no mention” of the Hebrews or the Passover events and there is “no evidence in Israel that shows a sudden influx of people from another culture at that time.” In any case, the word “Hebrew” merely meant nomad in the language of the time and does not refer to a specific ethnicity or religion.
Despite their status as mythological beings, most Jews regard the Biblical Hebrews as our cultural ancestors, and we treat the Passover story as part of our Jewish heritage. In so doing, we are responding in a way similar to the way other peoples have treated their hypothetical predecessors. For example, when the Jewish Bible was being compiled during the fifth BCE, the ancient Greeks were also compiling stories of their putative ancestors, including the story in the Iliad of the Achaeans who supposedly fought the Trojan War. As with the Passover story, the events in the Iliad ostensibly took place around 1200 BCE.
Reader #4: While some fifth century BCE Greeks believed in the literal truth of these stories, most took them to be myths that represented the sorts of ethical choices their ancestors had made and ethical issues they themselves faced. The Greeks considered the Achaeans in the Iliad to be culturally their ancestors, even if they were not literally so. And they approached stories such as the Iliad as both celebrations and critiques of their putative ancestors and their ancestors’ gods.
In the same way, Jews of the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, many of whom did not believe in the literal truth of the Passover story, considered themselves ethically and culturally descendants of Hebrews who heroically escaped from Egypt. And like the Greeks with their stories, many Jews approached the Bible stories, including the story of Passover, in a spirit of both celebration and critique. It is in that spirit that we secular Jews consider the Hebrews and their Passover story to be part of our Jewish heritage today.
Suggested Discussion Questions: Cycles of Abuse.
It is well-known that propinquity breeds affinity, relationship leads to resemblance, and interdependence leads to likeness. This process can be for the better or the worse. Dog-owners, for example, often start to resemble their dogs. Whether that change is for the better or worse depends on the owner and the dog.
Children also generally take after their parents, often despite themselves. That may be for the better or the worse. Abused children, for example, are more likely than other children to end up abusing their own children. Abuse seems to breed abuse in a vicious cycle.
Do you see a cycle of abuse in the treatment of other ethnic groups by the newly liberated Hebrews? What lessons do you think the compilers of the Jewish Bible wanted us to take away from this story? What might be the connection between the Passover story and the Golden Rule?
Do you see examples of vicious cycles of abuse in the world today? How can we avoid such cycles? How can we break a cycle of abuse where it exists?
Part 1. Explaining the Passover Story: The Four Questioning Kids.
Narrator: Passover is celebrated as a story of the Hebrews’ liberation from oppression, and Moses is celebrated as their heroic leader. The Passover story has for centuries been an inspiration to Jews seeking liberty and justice in times when they were being persecuted, denied the rights of citizenship, or forced to live in ghettos. Since the Passover story is contained in the Christian Old Testament, it has also been an inspiration to Christians and other oppressed peoples struggling for human rights. We Jews are grateful that a story from our heritage has been helpful to others.
The story was taken up by African-Americans fighting against slavery in the nineteenth century and seeking civil rights in the twentieth century. “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 we honor 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!
(Refrain) 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: Almost all holidays have their ideals which are laudable and their realities which are often a mixture of the admirable and the abominable. Thanksgiving, for example, celebrates the laudable ideals of ethnic diversity, tolerance, cooperation, and helping others in distress. And the admirable reality is that the Native Americans on what is considered the first Thanksgiving did most of the giving and the English immigrants gratefully did most of the receiving.
The abominable reality is that the English responded to the Indians’ generosity with a Thanksgiving prayer that thanked God for the plagues that had killed off most of the natives so that there was more room in America for English settlement. And the English soon drove the remaining Indians off of their native lands anyways. Nonetheless, we celebrate Thanksgiving for its laudable ideals even as we use those ideals to critique the abominable behavior of its founders.
Reader #6: Similarly, with Passover, there is much to celebrate in the ideals of freedom and brotherhood that it represents. In the course of the Hebrews’ migration from Egypt, God lays down the Golden Rule injunction to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). This injunction is the source of Rabbi Hillel’s claim that the Golden Rule is the underlying meaning and moral of the Bible, and it encompasses an ideal that has inspired Jews and others to participate in humanitarian civic and political movements.
Freedom and brotherhood are the light in the Passover story. But there is also the dark. How do we explain the massacres ordered by God and the misdeeds of Moses in the Passover story? And how do we explain the inclusion of this behavior in the Bible? Some history of the Passover holiday may help.
Reader #7: The Passover story was composed over the course of a long period of time. The events in the story are supposed to have taken place around 1200 BCE. Stories about those events were passed down for centuries by word of mouth until around 800 BCE when versions of it were apparently first written down. Various versions of the story were thereafter passed down in both oral and written forms until the version with which we are familiar was compiled during the fifth century BCE.
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. Just imagine if we played a game of telephone with thirty people, and what would happen to a story as it was whispered from the first to the last person. If we asked people to tell the story they had heard, we would almost certainly get thirty different versions.
Reader #8: The task facing the compilers of the Bible was how to pick and choose among the different versions of the stories handed down to them. They responded by including at least two versions of almost every important event or statement in the first five books of the Bible that were supposedly composed by Moses, including differing versions of the Passover events and two versions of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-21; Deuteronomy 5: 1-22). Even if something like the events in the Passover story had actually happened, the telephone effect would have rendered the reality of them undiscoverable.
When the compilers of the Bible included the Passover story in the book, they had a number of narratives from which they could choose. The compilers chose to include parts of the story that are unflattering toward the Hebrews and their God. For example, as part of the back story to Passover, the Bible says that one of the services that Joseph performed for the Pharaoh, and 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 acceptance and prosperity for his own people (Genesis 47:20-22).
Reader #9: Was the purpose of including this episode in the Passover story to imply that when the Hebrews were themselves enslaved, their enslavement was turnabout? Was it intended as an example of the principle that what you do unto others is liable to be done unto you? Does this episode highlight the virtue of Rabbi Hillel’s Golden Rule through portraying its opposite? Was it intended as a warning to Jews to give what they expect to get and expect to get what they give? Maybe so.
The Hebrew God as he is portrayed in the Passover story is also very different from God as he was worshiped by Jews when they compiled the Bible in the fifth century BCE. 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 worshiped. He repeatedly killed, or had Moses kill, Hebrews who were not performing rituals exactly the way he wanted. He even killed the two sons of Moses’ brother Aaron for accidentally making minor errors in a ritual sacrifice (Leviticus 10:1-3). The Hebrew God also repeatedly had Moses and Joshua massacre peoples who would not bow to him or who occupied land he wanted for the Hebrews. The Hebrew God does not do unto others as he would have them do unto him.
Reader #10: In contrast, the Jewish God as he is portrayed in later portions of the Bible, and as he was worshiped when the Bible was compiled, is a universal god who is seemingly concerned with the good of all peoples. And he 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.
This version of God seems to expect respect because he gives it. He is very different than the God in the Passover story. Why? Is this another example of the compilers of the Bible deploying what became Rabbi Hillel’s Golden Rule, only this time against the Hebrew God to contrast him with the Jewish God? Maybe so. Secular Jews take this evolution from tribal God to universal God one step further when they dispense with the idea of God altogether in favor of the universal principles he ostensibly represents.
Narrator: This question of why the Bible and our Haggadah include negative portraits of the Hebrews and their God is something that we can explore with a version of the questions that are traditionally asked by the four types of sons who are supposedly found at Seders. They are traditionally characterized as the Wise Son, the Wicked Son, the Stupid Son, and the Silent Son.
In a traditional Haggadah, the Wise Son deferentially asks “What are the laws that God has commanded us to follow?” The Wicked Son scornfully asks “Why should I care about any of this?” The Simple Son stupidly asks “What are you talking about?” And the Silent Son just appeals for answers with his questioning looks. Each of the sons is essentially told to praise God for liberating us Jews from slavery and to gain wisdom and virtue by studying the Bible.
Consistent with our secular and non-sexist approach, I have changed the names of the questioners to the Curious Child, the Skeptical Child, the Confused Child, and the Socially Committed Child, and modified their questions and our answers to fit the message of this Seder.
Reader #11: The Curious Child asks why the rabbis would have included in the Bible a story about the origins of Judaism that portrays our ancestors and the God they worshiped in such a negative light?
As with many important questions, there is no one final answer to this one. The Bible 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 one group of people. It is made up of different stories that were first told in many different times and places. The compilers of the Bible had to choose among a plethora of stories in deciding which ones to include.
These compilers were scholarly rabbis who knew the distinction between history and myth, and between fact and fiction. But they did not have many historical facts about the origins of Judaism to put in their book. So, the rabbis may have chosen stories that they knew were myths but that they hoped would portray some underlying truths about Judaism.
It is also possible they deliberately chose stories that would portray Judaism as a progressively changing way of life in which even the image of God got better. That is, they expected Jews to object to the Hebrews’ version of God as he is portrayed in the Passover story and, in contrast, look more favorably on the version of God they themselves worshiped. And maybe the rabbis 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.
Reader #12: The origins of the Jews as they are portrayed in the Bible 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, despite the evils attributed to the Hebrew God and the Hebrews, Rabbi Hillel still summarized the moral of the Bible in the Golden Rule. That is a worthy ideal to take away from the Passover story.
Reader #13: The Skeptical Child asks why do I need to know about the past? Who cares about those mythical Hebrews and how they are portrayed in the Bible?
Who we are and what options we have in our lives are largely influenced by our histories. We need to know the past to know who we are. The story of those Hebrews is part of our cultural history, part of what we Jews think of ourselves, even if those people never existed and the events never happened. What they stood for is in us, for better and worse. One reason the rabbis included so much anger and violence in the Passover story may have been to remind us of the dark side of ourselves and to encourage us to look for ways in which our society is influenced by anger and violence. The story provides a negative benchmark against which we can measure ourselves and society.
Reader #14: The Confused Child asks how can it be that we honor our ancestors but also criticize them?
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. We must not worship any man and must be careful how we worship God. The story portrays the Hebrew God as capable of pronouncing such empathetic commandments as “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “Remember thou wast a slave in Egypt,” but then demanding the slaughter of anyone who does not pay proper obeisance to him or does not perform ritual sacrifices in exactly the proper way.
The story also portrays Moses as a great but fallible man. He empathized with his fellow Hebrews, stood up to the Pharaoh, and even married a Midianite woman who was not a Hebrew. But Moses’ definition of who constituted his neighbor and whom he should therefore love as himself was very narrow, and he even massacred his wife’s Midianite people at God’s command.
Moses did not fulfill the Passover ideals, nor seemingly did the Hebrew God or many other Hebrews, but then neither have we. If our ancestors had fully realized those ideals, or if we did so 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 on our own shortcomings, that we celebrate a holiday such as Passover.
Reader #15: The Socially Committed Child asks how we can apply what we have learned about the history of the Passover story to our lives today, to help us be better people and make a better world?
The Passover story is both a cautionary and an inspirational tale. In the objectionable 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 Bible 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 first 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. We also drink in gratitude for those who have retold the story over the course of the millennia so that we can celebrate Passover today and our children and grandchildren can do so in the future.
Suggested Discussion Questions: Melodrama, Comedy, and Tragedy.
Stories can generally be told in three basic forms: melodrama, comedy, or tragedy. A melodrama is a story of good against evil, good guys against bad guys. It is essentially a war and we either rejoice in the victory of the good guys or mourn if the bad guys win. Comedy is a story about disorder created by fools and their foolishness, and the efforts of wise people to correct or curb the fools. Comedy can be dark and is not necessarily funny. It can end either in a mess or in the restoration of a just order. Tragedy is a story of good gone too far until it turns into bad. It is about pride or hubris which leads the central characters to think they can do whatever they want, but they can’t, and they fail and fall because of their pride.
The Passover story is traditionally told as a melodrama with the Hebrews and their God as the good guys against the evil Pharaoh. How could you tell it as a comedy or tragedy? Can God or Moses or the Pharaoh be seen as fools? Can God or Moses be seen as going too far in a good cause? How would you tell the story? What difference does it make which way you tell it?
Part 2. Passover and the Ten Plagues: Dayenu.
Narrator: One of the most disturbing elements of the Passover story is the ten plagues that the Hebrew God inflicted on the Egyptian people in order to coerce the Pharaoh into freeing the Hebrews. Why God chose these particular ten plagues, nobody knows. But one of the most controversial segments of a Seder is the recitation and consideration of the plagues. If the Hebrew God was so powerful, why did He have to resort to plagues to convince the Pharaoh? If His goal was to influence the Pharaoh, why did He inflict the plagues on the whole Egyptian population? Under international law today, harming civilians in order to coerce a government to do something is considered a crime against humanity and a form of terrorism. Why did the rabbis who compiled the Bible include the plagues in the Passover story? And why is it traditional to dip one’s finger into a glass of wine upon reciting each plague and then let a drop of the wine fall onto a napkin?
Reader #16: The traditional rationalization of the plagues is attributed to a fifteenth century CE scholar Rabbi Shalom, whose name ironically means peace in Hebrew. He reportedly said the plagues were a just retribution against ordinary Egyptians because of the advantages they had received from the Hebrews’ slave labor. The plagues, Shalom said, were also a just punishment from God against the Egyptians for their failure to worship Him instead of worshiping the Pharaoh and the various Egyptian gods. In turn, the reason the plagues were included in the Passover story was to warn non-Jews not to mess with Jews because God would eventually get them. And Shalom’s explanation for reciting the plagues at Passover and wasting a drop of wine for each is to wish that God would continue to plague the enemies of the Jews.
The massacres of various peoples by the Hebrews on their way to and into Palestine has similarly been traditionally rationalized as just punishment for their failure to worship the Hebrew God in place of their own gods. This is, of course, the same rationalization that has historically been used by Christians to persecute Jews because Jews refuse to recognize Jesus as the Savior. It is the excuse used by zealots of many religions to persecute anyone whose beliefs differ from their own or who disagree with their beliefs. “God made me do it,” they say. And that is the reason secularists want to keep God out of the public arena and public debate.
Reader #17: A modern explanation of the plagues that has been adopted by secular and many Reform Jews takes its cue from a saying in the Book of Proverbs: “Do not rejoice at the downfall of your enemies” (Proverbs 24:17). The Book of Proverbs is one of the later composed books in the Bible. It reflects a universal God who is the agent of wisdom rather than its author and for whom the pursuit of wisdom is the goal of life. This is essentially the view of secular Jews, albeit without the need for God.
In this modern view, the plagues were not justified. The Hebrew God was rash, harsh and extremely vain, and even Moses is recorded as trying to get Him to go easier on the Egyptians. But the Hebrew God repeatedly warned Moses and the Hebrews that he was not someone to be messed with. In this view, the plagues were as much a warning to the Hebrews to obey God as they were a punishment for the Egyptians. Having brought the Hebrews out of Egypt, God told them “I set before you today a blessing and a curse: a blessing if you obey the commandments of Yahweh [the Hebrews’ name for God]…a curse if you disobey the commandments” (Deuteronomy 11:26-29). Although the Hebrews benefited from God’s brutality against the Egyptians by getting their freedom and a homeland, God followed up his warnings by repeatedly massacring Hebrews who failed to observe his injunctions to the letter.
Reader #18: In the modern view that the plagues were not justified, the reason that the compilers of the Torah included them was as a warning about benefiting from injustice to others. The Hebrews benefited from brutality but then were subject to it themselves. What price freedom, the Bible in effect asks us? Was there a better strategy that would have followed the Golden Rule? And when we recite the plagues and waste a drop of wine for each, this symbolizes the blood of the innocent Egyptians that was shed in the course of the Hebrews’ liberation. We recite them not in celebration but in mourning.
Narrator: Let us recite the ten plagues and let fall a drop of wine for each in silent mourning.
- Killing of first-born
Let us also sing a traditional Hebrew song, “Dayenu,” that well summarizes 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 victory 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 transformation of “Dayenu” from a somber reflection on Passover into an upbeat celebration of the holiday is similar to the transformation of “God Bless America” from the way it was originally intended by Irving Berlin as a solemn prayer asking God to help a troubled country in a troubled time to the way it is usually sung today as a rejoicing that God has blessed America and Americans are God’s chosen people. We will try to sing “Dayenu” as it was originally intended, so please try to curb your enthusiasm. The song has some fifteen verses. We will sing first Yiddish verse with the refrain and then read the next few verses while singing the refrain in keeping with the spirit of “Enough.”
Ilu hotzi hotzianu, hotzianu mimitzrayim,
hotzianu mimitzrayim, Dayenu.
(Refrain) Day, Day, Dayenu,
Day, Day, Dayenu,
Day, Day, 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.
Reader #19: 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 on the Egyptian people was necessary and justifiable. As descendants of those Hebrews, these are questions we must ponder.
“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 second 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!”
Suggested Discussion Questions: Playing a Zero-Sum Game?
In gaining their freedom, the Hebrews benefited from the seemingly unjust suffering of innocent Egyptians. Whatever blame adult Egyptians might have shared in the enslavement of the Hebrews in Rabbi Shalom’s argument, the infant Egyptian children that God killed as one of the plagues could not be deemed to have participated in that guilt. Should we consider the Hebrews guilty of an ethical lapse for benefiting from God’s brutal ways? Was there anything they should or could have done differently?
Benefiting from others’ misery and the injustices done to others is an ethical problem that almost every living person faces. It is especially a problem those of us who live middle or upper class lives in a prosperous country such as the United States. Imperialism against poorer peoples past and present makes possible our well-being. Within our own country, people often benefit from the way they look, the language they speak, or the religion they practice, while others are disadvantaged on those bases.
Are we guilty of an ethical lapse for benefiting in this way? Have you ever benefited personally from the misery or injustice of others? How can we avoid playing a zero-sum game in which some people benefit at the expense of others? How can we, instead, help everyone to benefit?
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 Keyn Mol.
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. The Hebrews worshiped their God with ritual animal and vegetable sacrifices burned on a sacred altar so it is no surprise that the symbols are food. In the traditional Haggadah, they represent the suffering only of the Hebrews. In our Haggadah, they represent the suffering of both the Egyptians and the Hebrews. They also represent a commitment to “Never say die” no matter how dire the circumstances, and to saying that “Never again” shall we allow such horrible things to happen to people if we can stop them.
Reader #20: The bitter herb or maror represents the bitterness and hardship of the Hebrews and the Egyptians under the cruel rule of the Pharaoh. Let us say “Never again.”
Reader #21: 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 #22: 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 #23: 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 #24: The matzo, an unleavened bread suitable for people on the run, 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.
Suggested Discussion Questions: The more things change, the more they stay the same?
One of my history professors once said that if you are ever called upon to give a talk about a time and place about which you know nothing, all you have to do is say it was a time of trouble and a time of change, the old order was receding and a new order was not yet in place, conservatives who were privileged under the old order were conducting campaigns of fear and hate against the changes and those making them, liberals who were seeking to extend rights to a broader constituency were being accused of weakness by friends and foes alike, and the sun rose every day. Because that is the way of the world. And that is a main theme of the Bible as a whole and the Passover story in particular. There is always a crisis. But things can get better in the long run if we stick with our values and commitments.
We are today in the midst of a difficult situation in the United States and it feels to many as though there may be no way out. But in the course of the twentieth century, our parents and grandparents in this country made their way through the Great Depression, World War II, McCarthyism, and the Korean War. Many of us in the elder generation made our way through the era of the Vietnam War, the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr. and the mass urban riots that seemed would never end. But they did. How did people get through those crises? What might we learn from them?
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 we call Palestine 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 almost certainly a fable, it is the beginning of a long history that leads to us and is part of us.
Reader #25: 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?
Reader #26: 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 ostensibly to liberate those peoples from oppression while actually protecting our own interests?
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 Palestine, 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?
Narrator: 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.
Neishev al hamirpeset
V’nispor tziporim nod’dot.
(Refrain) Od tir’eh, od tir’eh,
Kama tov yihiyeh,
Bashana bashana bab’ah.
In the year that will be,
We’ll sit on the porch
and count the migrating birds. Refrain.
Children on vacation
Will play tag
Between the house and fields. Refrain.
You will see, you will see
How good it will be
In the year that will be. Refrain.
In the year that will be,
We will spread out our hands
Towards the radiant light. Refrain.
A white heron
Like a light will spread her wings
And within them the sun will rise. Refrain.
Narrator: Let us drink the fourth glass of wine to a world without oppression. And then let’s eat.