I remember the Passover Seder as a very special time. My brothers and I got new clothes that we had to save specially until that evening; this heightened our sense of anticipation and symbolized the special nature of this holiday.
I can still envision preparing for Passover in the Orthodox home of my childhood: I remember the frenzied work of emptying out all our cabinets, packing up the food we ate for the other 357 days of the year and lining all the cabinets, the stove, and the refrigerator with extra thick aluminum foil. In keeping with the commandments of the holiday, Orthodox families had two separate sets of dishes, (meat and dairy), silverware and table linens that they took out for just these eight days. The stress of the religious imperative to clean and rid the house of temporarily taboo foods heightened in the last week before the holiday. Until, the evening before the holiday began with the Seder, the Father of the family, with the children in tow, went through each room with a single feather, dusting surfaces to ensure no crumbs of forbidden foodstuff remained. The period of intense cleaning had ensured that. We all breathed a sigh of relief: now, we can get into the delights of the holiday.
The festival of Passover has its roots in the Hebrew Scriptures: the ancient Israelites were commanded to avoid all leavened foods—hametz—for the eight days of this holiday. Members of the various groupings Orthodox Jews begin preparing their homes one month in advance, right after the holiday of Purim, a festival celebrated annually to commemorate the salvation of the Jewish people in ancient Persia from Haman’s plot “to destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews, young and old, infants and women, in a single day.” Not only are Orthodox Jews forbidden to eat hametz, they must work to ensure they do not have even the minutest speck of it in their homes.
The central ritual of the holiday is the Seder, which is the Hebrew word for order. The Seder is an annual holiday reconstructing the experiences of the ancient Israelites from their enslavement in Egypt. All participants, men, women and children, are commanded to not only remember the Exodus, but to feel as if they themselves, in their own lives, had actually been freed of slavery. The metaphor suggests a newfound sense of freedom, as if we all had moved out of the narrow constraints of oppression and into of the self-determination of free people. The entire evening is laid out with 15 specific elements that are to be highlighted, performed, eaten, or spoken in a carefully choreographed order. For example, the Seder begins with a recitation of these elements, which include two separate rituals of hand-washing, (one with and one without a blessing), a blessing over wine, a Seder plate with items commemorating the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, and most centrally, the vivid and detailed telling, retelling and elaborating upon the story of the Israelite’s exodus from Egypt. As an Orthodox family, we strove to do everything commanded in the Bible as well as the additional details added by the ancient rabbis, over the millennia in an effort to explicate and elaborate precisely how to observe this holiday.
As I learned Hebrew, beginning at age 5, I began to understand the language of the prayers, Biblical passages, rabbinic writings, and the recitation of the Exodus that comprise the Seder service. As my facility with the language grew, I came to see that some of the scriptural passages describing the Exodus were actually interpreted differently by the very ancient rabbis who were quoted in the Haggada. Their quotations revealed numerous different ways scripture could be interpreted. Here is my favorite illustrative passage.
In telling the story of the exodus from Egypt, the Haggada quotes from Deuteronomy 7: 18-19, a passage depicting the strength and power with which God intervened in history to save the Jews from slavery:
“The Lord took us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, and with a great manifestation, and with signs and wonders.”
The rabbis quoted in the Passover service all strove to understand the meaning of this Biblical passage, by parsing its language:
“And with an outstretched arm,” this refers to the sword, as it is said: “His sword was drawn, in his hand, stretched out over Jerusalem.”
Another explanation: “Strong hand” indicates two [plagues]; “Outstretched arm,” another two; “Great manifestation,” another two; “Signs,” another two; and “Wonders,” another two.
Now, how often were they smitten by “the finger”? Ten plagues! Thus you must conclude that in Egypt they were smitten by ten plagues, at the sea they were smitten by fifty plagues!
Rabbi Eliezer said: How do we know that each individual plague which the Holy One, blessed be He, brought upon the Egyptians in Egypt consisted of four plagues?
Rabbi Akiva said: How do we know that each individual plague which the Holy One, blessed be He, brought upon the Egyptians in Egypt consisted of five plagues?
Although I had been brought up to understand Orthodoxy as an absolute and complete way of life commanded by God whose observance I had to follow, the stark realization that the rabbis disagreed with each other undermined the religious absolutism that shaped my socialization as a young Orthodox girl. The Passover Haggada, the compilation of rules and recitations of Biblical and Rabbinic texts that form the foundation of the Seder, revealed that the great Rabbis who compiled this text actually differed in their interpretations of the meaning of this Scriptural passage. Their disagreements ironically undermined the religious absolutism with which I was raised and led to my asking fundamental questions: Who was to say that the Orthodox way of life was the only true way? How could my religious community be so certain its way of life represented the most true and accurate way of understanding and following the commandments of the ancient texts? By revealing the variety of interpretations one could make of God’s given laws, this religious holiday brought me a glimpse of relativism.
With that thought, the literal and metaphoric sacred canopy under which I lived within my family’s Orthodox community, showed its first tear.