A Weekly Message from Rabbi Sam Levine 3.26.21

More than any other holiday, Passover is a holiday of miracles. We recall our slavery in Egypt, how God brought ten plagues upon the Egyptians and then took us out of that place. We read the story of the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, the safe passage of the Israelites, and the destruction of Pharaoh’s army. God intervenes in history, upsetting the forces of nature, to redeem God’s people. When it comes to miracles, these are The Big Ones.

And of course, that story is told at the seder table. The Passover seder as we know it today is a creation of the sages of the Mishna. Faced with the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, confronted by the loss of the locus of Israelite religion, the rabbis had some work to do. If they were to preserve the priceless gift of Torah, of God’s message and teaching, they had to get creative. The Torah commanded us to bring a Paschal sacrifice to the Temple and to tell the story of the Exodus: “And you shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I went free from Egypt.’” No longer able to perform the sacrifice, the rabbis instead enshrined the commandment to retell the story. A ceremony (the sacrifice and the telling) that was once performed on the grounds of the Temple now had to move into the home. The “sacrifice” had to migrate from the Temple altar to the dining room table, and the “explaining” had to be codified. With the Passover seder, the sages created a vehicle that, on a micro level, saved the Torah-commanded Passover rituals, and in the larger picture, helped save Judaism from oblivion.

There’s a whole other dimension to the Passover seder as well. The Pew Research poll in 2013 reported that a whopping 70% of American Jews attend a Passover seder. It is by far the most observed Jewish ritual of the year. The fact is, the seder has taken on a life of its own and has become the Jewish family event par excellence. Many families maintain unique traditions passed down from generation to generation, all the while innovating new traditions. The food, the melodies, the readings, the symbols on the table, all combine to provide a powerful bond that keeps families coming year after year, even if the rest of their Jewish practice is negligible. 

In my own family, the Philadelphia branch (my mother’s side) has come together for six generations in America. My great-great grandparents brought with them melodies that were unique to our family, as well as family Passover recipes (sweet-and-sour shad, Passover sherbet, “the family charoset”). Over the years, each generation has made its own contributions to the seder, adding up to an experience that is uniquely “ours” and yet still follows the traditional seder as it’s laid out in the Haggadah. It is a joy to watch the younger generation get inculcated in the family ways, taking their place in the chain of Jewish and family tradition. It is a most remarkable facet of Jewish life, unlike anything else.

The Holiday of Miracles, then, wrought another miracle. The Passover seder saved Passover 2,000 years ago, and now plays a major role as a link in ensuring Jewish continuity and transmitting core Jewish values to the next generation. That is truly something to be thankful for. 

May your seders be joyful and meaningful.

Shabbat shalom um’vorach – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat, 

And a chag same’ach v’kasher – a happy and kosher Pesach,

Rabbi Sam Levine

P.S.: For a nice illustration of an American family seder, check out the short film “Gefilte Film” here: https://www.thegefiltefilm.com/about?fbclid=IwAR2U_4PMrXV_-YwdJWNRUVNy3aacxHj6LanWywfn8pODixMmKHkooZ9wmK4