Judaism: Ritual on Passover
THE ROLE OF RITUAL
Many people try to squeeze all the rituals out of Judaism. By abandoning Shabbat candles, Yom Kippur fasting, tallit and tefillin, shofar, Megillah, Menorah, sukkah, the Seder and so much else, they proudly announce how emancipated they are, and how they can now focus on the pure ideas and ethics of the Jewish tradition.
The thing they forgot was that human beings need symbols as well as theories. Freedom for example loses its meaning unless it is related to real people, situations and actions. Holding a piece of matzah and saying, “This is the bread of affliction” is a powerful symbol which gives freedom a real meaning. Celebrating Israel’s emergence into freedom represents the Haggadah’s words, “In every generation a person must regard himself as if he personally went forth from Egypt”.
Rituals are like the buttons that keep a garment together. Without the buttons the garment slips away and vanishes.
THE MISSING MOSES
Moses is absent from the Haggadah apart from one incidental quotation (Ex. 14:31). By way of parallel, God is missing from the Megillah and from Shir HaShirim.
Preachers and teachers find both phenomena highly fascinating. The consensus of opinion is that an unseen presence is so evident that it hardly needs a mention by name. In Moses’ case there could not have been an Exodus without him.
Yet the Haggadah not only takes him for granted but deliberately moves the credit and emphasis to the Almighty. God brought the redemption – “not by an angel, nor by a seraph, nor by a messenger”.
Something must be happening that is not immediately obvious. It is not merely that the Haggadah wants us to know that nothing ever happens without God pulling the strings. The phrase “pulling the strings” hints at a tension between Divine and human activity.
We can’t be certain who redacted this part of the Haggadah, but it could have been at a time when Christianity was building up the status of Jesus and Judaism had to respond by playing down the level of human leadership.
FATHERS & SONS
The four sons all have to be handled according to their own capacity.
Over the centuries the Jewish ideal has been to have a child who will reach the top rank and be a wise son. Parents with a child like this think themselves blessed by God.
In marrying off a son, the parents always sought a wife who would support her wise husband. In marrying off a daughter they dreamt of a bridegroom who was a talmid chacham in his own right. These days when so many women learn Torah, the ultimate blessing is for a wise son to marry a wise daughter.
The hassidic rabbi known as “The Yud” added, “Every father strives to help his son to become a learned man and pious Jew. When the son grows up, he in turn tries to make his own son become a good Jew. Will the time come when the father himself will strive to be a good Jew and not leave the task to his son?”
PLAGUES IN EVERY GENERATION
The Haggadah lists "Elleh eser makkot", "These are the Ten Plagues", but the plagues did not stop at ten.
Jewish and world history are full of other terrible experiences – ten times ten and more besides – and unlike the list in the Haggadah they did not merely befall the ancient Egyptians.
Jews as Jews suffered constant violence and villainy, unceasing degradation and destruction, persistent persecution and pogroms, continual external and internal problems. Humanity – including the Jews – was regularly engulfed by disasters, demons and demagogues. Can you imagine what depressing responses I always received over the years, when I asked classes of pupils to nominate the ten plagues of the modern world?
There are two major categories of evil occurrences: “natural” events, called in English “acts of God”, and events which are eruptions of moral evil. The two categories are intertwined. The first group includes earthquakes and illness, and though we tend to blame them on God they have a moral dimension – not just the question of how and why God is involved, but whether man could have done more to improve the world and eliminate or at least diminish the external events.
Though the beginning of the Biblical Book of Job sees the Adversary going about causing mischief, the human mind feels affronted at the thought that God could apparently condone such undeserved suffering. Whatever the evil we are talking about, in the end it has to trace back to the Creator.
Why did God not make a perfect world that has no defects? Why does God not step in and control the Creation before people get hurt? Why does God not frustrate the designs of the human beings who target their fellow creatures?
It’s the oldest and hardest question of all; no-one has found the final answer.
One approach is to say that God has no obligation to create a perfect universe, but in creating man He has provided a means of mending the torn fabric.
A second approach is to say that history has to take the long view, and in the end things will gradually improve. Possibly some of the worst curses have already gone or reduced, though the global evils of the past century – especially the Holocaust, which did not just happen but was deliberately unleashed by man's malignity – tend to challenge this assertion.
Perhaps one can say that to do good is harder than to do evil. It is not that the Christian idea of inherited sinfulness is necessarily valid, but that for man to slide into evil-doing is easier than to choose the path of righteousness.
Rav Soloveitchik is adamant that one cannot blithely intellectualise the issue by looking for a theory that explains the events: none of this relieves the hurt of real human beings torn apart by real pain. But a range of modern Jewish thinkers joins him in distinguishing between explanations and responses. We might not (yet) have found the explanation for evil, but we have a responsibility to respond and to try to handle the suffering.
In the Haggadah we are told that the plagues arrive in every generation, but the Holy One Blessed be He, "matzileinu miyyadam", "delivers us from their power". We would like to feel that God stretches out His hand and scoops us out of the inferno; that after all is what the Torah assures us saved our forefathers from Egypt. But if that is not what always happens, there is some comfort in the thought that what God does is to allow us to rise above the suffering, robbing the evil of its power and giving us the moral victory.