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A Simple, Highly Participatory Seder

Lawrence Bush
April 4, 2017

by Lawrence Bush

MY FAMILY and Passover intimates have consistently observed the Festival of Matse by turning the hagode text into a participatory event. We assign the holiday themes to individuals at least a couple of weeks in advance. These might include:

Springtime • Four Questions • Slavery • Afikomen (hidden matse) • Burning Bush • Moses • Pharaoh and Power • Plagues • The Sea of Reeds • Liberation • Elijah

The list can be elaborated, of course. The point is for folks to arrive at our gathering prepared with poems, songs, skits, sculpture, video, philosophical thoughts -- whatever! -- to present about their topic.

We then use a fairly skeletal hagode to bring us all together in community and bridge us from presentation to presentation.

WE USUALLY BEGIN with words of welcome from the hosts.

We then light candles. The candlelighter might say: Barukh atah adonay eloheynu melekh ha’olam asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu lehadlik ner shel peysakh. Amazing, the force of life that brings us together to light candles and celebrate Passover!

Then we all say: We kindle this fire so that we may see more clearly
that each of us is different,
that all of us are the same.
We each deserve a place at the hearth.
We all must help tend the fire.
Blessed is the fire that gives us light.
Blessed is the light that enables perception.

A traditional passage from The Song of Songs follows. (It's particularly nice, we find, to have one of the elder lovers in the community read it.)

Reader: For lo, the winter is past.
The rains are over and gone.
The blossoms have appeared in the land.
The time of pruning has come.
The song of the turtledove
Is heard in our land.
The green figs form on the fig tree.
The vines in blossom give off fragrance.
Arise, my darling!
My fair one, come away!

Then our first presenter takes a turn, sharing something on the topic of Springtime. He/she might gift everybody with a plant or a bulb. Or show photos of flowering trees. Or read more from the Song of Songs. Or play a recording of a Springtime song.

NEXT, WE ENJOY our first cup of wine. We may say the traditional blessing: Barukh atah adonay eloheynu melekh ha’olam borey pri hagofen. Amazing, the force of life that brings forth the fruit of the vine! Then we all say:

For the bounty of our table,
For the people who have touched us,
For the gardens we have tended,
For the steps we have taken,
For the falls from which we have recovered,
For the decisions we have made, and those we still ponder,
For our parents, our children and our grandchildren,
Our friends, our beloved ones, our allies,
For those we have lost,
For those we have found,
For this night of reflection and remembrance, as we celebrate, each of us,
Our liberation from Egypt —
We drink this wine and count ourselves as blessed.

Next we read about the ceremonial foods (and have a nibble), as follows:

Reader: Pesakh helps us remember and personalize the liberation from slavery by presenting us with ceremonial foods. (Raises the green vegetable from the ceremonial plate, dips in salt water): This is the green of the earth; this is the salt of the sea.

All: We must learn to care for the earth, which nourishes us with food, air and water. (Dip and eat.)

Same Reader (raises egg): This is the gift of fertility, the creation of life.

All (raise egg): We must celebrate the cultivation of life, and disempower those who cultivate death. (Dip and eat.)

New Reader (raises matzoh): This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. It has no leavening; it reminds us of the quick bread that our ancestors had to make as they rushed away from Egypt.

All (raise matzoh): Let us remember all who are hungry tonight, and try to feed them. (Eat)

New Reader (raises bitter herb): This is maror, the bitter herb that represents the bitterness of slavery, of war, of oppression of any kind.

All (take a piece of bitter herb): Let us remember all who are tasting bitterness tonight, and try to relieve them. (Eat.)

Same Reader (raises kharoses): This is kharoses, the sweet concoction that reminds us that even in our suffering there is sweetness in life.

All (raise kharoses): Let us appreciate how our lives are filled with sweetness and graced with abundance. (Eat.)

New Reader: Also on our ceremonial plate is an orange, a fruit of the Middle East, with a scent that can fill a room and juice that can strengthen our vision. What does it represent?

All: It stands for the innovation and leadership that women have brought to the Jewish tradition in modern times, and to the struggle for justice throughout history.

Reader: And why is there an olive on our seder plate?

All: Because for millennia the olive branch has been the symbol of peace, and we seek to make peace where there has been war.

Reader: This night is different from all others because tonight we remember that we were slaves in the land of Egypt, and on this night we rose up against the Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, and put an end to our slavery. Had we not rebelled, the Jewish people would not have functioned as a civilization for these past three millennia. Had we not rebelled, the tradition of law and ethics and prophecy that our people created might not have come to pass. Had we not rebelled, the profound Jewish contribution to history would have been stillborn.

We come together each year to nurture our freedom and keep it alive. For in rebelling, we only begin the process of liberation.

Reader: Over 3,000 years ago, according to our Pesakh story, the people of Israel liberated themselves from their Egyptian slavemasters after centuries of oppression, and began their march toward freedom. The Jewish tradition bids us not only to remember their struggle, but to regard ourselves as if we had personally come out of Egypt. Each of us — slaves yesterday, free women, men and children today. Each of us, enslaved in Mitzrayim — the ‘narrow place.’ The narrow perspectives, the narrow loyalties, the narrow prejudices, the narrow habits, the narrow cynicism, the narrow moods, the narrow experience, the narrow island of security to which we cling.

Reader: Each of us, facing the trials of liberation: the flight into the unknown, into the Red Sea, into the barren desert; the quest that demands that we take a chance and surrender our safety, our comfortable isolation.

HERE WE WOULD LIKELY break to hide (and perhaps discuss the symbolism of why we are hiding) the afikomen and to have a presentation on the Four Questions.

The person who has chosen that topic might have us read "Why Is This Night Different from All Other Nights" in languages from around the world. Or lead a short discussion on what questions need asking and answering right now in history. Or play the song "Dat Dere" ("Can I have that big elephant over dere?"), or the Beach Boys' "When I Grow Up To Be a Man."

If no one has selected the topic, we might read the following:

Reader: Ma nish-ta-na ha-lie-la ha-zeh mee-kol ha-lay-loat? Why is this night different from all other nights? On all other nights, we eat regular bread; why on this night do we eat only matzoh? On all other nights we eat herbs of all kinds; why on this night bitter herbs? On all other nights we eat eggs however we please; why tonight do we dip them in salt water? On all other nights, we sit up straight when we eat; why on this night do we relax in our seats?

Reader: These questions, and their traditional answers, hint at the meaning of Passover, but they are not nearly enough. The tradition thus tells us of four children with questions of their own: the Wise Child, the Bad Child, the Simple Child, and the Child Too Young to Ask. Each of these children, alternately demanding, rejecting, yearning, learning, each of these reside in each of us. At different points in our lives, we have been all of these children: one who is eager; one who is hostile; one who is passive; one who is bewildered. We have asked the cleverest of questions; we have challenged provocatively; we have simply wanted to know the answer; we have been so confused that we could not speak.

Reader: Questioning is itself a sign of our freedom, proof that we are free to investigate, to analyze, to express our consciences and satisfy our curiosity. These are not freedoms to be taken for granted!

Reader: This night is different from all others because tonight we remember that we were slaves in the land of Egypt for centuries, and on this night we rose up against the Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, and put an end to our slavery. Because of this, the Bible reminds us over and over, we should pursue justice and deal with human beings as human beings deserve to be dealt with, because, the text keeps repeating, “You were slaves in Egypt.”

HERE WE CELEBRATE with our second cup of wine:

Reader: Let us now toast the second cup of wine to the quest for freedom.

All: May our world be free from the chains that bind it. (All drink.)

Then we sing, "Go Down, Moses!" Here are the words:

When Israel was in Egypt land — Let my people go!
Oppressed so hard they could not stand —Let my people go!
Go down, Moses! Way down in Egypt land.
Tell old Pharaoh: Let my people go!

Thus saith the Lord, bold Moses said —Let my people go!
If not I’ll strike your first-born dead — Let my people go!
Go down, Moses! Way down in Egypt land.
Tell old Pharaoh — Let my people go!

No more in bondage shall they toil ­— Let my people go!
They shall go forth to freedom’s soil — Let my people go!
Go down, Moses! Way down in Egypt land.
Tell old Pharaoh: Let my people go!

If someone has chosen the topics "Slavery" and/or "Moses," we turn to his or her presentations now. We might be asked to write down the things we feel enslaved to, then pass the slips of paper and read them aloud. We might hear a passage from Toni Morrison's Beloved or from a Frederick Douglass speech. We might hear statistics about mass incarceration in America.

THEN WE PERFORM a group ritual about the plagues:

Reader: We all know that freedom is not won without a price. There is a price that each of us must pay to make change. For oppression, in order to maintain itself, breeds many illusions -- among them, the illusion that the way of oppression is simply the normative way of the world.

Reader: When Moses asked Pharaoh to release the slaves, and he refused, ten extraordinary plagues all but destroyed Egypt. While we are happy that, after these plagues, we were finally freed from slavery, we temper our joy with sorrow -- sorrow for the Egyptians who had to suffer and die. The Talmud teaches that when the Egyptian soldiers were drowned in the Sea of Reeds, the angels rejoiced and sang praises -- until God silenced them, saying, My children are drowning in the sea, and you want to sing?

Reader: Let us pass a bowl to collect wine from each of us, a spilled bit of our joy, as we recite the plagues, both ancient and modern, that accompany oppression and the oppressor’s resistance to change.

All: Blood, frogs, lice, beasts, cattle plague, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, death of the first-born.

Each person, in turn, now names a modern plague while spilling out some wine into a circulating bowl.

Reader (holding bowl aloft): What can we do, now, with these poisons? They cannot be gotten rid of; they can only be dispersed into the vastness of the earth. Let us always remember that our actions have consequences; let us combine memory and foresight during this Passover season.

If someone has prepared a presentation on the plagues, or on Pharaoh, now's the time to turn their way. We might decide to pass another bowl around to collect tsedoke for a healing political organization. We might hear a Talmudic passage about the character of Pharaoh. We might watch a Saturday Night Live clip on Youtube about Donald Trump. We might hear a series of Jewish jokes about Hitler.

Often in our community, we acknowledge the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 19, 1943 during this section of our seder, and stand to sing Hirsh Glik's Partisan Hymn, "Zog Nit Keynmol."

THE FINAL SECTION of our seder leads us, together, towards liberation.

Reader: We live in frightening yet phenomenal times. Events that have occurred within our lifetimes are among the outstanding transformative events of human history. Some of us see cause for great optimism in the achievements of science, in the moral and legal victories of the civil rights movement, the anti-apartheid movement, the feminist movement, and the gay and lesbian movement, in the growth of environmental awareness, and much, much more. Some of us, on the other hand, see cause for great pessimism in the constant outbreak of war, the failure of socialism, the spread of corporate power, the growth of religious fundamentalism, and much, much more.

Reader: “We still have a long, long way to go before we reach the promised land of freedom,” said Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Yes, we have left the dusty soils of Egypt, and we have crossed a Red Sea that had for years been hardened by a long and piercing winter of massive resistance, but before we reach the majestic shores of the promised land, there will still be gigantic mountains of opposition ahead and prodigious hilltops of injustice . . . Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort from the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice.”

Reader: “Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be tranformed into bright tomorrows of quality integrated education. Let us be dissatisfied until integration is not seen as a problem but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity. Let us be dissatisfied until men and women . . . will be judged on the basis of the content of their character . . .”

Reader: Let us open the door to our hopes: the hope that our seder is a dress rehearsal for the day when slavery will be unthinkable, liberation a daily event, and all peoples, and each person, can end their exiles. (Open the door for a minute of silence.)

If people have brought presentations about liberation, the Exodus, or Elijah the Prophet, now's the time to turn to those. We might sing "Eliyahoo Ha-navee":

Eliyahu ha-navee, Eliyahu ha-tishbee
Eliyahu, Eliyahu, Eliyahu ha-Giladee.
Bim-hey-rah b’ya-mey noo
Yah-voh el-eh-noo
Im moshiakh ben David
Im moshiakh bat Sarah.
Eliyahu ha-navee, Eliyahu ha-tishbee
Eliyahu, Eliyahu, Eliyahu ha-Giladee.

Or we might each list something that we'd like to see happen "after the revolution" or "when moshiakh (messiah) comes." Or we might listen to Bob Marley's "Exodus."

Reader: Dayenu. It would have been sufficient, says the hagode. If we had gotten out of Egypt but not across the Red Sea, dayenu. If we had gotten across the Red Sea but not been sustained for forty years in the wilderness, dayenu. If we had been sustained in the wilderness but not gotten to Mt.Sinai to become a united people, dayenu. Dayenu: We cannot endure and be constructive in a constant state of dissatisfaction.

Reader: Let us therefore lift our fourth cup this Passover night to the spirit of hope. We were slaves, and now we are free; now others are slaves, and someday, with our help, they will be free. To our hopes. . .

All: To our hopes . . .

Reader: To our dreams . . .

To our dreams . . .

Reader: To our family and our friends . . .

All: To our family and our friends . . .

Same Reader: To our planet . . .

All: To our planet . . . And to peace. L’khayim! (All drink)

ALL OF THIS can be filled out with missing parts of the Passover tradition, or trimmed down to a single slice of matse. I would definitely add more group singing to what's offered here! But whatever you choose to do, what counts, in my community, is the participatory nature of our seder: Everybody has worked to bring something to the table, and nobody gets bored!

Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.