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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Discussion Ideas for the Seder

If you are leading a seder this year, more important than coming up with sparkling new insights is preparing questions that will lead to juicy discussion.  For example, Chancellor Arnold Eisner of JTS offers some suggestions for intergenerational conversation at the seder table.

Here is a series of three questions I plan to raise at my seder Monday night:

1. יציאת מצרים, the Exodus from Egypt, is our founding myth.  Other cultures have different founding myths.  America, for example, was founded by idealistic pioneers, who braved treacherous conditions in pursuit of religious freedom.  Rome was founded by twin demi-Gods, Romulus and Remus, whose mother's husband was killed by his brother in an attempt to take his throne.  The twins themselves were left to die but were found and raised by wolves.  Eventually Romulus murdered Remus in a dispute over where to found the new city, Rome.
When compared to these other two founding myths, what does the Jewish myth tell us about how we view ourselves as a people?  How has our founding myth shaped our identity, sustaining us or hurting us, through the generations?  How does our founding myth shape Israeli Jewry and, separately, American Jewry, today?

2.  In describing the magid -- the storytelling portion of the haggadah -- the mishnah includes a cryptic instruction: מתחיל בגנות ומסיים בשבח,  "One starts with shame and concludes with praise" (Pesachim 10:4).  What is the shame referred to here?  The Babylonian Talmud records two opinions:  Rav says we should remember that our ancestors were once idol worshipers, and  Shmuel says we should remember that our ancestors were slaves.  Part one of the discussion is this: what is the difference in the way Rav and Shmuel are thinking about shame?  Which form of shame is more familiar to you?  Which seems more appropriate to the Passover seder?
(In fact, our haggadoth include both versions.  We begin by recalling that "we were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt", and a few pages later we begin again by recalling that "in the beginning our fathers were idol worshipers.")

3. Dr. Joshua Kulp of the Conservative Yeshiva shared with us an 11th century haggadah found in the Cairo Genizah.  This haggadah follows the traditions of ancient Israel (or Yerushalmi), distinct from those of Babylonia, and it seems to have a different understanding of the "shame" referred to in the mishnah.

It begins its telling of the story of the Exodus with Jacob's decision to leave the land of Israel and go down to Egypt.

Later in the magid section of the seder, both the Cairo haggadah and our modern haggadoth include the following comment:

וירד מצרימה , אנוס על בי הדבור

And he went down to Egypt, compelled by (divine) word.

With these words, we try to justify Jacob's decision to leave the promised land and go down to the land of oppression.  In fact, a careful reading of the account in Genesis suggests that Jacob was not only NOT compelled by divine word, he made his choice without consulting God.  Only after Jacob began his journey south did God speak to him and validate his decision:

ויאמר ישראל רב עוד יוסף בני חי, אלכה ואראנו בטרם אמות.  ויסע ישראל וכל אשר לו ויבא באר שבע, ויזבח זבחים לאלוקי אביו יצחק. ויאמר אלוקים לישראל במראות הלילה ויאמר יעקב יעקב, ויאמר הנני. ויאמר אנכי הא–ל אלוקי אביך, אל תירא מרדה מצרימה כי לגוי גדול אשימך שם.
And Israel (Jacob) said "How wonderful, my son Joseph is still alive, I will go and see him before I die. And Israel and all that was his traveled, and he came to Beer Sheba.  He sacrificed animals to the God of his father Isaac.  God said to him in a night vision: "Jacob, Jacob", and he said, "Here I am." And God said, "I am the God of your fathers.  Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, because I will make you a great nation there.  (Genesis 55:28-56:2)

Jacob's decision to leave Israel is not told in our haggadoth as a cause for shame.  The Babylonian tradition superseded the Israeli tradition on many counts, including this one.  How is this third source of shame different from the two that we do recall?  Would our founding myth feel different if we saw it as beginning with Jacob's voluntary decision to leave the land chosen by God for Abraham, to go down to the land of Egypt?