What does a Passover seder honour and celebrate?

Saturday, April 8, 2023

What does a Passover seder honour and celebrate?

A blog on Pesach


Howard Adelman

Last evening, we finished a third Passover seder and this morning, in Torah study, Rabbi Splanski led us through a marvellous discussion of the meaning of the word Pesach, (פיסח), from the Hebrew root ‘pey’ ‘samech’ ‘het’. Setting aside why we had a third seder, I would only note that, as usual, and to my regret, we never got to the end. I want to use this opportunity to summarize what I take to be the meaning of pesach and why this annual celebration is so central to what it means to be Jewish. In doing so, I acknowledge that I was very inspired by the excellent selected readings provided by our rabbi. But I personally take full responsibility for the interpretation herein.


My youngest son suggested that the preponderance of evidence clearly showed that the exodus was not a single escape from Egypt of Hebrews enslaved to build the pyramids. According to what I have read as well, there is much to support such a position, first because the archeological evidence and inherent contradictions show that: a) this could not have been the case since the pyramids were constructed at least many centuries before the Hebrews as a nation came into being; b) archeologists, Mark Lehner and Zahi Hawass, established that the pyramids were not built by slaves but by workers who were paid laborers; c) according to my son, there is evidence that they were enslaved to build a canal between the Red Sea and the Dead sea by the Pharaoh who ruled much later, not Ramses II (1290-1224 BCE), who, in any case, according to the historical record, never drowned at sea (his mummy can be viewed in a Cairo museum – he died of heart failure at the age of 90); it was possibly Haman, whose name in the Book of Esther identifies the first counsel of Ahseaurus, the King of Persia; d) Exodus 12:37 claims that 600,000 male adults left Egypt, but that would mean that at least 2 million Hebrews left and at least 3.5 million were living there before the Exodus – and probably many more – surely a number huge enough to be recorded in Egyptian history, but not one scrap of historical evidence supports such a claim and, in any case, the desert could never have supported that size of an exodus; e) since eleph, translated as a thousand, and in Kings 20:30 tells us of 27 eleph were killed by a falling wall in Aphek, the number could not have been 27,000, clearly indicating that how pesach is translated is very critical; f) the story tells of YHWH providing quail for 600,000 – even if only for one day – how could he collect that many, what could be His source? –  yet the story suggests that this food was provided for every day for forty years; in any case, other stories in The Torah tell, not of God rescuing the Hebrews from enslavement in Egypt, but of God finding the Hebrews (or the Levites) in the wilderness; g) there is  a 13th century BCE poem on papyrus called the “Admonitions of Impuwer or the Lord of All” that tells of Egypt devastated by a river of blood, droughts, plagues, a violent insurrection and the escape of slaves, and this may be the root of a story that tells of rivers of blood, the devastation of cattle and darkness – perhaps dark times rather than a description of the actual light in Egypt; there is also the story of “The Wax Crocodile”. (For other possible sources, cf. Prof. Israael Knohl, “Exodus: The History Behind the Story” in Passover and the Exodus: The History and Meaning.) See also “The Elephantine Stele” and “The Great Harris Papyrus” which both describe Pharaoh Setnakhte’s war against the Levantine usurper Irsu in 1186 B.C.E. “Reading these accounts together with Manetho’s story of the war against Osarseph offers us a possible historical context for what eventually became the Bible’s story of the exodus of Israel from Egypt.” But my concern is neither establishing the historicity of the tale nor its roots in various periods and historical fragments.

If the Pesach story is not even a faint record of an historical event and possibly an amalgam of different documents, why is it a story of an intervention by an all-powerful God who performs miracles? How can there be any historical evidence behind such a story? Evidently there is evidence of Hebrews going back and forth to work in Egypt, but in the Second Temple period, and further evidence that they were in the employ of or enslaved by a Pharaoh to build a canal between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, which not only flooded upon near completion, but collapsed and destroyed the canal itself and drowned workers and military officers overseeing them.

If the tale is indeed and amalgam of bits of history but not a fable, what is its meaning if it is not to celebrate and recall a real historical event? What is the meaning of all the fiction we read and see on the silver screen? After all, the Torah reads mostly like a work of fiction or a number of fictional tales from the Adam and Eve story to the flood and onwards. As Rabbi David Bigman writes in his essay, “Refracting History Through the Spiritual Experience of the Present,” (op.cit.)  “The Torah’s narrative is at its core, poetic; it loses its potency when forced to fit into a rubric of science or history. Poetry, music, art, and narratology do not contradict scientific fact; they live in parallel to it and envelop it.”

But this interpretation is really not about the story as told in Exodus, but of the interpretations found in various Haggadahs, the best of which subvert the original story with its narrative of the intervention by an all-powerful divine figure to save and free the Israelites from their enslavement under the Egyptians. Perhaps the clue can be found in the way the tale as told in Exodus fits.

The Style of Exodus

The evidence for the story as fiction, that may have drawn from an amalgam of both historical facts as well as other creative writing, is supported by the fact that there were a number of versions of the tale just as there are remakes of movies – Exodus, Psalm 78, Psalm 105. Fictional accounts may not be factual, but they have meaning and intentions. I would contend that the tale in Exodus is of an all-powerful God with Moses as His consiglieri. These are stories of the Good defeating and vanquishing Evil. Many other cultures have similar legendary stories: Oedipus of Thebes in the classical Greek tradition; Cyrus in Persian lore; and even Jesus in Christianity. Though not fables, they make no claim to historical truth.  Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber writes in his essay, “The Exodus in tradition and Context” (op.cit.) that “we no longer live in a world explained primarily by the direct control of God (or gods), but in a world governed by science and the laws of nature.” We cannot accept the tale as an historical one. But, I argue, the evidence suggests that the original story was a moral tale of Absolute Good at war with the epitome of Absolute Evil. I further suggest that the Haggadah was written by Pharisees, rabbis in opposition to the hierarchical power system of the Israelite priests of Jerusalem in the Second Temple period to undermine their authority by attacking the presumptions underpinning their system.

In the Exodus dichotomous world of one side embodying goodness and the other evil, God hardened the Pharaoh’s heart, suggesting that the agent responsible for the evil was unredeemable while telling a tale primarily about the theme of redemption. Thus, it a tale of Absolute Goodness versus Absolute Evil, two mutually exclusive categories. But I argue that the Haggadah was created to use that tale to deconstruct it as a story of Good defeating Evil, and replacing it by an interpretation that takes us beyond good and evil into a much more complicated morality, and that can be seen in an analysis of the word pesach itself. (See later.) Further, that deconstruction challenges the idea that the world is not simply built on a foundation of fact, science and the laws of nature. It is a story in the vein of what Farber called mnemohistory and mythic history.

The late Jewish historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi (1932- 2009) held the same view. My colleague, Professor Carl Ehrlich, in “The Exodus Story as Jewish Mnemohistory,” cites Ahad Ha’am to support the tale as a story central to collective cultural memory rather than political or economic history or what actually happened according to historiography:

“I care not whether this man Moses really existed; whether his life and his activity really corresponded to our traditional account of him; whether he was really the savior of Israel and gave his people the Law in the form in which it is preserved among us; and so forth. I have one short and simple answer for all these conundrums. This Moses, I say, this man of old time, whose existence and character you are trying to elucidate, matters to nobody but scholars like you. We have another Moses of our own, whose image has been enshrined in the hearts of the Jewish people for generations, and whose influence on our national life has never ceased from ancient times till the present day. The existence of this Moses, as a historical fact, depends in no way on your investigations. For even if you succeeded in demonstrating he was not such a man as we supposed, you would not thereby detract one jot from the historical reality of the ideal Moses – the Moses who has been our leader not only for forty years in the wilderness of Sinai, but for thousands of years in all the wildernesses in which we have wandered since the Exodus. As such, what is its meaning? This is what the Haggadah offers us, a tale to be interpreted rather than a record of the factual past.”

But what if Moses as a hero is subverted by the story of Miriam as the central focus in the Jewish religion as a religion of memory? Does that change our interpretation? What is its meaning of the story then? Nevertheless, this is what the Haggadah offers us, a tale to be interpreted rather than a record of the factual past.

Other Traditions

How is it that a tale of divine rescue of the Israelites from Egypt became the central motif of The Torah and not the creator god of the world, a tale by which God won the allegiance of the Israelites, or, much later, of God’s discovery of the nomadic Israelites in the wilderness and bringing them forth to a settled life with cities and a civilization at the centre (Deuteronomy 32:10)? How is it that this story of rescue from Egypt became central to Jewish self-identity rather than many others in The Torah that do not even mention God rescuing the Israelites from Egypt – “not a single mention is made in all the prophetic oracles of divine vengeance against Egypt (Isa. 19; Jer. 46; Ezek. 29, 30, 31, 32) of the fact that the Israelites were once subjected there to harsh enslavement.” (Prof. Rabbi David Frankel “Exodus: Not the Only Tradition About Israel’s Past,” op. cit.) Why was the tale of God as the provider of fertile land and the building of a territorial nation-state not the central motif as it became in Zionism?

Why does the seder end in songs? Does it have anything to do with the likelihood that the Song of Miriam and the Song of Deborah in Judges 5 are the two oldest texts in the Tanakh and that the story told is of the Israelite (or Levite God) defeating all the gods of Egypt within the Egyptian pyramid of power and emerging from the name El and Elohim, the plural, to become the one and only God, YHWH, when the Israelites were in the wilderness? Further, this interpretation perhaps also explains why Yom Kippur in Tishrrei, the new year for planting and preparing for the next year rather than the other new year in the spring of “first produce” (Exodus 12:2), unlike other Mediterranean polities, became The New Year for the Hebrews. For the Exodus story becomes in the Haggadah a piece of moral fiction which is NOT self evident but requires interpretation. In the Haggadah we find a drama with no conclusive dogmatic ending but instead communal singing. The tale of competing powers in the Haggadah is undermined and transformed into a much more complicated process and a process in itself. It is a process of common study in search of a shared interpretation. But this too is an interpretation to counter those who believe they are simply replicating the story of the interventions of the most powerful God.

Is the real heroine in the Exodus tale (Miriam) used to reveal the core meaning of the tale? Is the story told in a celebration in the spring really to reinforce redemption in the fall when all the wheat had been consumed and there was no longer wheat available to bake bread and we had to rely on barley flatbread that was still too ripe to have risen? After all, “maza” in Greek means barley gruel. There are many ways to approach this thesis, but I will first concentrate on unpacking the meaning of pesach.


The Greeks, but particularly Aristotle, were experts on equivocation, the multiple interpretations of the same word. Etymology can be used to undermine the belief that a word should only have a univocal meaning, a necessary ingredient for scientific but not for moral and ethical advancement. But the word etymology is itself an amalgam that suggests there is a core true meaning of a term – étumon (“true sense”) and logia (“logic or reason alone”).

In Exodus 12:21, after the Israelites select a first and newborn sheep, they are then instructed to slaughter the pesach (הפסח) and consume that sheep by the family. Passover is the lamb. It is the feast of eating the lamb. Why a lamb? Why a young lamb? Why is such an innocent creature selected for an offering to God? Why afterwards is hyssop dipped in the collected animal blood and smeared on both the lintel and the door posts while people at the seder are instructed to remain inside?

This is a source of the most dominant interpretation of pesach, as Passover, as God passing over the houses of the Israelites to kill the first-born of each and every Egyptian family. God has vanquished all the ten prime Egyptian gods in one destruction after another of the symbols for each of these gods that turn against the Egyptians themselves. God absorbs their power and becomes the plural of El, Elohim. Pesach does mean skipping over. Hence the interpretation of the Passover sacrifice and “passing over” the homes of the Jews in Egypt, for that sense of Passover is one legitimate interpretation of pesach.

Exodus 12:13 reads: שמות פרק יב פסוק יג

  וְהָיָה הַדָּם לָכֶם לְאֹת עַל הַבָּתִּים אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם שָׁם וְרָאִיתִי אֶת הַדָּם וּפָסַחְתִּי עֲלֵכֶם וְלֹא יִהְיֶה בָכֶם נֶגֶף לְמַשְׁחִית בְּהַכֹּתִי בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם:

And the blood will be for you a sign for you upon the doors wherein you reside, and I will see the blood and פסח, pass over you so that you will not have a destroying plague when I strike the land of Egypt.

However, the term also means “to placate”, at least as Onkelos translated the text from Hebrew to the common language of Aramaic. Who was God placating? Or was he seducing the Hebrews by tales of conquest of the mighty Egyptian pharaonic system and their gods that had lasted for millennia?  

In Jeremiah 12:27, pasach also means to ‘watch over’ or ‘guard’. This is the way the Septuaguint translates the term in Exodus 12:23 and 12:27. God is then the protector of the Israelites and not necessarily the murderer of Egyptian children. שהוא פסח על בתי בני ישראל. God is not skipping over Jewish homes but guarding them. But what in God’s armory provides that protection? An outstretched arm? A strong hand? Since these are clearly about a body and God does not have one, the terms have to be interpreted as metaphors. An outstretched arm can mean reaching towards the other. A strong hand may be doing so with certain convictions of your own.

Exodus 12:23 שמות פרק יב פסוק כג

וְעָבַר יְקֹוָק לִנְגֹּף אֶת מִצְרַיִם וְרָאָה אֶת הַדָּם עַל הַמַּשְׁקוֹף וְעַל שְׁתֵּי הַמְּזוּזֹת וּפָסַח יְקֹוָק עַל הַפֶּתַח וְלֹא יִתֵּן הַמַּשְׁחִית לָבֹא אֶל בָּתֵּיכֶם לִנְגֹּף:

And the Lord will come through to smite Egypt and see the blood on the lintel and two doorposts, and the Lord will פסח over the door and not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to smite.

More literally, blocking a door with blood prevents corrupting demons from entering. (Leviticus 12:15; 19:30 and 17:6-11) Textual references do not suggest that the primary meaning the word pesach refers to passing over the Israelite homes and using the blood to tell Him which home was that of a Hebrew. (Would not an all-knowing omniscient God be aware of that? Why would He require identifying signs?) Rather, it is a lamb’s blood, a symbol of the murder of innocence. Further, there are a number of other meanings – lame, limping or jumping. In the story of Elijah and the Prophets of Baal. Elijah asks: “How long will you go limping (pesachim פֹּסְחִים) between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” (1 Kings 19:21)

In other words, for Elijah, limping means waffling and avoiding total submission and obedience to the commands of God. It is a call for dogmatic belief. Make up your mind. Be a believer and choose God or submit to Baal (and damnation) if that is your choice. But if I make two offerings, one for God and one for Baal, “the God who answers by fire, He is God.” The Israelites remained silent and limped (פַסְּחוּ) around the altar that they had made.“ (1 Kings 18:21-26) The call is for the Israelites to make a total commitment to God. Don’t hesitate. Don’t waver. Commit your life fully to serving God.

The Hebrew sect of Christians took that as a central commandment and subsequently developed the belief that Christians had superseded Jews in God’s eyes in the doctrine of supersession. They cite the Gospel of Mark. But this is the teaching of Paul who attacked the judicial system of Torah (תורה), of a converted pagan Jew rather than a pious disciple of Christ.  But did not Jesus overturn the tables of the moneylenders in the Temple courtyard where on pesach the ritual of the community slaughtering the lambs took place? Certainly, Jesus was an ardent critic of the priests and their followers, the Sadducees, the elite of the period. He was also critical of another camp of critics, those Pharisees who ate with tax collectors and sinners, who recognized the value of divorce as well as a system of compulsory taxation.  For the Christians accepted the advice of Elijah while other Pharisees accepted the need to accept the requirement of adapting to contemporary society. The Christians like the Sadducees also stood on the side of dogmatic belief and faith rather than doubt, discourse and inquiry.

However, unlike Paul, the advice to ignore the law was not Mark’s. He was a believing Jew. Jesus also advised following the Torah as law, though dismissing many of the laws as interpreted by the Temple priests. Obedience to God meant following the authentic law as found in Torah. Jesus (and God) do not demand absolute obedience, but steadfast love (חסד) and loyalty. To what? To belief in God as a compassionate and merciful being not an all-powerful divine force. Professor Nachum Sarna claims that “to have compassion” is “[t]he oldest, and apparently the most reliable” understanding of the term. In interpreting the law, empathy was primary. But the interpretive tradition, using sacrifice as a conduit and Levite purity as a requirement, were to be respected. But didn’t the Pharisees teach that purity was primarily about body cleanliness, about washing your hands before you touch food and eat? In that area, Jesus, in emphasizing spiritual purity, was at odds with most of the Pharisees and closer to the Sadducees as much as he was a critic of the privileges and corruption of the latter and perhaps waas the reason why he was such a strong critic.

Somehow, a Christian interpretation of the Passover seder as offering a narrative of a dogmatic and irrefutable source of truth required a singular interpretation of text. But this is precisely what the Haggadah does not do. It is an antidote to dogmatism and absolute truth. Instead, it is a paeon to the interrogation of ideas and history and morality. But that was not the emphasis of the Maxwell House Haggadah. Although the authentic spirit of the Haggadah is totally respectful, it is not based on a leap of faith but on an interpretation of traditions rather than demanding absolute obedience to the word of God. It is through narrative, not deductive scientific reasoning, that we come to respect tradition and its embodiment of empathy and mercy.  But Jesus, though endorsing empathy as the highest expression of the Hebrew spirit, taught that, “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile, but the things that come out of him are what defile.” But other Pharisees taught that what you take in as food and how you consumed it were far more important than the ideas you are taught. Humans ought not to be starved and inculcated with a belief in the Absolute.

The latter is fallible. Ritual and tradition are malleable and subject to interpretation. Thus, interrogation, questioning rather than dogmatic judgement, are the core spirit of the Haggadah. Jesus’ teaching that all foods are clean clashed with the pharisaic conviction that what you ingested was critical to how you expressed your embodied self. Certain foods were healthy. Some of those foods were also symbolic. Matzah, lamb, bitter herbs, haroset. And it is that symbolic interpretation of text that is the focus of the Haggadah. There is no absolute authority in the interpretation of text. There is no absolute authority in the will of the people either. Authority comes in reasonable judgement and judgement comes through reflection informed by compassion.

At the seder table, we make a sandwich of matzah with haroset, the mixture of apples or any other fruit with nuts, a mixture that is placed in the middle that purportedly symbolize the mortar required in stacking bricks to erect walls of a structure. This is one inherited interpretation from our history. However, the moist haroset, how we make and combine ingredients, are our contributions to giving unleavened bread a distinctive flavour. Further, it tastes nothing like mortar. Nor does it look like mortar. It is a mixture of fruit and nuts moistened with sweet wine.

In Christianity, the three parts of nuts symbolize the Trinity: the bitter outer husk, the flesh and Passion of Christ; the shell, the strength of faith and the wood of the cross; and the sweet nut that purportedly represents Christ’s divine nature. However, in the haroset, only the kernel, the sweet nut is used; the other parts are discarded. To get to the nut requires opening up and setting aside one’s defence mechanisms. Yet nuts are hard as Adam was initially to Eve’s beauty. The nut needs fruit, such as an apple. And although apple is associated with sin in Christian belief, in traditional mythology, universally it is associated with good health and happiness and the “Tree of Love,” with Aphrodite, the goddess of love.  Hardness must be softened with compassion.

The Hagadah is both a rejection of Christian theology as well as a replacement for the retired Temple religion after its destruction. It is caught up in memory and narrative and not in eschatological expectation. There is no shamanistic magical healing. The messiah is always coming but, like Elijah and his dogmatic sense of truth, has never arrived. We do not know the end. We can only discuss what the next steps can and should be. The Kingdom of God is not around the corner because every year as far as we can see and as far as we remain committed, we are to tell the story of how once we were slaves in Egypt.  And how next year we will be in Jerusalem. Pesach means skipping from side to side, understanding the positions of different belief systems and then making a judgement. It is a story of making Moses’ sister Miriam, the singer, who is the real underlying heroine rather than Moses, the human hero in the story and his superhero who tells him what to do. For ultimately, it is through singing together that we come together rather than in the debate that precedes it or the rage that Moses exhibits when the people disobey.


Wine. Four cups. That is a lot of wine to take in during one meal even though spread out and mixed with eating. But drinking wine is critical. It frees up the spirit to imagine and stray from an inherited past of which we tell. It frees us up to interpret.

I have already dealt with haroset. What about karpas, derived from the Greek karpos which means a fresh raw vegetable, the celery which gets dipped into salt water purportedly to represent tears shed during the years of slavery. But in the Exodus story, the tears mentioned are those shed in the hardships of the wilderness. We cry near the beginning of the seder because we are lost and hope through the seder’s order to come to some illumination.

And the bitter herbs, the khazeret, usually horseradish that we take to be a memory of the suffering of the Israelites under slavery. But perhaps they were not physical slaves but had become slaves within an authoritarian political and legal system. That would explain their discontent in the wilderness and the desire of many for a restoration. After all, authoritarian systems seem to offer more security and stability over the short term. Perhaps the bitterness was about their trip through the wilderness and leaving Egypt and not their lives as slaves in Egypt.

And then there is the afikomen, the broken half of the middle matzah that we hide from the children and then send them to find it with a reward for the one who succeeds. Afikoman from the Mishnaic Hebrew, אֲפִיקִימוֹן ʾăpîqîmôn, is borrowed from the Greek, epikomon [ἐπὶ κῶμον] or epikomion [ἐπικώμιον], meaning “that which comes after” or “dessert”. For the afikoman is eaten after the meal as desert. But why half a matzah? Why from the middle matzah? And why hide it to save it as a desert? In the Mishnah, the afikoman substitutes for the lamb, the Passover sacrifice in the temple ritual. According to the Talmud, it is forbidden to eat after you have had your bite of the afikoman so that you are left in the end with a taste of sweetness rather than of bitterness.  It may also serve to keep the children awake until the seder ends. Why half? Why the middle matzah? Because that matzah comes between diverse opinions in the discourse. But even then, you have not found the total truth, just a tentative higher version through listening to the different sides, a half truth as it were.

What about the ten plagues? As I indicated above, this was a defeat of the top pantheon of the Egyptian pyramid of power and authority with the enlightened one at the top. Henceforth, there would be a single authority. But that God demonstrated over and over again that he was NOT a know-it-all. He had to be powerful to defeat such a powerful pyramid of authority. But He proved Himself open to learning as he watched and interacted with His charges. For he would murder the first-born to destroy that dogmatic structure. But we can interpret that as the killing of any initial idea that emerges and gradually replacing it with a more complex system of understanding.

And finally, there is pesach itself. (Cf. Rabbi Noah Gradofsky, “What Does the Word Pesach (פסח) Mean?” Union of Traditional Judaism, April 2022) for a selection of texts to support the different meanings of Pesach.) It not only means leaping and limping, dancing from side-to-side, but it also means compassion. It also means mercy. Miriam was the embodiment of empathy. And without empathy, NO deductive system, whether of scientific or political authoritarianism, can dance between and among opinions, can unite a community in song. After all, according to the author of Jubilees as well as the Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, in the paschal celebration, “There is no mention of matzah or marror, no mention of telling a story (something that does appear in Exodus!) and no reference to a seder or to a Haggadah.” (Cf. Dr. Malka Z. Simkovich “Pesach Then and Now,” op. cit.) The Hagaddah is a later creation. And it too is open to revision. The Jewish historian, Josephus Flavius in his volume, Antiquities of the Jews, reaffirms that even at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, there was neither a Haggadah nor a seder, which suggests that the dinner before Jesus was crucified was a celebration of Passover, but one uninformed by any Haggadah and with Jesus becoming the sacrificial lamb in place of the ritual sacrifices on the Temple plaza so that the celebration is transformed into one of imbibing the blood of Christ and a cannibalistic consuming of his symbolic flesh.


Judgement does not bring ultimate truth but tentative beliefs. Judgement demands respect and tolerance and requires careful listening. Judgement is about the means to redemption from dogma. Not Christian repentance and surrender to faith and the love of Jesus. Not acceptance of the authority of Jesus as relayed in the parable of the vineyard. Nor, on the other hand, silence of the priests who were basically populists in the face of fear of the crowd, populists that Jesus deplored.

But Mark was still a follower of Jesus and at odds with the other Pharisees. In the parable of the fig tree, the tenant farmers beat or kill one slave after another until they murder the vineyard owner’s first-born and beloved son to usurp the authority of the owner. In Mark, the story of the Israelite escape for Egypt is inverted and it is the rightful owner who comes back into possession of his property and his authority over the Egyptians. But the Israelites developed into violent and corrupt usurpers. In Christianity, Jesus offers AND ANSWERS rhetorical questions. In a Jewish seder (meaning order, a recommended sequence and not directive authority), everyone offers interpretations and not one is definitive. And Elijah never does show up to the table or drinks the cup of wine set aside for him. Jesus, on the other hand, goes from his seder table to his own death, purportedly as a sacrifice for the sins of others so that they too may end up in the arms of God.

But Jesus was the usurper. He was the one portrayed as the rightful heir to David’s throne. In the name of revolution, he really preached a rightful restoration of a new authoritarian system. And whatever the Christians inherited from the Hebrews, this was a path that reversed the tone of the Haggadah that simply means telling a story. But the seder is about usurping the authority of the father who leads the seder and offers the initial interpretation of the narrative, but doing so in a respectful though challenging manner. There is no one at a seder who has ultimate authority. Only the law and the tradition of interpretation by which law can be changed. The seder is a very democratic place and a rebuke to authoritarianism.

We are told that there are four children, a wise (בנים), a contrarian, a simple and a quiet child or, in another version, a wise, rebellious, simple and silent child. The emphasis tends to be on the superiority of the wise child who knows the story and has memorized his queries. The contrarian is needed to question while the simple child reduces what he or she hears to homilies. The quiet child is a baby who has not yet learned to ask questions. Let me offer a very different interpretation than the various ones that have been passed on. The most important child is the silent one, the one who listens carefully to all the different opinions expressed. Next in importance is the journalist, the one who can reduce the controversies and translate them into an understandable tale. Then comes the contrarian for he or she offers the warning that whatever digest is provided, it is one that deforms as well as informs while it interprets. Finally, the wise child comes last for he (usually) is the one who presumes he has the answers. He may be very intelligent and very bright, but he lacks a key ingredient, an empathy for the individual with whom one disagrees.


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