Time All At Once
Carrie’s Cosmic Seder
Poetry of Everyday Life Blog #14
To be published in the magazine Voices: the Journal of New York Folklore
by Caroline Harris with an Intro by Steve Zeitlin
After celebrating a family Seder in Philadelphia for almost a hundred years, my coterie of cousins became too dispersed, and the celebration gradually dwindled and faded away. So I was happy when Carrie Harris, my close friend and City Lore board member invited me to celebrate her family Seder in Manhattan last year. As Carrie led the symbol-laden ritual meal, we re-told the story in the familiar Haggadah booklets given to each of us. We read aloud about the Jews escaping slavery in Egypt, giving thanks that God who “passed over” the Jews during the ten plagues, parted the Red Sea, led them to freedom, and, as noted in the accompanying Seder song, “Dayenu,” gave the Jews the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, and, after forty years, brought them to the Promised Land.
As is traditional at the Seder, the youngest child reads the four questions, beginning with “Why is this night different from all other nights,” but, after a few glasses of wine, a different set of questions crossed my mind. Considering the current situation between the Israelis and the Palestinians, is it productive for us to annually retell a story that points to Israel as a promised land for the Jews? Was the promise of a Promised Land actually a promise of land? When did the metaphor of a righteous escape become a right to real estate? (Thousands of years later, politicians in Israel regularly make that claim.) Is it helpful, given the situation, for Jews all over the world to exclaim “next year in Jerusalem”? Jesus is said to have been crucified in that city and, adding to the the contested claims, centuries after the Second Temple was destroyed, the Al-Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem became a holy site for Muslims. When the Christians talk about home they think about heaven; Jews often think about Israel. Is the Seder adding fuel to the fire?
Like the lamb shank and the bitter herb on the Seder plate, I thought about these questions as food for thought. In conversations with Carrie growing out of her Seder, she suggested that I am short-changing the story. “It’s primarily a story about freedom from oppression. It does express the hope that “next year” we will be in Israel, but it has expressed that hope for thousands of years when there has been no state of Israel and still hopes for it now that there is one.” Here’s how she tells it.
The Haggadah tells a story within a larger story, within an even larger story. On Passover at the Seder, we transcend time. In one night, we journey into the past through the present to the future—time all at once. These time frames are tracked in the Seder: the past before the meal, the present at dinner, and the future after dinner. The past is very deep, reaching back not just to Egypt, and Jacob and Abraham before, but to the beginning of time.
The Haggadah reminds me of my mother. As my mom is getting older, and might be afflicted with some dementia, her stories, like the Haggadah, always start further and further back. You ask my Mom a simple question and you might find out where she – or even her father – was born to get to the answer. For instance, if you ask her about my father who passed away almost 20 years ago, she will tell you the wonderful story of how they met. “My mother and Herb’s sister,” she would say, “both went to the same dressmaker – and one day she told them that the two of us would go great together.”
The Seder is supposed to tell us the story of the Hebrews’ escape from slavery in Egypt. But like my mother’s answers to certain questions, the Haggadah goes back to the beginning of time, to Creation, remembered when we first light and bless the holiday candles separating light and darkness to start the story.
The Maggid, the section of the Haggadah where the official narrative is recited, also doesn’t get right to the point either. It incorporates portions of Abraham’s and Jacob’s stories that describe the growth of a tribe into a nation.
More significantly, the Maggid introduces monotheism to the Passover narrative. God’s promise of a great nation is predicated on Abraham’s and the Hebrews’ acceptance of the one-God. The Haggadah recounts all of the wonders God performed to free the Hebrews from slavery, showing the one-God’s might over the polytheistic Egyptians’ gods, through the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea.
Throughout the centuries, the Haggadah has incorporated what were then contemporary references to make the story relevant to the day, intimating that the Haggadah isn’t only about a particular place – Egypt at a particular time – but about all “Mitzrayims,” all “narrow” places, at all times.
Today, many Seders emphasize that the celebration is not only about freedom from slavery in Egypt thousands of years ago or just about Jewish history; it’s about freedom from oppression anywhere for everyone. In the 1970s, some added a fourth matzah to bring attention to the plight of Soviet Jews. Modern anti-Semitism is recalled with a reading from the writings of a Holocaust survivor and, this year, anti-Semitism and all hatred undoubtedly will be recalled by reading about the slaughters at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and the All Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, New Zealand. A challis of water has joined the Seder table symbolizing Miriam’s well and the role of women in the Passover story. Along with the shank bone, the bitter herbs and the egg, an orange on the Seder plate now stands for diversity, a tomato, for migrant workers’ rights. Thus, “Egypt” is a metaphor for any place where there is slavery, oppression or hatred.
Before dinner, three different themes have been introduced: slavery to freedom; tribe to great nation; and polytheism to monotheism. The focus has been in the past, with efforts to make the past meaningful by reference to more recent events. Finally, with dinner we are fully in the present.
The Haggadahs are tucked away, tossed on a couch or dropped to the floor. There is no script during the meal. We erupt in conversation. Adults find out what’s happened in each other’s lives since the last Seder. Kids run around or play with plastic frogs jumping into wine glasses. We eat heartily, the smells and tastes reminding us of our family’s and friends’ sweet past, with a dash of bitterness about the brother who won’t join us, sadness about the aunt who died. Yet, here we are together again, linking the past and the present.
Then the kids (in my Seder, adults, too) scramble around to find the Afikoman. That piece of matzah, raised aloft at the beginning of the Seder, will let us begin to end the Seder, once again merging the past with the present, present with the future. When we bite the small broken piece of matzah from the Afikoman, we bite reality – the reality of oppression and hardship, the reality of a broken world. Yet, we taste our dreams, our dreams of freedom and justice for us and all people.
We open the door for Elijah, the prophet who is supposed to resolve all conflicts before the Messiah comes, and we pray God will once again redeem us, hoping that whatever Jewish or humanitarian crisis we are facing this year will be resolved by next year.
But the Haggadah doesn’t end with our hope that the immediate problems of the Jews and the rest of the world will be resolved by next year, though indeed that would be, as the beloved Jewish folksong goes, “Dayenu!”– It would be enough. The Haggadah’s vision extends further.
Where does the story end? A story that begins with Creation can only end in the far distant future beyond time, after Elijah, in the world to come—in “ha’olam ha’ba.” The concluding line of the Haggadah, “Next Year in Jerusalem!” is, in part, the hope for the physical place that Jews consider home. (“Hope,” in Hebrew, is “Hatikvah”—the name of Israel’s national anthem.) It also is the hope that the problems we experience today will be resolved next year. Beyond that, “Next Year in Jerusalem!” is the existential hope that someday—in the world to come—-all of us will enter the Promised Land, the land of milk and honey. “The Promised Land” is a metaphor for universal freedom, the perfect world of peace and justice.
Just before he was assassinated in Memphis, Martin Luther King echoed the Passover story when he declaimed, “I’ve been to the mountain top. . .and I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”
In one night, we journey together from Creation, through all time in-between, to the future beyond our imagination in the world to come. We form a bond that unites us with other Jews now, with Jews in the past and in the future, linking us with all humanity to create a better world. In the words of Theodore Parker, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
The message uncovered is deeply optimistic and challenging. From the time of Creation of humankind, we have been on a trajectory towards the Promised Land of justice, compassion and peace. The Haggadah teaches us: The light of Creation illuminates our path to redemption.
But we cannot sit by idly. We must walk on that path. We must take action like Abraham and Jacob, Yoheved, Puah, Miriam and Moses, continuously owning our freedom, striving for freedom and an end to oppression for others, and pursuing justice as we march together through human history to the Promised Land.
And then we sing.
“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.
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