This Passover Roundtable began in the aisles of Costco and Home Depot, as stops at both were part of my pre-holiday preparations. I walked by live product demonstrations in each — for pizza in one and for a rechargeable power tool set in the other — and was reminded that even the best products are even better when people get to see and experience how they are used. Well, that is no different for the cards that Clal produces three times a year. Hence this roundtable.
That, and the fact that our faculty actually uses the ideas and materials we produce. We don’t do what we do for “you,” as, dare I say it, is often the case in so much of Jewish life, nor do we do it for ourselves. We do what we do for us, especially as we see that being in it together — whatever the “it” is — is the basis for building the widest and deepest expressions of any genuinely pluralist community.
So I sat down to answer my own questions and began with the following about my own level of excitement, heading into the Seder. This is what I wrote:
I am very excited about Pesach, also a tiny drop sad, and truth be told, a little anxious. The excitement is all about the feeling of stepping back into a river of shared memories and experiences with people I love. The drop of sadness is a function of needing to share two kids and our grandson with our in-laws, but that is actually a “good sadness,” both because it highlights how much I love having them around and points to the growth of our larger family, with people I really love. The anxiousness is about my desire to create the Seder that each person needs so that they feel a wonderful as I do about Pesach. And for me, that Anxiety is both good, and a celebration of freedom. For me, there is no greater expression of freedom that to worry not only about what I want and need, but to be able to create for others — family and friends, for starters, but only for starters — what they want and need.
Answers are shared alphabetically by last name.
How Excited are you?
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield: I am very excited about Pesach, also a tiny drop sad, and truth be told, a little anxious. The excitement is all about the feeling of stepping back into a river of shared memories and experiences with people I love. The drop of sadness is a function of needing to share two kids and our grandson with our in-laws, but that is actually a “good sadness”, both because it highlights how much I love having them around, and points to the growth of our larger family, with people I really love. The anxiousness is about my desire to create the Seder that each person needs so that they feel a wonderful as I do about Pesach. And for me, that Anxiety is both good, and a celebration of freedom. For me, there is no greater expression of freedom that to worry not only about what I want and need, but to be able to create for others — family and friends, for starters, but only for starters — what they want and need.
Rabbi Irwin Kula: Very? I am very excited this year as my context is different this night than it has been on all other Passover nights for many decades. Not only do I have a new grandson named after my mother, z’l, but I have become President Emeritus of Clal. So many responsibilities and known paths defined my daily life that I now no longer have. So I need to rethink the relationship between my negative liberty of being free from certain “external” obligations, duties, and constraints and the positive liberty of being free to pursue new/old possibilities and dreams. This year’s Seder with immediate and intimate family is a perfect setting to do this.
Rabbi Julia Appel: One thing I would miss is the food. The taste of parsley reminds me of making faces with my sister as we dipped it in salt water when we were kids. Having gefilte fish of any kind unlocks the taste of my Bubbie’s homemade gefilte fish, each piece plated with a boiled carrot slice and parsley. The food of the seder is a memory palace, constructing stories and memories through time straight back to the Exodus.
Rabbi Elan Babchuck: I would miss the things that I already miss every year at Pesach, which perhaps is the quintessential Pesach experience. I miss the substantial, cold feel of the three brass pyramids that my parents put on the seder table each year. I miss the irrepressible laughter of my Grandma Etta, z”l, leading yet another round of Chad Gadya while pointing to the flow chart she made with all the animals. I miss the strange feeling of sitting at the kid’s table while being invited to ask adult questions.
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield: If Pesach were canceled, I would miss all of the frenetic (obsessive? LOL) preparations — the wine shopping with my in-laws, the grocery and Matzah shopping with Becky, and everything else that builds our sense of specialness about Seder night. I would miss the crunch of matzah, the sting of freshly-grated horseradish, and the sounds of those I love as we sing. I would miss listening to people’s stories of Passover’s past and how even those not physically present are so very much with us. I would miss quietly daydreaming to myself, as I sit at the table, that if all this is possible now, how much more is possible into the future.
Rabbi Irwin Kula: I would miss all the eating rituals and almost none of the words though I would miss the joy of hearing my three-year-old grandchild singing the first of the four questions that she learned for the first time. I would miss that first taste of matzah as well as singing dayenu and Chad Gadya. Of all the many words, the only ones I would really miss are, “In the beginning, our fathers served idols, but now the Omnipresent One has brought us close to His service. ” It feels like an important time to Investigate –what idols am I/ we (individually, as a family, as a people, as a country, etc.) serving, what does serving even mean, what benefits do I/we get from serving these idols, what cost would I/we need to pay to stop serving.
Rabbi Geoff Mitelman: What I’d miss is very much mixed in with what I don’t miss – part of what makes it special is the hard work and frustration! The preparation, cleaning, switching dishes, changing the dishwasher, having breakfast outside on the morning of Seder so we don’t bring any crumbs in, the taste of matzah, the mildly complicated family dynamics, the hand-washing of the dishes, the Pesach cereal and snacks and all the cooking are pieces I would both miss deeply and be very happy if we didn’t have to deal with all of that! It’s like the Ikea effect – the more you’re involved in the preparation and execution, the more invested I’d feel.
Rabbi Joshua Stanton: I would miss the feeling of being around the table with the people I love and the smells, tastes, and sounds that give me the feeling of Jewish connection and family. In particular, I would miss my mother, father, aunt, uncle, and cousins.
I would not miss the stress of preparations, planning, and interactions with loved ones that reveal this stress.
Rabbi Julia Appel: The foods of the seder give me an annual connection to my childhood in a much more visceral way than simply sharing memories with my children. I no longer have access to any of the houses I grew up in, relatives have died, and the family has spread out. But food? I can feed my children a recipe from my own childhood, and they are now part of that continuum of life.
Rabbi Elan Babchuck: I would miss the remarkable privilege of being prompted to own the experience of missing something, without any shame, without any finger-pointing or accusations of nostalgia or revisionist history. Our memories – whether they’re an accurate depiction of history or merely a curated distillation of it – make us who we are. And it’s so nice, surrounded by loved ones, to be allowed to reminisce about the way things once were without any urge to just “be in the present moment.”
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield: I would miss the things I would miss because of how they lovingly bend time in ways that bring the past — both more immediate and more ancient — into the present and also make our yearned-for hopes about the future feel so much closer to fulfillment. Of course, that may also be the impact of 4 large cups of wine! But perhaps that is also one of the reasons we drink them.
Rabbi Irwin Kula: I wouldn’t miss much as after six decades of Seders and living in a moment in which it sure feels like all our systems – including our Jewish systems of Peoplehood, Zionism, and Judaism as a modern religion – are breaking down and in which so much of Judaism is simply ideology/politics in drag and our rituals merely reinforcing our existing predispositions – making space for asking very fundamental questions seems much needed. Maybe the only other words I would miss are the Tam’s: Mah Zot? What is This!?
But, I honestly don’t know what would be lost in giving up things that right now I don’t anticipate missing as Joni Mitchell sang, “You don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone.” I would be glad if some other people were doing what I was letting go of!
Rabbi Geoff Mitelman: There’s something creative in each seder and a mix of both tradition and novelty. The same questions, songs, readings, etc., are pretty standard from one year to the next, but the way we engage with them changes each year. It would feel like we broke a link in a chain, and once it’s broken, it’s hard to repair it.
Rabbi Joshua Stanton: I would miss what I miss (and not miss what I wouldn’t miss) because of the feelings they give me – of connection, relationship, the simultaneous time, and timelessness of the moment.
Rabbi Julia Appel: My husband, kids, and I travel each year to one or the other of our parents for seder. The pandemic years were only the fourth and fifth time we have hosted seder ourselves – the other times being the year we lived in Jerusalem, and the year I was 8 months pregnant. I hope to keep the magic we found in having the time just the four of us to discuss the Haggadah, prepare drawings and costumes together, and discover what makes Passover uniquely ours.
Rabbi Elan Babchuck: One thing we’re really good at in our family is fully embracing the “Next year in Jerusalem!” part of the seder. Not just literally (although we will be at a kibbutz in Northern Israel this year, so at least we’re close), but we just love the hope for the future that comes with making this declaration at the very end of the seder. This year, we’re going to start with the end because we’ll already be in Israel. So instead of saving our energy for the last declaration, we’re going to luxuriate throughout the seder in our histories and not as much in our hopes, in telling stories about where we’ve been, rather than where we want to go, in memories of what once was, and less so in motivations for what might yet become.
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield: Everything is pretty much making it back in, but that is because it really works for us, and that is the key. I don’t want to give up on anything, so I don’t, but if what we did failed to work for those I love, that would change my calculus. In fact, in writing this, I realize that is precisely why I don’t miss, at least not too much, things that have changed over the years — playacting the plagues the way we did when the kids were younger or singing past 2:00 am when I was younger!
Rabbi Irwin Kula: In writing this, there are some things I already want to take back…I want to take back the Four Sons/Children passage as I would like to ask each of them what they would like to give up! I would also take back hiding and seeking the Afikoman and dig deeper into what it feels like to play hide and seek with our aspirations and dreams, and fantasies of a redeemed world. And I guess I would like to take back singing the parts of Hallel and some of the songs, the melodies of which my father z’l used and taught us over the years.
What replaces the pieces not making it back in, in ways that bring new meaning and joy to you?: I don’t know yet, but I feel the nervousness and responsibility of having a meaningful Seder in a different way!
Rabbi Geoff Mitelman: Over the last few years (since Covid), we’ve had very small sedarim, which we’ve actually enjoyed tremendously. It’s allowed our kids to ask more questions and for us to talk more deeply about the questions and themes of the seder because there aren’t other adults who may be just waiting for the food! We’re hoping to keep a little “time buffer” to allow for more discussion and exploration, which we want to keep.
Rabbi Joshua Stanton: We are replacing some of the stress through a more intentional distribution of Passover preparations and the “labor of love” that is the seder and the holiday as a whole. So, too, will we more intentionally share roles within the seder itself.
Rabbi Julia Appel: This year truly feels like we are leaving the pandemic behind, G-d-willing. I have begun to trust more instead of living in “Man plans, G-d laughs.” I’ve started thinking about future trips, planning upcoming school years, and believing that I have any reasonable assumption of a “next year” anywhere. I am connecting this year with the aspect of Chag HaAviv – the springtime holiday – and its rebirth and new beginnings.
Rabbi Elan Babchuck: One of the many reasons I love the Pesach seder so much is because it actually hasn’t changed all that much, year to year…I have. You know, history is a funny thing. We say that it is written by the “victors,” but aren’t we – the ones with the privilege to read it, retell it, and reflect on it today – the last ones standing (at least for now)? The story stays the same, but we don’t. We have this annual gift to go back to the very same story that hasn’t changed for thousands of years and consider what’s different about us this year in light of the story’s remarkable staying power. Ma nishtana? Me, every year, and I thank God for that.
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield: Seder night is different in so many wonderful ways, but none is more powerful for me than its amazing blending of given’ness — the rich and assumed traditions upon which we can rely without needing to think about them, in the same way, that we don’t need to think about the sun rising in the east — and negotiation — new people, next generations, and the new needs and questions that come with them. It liberates me because I feel how surrounded I am by both the past and the future, not torn between them but energized by their dual presence in the present. It’s why end the Seder, most every year, both so wide awake and so ready to fall into a deep and dream-filled sleep.
Rabbi Irwin Kula: Instead of putting new meaning in old wine jugs, something I have always been very good at, I now have to create new forms, processes, and opportunities that will enable fundamental insights to emerge and be co-created at my Seder.
How does it liberate you to embrace new freedoms and new commitments built on renewed hope shared with those around you?:
It is Unnerving, Curious, Enervating…Freeing and Responsible inducing.
Rabbi Geoff Mitelman: I’ve always loved that Pesach and Opening Day tend to coincide right around the same time. Teams change, the players change, uniforms change, and this year, rules change. But there is a clear through line from the past to the present to the future. Each Pesach, like each new baseball season, gives me renewed hope that next year will be just a little better than last year, to know that failure is an integral part of success, and the “team” is much more than the sum of its individual parts.
Rabbi Joshua Stanton: This night is different insofar as I am not “the rabbi” of those gathered for ritual, prayer, and learning but a “lay” member of my family. We are all moving towards freedom together, as a group within a far larger group – and as equals.
Brad Hirschfield is the co-founder and co-executive editor of The Wisdom Daily. A rabbi, Brad has been featured on ABC’s Nightline UpClose, PBS’s Frontline, Fox News and National Public Radio. He wrote a long-standing column, “For God’s Sake,” for the Washington Post, and has also written for The Huffington Post and Beliefnet.com. He authored the book, You Don?t Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism. Brad also serves as President of Clal, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a leadership training institute, think tank and resource center in New York City.