The calendar smiled on us this year. Passover and Holy Week coincided. The week began with the first day of Pesach, folded into the Triduum, and closed with the Paschal mystery. Bracketed by two great re-enactments of the saga of redemption, salvation history colored six successive April days.
The Book of Exodus recounts the decisive, saving act of a God of transcendent power and majesty. But Egypt is a changeling; oppressions metastasize across borders and down millennia. Exodus remains always in process.
So, too, does the Haggadah. Part chronicle, part prayer book for the Seder table, it is more than a text to be recited. In the words of one commentator, it is a call to “a radical act of empathy” that becomes the obligation, by birthright, of every Jew. To approach it as simply a commemorative story is to miss the sacred claim at the heart of it.
There exists a wealth of Haggadot. All editionsmore than 3,000are fundamentally the same. Yet each edition varies, inflected by those ethical realities that, in every age, become genuine questions for faith. The Exodus story is meant to be engaged, grappled with, interpreted with attention to the yokes and exilesmoral no less than societalof one’s own time and place.
Somewhere, another Haggadah is gathering now. Others will follow.
In Christian understanding, ultimate freedomthe freedom of the Kingdom remains an object of trust. God’s saving action, at play in the Exodus, did not cease at Sinai. Christian hope springs from confidence that He delivers His people from bondage to sin and eternal death.
The historic Exodus provides language for the eschatological one that informs Christian prayer. Christ, our Paschour Second Sinaileavens us with sanctity and the promise of redemption beyond time: the resurrection of the dead. Exodus speaks of the inexpungible reality of His people. Christians, then, can recite with Jews the words of the Haggadah: “Our story begins with degradation; our telling ends with glory.”
Next year, may we greet Passover as we do Easter: with high, holy joy.
My own Haggadah, a gift from friends, reflects the sensibilities of its author and his congregants. Composed in 1981 by Rabbi Chaim Stern, a leading Reform liturgist, it absorbs passages from Tolstoy, Lord Byron (“My very chains and I grew friends”), Frederick Douglass, and Victor Frankl. Readings from the Talmud and the Midrashim intertwine with the moderns. Mark Twain, Emerson, Thoreau, and Nietzsche recline alongside Hasidic sages. Gandhi, too. John Ruskin enters to rail against wage slavery in an English iron forge. John Stuart Mill is invoked against the oppression of women. George Orwell stands to define the basis of freedom: “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”
This year at Seder, my hosts used a Haggadah that is more attentive than mine to the leading lady of Exodus. They brought out tambourines to accompany the tale of Miriam, quick-thinking sister to Aaron and Moses.
Miriam watches pharaoh’s army sink in the rebound of the Red Sea. Lives of men and horses wash away, pitched to their death in the surge and sway of the waves. She wastes no sympathy on the sight. Quite the contrary, she throws herself into a victory dance. Elated, Miriam grabs a timbrel “and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dancing.”
My Haggadah lowers its eyes from this rapturous display of retaliatory glee (God rebuked them saying, “My children are drowning, and you sing praises!”). More to my temper is Rabbi Geela Raphael’s lively midrashic verse:
They danced, they danced
Oh, how they danced
They danced the night away
Clapped their hands and stamped their feet
With voices loud they praised.
They danced with joy
They danced with grace
They danced on nimble feet
Kicked up their heels, threw back their heads
Hypnotic with the beat.
They danced so hard, they danced so fast;
They danced with movement strong
Laughed and cried, brought out alive
They danced until the dawn.
Some carrying child, some baking bread
Weeping as they prayed
But when they heard the music start
They put their pain away.
Accent on Miriam is meant to balance the Book, to grant equal billing to a woman too long sidelined. Recent fashion for a Miriam’s Cup, set on many contemporary Seder tables with the traditional cup for Elijah, celebrates Miriam ashow to put it?a co-redeemer.
It is not the feminist tenor that draws me to the anecdote of Miriam and Rabbi Raphael’s spirited lyrics. Not at all. It is the episode’s exuberant rout of sentimentality. The women grasp instinctively what posture to take toward the destruction of their enemies: those terrorist overlords, cruel destroyers of their children’s wellbeing. Here is schadenfreude on a truly biblical scale. Rhapsodic, voluptuous, and unapologetic.
Radical empathy is economical; it discerns priorities, does not overreach. It knows when steel is more gracious than tears. When the tambourines are tapped, I imagine Miriam’s prayer: “Chide me tomorrow, Lord. But for now, just let me dance.”