March 28, 2013

At a Passover Seder

I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple.
Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.
And one cried to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!” (Isaiah 6:1-3)

Sader Table

Last Monday night, I had the great privilege of being invited to a Passover Seder by friends Dave and Ann who were especially close to my late sister, Alla and her family. I’d never been to one before, but reflected that this ceremonial dinner to commemorate the Exodus would have been the annual highlight in the life of our Lord and His family. Like all Jews, His life to would have been shaped by this powerful retelling of the central story of Jewish redemption. Passover not only retells, it reclaims, recommits and reinserts us into that saving history.

We Orthodox Christians will read the same story on Holy Saturday in light of the Cross and Resurrection, but we will still be including ourselves in that long history of God’s active love for his people. And that means all his people, every human being on the planet. Because “the whole earth is full of his glory.”

While the Passover meal focuses on God saving the people of Israel from bondage to Pharoah, it never loses sight of God’s wider family, including the Egyptian “enemies.”

The Passover meal took place at the family dining room table, and everything was done according to an order of service (haggadah) put together by the hosts (the exact form varies widely among the various branches of Judaism and from family to family). I can’t go into everything here, but two features stood out for me.

After the reading of the Exodus story, we poured ten drops of wine onto our plates in remembrance of the ten plagues and the suffering of the Egyptian people. Here is an excerpt from the reading.

Our rabbis taught: When the Egyptian armies were drowning in the sea, the Heavenly Hosts broke out in songs of jubilation. God silenced them and said, “My creatures are perishing, and you sing praises?”

Though we descend from those redeemed from brutal Egypt, and have ourselves rejoiced to see oppressors overcome, yet our triumph is diminished by the slaughter of the foe.

Our rabbis taught: “The sword comes into the world because of justice delayed and justice denied.”

To remember the upheaval that follows oppression, we pour ten drops for the plagues upon Egypt.

A full cup is the symbol of complete joy. Though we celebrate the triumph of our sacred cause, our happiness cannot be complete so long as others had to be sacrificed for its sake. We shall, therefore, diminish the wine in our cups as we recall the plagues visited upon the Egyptians, to give expression to our sorrow over the losses, which each plague exacted.

We then dipped a finger into the wine in front of us and dripped a drop on our plate for the ten plagues.   

The other moment that struck came when we ate the bitter herb (marror, horseradish). “The marror that we eat reminds us of the bitterness of oppression that we experienced in Babylon, in Rome and in Spain, in Czarist Russia and in Nazi Germany.” Czarist Russia, of course, it was a land of regular pogroms, but I wasn’t expecting that. In the decades before 1917 my great-grandfather was a priest in Kishinev, one of the worst regions of anti-Jewish violence. I remember my grandmother saying that he befriended a Jewish merchant who left a trunk of family belongings with him for safe-keeping when the riots struck and the family had to flee. We are all somehow connected, we are all somehow implicated.

The Seder ended with a prayer for peace attributed to an 18th century rabbi.

Compassionate G-d…Fulfill the promise conveyed in Scripture: “I will bring peace to the land, and you shall lie down and no one shall terrify you. I will rid the land of vicious beasts and it shall not be ravaged by war.” Let love and justice flow like a mighty stream. Let peace fill the earth as the waters fill the sea.

And to that I had no trouble saying, “Amen.”