9:00 am ~
The Seder to which I was invited Thursday night was hosted by the family of one of my eighth grade students. It was a small gathering -- the parents, the two girls, the mom's sister, and me -- but an intensely educational one. The mom is a teacher herself, and spent much of the evening explaining everything to me -- the progress and symbolism of the meal, the related stories, the family and community traditions.
I was so grateful to have been asked to participate, especially since I could see that my presence created a tiny bit of stress. We all hope, when we have guests, that they are comfortable and well-fed and enjoy the company, but all of those hopes are heightened when the celebration is a religious one and the guests follow a different faith tradition. What if they don't like the food? What if they are bored or, worse, offended, by the religious rituals? We have often had Jewish guests for Christmas Dinner and, when Christmas and Chanukah have overlapped, we've lighted Chanukah candles and Christmas candles, and I've always felt that our guests were happy to be there. But you never know.
For the record, let me say that I was indeed happy to be there. I learned a lot. The food, as my friend Carol pointed out in one of her comments, is endless. And I as engaged in the readings and conversation, I also quietly observed the meal from the point of view of a Christian who had just left her own Maundy Thursday church service in which the Last Supper was celebrated as a communion.
As soon as I arrived, the girls pulled out some of the Passover plates they had made in elementary school, so that they could show off their artwork and explain the symbolic foods. As we made our way into the dining room, I was inundated with various copies of the Haggadah, the "telling of the story" that we used as a sort of program for the fifteen steps of the meal. Some of them contained detailed readings and explanations; others were more in the line of summaries. My favorite was one illustrated with copies of medieval illuminated manuscript pages -- I hadn't even known that Jews as well as Christians created these exquisite book illustrations. One colorful page particularly caught my eye -- four of the ten plagues, with one picture of people scratching a voluminous infestation of lice, another inundated with bright green frogs, another with sadly dying animals, and a forth depicting wild animals on the attack. The page I've used above is from the Barcelona Haggadah, from the mid-1300s.
The story goes on for, well, a long time. We started at about 9:00 and got to the regular meal by about 11:30, by which I was so full of parsley, potatoes, matzoh, horse raddish wrapped in lettuce, eggs, and sweet sauce with nuts that I couldn't even imagine adding meat and vegetables to the mix. I was fascinated by the degree to which the girls were engaged in the story. My student, the older one, had brought a couple of the Dvar Torahs she had written in class so that she could read explanations of a couple of the passages, while the younger got into something of a protracted argument with her mother over another passage. Just like school! One of the most fun -- and sometimes, admittedly, exhausting -- things about teaching in a Jewish school is the endless enthusiasm of the students for questions and debate, and I could see how carefully those attributes are nurtured at the family table. The Jews are admonished repeatedly in the Bible to tell the story to their children and to answer their questions, and they take those instructions seriously.
From a Christian standpoint, I was curious as to whether Jesus would have celebrated a similar Pesach dinner -- the answer apparently is yes, although his meals may well have included a sacrifical lamb, an ingredient discontinued after the destruction of the Second Temple during the Roman Empire. I've given some thought to the differences betweeen the traditional dinner, with its emphasis on God's powerful liberation of a people through a series of mighty actions, and the one we know as the Last Supper, where the emphasis is on God's liberation of all humankind through God's own human brokenness, but I don't have much to say about it yet. Maybe in a couple of days.
Two final points. Remember how depressed I was over God's destruction of the Egyptian people? I knew that I had read something in connection with that, and it turned up in the Haggadah, where 10 drops of wine are spilled in recognition of the Egyptian losses during the ten plagues. "If your enemy falls, do not exult," says God in Proverbs. And in the Mishna, the rabbinical teachings of later centuries, the following story is told with respect to the destruction of the Egyptian troops in the Red Sea:
"Rabbi Yohanan daringly transposed this verse to the celestial realm. The angels on high sensed the imminence of Israel's salvation and wanted to unite in song. But God did not let them assemble, that is, come near to each other. Jubilation was inappropriate to the moment. Rather, God rebuked the angels: "My creatures are about to perish in the water and you want to break out in song?" Again, victory is tinged with sadness, not at the loss of one's kinsfolk but at the destruction of the other. No matter how merciless the Egyptians may have been, they too bear the imprint of God's image. Rabbi Yohanan projects on to God a standard of human behavior that runs counter to our instincts. We should never perceive the other as wholly other. "
Finally, when I left the Seder at nearly 1:00 am, under the full Pesach moon, another family was emerging from a house across the street, going home after a similarly lengthy celebration. I found that I felt much as I do on Christmas morning, when my son and I typically return from a midnight service along the several streets in our neighborhood where luminarias have been lit along entire blocks and left to burn all night. There is something deeply profound about participating in a ritual that is being celebrated around the world, whether among your own people or in fellowship with another.