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3 months ago • Mar 31, 2024

IKAR’s 5784 Haggadah Supplement

By
IKAR

We Know Why This Night is Different. The Question is What to Do About It.
— Rabbi Sharon Brous

At Passover Seder, we retell a story so central to our Jewish tradition that it has informed who we are, and how we live in the world, for literally thousands of years.

Ours is a story of a people that after hundreds of years of harm and humiliation, were ultimately able to walk toward liberation. From degradation to dignity, from darkness to light.

But how are we to approach Seder this year? Many of us come to the table holding grief, anguish, and fear. We are so raw. Words that for decades have given us comfort may tonight strike us as simplistic, cacophonous, or just empty. And for many, the Seder table will situate us in proximity to people we love, but whose perspectives may have created an emotional distance over the past six months that seems impossible to bridge. Every word is a potential landmine. (Oppression… whose oppression? Liberation… from whom? For whom? Justice…? Don’t get me started.)

There’s so much at stake around the table tonight… we may be tempted to skip the conversation altogether and get right to the meal.

And yet this Seder ritual has been at the very heart of our people for generations. And ours is not the first generation to struggle—both within and beyond our Jewish family. So let us begin this evening by affirming that our homes and our hearts are spacious enough to hold all of us—our beauty and our brokenness, our heartache and our hope.

Let us remember, on this holiday of questions, that that our goal is not to change one another—it is to sit together. To get curious about one another, and our shared story. To ask questions of each other, to explore and learn and engage together. To weep, to learn and to grow—in our connec- tion to one another, in our understanding of our Jewish story, in our commitment to building a fair and just and loving world.

We invite you to begin your Seder with the following kavannah:

I come to the table tonight with a grateful, tender, and open heart. I am committed to turning to you, my loved ones, with compassion, curiosity, and care.

In addition to many wonderful supplements written by friends and colleagues to help us navigate Passover this year, we are please to share a few supplementary offerings for your seder that might help spark conversations of meaning. Our hope is that you will find not only inspiration, but con- nection, breath, and hope… for this holiday of Passover is at its heart a ritual transmission of hope, one generation to the next. That is a blessing we cannot afford to sidestep this year.

We bless you with a meaningful and inspiring Passover.

 

Yahatz: The Fourth Matzah
-Rabbi Deborah Silver

This year, we need a fourth matzah at our Seder.

Before breaking the middle matzah for Yahatz, this year, let us add another matzah to the plate. And then we crumble it, as a tangible reminder of all the brokenness around us this year.

Here is a ritual which can be recited by the Seder leader or passed around the table:

[Lift the fourth matzah]

I lift this matzah, bread of affliction,
to remind us of what is broken in our world.

[Break the matzah in half]

I break this matzah
to remind us of the four corners of the earth where human greed and gratification
have wrought destruction.

[Break the matzah in four]

I break this matzah once more
to remind us of the children whose futures are fractured
and whose eyes are empty of hope.

[Break the matzah again]

I break this matzah in pieces to remind us of the rubble
of lives ruined by war
and hearts broken by hatred.

[Crumble the matzah]

Tonight we relive the story
of our own brokenness and redemption – May it remind us
to work for the redemption of the world.

 

Two Open Doors
Make Your Seder Transformative, Not P erformative
— Rabbi Sharon Brous

Let’s talk about opening doors.

After dinner and before Hallel, we rise to open the front door of our homes, and we recite: shfokh Hamatkha– Pour out Your fury against the nations who do not know You… Pour out Your wrath on them and may Your blazing anger overtake them.

The message is tough—I’ve always found it dissonant both with the spirit of the celebration, and with my core understanding of our Jewish tradition. Certainly, there are strains of the tradition that lift up a harsh and vengeful God, but that image has never resonated for me. Actually, much of my spiritual and religious
life is a counter-testimony to that rage-fueled reactivity.

But this year, we come to the table shattered. The pain of the past six months—the shock, horror and anguish over the atrocities committed against our family, the sense of abandonment and existential loneliness, the fear of a future uncertain… it’s too much. I met a young woman last month, the same age as my daughter, who survived the massacres of October 7th. I asked her if she had a name of a loved one to share for Mourner’s Kaddish… she said she had forty-two names. Forty-two of her dearest friends died before her eyes. She was lucky to be alive, though she felt anything but lucky. She wept as she spoke to me, her voice quivering but clear. What did she want? She whispered: I want revenge.

Without that tender, devastating encounter, maybe I would approach shfokh Hamatkha this year with the same discomfort and dismissiveness as I have in years past. But this year, I can, a little bit, relate to the vulnerability and desperation that must have led the author of that prayer—back in the 9th century—to write it in the first place. I still don’t share the sentiment, but I do understand it. Maybe you, too, see it differently this year than in years past.

Shfokh Hamatkha is a dark story—a story drenched in pain, and we are living through an era drenched in pain.

Perhaps I’ve been so distracted, in years past, by the dissonance of this prayer that I never realized the deeper problem with this dark story—it’s not just the sacralization of vengeance, the argument for retribution in religious language in the heart of a religious ceremony. It’s the placement of those words, of that fever dream—a prayer for revenge spoken belly-full, couched between words of gratitude and praise.

Here’s the problem. Every Jew in every generation is called to see ourselves as though we, personally, left Mitzrayim, that narrow place, and began the long walk to freedom, to a place of possibility and expansiveness. The Seder is structured to mimic that journey. We traverse sacred time following the trajectory of our ancestors: we begin in degradation, and we end in praise (Mishnah Pesahim 10:4).

Our story moves from pain to promise, not the other way around. In other words: there is no place for a revenge fantasy at the end of our Seder, the celebration of our freedom.

But there is another door opening, one that occurs hours earlier in our Seder, long before we eat, just before we begin telling our story. We rise, this first time with the table set and hearts full of anticipation, to open the front door. But this time we say: kol dikhfin yeitei v’yekhol — All who are hungry, come and eat.

Think of it! Seder is an exercise in memory and spiritual mobility. We taste the maror to remember the bitterness of life under Pharoah; the haroset reminds us both of the bricks and mortar of our enslavement, and the sweet possibility of freedom, even emerging in the depths of our suffering. This story, this journey, is at once collective and deeply personal. Yet we do not begin to tell our story, let alone eat our meal, without recognizing that for others, even in our place and in our time, enslavement is no metaphor or abstraction. And for those who have been blessed to traverse the darkness and make our way toward the light, the only responsible thing, the only human thing to do is open our doors and invite in those who are still now where we once were.

All who are hungry, come and eat! This generous invitation is drawn from the example of Rav Huna, the Rosh Yeshiva of Sura. He was not only learned, but also full of grace. In Masekhet Taanit (20b), we read a series of extraordinary actions Rav Huna was known for in his time, culminating in the practice, before each meal, of opening his door and declaring: let all who are hungry come and eat!

It’s clear in the gemara how extra-ordinary—out of ordinary—Rav Huna’s behavior was. He was a giant of his generation. Even the great Rava admits: he’d never go that far. But when this tradition is incorporated into the Haggadah, it is not only those who are extraordinarily resourced, or extremely righteous or wise who say it, but every single one of us.

Now many commentators go to great length to explain that. Don’t worry! This is not meant to be taken literally—we’re not really inviting hungry people into our homes.

But we must know that there have been times in Jewish history when this directive was taken very seri- ously. Elie Wiesel writes (in his Haggadah) that in his small town, before the war, the Jews used to wander through town searching for strangers—the poor, the uprooted, the unhappy, the hungry—to come and sit at their table as treasured guests. Without them, they could not begin their meals.

This door opening sends a clear message: the great dream of Passover is not individual liberation, but col- lective liberation. Until all of us are free, none of us will truly be free. So all who are hungry, come and eat!

Now what would happen if we were to actually open our doors and bring a hungry person to the table? Or even if we take seriously the call to open our hearts to bring true awareness of the reality of their suffering to the table? Does that not change us? Does it not bring new significance to our own story? Does it not awaken a kind of gratitude for what we have, an awareness of the fragility of it all? A commitment to use our freedom to bring love, comfort, dignity to those who remain in the narrow straits?

This year, this question strikes me as more urgent than in years past.

Even as we sit this year, with our hearts broken, maybe even with empty chairs at the table to symbolically hold our captives, and their dear, shattered families, we cannot ignore another terrible reality: Gaza is on the verge of famine. More than a million people living there are on the brink of starvation, and that is a moral catastrophe.

It’s so hard to open our door to another person—or another people’s—heartache, especially when you, too, are holding fresh sorrow. I wonder how Rav Huna did it. How was he able to put aside his own desires and needs, his own grief, and open his door so graciously, again and again? In Megillah (27b), we are given a hint. This great sage was born into poverty. In fact, he was so poor that he once sold his belt to afford wine for kiddush on shabbat, and was forced to hold his pants up with a rope. I have to believe that

it was because he knew the ache of hunger, the humiliation of hunger, that he cultivated a heart so deeply generous toward others who were hungry.

Is the Seder not designed to do to our hearts precisely what that childhood hunger did to Rav Huna’s? Thir- ty-six times in the Torah we are reminded to treat the stranger fairly, generously, even lovingly… because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. The whole point of the Seder, arguably, is to remind us that we know the heart of the stranger. The stranger’s story is our story—built into the Jewish collective conscious- ness over thousands of years.

Open your doors, the tradition calls out to us. Open your hearts! All who are hungry, come and eat.

The careful construction of the Seder takes us on a narrative journey from narrowness to expansiveness. If we take seriously that first opening, of our doors and our hearts, if we allow the Seder to be not performa- tive but transformative, then by the time we open the door that second time, we will have changed.

What, then, are we to do with the revenge fantasy of shfokh hamatkha—pour out your wrath?
Haggadot today increasingly offer an alternative, in the form of a liturgical piece called shfokh ahavatkha —don’t pour out your rage, pour out your love.

Pour out your love on the nations who have known
You and on the kingdoms who call upon Your name.
For they show loving-kindness to the seed of Jacob
and they shield your people Israel
from those who would devour them.
May they see the good of your chosen ones
and rejoice in the gladness of your nation. (Psalms 106:5)

Some argue this text offers a legitimate alternative, given that it, too, is quite old. It appears, they claim, in a 16th century manuscript from Worms, Germany. But others argue that the poem is actually a forgery, that it was really written only one hundred years ago, by a rabbi who fled Galizia and then Vienna, ultimately escaping the Nazis by coming here, to the United States.

I find the impulse to address the need for another narrative, another end to this story, equally meaning-ful whether it emerged 500 years ago or 100, or even yesterday. This text reminds us that we can, we must choose love.

This year, we must choose to open our doors in righteousness. When we say, all who are hungry, come and eat, let’s mean it. If we do, then by the time we open our doors again, now with bellies full, we will not be able to pour out our wrath, but instead our hearts will be open to the power of love to heal us all.

 

Maggid/ Avadim Hayyinu: Who Were They and Who Are We?
— Rabbi Hannah Jensen

One of our chief obligations of Passover is to see ourselves as though we were slaves in Egypt. As though we were there. And then we were also part of the Exodus. We made our way toward redemption. We are asked to imagine our ancestors in a way that is visceral in us, not just an abstract understanding of people who came before.

This is an invitation – how did they spend their days? What did they care about? Who were they? What made them laugh the hardest? What made them cry? What difference did they make? Without them – none of us would be here.

And in this connection to our ancestors is an urgent reminder that one day we will be the ancestors. Generations from now people will sit around a table and they will be imagining us. What kind of ancestors will we be? Who will they say we were?

What kind of ancestor do you want to be? What will make you proud? What makes you laugh the hardest? What makes you cry? What does this moment and this Passover story compel you to do or to be?

Start now and imagine where you, and many generations after you, may end up.

 

The Plague of Disconnection
— Rabbi Sharon Brous, adapted from the Amen Effect

After hundreds of years of enslavement in Egypt, the moment had come for the Israelites to be redeemed, to begin to journey from oppression to liberation, from narrowness to expansiveness. Ten plagues descended upon the land, culminating in the one that ultim¬ately broke Pharaoh’s iron will—the death of the firstborn children. Just before that came the plague of darkness.

Given that the plagues were designed to grow progressively more severe, the choice of darkness as the penultimate plague is perplexing. Darkness can be inconvenient, frightening, even dangerous. But is it really worse than the Nile River—the life force—turning to blood? More unbearable than boils and burning hail? More treacherous than infestations of frogs and lice?

The Bible describes three full days of impenetrable dark¬ness, so thick and dense that “no person could see another, or even rise from their places” (Exodus 10:23). It is this detail that hints at the real terror of the ninth plague. More than physical discomfort, it brought spiritual anguish. “The deep¬est darkness,” wrote one nineteenth-century Polish rabbi, “is when one cannot even see his neighbor, and therefore can’t join him in his suffering and pain. Once a person no longer feels his neighbor’s pain, it renders him completely impotent.” When we are unable to support each other in our suffering, our lives are stripped of meaning. Surely, that is among the most devastating of plagues: the terror of total disconnection.

Years ago, I called a member of our community just to check in and see how she was holding up. She told me that she feared that if she were to disappear tomorrow no one in this world would even notice.

I’d heard this line of thinking a few times before. One woman once described her post-divorce reality, alienated and estranged from her community, her friends, even her children: “It’s like I vanished, but so quietly I didn’t even get a eulogy.”

Some people’s loneliness is situational, the product of a personal crisis. For others, it’s triggered by a global and existential event—the pandemic. War. Climate catastrophe. One thing is clear: loneliness and social disconnection are now dangerous and prevalent enough to be considered a public health crisis. We now know that loneliness doesn’t only break our hearts— it jeopardizes our cognitive, emotional, spiritual, and even physical health.

And pervasive loneliness doesn’t only hurt us individually, but it threatens our society. The great 20th century political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, warned that widespread social alien-ation is a precondition for the flourishing of violent political extremism:

Terror can rule absolutely only over men who are isolated against each other . . . therefore, one of the primary concerns of all tyrannical governments is to bring this isolation about. Isolation …is [terror’s] most fertile ground.

For Arendt, isolation is impotence. The more limited our meaningful contact with each another, the harder it is to act together toward the common good, let alone to respond effectively to the grave dangers we face. And worse, people who don’t know each other are more likely to demonize and even dehumanize one other. Alone and apart, we are vulnerable, and we are powerless.

Fortunately, there is something that we can do about it.

The antidote to social alienation is togetherness. We are—biologically and spiritually—relational beings. We now know that seeing one another and being seen by each other enhances our emotional health and deepens our sense of connectedness. This doesn’t only help us as individuals—it alters the physical and psychological landscape of a community and even a society. It lays the groundwork for a kind of scaled molecular remodeling, with the potential of nothing less than the mending of the connective tissue of our society.

This matters profoundly, especially in this time of so much fear and anguish, when so many of us feel like we are drowning in a sea of sorrow and helplessness.

The thing is: we are not powerless. We may feel like we’re living through the plague of darkness, but as Viktor Frankl reminded us: even in the cruelest and narrowest of circumstances, human beings do have a choice of action. We can, he wrote, preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress… There are always choices to make.

The choice that I hope we’ll make today is to find our way to one another. To see one another. In our pain and in our fear, in our joy and in our yearning. In our humanity. This is what I call the amen effect—a kind of spiritual rewiring that trains our hearts to recognize that we’re all bound up in one another. That we cannot make the darkness go away, but we can assure one another that we’re not alone as we navigate life’s greatest challenges. Showing up for one another with compassion and curiosity not only helps us endure times of great challenge, but may be the only way we can begin, in our time, to journey toward collective liberation.

 

Hallel: Putting It Into Words
— Hazzan Hillel Tigay

Victor Hugo said: “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent.”

Hallel is typically the most spirited musical segment of the Jewish holiday liturgy. It is comprised of a series of Psalms, which were originally composed not as poems, but as songs. These Psalms were part of the Temple prayer service, and meant to be put to music.

Just as the Mourner’s Kaddish is, counterintuitively, a prayer of divine affirmation and gratitude recited when we are at a spiritual low, after the death of a loved one, so too Hallel—words of gratitude and praise—are still sung even in times like ours, when we are challenged in body and soul. Our tradition calls us to focus on gratitude, to muster hope for peace and redemption. It strikes me as particularly resonant that we are invited into grateful song even as we face profound moral dilemmas and challenges. We are reminded that our people have endured—and overcome—great challenges for centuries.

So sing like your life depends on it, because some of what’s on our hearts cannot be put into words, and even still, we cannot remain silent.