Why is Passover the most widely celebrated Jewish holiday? Maybe because it is a home ritual, and each family or group of friends can gather to approach it in a personal way. Both religious and secular Jews find meaning at the Passover table, telling the Biblical story of the Exodus from Egypt. It is a festival of spring and harvest, a festival of freedom and rebirth of the Jewish people, and a festival of redemption and gratitude. And we share Passover not only with fellow Jews but also with our non-Jewish friends.
Although we celebrate the ritual feast each year, every telling is brand-new, because each year we bring today’s world into the ancient story. We tell the story once again with a renewed thirst for themes about freedom, relief from oppression, displacement from place of origin, elevation of the human spirit, justice for humankind, and the generosity of Divine intervention.
There are many, varied Haggadahs, the booklets we use to conduct a Passover celebration. Each of them emphasizes different aspects of the holiday. Some are traditionally religious; others focus on cultural heritage and social action. All of them follow a specific order — in Hebrew the word “order” is “seder” — involving ritual foods, songs, and of course, a meal fit for royalty!
One of my favorite Haggadahs links the ancient ritual of freedom from slavery with the modern civil rights movement of the 1960s: The Freedom Seder was held on the first anniversary of the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King in Spring 1969. HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, updates its Haggadah every year to connect the Exodus with the plight of refugees and oppressed people around the world (hias.org/passover). These adapted, creative seder rituals teach us that if we truly value freedom, we must stand for it universally.
I also love Rabbi Nathan Goldberg’s Haggadah (Ktav), a traditional religious text that leads us through Talmudic discourses on the value of holding a seder. The Velveteen Rabbi’s Haggadah evolved from a feminist seder project and incorporates original poetry by its gifted author Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Each of these, and there are many more, gives depth to an ancient ritual.
The seder is also a ritual of transmission of identity from generation to generation. For a young child, it might be the first time they have the opportunity to ask the Four Questions, the traditional prompt for relating the story of Passover. I remember when it was my turn. I carefully learned the rabbinic text in Yiddish and Hebrew, and my Orthodox grandfather, may his memory be for a blessing, departed from tradition and welcomed me, a little girl, to ask the questions. Proudly, I spoke the words, knowing I made no mistakes. Proudly, I joined the legions of children for whom it was the “first time.”
For adults, the seder can also be an act of wrestling with and confirming identity. What do we embrace of Jewish tradition? How do we make it live for us in this moment, in a secular nation that doesn’t give us much room for observing our major feasts or celebrating our Sabbaths? For some, Passover raises the question, “Can I be Jewish without embracing a belief in God?” Ultimately we all ask, “Can we find continuity with ancient ritual that is meaningful for us now?”
My answer is a resounding, “Yes!”