Passover is a journey towards wholeness, towards a metaphoric “promised land,” and if we remember that—and that alone—we will create a seder each year that is not only deeply meaningful but, de facto, different from every other year’s. For next year’s seder, start now by staying attuned to issues in your own life—and in the news—that feel like they speak to this holy journey. My minhag [custom] is to assign “spiritual homework” to all our Passover guests several weeks before the hag [holiday] that addresses that year’s “freedom” issues, public and/or private.
The year after 9/11, for example, was full of destruction, so I sent out this homework: “Imagine you are Moses taking leave of a mutilated world to trudge across the desert. Your 40-year plan is to resocialize a tribe, to create a new, improved version of humanity that will spread crucial societal corrections throughout the land. This tribe will have a bone-deep understanding of why democracy, respect, justice and compassion are simply the way to go. What one item do you, as Moses, need to pack in your L.L. Bean duffel bag in order to best accomplish this task? What one thing will most help us transform ourselves—and one another— from being miserable human beings who are enslaving and enslaved, territorial and selfish, into human beings who create. I’havdil, a world that is safe and wise and takes care of everybody?'”
Bring an object smaller than a matzah box, I asked our guests (as I do each year), that represents what you believe is essential to pack for this 11th-hour journey towards survival and mutual stewardship.
Among many astonishing objects— and complex discussion—was a teenager’s guitar pick. “I practiced two hours a day this year,” he said “and I went from being a rotten guitar player to somebody who won a competition. If I was Moses, this pick would remind me that people can get tons better; they just have to really work on it.”
The next year, new books by Barbara Ehrenreich and David Shipler prompted me to see the ethical question of our time as the “working poor”—minimum-wage earners who simply cannot get by. I connected this loosely to Exodus 5:6-18 wherein the Egyptian taskmasters add “straw-gathering” to the slaves’ brickmaking tasks, yet still expect them to produce the same number of bricks! Several teachers who were at our seder spoke emotionally about their own increased “straw-gathering”: shrinking public school resources, the ever increasing intrusion of standardized tests. One guest had put a piece of chalk on the table. “It’s the ‘last straw,'” she said. “This year teachers actually have to provide their own chalk.”
This year I was struck by the problem of “overwork”—that few folks, in most households, are taking care of the hearth fires anymore, and how this diminishes the succor we once derived from sitting in front of them. Though life’s more quantitative values—health, longevity, shelter, food—are wildly improved over the past, so many folks I know are, well, dissatisfied or depressed. “Bring an object, smaller than an S.U.V.,” I told my seders, “that speaks to this sense of ‘lost freedom’ in your life.” One guest placed a cell-phone on the table which rang in the middle of Dayeinu. He answered and carried on an intrusive conversation. It took us a minute to realize that he had staged the moment; he had secretly called himself and was demonstrating the problem.
I don’t know what this year ahead of us will bring, but I already have in my consciousness the task of beginning the journey. And as with any really successful spiritual path, its direction will define not only next year’s unfolding hagada but also all of our days until we get there.