By Rabbi Steven Schwarzman
(AJNews) – Pesach, Matzah, and Maror – in the Haggadah, Rabban Gamliel teaches that whoever doesn’t say these three things on Passover hasn’t fulfilled their obligation. If you use a bare-bones Haggadah, you might think that this is a magical incantation of sorts: utter these three words, and somehow you’re good for Pesach. And it might seem especially odd that we say the word “Pesach” on Pesach, as if we didn’t know the name of the holiday!
Like much of the Haggadah, this is actually a quote from the Mishnah’s tractate Pesachim. Unlike in the Haggadah, where this passage follows Dayenu, so one might reasonably see it as a summing up or boiling down of all the thank-yous in Dayenu into three essential points, in the Mishnah, it follows the four questions and the obligation to teach our children about the Exodus.
In both settings, Rabban Gamliel’s teaching gives us insights into what Passover and the seder are really all about.
In the Haggadah, where it follows Dayenu and its list of it-would-have-been-enoughs (when it actually wouldn’t have been, just that we’re grateful for each step along the way), Rabban Gamliel brings us back to the present. Yes, we are and should be grateful for G-d bringing us out of Egypt and back into our homeland, the Land of Israel. But first we have to remember where we began. Rabbi Barukh HaLevi Epstein, in his 20th-century commentary Barukh She’amar, asks what makes this mitzvah different from all the others (yes, he clearly had a sense of humour!) in that Rabban Gamliel singled them out. His answer is that all mitzvot require that we think about why we do them, but for these three, the inner experience of thinking is not enough. We have to say the words out loud, perhaps as part of our obligation to see ourselves as if we, personally, left Egypt. We have to experience the Exodus ourselves: how our homes were spared – Pesach, and the haste with which we had to leave – Matzah, and the bitterness of servitude – Maror.
In the Mishnah, where Rabban Gamliel’s insistence that we say these three words follows the four questions, the context may be both simpler and deeper: simpler, in that these three items – the Pesach sacrifice, the matzah, and the maror – were the main dishes on the seder table, as Dr. Joshua Kulp of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem explains, and deeper, in that they help us, and force us, to concentrate on those four probing questions. Why, truly, is this night different? Why do we do all these unusual things at this meal?
In his Mishneh Torah, Maimonides writes that we are to surprise the children (and all guests) at the seder by breaking the habits and expectations of a normal meal. Once we’ve done that (as one technique, Maimonides suggests clearing the table before anyone gets a chance to eat!), we have the attention of all present. By doing things differently than usual, that’s when we can get down to the real business of the seder, which is to tell and relive the story as if we were there ourselves.
You see, the seder isn’t a ritual to do by rote, reading the Haggadah word by word – including Rabban Gamliel’s three words – like machines. The point of the seder is to use the rituals, including the words of the Haggadah, as a springboard to a deep discussion. How can we see ourselves as leaving Egypt? What do servitude and freedom mean in our lives? What does redemption mean to us?
When we work toward answering these questions, we’ll know why this night is different. On Passover, we don’t have the option of just going about the business of our lives, because that’s not what it means to be free from serving Pharaoh so that we can serve G-d instead. We’re obligated to do a deep dive into what our lives mean, as human beings and as Jews. We have to name the things that create meaning in our lives, because that will help us get started on the path toward growing them.
As we gather for our seders, may we all be blessed with the deep comfort that comes from tradition, from familiar recipes and songs, and familiar people. And may we also be blessed with the deep experience of what Passover means, using the tools that the Haggadah has built-in to help us consider the real questions of life in new ways each year, with new people joining us at our tables and new understandings of our lives. Chag kasher vesameach!
Rabbi Steven Schwarzman is the spiritual leader at Beth Shalom Synagogue, Edmonton’s egalitarian conservative congregation.
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