Thursday, April 01, 2021

Insights from Passover, 2021 Edition

Passover 2021 is on! We're still in pandemic mode over here, so our seders were small and I attended services over Zoom. Still, I've picked up a number of new insights this year which I'm always eager to share.

A huge thanks to my Mother-in-Law for getting me a copy of The Szyk Haggadah. The graphics are both gorgeous and profound, and the commentary is terrifically insightful. I can't recommend it highly enough. You'll see below that this text is responsible for a number of fresh insights this year.

D'Za"Kh, 'ADa"Sh, Be'aCha"V

On the first day of services I posed a question we've had at past seders but kept forgetting to research. Why does the Hagadah include Rabbi Yehudah's ten letter abbreviation for the plagues?

A number of members, including Andy and Fred, suggested that the abbreviation was there for the same reason why my math teacher had me learn Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally; it's a useful device for remembering a sequence. In their eyes, as an educational aid it needs no additional explanation for its inclusion.

Rav Natan added that the Rabbis of the Talmud often liked to create mnemonics. In a section of the Haggadah where we just finished doing textual analysis (linking verses from Deuteronomy 26 to the entire Passover story), it makes sense that the Rabbis would add another favorite move of theirs, a mnemonic. In other words, we're in 'Talmud Mode,' and the Haggadah fully embraces this.

Others, like myself have looked for deeper meaning. Eliezer Segal compiled a number of these hypothesis including the the possibility that the gematria or letter grouping of Rabbi Yahudah's abbreviation has meaning.

Another explanation: there's a midrash that suggests the plagues were written on Moses' staff. Rashi neatly proposes that it was Rabbi Yehuda's abbreviation that was written there. This solution is both mystical and practical!

Finally, I can glimpse a sort of political reasoning for this inclusion as well. We take the 10 plagues for granted, though they aren't clearly enumerated in the Torah this way. Things get even more complicated when you consider Psalms 78 and 105 have different listings of plagues. Perhaps Rabbi Yehuda's inclusion is yet another attempt to cement the 10 plagues as the Haggadah has them noted.

Drops of Wine

Also at our services the discussion of spilling out wine at each of the plagues came up. There was near universal agreement that one had to be careful with the spilled wine, as surely that wine had been compromised due to being associated with plagues. It was funny to hear the jocular warning about having to avoid licking the finger you dipped into the wine glass from others, as I thought that was something only our family joked about.

Thanks to the Syzk Haggadah I learned two new variations on this tradition. The first is that some Jews spilled out wine at each of the plagues to appease the evil eye. What better way to keep your seder running smoothly than to take a moment and get the evil eye a bit drunk?

Another, more serious observation is that Szyk avoids all mention of the pouring out of wine during the recitation of the plagues. It's not clear why this is. One possibility is that given the political climate he found himself in (think Europe, 1930's) he was in no mood to embrace the custom of pouring out wine as a sign of sympathizing with the Egyptians. To Szyk, his enemies deserved the justice they had coming; there was no need for an extra serving of empathy.

On B'nai Brak

The commentary on the Syzk Haggadah suggests that the B'nai Brak seder paragraph is more than a cute story proving the point that all who are wise should continue to recite the Passover story. It suggests that this description is there to add weight to the new type of seder that Jews were supposed to embrace: one that wasn't dependent on the Temple and Pascal Sacrifice.

While a seder spent noshing and talking is familiar to us, to our ancestors it would have seen woefully incomplete, or at the very the least a dramatic change.

This explanation makes even more sense to me during the Covid-19 Pandemic. Suddenly we find ourselves having to alter our Passover practices. It's no longer families smooshed together around a table loudly arguing; or reciting Hallel in shul with devoted regulars. It's a quiet Seder evening and services over Zoom in my basement. There's still Hallel, but I'm on mute and only the leader can be heard.

While Passover may be different, it's not gone. If the Rabbis at B'nai Brak can find meaning in their new arrangement, so can we.

The Other Wicked Son

After the Four Sons we read a paragraph that talks about the timing of the seder:

It could be from Rosh Chodesh [that one would have to discuss the Exodus. However] we learn [otherwise, since] it is stated, "on that day." If it is [written] "on that day," it could be from while it is still day [before the night of the fifteenth of Nissan. However] we learn [otherwise, since] it is stated, "for the sake of this." I didn't say 'for the sake of this' except [that it be observed] when [this] matsa and maror are resting in front of you [meaning, on the night of the fifteenth].

I appreciate how this fits the theme set earlier in Haggadah with with the B'nai Brak story and the paragraph that follows it. It's teaching us that what we are doing is Kosher even though it may vary from what the Torah or Temple practices prescribed.

But why put this paragraph describing the timing of the seder after the Four Sons? Why not group it with the other paragraphs closer to the start of the seder?

Perhaps I was just in a feisty mood this year, but if I squint I can see this paragraph's placement as intentional. We imagine four personalities sitting around the table and the answers we wish to give them. I can see how this paragraph on timing speaks to a fifth personality.

This fifth 'son' I imagine is a mash-up of the wicked and wise sons. Like the Rasha he's up to no good, but he's got the wisdom of the Hacham to try to derail the seder from the inside. Why are we even here tonight? He or she offers up. The Torah tell us that we should tell the story on Rosh Chodesh. That's the first day of the month and today is the 14th. Y'all are 13 days late on your seder!

This individual has come to the table with 'proof' that his fellow seder participants are all wrong.

The Haggadah is unfazed; it has points and counter-points at the ready.

Perhaps I'm being too harsh here. Maybe this mixture of Wicked and Wise is a good thing. Perhaps the Haggadah is sending us a message that asking sharp questions is exactly what we should be doing, and that's why this answer on timing is so verbose. Don't avoid thorny questions it seems to be saying, lean in and ask away!

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