The Seder Tightrope

The Haggadah provides us with the questions asked by four archetypal students about the Exodus and how we should answer them.

Of all the sons, the Rasha (Evil) is perhaps the most interesting.  He asked, “What is this service to you?”  The question is, superficially, no different from the questions of the other sons.  The issue is, however, his tone and phraseology, not the simple meaning of the words.  The Haggadah comments on the seemingly benign question by saying “He thinks that the mitzvot are only for you but not for him!  Because he doesn’t want to be part of us. . . .”

We are commanded to respond in a strong way: “Because of this, God acted for me when He took me out of Egypt.”  Rashi explains that “this” is the mitzvot of Pesach; God took us out of Egypt because He knew that we would keep the commandments pertaining to Passover throughout history.

The portrait of the Rasha and his question is frighteningly real and relevant for us today.  Jewish belief demands that we not close our eyes to advances in the secular world.  However, Judaism asks that we reject many principles espoused by secular culture.  Jews walk the fine line that separates modernity from heresy, but the Rasha has lost his balance.  He has embraced secular culture without condition.  His cynical approach to God and religion – so common today – only allows him to accept those aspects of communal religiosity that he can understand with his own intellect.  The rest, he clams, is either the invention of fanatics who close their eyes to intellectual truth and honesty and are trapped in the Dark Ages, or is clearly an invention of God but no longer applicable to modern life.   His motto?  “Times change.”

The Rasha attacks the entire basis for the Seder night, i.e., the Pascal sacrifice and the related mitzvot.  He understands that these served some purpose when the People of Israel lived in Egypt and even in the early years of the post-Egypt period.  “But what about today?” asks the Rasha.  “Nobody worships sheep or any other animals anymore except for some primitives in the wilderness!  We are not demonstrating anything with these ancient rituals.  They don’t make sense in a modern world.”

In answering this time-worn argument, our response to the Rasha must be clear.  While on one hand we must “silence him,” we must also answer his question: “Because I am sweating over all this ‘pointless ritual’ in the year 2011, God took me out of Egypt so long ago.”  We were freed in order to provide an historical context for the mitzvot we do today.

And yet, we would do the mitzvot even if no such historical context existed.  If the Torah commanded us to take a lamb, slaughter it, and eat it at a festive meal with weird-looking customs once a year, we would do it with no questions asked even if there were no reason given for the mitzvah.  The historical context is icing on the cake, to offer some insight and meaning from the “work” we do each year.

The Rasha asks, “Isn’t it pointless to do a mitzvah whose social significance is gone?”  We answer, “No, because the social significance that the mitzvah once had was never the main point in the first place.”

April 2011/Adar II-Nisan 5771

Candle Lighting Times and Torah Portions

Friday, April 1

Light candles at 6:53 p.m.

Saturday, April 2

Torah Portion: Tazria ((Leviticus 12:1-13:59)

Friday, April 8

Light candles at 6:59 p.m.

Saturday, April 9

Torah Portion: Metzora (Leviticus 14:1-15:53)

Friday, April 15

Light candles at 7:04 p.m.

Saturday, April 16

Torah Portion: Achere Mot (Leviticus 16:1-18:30)

Monday, April 18

Erev Pesach – First Seder

Light candles at 7:06 p.m.

Tuesday, April 19

First Day of Pesach – Second Seder

Light candles at 8:03 p.m.

Friday, April 22

Light candles at 7:09 p.m.

Saturday, April 23

Torah Portion: Chol Hamoed/Special Reading

Friday, April 29

Light candles at 7:14 p.m.

Saturday, April 30

Torah Portion: Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1-20:27)

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