Seder plates can get awfully crowded these days, with all the causes vying to place a new symbolic food on them. Some of these causes are dear to my heart, and some of the foods are delicious. Nonetheless, I think the effort to formally incorporate them into seder ritual is a mistake. Here’s a very rabbinic and somewhat winding explanation of why.
We say the complete Hallel on the first day(s) of Pesach, but we say an incomplete Hallel on the remaining days? Why?
Pesikta Derav Kehana cites as explanation Proverbs 24:17: “Do not rejoice at the downfall of your enemy”. This explains why we don’t complete Hallel, but what is different about the first day(s) that allows us to complete it?
Here is a parallel question. Talmud Sanhedrin 39b states that after G-d drowned the Mitzriyim in the Reed Sea, the angels sought to sing His praises, but He restrained them: “My handiworks are drowning in the sea, and you want to sing?!” But the context, of course, is that the Jews were singing the Song of the Sea, and by all accounts they are praised for doing so. Why was it proper for the Jews to sing while His handiworks were drowning?
One more question: The Haggadah tells a story in which a group of rabbis stay up all night telling the story of the Exodus, until their students come and tell them that the time has come for the morning Shema. Now the third paragraph of the Shema is intended, the rabbis tell us, to fulfill the commandment of . . . telling the story of the Exodus. What is the difference between these mitzvot?
I have one answer for all three questions. The mitzvah on the first night of Pesach is to tell the story not as an observer, but rather as a participant. In Yosef Yerushalmi’s famous framework, it is intended to create memory rather than to teach history.
Direct beneficiaries of a miracle have an overwhelming obligation to express gratitude, even if a third party would note that the miracle caused harm to other human beings. Thus the Jews were obligated to sing, but the angels were not permitted to.
On the first night(s) of Passover, we place ourselves in the position of the generation of the Exodus, in other words as direct beneficiaries of G-d’s miracles. We therefore may and must sing the complete Hallel. On the remaining nights, we are more like the angels (although unlike them, we are second-degree beneficiaries), and so we cannot complete Hallel – did not His handiworks drown even as we were redeemed?
How does this relate to the question of whether contemporary social justice causes should find symbolic expression at the seder?
Let me be clear. The ultimate purpose of the Seder is to recommit us to justice, to recognizing that everything in Torah is mediated by our experience of the G-d Who hates slavery intervening to redeem us from slavery. But the immediate purpose of the Seder is to root that experience in our minds, and the minds of our children, as uncontroversial and incontrovertible memory rather than as potentially controversial history. The immediate purpose of the seder is to establish a narrative, not to draw morals from it.
When we impose meaning on the story, rather than simply telling it, we transform experience into opinion. The story by itself must generate the meaning. So long as we share memory, our conflicts as to the obligations imposed by that memory will occur within, and perhaps even strengthen, our shared identity. They will be conflicts of interpretation about a common text. But if the controversy is allowed to feed back into the memory – if our political differences no longer stem from a shared memory – those same conflicts risk turning us into multiple people, with multiple Torahs.
Now it is human and proper for Jews’ opinions to find their way into their divrei Torah at the Seder, just as every Jew experienced the original Exodus and Revelation at Sinai uniquely. And it is beautiful and necessary for Jews to experience the Seder as generating obligations to act, to change the world toward greater morality and justice. But we need the Exodus to be available to inspire our descendants as it inspired us; we cannot risk having it be seen as the constructed past of a dead ideology.
As we preserve a common text of Torah, we need to preserve a common core of Exodus narrative, and my strong sense is that this is best done by keeping the seder plate as is.
Chag kasher vesameiach!