Remembering the Hostages at our Sedarim

by Rabbi Lee Friedlander

Dear Friends,

If Emily Dickinson could write, “There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us Lands away,” then the Pesah Haggadah might well be compared to a Time Machine that takes us back to Egypt 2500 years ago with many stops along the way.  The Torah commands us only to tell the story of our People’s bondage and redemption to our children; but the Mishne compiled 1500 years later, shows us that by the year 200 of the Common Era, some elements of our Seder were already extant.  We read of Four Questions (though they are not the same four as in our Haggadot), the recitation of the Ten Plagues, and a listing of the items on the seder plate.  There are even oblique references to gefilte fish and chicken soup in the Talmud a hundred years later!

The Haggadah, like most of our traditions, continued to evolve in the medieval period and continues its evolution in our time.  Take the seder plate for example.  In the Eighties, long before women rabbis became ubiquitous, many progressive Jews placed an orange in the center of their seder plates to mock those who thought that women on the bimah was as weird as an orange on the seder plate  With their growing acceptance in America, the orange was revalued to represent LGBTQA Jews and other Jews who are marginalized in traditional Jewish communities.  In the past several years, advocates of refugees’ rights have added shoelaces to their seder plates, and still others include olives to express their yearning for peace.

Many other customs have been adopted.  Further reflecting the place of women in Jewish life, Miriam’s cup filled with spring water sits beside Elijah’s cup on our family seder table.  In addition, in an attempt to tell the story of the Exodus to the youngest at our tables, there is a preponderance of plastic frogs that grow from year to year and jump (with the help of little hands) to “Frogs are jumping everywhere.”  It is easy for them to jump given that we sit cross-legged in the living room for the first part of our seder.  Our Pesah Posse made up of kids below b’nay mitsva age squirt salt water from spray bottles on our parsley and beat us with scallions when called for.  My pious maternal grandfather (z”l) whose last seder was in 1963 would surely think that he had landed on Mars if he came to visit us from the ‘other side’ this year.

Of special focus to me this year is the custom of depleting wine from the seder’s second cup to mark the suffering and death of the Egyptians because of Pharaoh’s refusal to obey God.  This practice was introduced in the eleventh century, two millennia after the first seder took place.  Our Sages based the practice on the principle that “one may not recite a blessing over a cup of punishment.”  Of course, our joy will be greatly diminished this year with the knowledge that there are still almost 100 living hostages taken on October 7 who are still being held in conditions that are considerably more brutal than those our ancestors experienced in Egypt.  It is imperative that we find ways to invite them to our Seder table this year.  Our family will place a bowl of wine next to the cups of Miriam and Elijah.  Before we recite Kiddush, we will pass the bowl from participant to participant to dimmish its contents at the very beginning of our seder ceremony to bring the hostages into our home.

I find it significant that the opening of a door for Elijah was also an eleventh-century addition to the seder.  Elijah, as you know, is the prophet of the future, the prophet of hope.  At the seder, we are instructed to move from servitude to freedom.  It will be impossible to experience freedom while so many are still held captive by Hamas – those taken by savages on October 7, and those who are trapped, and those who are dead because of their ideology and recalcitrance.  Despair is both easy and justified,  Yet we cannot rest with despair.  Even while burdened by a sense of helplessness and pain, we must still keep the door open to Possibility and Hope.

Wishing you all a meaningful Pesah,

Rabbi Lee