The Seder Table: Rags to Riches

Rabbi Steven I. Rein
March 29, 2012
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In a few weeks, we will sit down at our seder tables and tell the story of our redemption from slavery. The Mishnah prescribes that the story of the Exodus should present a contrast: beginning with humility and ending with glory. The entire seder experience serves as a reality check. When the rabbis constructed the Passover seder, they were concerned primarily with each of us, Jews who were not slaves in Egypt, who perhaps never experienced truly modest beginnings. The Haggadah tells us, B’khol dor va-dor, in each and every generation we must regard ourselves as though we personally left Egypt. What we do at the seder table is to reenact the Exodus by telling the story and performing rituals that bring a sense of humility back into our lives.

Judaism encourages a balance between pride and self-deprecation. The twentieth-century writer John Rich wisely suggests the dangers of living in a society that snobbishly values intellectual achievement at the expense of practical accomplishments. He would often say: “If everybody contemplates the infinite instead of fixing the drains, many of us will die of cholera.” The Midrash tells us that God chose to speak to Moses from a burning bush, because “one who is humble will obtain honor” (Prov. 29:23). You can find nothing more humble among the trees than the bush – “High though the Lord is, God sees the lowly” (Ps 138:6). Solomon Schechter chose the image of the burning bush as the symbol of The Jewish Theological Seminary over a century ago because it invoked a blend of burning passion and modesty.

The sights and smells of Passover are quickly arriving. We will soon be sitting at our tables, holding up our matzah, declaring “Ha lahma anya – this is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.” We also look at our matzah as a symbol of freedom, recalling the hasty departure of our forefathers. Matzah thus becomes both the bread of bondage and the bread of redemption. Like the burning bush, matzah conveys two messages woven together. If one meaning is not what you need to hear this Pesah, turn the matzah over and try the other.

Our annual reliving of our redemption allows this ancient experience to direct and inform who we are today. Thinking of ourselves as if we, too, had been slaves and had left Egypt – reliving the Pesah story through the rituals of the seder – is meant to be a humbling experience. This Passover, let us internalize the quality of humility and self-transcendence that is the essence of the Festival. Mathil b’genut u-m’sayem b’shevah – we begin with humility and end with praise and redemption. If we can remember in our hearts that we were once slaves in Egypt, God will surely redeem us today. Humility is the beginning of liberation and the catalyst for cultural change.

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