D’var Torah: Cantor Michael McCloskey (Beshalach)

The Passover Seder: The Holiness of Play

וְהִגַּדְתָּ֣ לְבִנְךָ֔ בַּיּ֥וֹם הַה֖וּא לֵאמֹ֑ר בַּעֲב֣וּר זֶ֗ה עָשָׂ֤ה יְהוָה֙ לִ֔י בְּצֵאתִ֖י מִמִּצְרָֽיִם:

And you shall tell your child on that day, “For the sake of this [celebrating Pesach] that Adonai did this for me, liberating me from Egypt. —Exodus 13:7

Pesach, the most widely observed and practiced Jewish holiday, is also the most democratic.  According to the Jewish philosopher Franz Rosensweig this equality is expressed in that “the youngest child is the one to speak, and what the father says at the table is adapted to this child’s personality and his degree of maturity…The one nearest the periphery of the circle gives the cue for the level on which the discussion must be conducted. For this conversation must include him.  No one who is there in the flesh shall be excluded in the spirit. The freedom of a society is always the freedom of everyone who belongs to it.”

Interestingly, the first description of the celebration of this holiday in this week’s portion of Beshallach creates some ambiguity in regard to its essential nature.  Is our observance of Passover a commemoration of the liberation from Egypt or was the celebration of Passover G-d’s first benchmark or spiritual goal for our people. According to this second understanding, to which Rashi and other commentators adhere, we were redeemed from Egypt so that we could engage with the commandments and serve the Holy One, most specifically with the observance of the Seder!  

Why is the seder such an important observance?  Why does it resonate so deeply with our people, regardless of their observance?  According to Maimonides, the great philosopher, rabbi, and physician, the essence of the seder is playful change, and that change in turn fosters personal, familial, and communal renewal.  According to him, those who conduct the seder “need to make a change on on this night in order that the children see and ask, “How is this night different from all other nights?” and he in turn replies “This-and-this happened and so-and-so occurred.” And how [specifically] does he change [the seder]? He distributes to them [the children] parched corn and nuts and uproots the table before they can eat and snatches matzah from hand to hand and the like…” In other words, there is a teasing sporting aspect to this meal of meals which invites questioning. “Whoa, why did you remove the table.  What’s going on? Hey, that’s my matzah? Why are you taking it? Wait, why are we having popcorn? This isn’t the movies, this is the Passover Seder!” Told another way, the most important facet of the Passover Seder is midrash, its creative, daring, and meaningful interpretation of the biblical accounts of the exodus from Egypt. In fact, the midrashim included in the Seder are believed by many scholars to be some of the first examples of this uniquely Jewish and highly playful form of interpretation!

In my home, for one of the two sedarim, we host families of many different faith traditions, utilizing the bare bones of the seder arranged by our sages, but each year adding new commentaries, new discussions, new activities, new songs, and new rituals.  Moreover, now that our children Leonardo (4.5) and Ramona (1.5) have joined our life, we are exploring even more modalities. Our seder features not only story-telling, discussion, and songs, but theatre, legos, and responding to the narrative with play-dough and painting, which we enjoy as much as our kids!

Cantor Michael McCloskey is the Cantor-Educator at Temple Emeth, Chestnut Hill, MA. He serves as adjunct faculty at Hebrew College and is currently working toward rabbinic ordination.   

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