At the Passover Seder we do a lot of talking and a lot of eating. Over the centuries, the Jewish people have found that this combination of food and talk makes for a great ritual: somewhere in the middle of all that fressing and kibbitzing, meaning emerges.
But when meaning emerges organically from words, objects and actions, as it does at the Seder, it is the opposite of “cut and dry.” It is often paradoxical and impossible to put into a simple formulation. It is more like good literature: subtle and powerful.
One of my favorite examples of how the ancient Sages used the techniques of literature to tell us something about the meaning of the Seder comes from the earliest compilation of Jewish Law, the Mishnah. Composed around 200 CE by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, the Mishnah is the backbone of the Talmud. In the tractate Pesachim which deals with the laws of Passover we find the chapter dealing with the Seder starts like this:
1. On the eve of Passover, when it is close to the time of the minchah afternoon offering, no one should eat until it gets dark. And even the poorest person in the people of Israel should not eat without reclining. And they should not provide him with less than the four cups of wine, even if it means using money from community funds.
2. They poured him the first cup. The House of Shamai says bless first over the holiday and afterword over the wine. The House of Hillel says, bless the wine, and afterword on the holiday.
Now, I ask you: “Who is the “him” referring to in the beginning of mishnah 2?” It’s kind of a trick question because the answer is “it depends.” If you read the second mishnah on its own you would say that the “him” refers to the head of the household, the leader of the Seder. But we could also read the second mishnah as a continuation of the narrative of first mishnah, in which case the “him” would be the same as the “him” of the first mishnah: the poorest of the poor.
With one pronoun, the authors of the Mishnah have subtly hinted at the central and paradoxical points of the Seder: that poor person and I are one!
As a Jew, I (in my collective self) was once a slave in Egypt and I need to have compassion for the oppressed. At the Seder we say, “Every person is obligated to look at themselves as if they themselves went out from Egypt.” I need to know that that poor, homeless person has the same dignity of being created in the image of God as I do, and I need to know that as comfortable as I may be in my home, surrounded by family and friends, I also am in need of redemption: from my own personal Egypt, from the fears, the habits, the addictions that narrow my vision and choke off my potential.
As I bite into the matzah I can experience it both as the “bread of affliction” – dry, lacking any spice or flavor, and also, in its simplicity, just flour and water, as the bread of freedom. I can learn from the matzah that simply being myself: without illusions of false pride or harsh judgment, is to be free.
When I’m well into the four cups of wine and start to feel a little fuzzy, I can begin to imagine that I am both a slave leaving Egypt, and also sitting at my table, free to play hide and seek for the Afikoman with my kids. I can look at the Mishnah at the beginning of Tractate Pesachim and read “him” as both the comfortable Seder leader, and also the poor person at the door. And then I can open the door, inviting all who are hungry to enter, inviting Oneness to enter my heart.