Let's Take It Personally

Shabbat Chol haMo’ed Pesach 2017
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

Let’s Take It Personally

I don’t do this often because who wants a rabbi who abuses the pulpit in order to inflict smarmy tales of domestic bliss upon her congregation? Yet, I can’t resist: watching my two toddlers sing Mah Nishtanah at the Seder table was possibly one of the greatest sources of naches that I’ve been privileged to experience as a young Jewish parent.

I fully admit, I’m a fool for Pesach. I love Spring, I love the ‘thickness’ of the ritual and culture of the festival and I love cooking and hosting. A dear friend of mine spent part of the holiday with us and the three of us cooked a storm and our family enjoyed a Seder with all the trimmings: chicken soup with kneidlach, glazed brisket, quinoa salad, potato salad, egg salad and more (and you can probably guess where I’ve lingered on the kitniyot debate!) Once seated, I feasted my eyes on a beautifully set table, as I’m sure as many of you have, and shepped huge amounts of naches at being seated round my loved ones and two beautiful children. The cherry on the Pesachdike cake was hearing my two sing Mah Nishtanah.

Is it a bad thing to reflect personally on the holiday? Is it a sign of increasingly self-indulgent and narcissistic times, a symptom of an age of selfies and relentless self-promotion?

Or is it relevant and compelling, threading through an awareness that Jewish continuity can only be guaranteed when we personalise it and customise Judaism to the needs and challenges of our time? The genius of the Seder is that it subscribes to the latter position while incorporating the sensible critique of the former position. We are called to the moral individualism of Moses, not the vacuous narcissism of Pharaoh.
The Seder is a brilliant, multifaceted pedagogical approach to a deeply personal and relational Judaism that is firmly rooted in our collective Jewish identity and destiny. Through ritual and song, visuals and food, the Seder creates a kinesthetic experience that stretches across the generations and focuses on how we experience and shape our own Judaism. It would be safe to argue that the Seder is rabbinic Judaism’s most democratic and personal institution.

At the heart of the Seder is the verse from today’s Torah reading: ‘higadeta levincha bayom hahu lemor: ba’avur zeh asah Adonai li betzeti mimitzrayim’ – ‘and you shall tell your child on that day saying, it is because of this what the Eternal did for me, when I came out of Egypt’. (Ex. 13:8)

The chronology of the verse is intriguing: it starts of with ‘bayom hahu’ – ‘on that day’. It’s a futuristic term which we recognise from the Aleinu: ‘bayom hahu yihyeh Adonai echad u’shmo echad’ – ‘on that day, the Eternal shall be one and God’s Name be one’.
The verse clearly is cited in the context of the generation that came out of Egypt yet refers to a future generation that no longer had the immediate experience of the Exodus and who will have to symbolically relive the Exodus. The Seder, as my husband—my resident expert Seder leader—teaches, is a clock. The festival is our time-machine, our Tardis, bigger on the inside than the outside, connecting us in deep ways to past, present and even our future as we look towards Redemption.  

Another crucial word in our verse is ‘li’ – ‘me’. ‘Ba’avur zeh li asah Adonai’: it is for me that the Eternal did this. The connecting point of this Pesach time-space continuum is the individual. As the Mishnah states as cited in the Haggadah, ‘Be’chol dor vador chayav Adam lirot et atzmo ke’ilu yatza mi’Mitzrayim’ – ‘In every generations each person is obligated to see themselves as if they went out of Egypt.’ Is it selfish to focus on our personal experience of the festival? Or does it serve a higher purpose?  One can see a dialogue between our two readings today: between Exodus and Deuteronomy. There is causality between the internalization of the Pesach ethos of the first that should find its expression in the ethical thrust of the second. We read:

V’atah Yisrael—mah Adonai eloheicha sho’el me’imcha? Ki im lirah et Adonai eloheicha, lalechet bechol darachav, ul’ahavah oto, v’la’avod et Adonai eloheicha, bechol lav’cha uv’chol nafshecha…’

‘And now, Israel, what does the Eternal your God ask from you? That you are in awe of the Eternal your God, that you walk in God’s ways and that you love God, that you serve the Eternal your God with all your heart and all your soul…’ (Deut. 10:12) Deuteronomy then continues to specify what Divine service entails: circumcising the heart, loving the stranger, protecting the vulnerable and being impervious to the trappings of power.

In a previous year, I drew a parallel between this verse and the famous verse from the Prophet Micah: ‘what does the Eternal require of you? To act justly and love mercy and walk humbly with your God.’ (Micah 6:8). I don’t want to dwell on the comparison this year except to point out the moral agency and ethical imperative of its staunch individualism. As the 20th century philosopher Martin Buber would say, we need to find the I-Thou in this encounter: the ego is not the end but a means; a starting point for deep, authentic and transformative relationship – like the one we see in the Haftarah, Song of Songs: ‘dodi li v’ani lo’ – ‘my beloved is mine and I am his’ (Songs 2:16).

Let us make our Judaism deeply personal then and bring all of ourselves to the proverbial table. Jewish continuity doesn’t rely on Judaism being merely a culture of ideas but a covenant of actions, sensations, emotions and passions. This is a mission that all of us—regardless of where we find ourselves on the Jewish spectrum—can adopt. ‘Ba’avur zeh asa Adonai li’: it is for this that God did for me. I hope all of us can accept the challenge.


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