Facing God In Our Passover Haggadah

19 Apr

Shabbat HaGadol, loosely translated in English as the “Great Sabbath,” falls on the Shabbat preceding Passover, which is where we find ourselves this evening. According to Jewish law, it is on Shabbat HaGadol that we observe the beginning of the process of the Israelite redemption from Egypt. We are instructed to study the laws of Passover and there is even a tradition of reading portions of the haggadah as a rehearsal for the upcoming seder. The reasoning for this is to familiarize ourselves with the content of the haggadah so that we show up to the seder prepared with our questions and our answers. Like most ritual and religious experience, the more prep we do the more meaning we may find. It is with this in mind that I want to share with you this evening some thoughts on the content in our haggadah that we will read at our Passover seders next weekend.

I began thinking about the narrative we encounter in the haggadah after I met with a man who adamantly told me he was an atheist. “Even though I don’t believe in God, I care about Jewish tradition,” he told me.

And then he shared that Passover is his favorite holiday. In fact, it seemed to me his passion for the Passover seder was almost equal to his passion for atheism. So I asked him, “How do you relate to all the talk of God in the Passover Haggadah?” And he said to me, “Oh we just don’t make a big deal about those parts.”

I assume that he is not the only one who takes this approach. I bet many of us are more interested in spending time discussing the themes of slavery and freedom over the subject of the dominion and might of God. Themes of slavery and freedom are more tangible and more easily applied to the societal injustices we face today. Yet, if we skip over the God parts we risk not fulfilling our main obligation of the Passover seder, which is to tell the story of the Exodus. A story, where it is hard to ignore God. The biblical commandment of how to observe Passover calls on us to, “tell your child on that day, saying, ‘Because of that which God did for me when I went out from Egypt.” (Exodus 13:8) According to this text God is the main protagonist, God is the mover and shaker, leaving Moses, Pharoah, the Egyptians, and the Israelites all in supporting roles.

If we were to look through our haggadah we may find that theirs is actually too much God to ignore.

The text says, “Adonai Brought Us Out of Egypt with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm and with great awe and with signs and wonders.” The imagery of God using God’s strong outstretched arm and strong hand is frequently repeated. God is behind the 10 plagues according to the haggadah, “These are the 10 plagues that the holy one of blessing brought upon the Egyptians of Egypt.” God is the star of one of the famous Passover songs, Dayeinu. The core message being that of God’s might. “If he had brought us out of Egypt and not brought judgment upon them…Dayeinu (it would have been enough…” You know the song…it keeps listing all the ways in with Gods help we were able to get out of Egypt and then the song expands reminding us that it would have been enough if God had given us Shabbat (dayeinu). It would have been enough if God had given us the Torah…dayeinu!

So what do our modern and perhaps skeptical minds do with these notions of God as miracle worker, God as punisher, God as mighty?

One option may be to simply say, “that was then and this is now.” God no longer reveals Godself in our world and in our time. Therefore, it is up to us to bring about redemption to those who are not yet free. Yet, when we hold that line of thinking we make the assumption that God only reveals Godself through signs and wonders and through reward and punishment. If we don’t see those things today then God must not exist, but what if divine presence and divine acts exist in different ways and what our haggadah present is how our ancestors saw and experienced God.

None of us may truly know what God is really like. We can only interpret, make assumptions, and experience. This how we as humans cope with and manage something that is ineffable. Dr. David Arnow argues that the haggadah’s, “theological polemic likely comes as a response to beliefs within and beyond Judaism that recognized the existence of more than one supernatural actor carrying out pivotal events in Jewish history.” Meaning our Exodus story was an attempt by our ancient ancestors to make sense of events that were inexplicable. They believed and were committed to the notion that God is an active God, that God had the power to shape the course of human events, and that there are times that God must act in ways that are harmful. If we see the haggadah as a recounting of our ancestors understanding of how God works in the world then the descriptors for God can be seen as metaphor. God may not have an arm and a hand, but this is the language our ancestors chose to describe God. This is how they knew how to speak about God.

So when we read the text we can view it as the mindset of those who came before us. The words of our haggadah are how they understood what happened in Egypt. Our task at the seder then is to discuss how we make sense of what they concluded about God and God’s actions. We then have the sacred opportunity to offer our own gloss just as generations of Jews have done before us.

Our Rabbinic ancestors did just this. They suggested that God is only as powerful as our willingness to acknowledge God. In a commentary on this topic they wrote, “When you are my witness, I am God, but when you are not MY witnesses, I am not God, as it were.” Or put another way, “God saves us, but acknowledgment of God provides redemption.” So imagine reading from the haggadah as witness to what happened in Egypt, as witness to the plagues, as witness to the parting of the red-sea. When we witness something it is our role to take note, to acknowledge, to be present to the events that are occurring. We are not called to pass judgment. We are just called to pay attention and in doing so perhaps we can see God in a different way. We can imagine the pain God must have felt to see God’s children, “the Israelites” enslaved. The work they endured everyday. Their powerlessness in the face of the Egyptians.

Perhaps, God felt helpless for decades until God said, “Dayeinu” and decided to intervene. We can imagine the look on God’s face when the Egyptians were drowning in the sea. Our Rabbis certainly did, and as a result wrote a midrash that says God scolded the angels who wanted to sing while the Egyptians were drowning. God cries out, “The works of My hands are downing in the sea, and you would sing in My presence!” When we go through the haggadah as witness we don’t have to judge whether it happened or it didn’t, whether God was fair or not, all we have to do is be present and experience. And in witnessing perhaps being open to seeing the many faces. God’s glory and God’s pain.

For those challenged by God in the haggadah, who identify as atheists or those who can’t make sense of an all powerful God, a punishing God, a non-compassionate God, or a God who we just can’t possibly believe could make frogs rain down from the sky there is the option to skip over the parts you don’t understand or agree with. Or you could choose to find a haggadah that meets your own personal theological needs.

However, if you don’t want to make that choice or if you feel connected to the traditional text you can wrestle with has been passed down you can choose to look at it through a new lens.

When we risk seeing God and the Passover story in new ways we leave room for the possibility of coming out of our seders with new insight …we leave room to maybe even come out as new people…changed by what we have experienced. We can be curious observers of our ancestors, analyzing their interpretation of God and how they thought to make sense of all the events that unfolded in the story. We can zoom out and act as witnesses to God as main protagonist. We can stretch our logical and intellectual minds to see what might be revealed to us. The Kotzker Rebbe teaches, “Where is God? Wherever we let God in.” May we enter Passover this year with our hearts and minds open to the retelling of our people’s journey from a narrow place to an expanded place filled with possibility.

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