As someone who has spent over forty years as a Jewish educator, I have always been fascinated by the Pesach seder. In fact, I have often said that it is the most perfect "lesson plan" ever created. The seder, when planned and done well, is truly "experiential education" at its best. It makes use of all five senses, the imagination, the mind (both the right and left sides of the brain), and the heart. I have seen this encounter engage toddlers, teens, parents, and grandparents – all at the same time – speaking to each one at a level appropriate for that person.
Furthermore, the seder is not just an event that takes place and is then forgotten. Over the years, I have come to realize that people who know little about Jewish history or Torah can somehow draw on their Passover memories and tell the story of the Exodus with some credibility. In other words, the "lesson plan" is not simply entertaining and interesting . . . it works!
Additionally, the seder is not simply an educational success, it is also among the most popular American Jewish practices. According to the Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews1, published in October, 2013, 70% of American Jews participated in a seder in that past year. So the Passover learning experience is of interest to large numbers of us.
Another reality, however, is that while many of us find a way to partake of the seder, most of us do not also avail ourselves of the opportunity to attend Pesach worship services either on the holiday itself or on the Shabbat that occurs during the seven (or eight) days of the festival. Those who do not extend their Pesach observance to include these services, of course, do not hear the special Torah readings for the holiday.
There is a Torah portion ascribed by tradition for each of the festival days, including the intermediate Shabbat. I would like to explore the Torah reading assigned for Shabbat Chol HaMo-eid Pesach (the Sabbath that occurs in the middle of Passover). This reading comes from the Book of Exodus (33:12-34:26) and is a part of Parashat Ki Tisa. Included in this short section we find Moses asking God to reveal God's Self and God's Essence to him; God's response to Moses's request; God's restoration of the covenant; the creation of a new set of tablets to replace the broken tablets; and some of the terms of the covenant. This latter section contains the commandment to observe three festivals – Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot – providing the connection to the Shabbat that occurs during Passover.
In reading this section of Torah this year, I found myself most interested in the portion in which God reveals God's Self to Moses. When Moses says "Oh, let me behold Your Presence!" (33:18). God responds as follows:
"I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name Eternal, and the grace that I grant and the compassion I show," continuing, "But you cannot see My face, for a human being may not see Me and live." And the Eternal said, "See, there is a place near Me. Station yourself on the rock and, as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back: but my face must not be seen." (33:19-23).
Clearly, a passage such as this has elicited much commentary over the centuries. While some have argued that this anthropomorphic vision of God is literal, I find that the comments of Ibn Ezra2 and Gersonides3 make the most sense to me. Both of them argue that this revelation is metaphorical. According to Gersonides, "My back" means: "the events that I leave in My wake." Ibn Ezra makes it clear that, while the Torah often speaks of God in human terms, God has no face, back, or mouth. He quotes Saadia4 who says that seeing God's back means "You will see the end of My light, but you cannot see its beginning."
In other words, God put Moses in the cleft of the rock and let him see God's back in order to teach him – and, I believe, us – that while we cannot see God directly, as God has no body, we can "see" God through God's acts in the world. In fact, if we pay attention to God's Creation, we cannot help but "see" God – in the miracle of breathing; in the connections we feel to those we love; in the beauty of a sunset or a snow-capped mountain peak; in the birth of a baby or the quiet death of an elderly person; in the face of a friend. In fact, there is nothing in our experience that is alien from experiencing God if we chose to perceive the world that way. The problem is, however, that we don't usually make that choice – we do not regularly "tune in."
This brings me back to the seder. Is it possible that this assigned portion of the Torah is there to suggest that the experience at the Passover table is actually designed to push us toward recognition of God in our midst? Could it be that the seder puts us metaphorically in the cleft of a rock so we pay attention to all the hints of God's actual Presence? Is the seder not just a lesson plan, but also a chance to use our senses to hear sweet music; see the faces of those we love; taste and smell the foods that God (and, of course, the person who cooked them!) created; touch the many shapes and textures of the ritual items; and understand the miracles God performed for our ancestors and us? All of these are manifestations of God.
I don't know why I read this familiar section of the Torah with fresh eyes this year. But from now on, I will not only view the seder as a model of how to learn about our past, but I will also see it as an opportunity to connect even more closely to God as I focus on all the wonderful acts God has performed in order to give us a pathway to God's very Presence!
- A Portrait of Jewish Americans: Findings from a Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews (Washington, D. C.: Pew Research Center, 2013), p. 12ff
- Rabbi Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra, philosopher, astronomer/astrologer, poet, mathematician and Torah commentator, Spain, 1089-1164
- Levi ben Gerson or RaLBaG, philosopher, Talmudist, mathematician, France, 1288-1344
- Saadia ben Yosef Gaon, rabbi, philosopher, and Torah commentator, Egypt and Baghdad, 882-942
I used to love having two s'darim. They offered us the opportunity to host over 50 people (both sides of the family and plenty of friends), enjoy my Mom's great cooking twice, sing traditional and contemporary melodies with my brother on guitar, and be led in a lesson about Passover by Dad, a social studies teacher. But everything changed once my own kids reached double digits.
Knowing that according to our own Reform tradition, there is in fact no obligation to have a second seder since we only consider the first day of Pesach to be holy, we struggled to make the experience relevant and engaging for our children. Whether we tried to sing a newer version of "Take me out of Egypt . . . " or invited the kids to write and share their own reflections on freedom, that second night just seemed stale. So we did away with second night . . . kind of.
Barbara and I looked to Maimonides' injunction, "In every generation, each person is to see themself as if they went out of Egypt" (Mishneh Torah, Z'manim, Chameitz U'matzah, Chapter 7) as a mandate to make redemption real. How could you leave Egypt while sitting at your dining room table with brisket, turkey, four types of charoset, and heirloom silverware? It was hard enough to be redeemed on the first night, let alone the second night, with leftover food and already-recited passages. All we wanted to do on the second night was to redeem the world and have a simple piece of matzah just as our ancestors did on their way to redemption.
We experience redemption every first day of Pesach by leaving Temple after services and going out to redeem the world in a women's shelter, old age home, medical equipment distribution center, recovery house, and so on. And then, we sit down at the table for dinner, the same table where we held seder the night before, but with much less pageantry. With leftovers abounding and a seder plate in front of us, we ask each other, what can these symbols mean to us for the redemption we tried to realize today? Among the best answers I've heard is one offered when we pointed to the shank bone and asked, "What is the meaning of this shank bone?" Without missing a beat, one of our kids said, "That bone represents the osteoporosis of the women in the shelter we met today. They don't have the proper nutrients to thrive."
Chol HaMo-eid Pesach, Exodus 33:12-34:26
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 657-661; Revised Edition, pp. 592-596;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 508-512