05/29/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Passover Seder: Stay For A While

Last year, when newly elected President Barack Obama hosted the first presidential Passover Seder meal for family, friends and staff at the White House, the entire Jewish world, all thirteen or so million of them, collectively plotzed.

This year Obama is doing it again, even though he isn't Jewish, and so of course he's not required to rehash all that ancient history each Passover so that his descendants, the next generation, will learn and remember the time when the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt and, after 400 years, became free. There are times when I wonder if the entire Passover Seder as put forth in the Haggadah - the retelling of the Biblical story, the re-telling of the rabbinic re-telling of the re-telling, the four glasses of wine, and the many morality lessons that have found their way into recapping the Exodus from Egypt - is even necessary for Jews. In the Bible, the commandment is to slaughter and eat an animal sacrifice, along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. And don't dawdle! "With your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and ye shall eat it in haste: it is the LORD's passover" (Exodus 12:11).

The 21st century Passover Seder is anything but hasty. There are 15 parts to it, corresponding to the 15 steps in the Temple in Jerusalem, on which the Levites, referred to in the fifteen Psalms of 120-134, "Songs of Ascent," Shir HaMa'alot, stood during Temple services. Our loins are girded for a good, long while.

I understand how, especially with a story like the Exodus, slowly, over time, interpretations and songs pile up. Rabbi Azariah thinks it would be nice to discuss why the Exodus should be recited at night, and then Ben Zoma weighs in with his opinion, and in the meantime, you have to keep the kids occupied so you can get through the recitation of the plagues, and so you hide some matzah for them to find, and you engage them by having them ask four questions about why this night is different than other nights, and soon enough, you've got a much bigger narrative than the one that you started out with.

In the only 21 years in which I've been celebrating Passover as a Jew, we've incorporated a little bit of this, a little bit of that and, while at its core is the story of leaving Egypt, our Seder has also become fat with our individual stories and traditions and inside jokes. Our guests have come to expect certain things that are not found in the Haggadah. We'll play the game, "I'm leaving Egypt and I'm bringing with me...", and each person has to recite what he or she is bringing, as well as what everyone else who came before is bringing. We'll talk about slavery, and what we're a slave to in the world in which we live. There will be Passover plagues on the table, and I'll ask the kids to hold them up during the recitation of plagues. There's our "matzah man" doll with the brown mustache and beard who sings "The Matzah Man" song in a horrible Brooklyn accent. The cover I use for the afikomen (the matzah that's broken off to hide), is a tie-dyed pillow case that my son Daniel, now 15, made when he was in nursery school. We'll lean against pillows, in accordance with tradition, to indicate that we're not slaves, we're at ease. On the pillowcases, the four questions are embroidered in Hebrew, courtesy of my non-Jewish mother. In addition to the usual Haggadahs and Seder plate, I'll pull out some of our children's old Haggadahs and Seder plates that they decorated when they were in pre-school or Kindergarten, and place them on the table.

My Seder table, like everyone else's, is a blend of our own individual narratives and stories and the national story that we retell. It's a place where the quite distant past and our more recent past meet our present. Where I can feel that just as Elijah's cup of wine represents Elijah's presence in our home, so do my children's Haggadahs, made when they were five and six years old, bring them back home for the holidays, though they are far away in college now. It's a place where, over food and wine, the big, universal concepts can be freely discussed: Freedom. Change. Sacrifice. Memories. God. Salvation. Hope.

This year, I hope that God doesn't just "pass over" our home, in the traditional understanding of the word - that the angel of death passed over the homes of the Hebrews who'd marked their doorposts with lamb's blood. Rather, I hope that God passes over in another interpretation of the word, "Pesach," which is "hovers over, guarding." I hope God stays for a good long while, and isn't hasty in leaving.

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