As we sit at the Seder table this year and hear the voice of the young ones singing Ma Nishtana: Why is this night different from all the other nights? we may not be aware that our minds also wander to the concealed “twin question” of Ma Nishtana: How is this Seder similar to all the other Seders? Our memories roam through the different Sedarim that constitute our Jewish biographies: Seders that we have celebrated at different locations, with different people: family, friends or strangers, in different stages of our lives. The night of Pesah has been perceived as a different night from the very inception of that holiday when God said to Moses: “Toward midnight I will go forth among the Egyptians” (Exodus 12: 4) and when Pharaoh called upon Moses and Aaron in the night and said, “Up depart from my people, you and the Israelites with you!” (Exodus 12: 31). The essence of Pesah is being a different night.
And yet, what makes the Seder such a unique and powerful educational and spiritual event is specifically its similarity to other Seders celebrated throughout Jewish history and throughout our own personal biography. This, I believe, is the secret of the Seder as both the most widespread and the most pluralistic fulfillment of a ritual mitzvah in the Jewish world today. Seders embody the Jewish principles of continuity and renewal, tradition and change. Ironically, we celebrate our personal and national freedom and hopes for redemption through the psychologically binding ties of our tradition(s). This complexity explains the unprecedented phenomenon of Jewish cultural creativity demonstrated in the infinite types of Sedarim and Haggadot that have evolved over the past century. Jews who promoted different revolutionary ideologies chose to express their visions within the traditional framework of the Seder.
The following memoir written by Yehudit Tzentner (a Second Aliya pioneer) about a Seder that Aharon David Gordon conducted at Sharona (located west of the Kinneret) during World War I (1916) demonstrates the creative tension between difference and similarity, and continuity and renewal within the first generation of Labor Zionists.
Passover has arrived. The first night of Passover for many of us in the Land [of Israel]. A. D. Gordon who has been working with us in the farm for the past three quarters of a year promised to conduct a Seder. A day before the holiday we took out festive shirts from the men’s suitcases and ironed them for the holiday. For the Seder we took out sheets and scarves and all the white cloths that were in the women’s suitcases. We decorated the hall a little bit, covered the tables with white sheets, and set the table according to custom. We lit candles and placed a pillow so that A. D. Gordon, the King of the Seder could recline, as in our parents’ homes. The light of the candles and the appearance of the table created an atmosphere of festive tension and sadness.
Members of the community started gathering. The scene aroused strong feelings of longing and more than one member turned pale and turned away with tears in his eyes. Before the eyes of each and every one of us was the set table at home across the sea, the faces of our fathers, mothers and family members, our own empty seat at the table, and the prayers and longings our families were feeling for us at that particular moment. Hidden strings vibrated in that hall from the each of hearts to “there” from “there” to us. The downcast members silently milled around. A. D. Gordon sat at the end of the table, his hand covering his face. That’s how they sat for a long time without moving a limb.
The hour was late. A. D. Gordon felt there was no energy to conduct the ‘Seder’. He said: “Friends, let’s eat!” We went straight to the meal, during which A. D. Gordon gradually introduced the spirit of the Seder. He incorporated verses from the Haggagah and the Midrash, spoke about the value of Passover in general and the symbol of Passover in our lives. He spoke of our lives, our suffering and our longing. What’s the value of this suffering? What’s the value of this longing? “This suffering,” he said, “is our lot. This suffering is our privilege. By its merit we will acquire our world. We cannot, at this point estimate the greatness of our tiniest deed and its purpose.” He started to sing softly and everyone joined in. Then the holiday finally began. We danced until the morning light. (Yehudit Tzentner, ‘The Path of a Woman Laborer’ Dvar HaPoelet, 3 (1) 1936, p. 6)
Gordon’s principle of applying traditional ritual to modern secular reality was thus intuitive and emotional. When he saw that Jewish ritual expanded people’s sense of connection to themselves, to their immediate community, to their nation and the entire universe, he incorporated it. When he recognized that in a particular context a ritual seems immoral or irrelevant, he omitted it. His conducting that Seder reflected this sensitivity. Participants were so heartbroken from the hardships of life (during WWI the Yishuv had suffered expulsions, poverty and hunger) and from desperately missing their dear ones. They could not, on their own, find the energy to create something new based on the old memories of their family seders. Yet, Gordon as the leader of that community had to look for that energy within himself. He transformed the Seder in Sharona from a non-Seder, barely a communal meal of heartbroken individuals, into a model Seder where the deeper perception of freedom and the Exodus from Egypt penetrated the hearts and the minds of all of the participants. At the Seder this year, may we all as leaders of the seder or as participants find the inspiration to combine memories of our past seders with our visions of liberation and hopes for a better future for ourselves, the Jewish People, the State of Israel and humanity.