Just before the end of the Maggid, the storytelling section of the Seder, we read a famous statement of Rabban Gamliel which has its source in the Mishna.
Rabban Gamliel hayah omer: Rabban Gamliel used to say that anyone who does not mention these three things on Pesach has not fulfilled the obligation. Which are these? Pesach (the symbol of the Pesach sacrifice), Matzaand Maror(Bitter Herbs).
I have always wondered why Rabban Gamliel would have been so insistent on saying it so often (the language: hayah omer, rather than the simple past tense amars eems to imply that he said it quite often). How could he think that we would have reached that point in the Seder and not have thought to refer to these three basic Pesach symbols?
I believe that the statement fulfills a very important function, especially in our world today.
When we sit down at the Seder, we are asked to remember a story which, despite our attempts to personalize the experience of slavery and redemption, is still ancient history. We only need to go as far as the front page of today’s newspaper or the lead story on a news website to know that the issues of hatred and suspicion, persecution, slavery, welcoming strangers or failing to do so, seeking hope among the darkness of oppression and so many of the other themes of the holiday are still at issue today.
It is impossible to consider sitting at the Seder table in 2019 without confronting some of these issues. How we can gather without reading our issues into the rituals of the Seder and, in fact, without adding our own rituals to reflect today’s vital questions?
And, we should do this. If we didn’t, we would be missing a great opportunity to have the wisdom of the past shed light on our lives today.
So, I am all in favor of talking about contemporary issues at the Seder.
But, I want to offer a caveat.
While we can and do discuss the burning of issues today each and every day, how often do we have the opportunity to talk about the Exodus itself and its role in our history and theology? Our rabbis tell us we should remember the Exodus from Egypt every day and every night. But, how many of us really do that?
My point here is that we should be very careful not to focus our Seders only on today’s issues. We should discuss them and commit ourselves to the values of our tradition which teach us to care for the stranger, to fight oppression wherever it is found and to never lose hope in a better world.
But, if these Seder evenings are our best opportunity each year to celebrate tradition, find meaning in ancient texts and rituals and truly appreciate the taste of the matza and maror, we must make the most of the opportunity.
Like everything else in life, the Seder takes balance. If you are leading a Seder, be stubborn in bringing the discussion back to Egypt as often as you can. If you are participating, try to find a way to appreciate the traditions for what they tell us about our eternal past.
Rabban Gamliel shared his teaching about the Seder often (“he used to say”). I wonder if he said it not only year after year but more than once during the course of each Seder evening when participants were focusing too deeply on the issues of the day. So, perhaps we should say a few times at each of our Seders, reminding ourselves the essential reason we are together on that special night: to remember the foundational story in the history of our people.