Break the habit
It happens every Friday night. It happens on the Holy Days too. I look out at the congregation and – even if I close my eyes – I would know where certain people are sitting. There are those who always sit on the right. Those who always sit in the back. Those who will do anything for an aisle.
Classrooms – even without assigned seating – are the same way. Students come in on the first day, sit down, and will likely be in that same seat on the last day of the semester. If someone comes in early and sits in “my” seat, the class just doesn’t feel right. Through a process of experiments, scientists have labeled this “the status quo bias” which is just an elaborate way of saying that we are creatures of habit.
We see this in many settings, including our choice of haggadah for the Pesach seder. Many of us still have that box of Maxwell House haggadahs and look forward to using them every year. Or we look to the haggadah that we used when we were children and, motivated by nostalgia, purchased when we first started holding our own sedarim. And whoever leads the seder usually uses the haggadah in the same way every year – a comforting ritual for family and friends to anticipate. Suggesting that we give up that haggadah, or even change it elicits the same kind of reaction that occurs when we sit in someone else’s seat in class or in synagogue.
While we are a people who thrives on tradition, we should ask ourselves in this instance if we are holding onto tradition too much. The elements of the haggadah, of course, are unchanging. But how we interpret them, how we discuss and understand them, cannot be unchanging or else we miss the very essence of the seder. The rabbis in fact taught that the recitation of “the” four questions occurs if the children at the table lack the understanding or curiosity to ask their own questions. The implication is that if independent, unique questions are asked by children, the traditional ma nishtanah is unnecessary.
In a turbulent year, with ever changing news, the imperative to understand and re-create our experience of redemption in the light of current events is more important than ever. If we only follow the printed word, recite the familiar words, and sing our favorite songs, than Judaism is reduced to mere ritual, and not a way of life, a guide for living. If we don’t deviate from the traditional word and ask what the story of our redemption teaches us about immigration, hunger, freedom, the environment, than the seder is diminished – more like a precious object on a shelf than a living experience. This isn’t to say there is a ‘right’ answer to how the words of the seder apply to society today – just that discussion itself is essential to truly understanding and experiencing the Exodus from Egypt.
The standard guideline for family gatherings these days seems to be “don’t talk about the news” and “don’t raise anything that might be subject to disagreement.” Sitting around the seder table is the time to do exactly the opposite – with respect. What in today’s world sits like maror, bitterness, on your tongue? “Let all who are hungry come and eat” . . . does the Haggadah mean “all”? Do we? How do we invite “all”? We sing “dayeinu” - it would have been enough. But when it comes to issues facing our world, can we say that just one achievement “is enough?” Why does the child not know how to ask? What makes someone unable to ask? We celebrate our ancestors who were in such a hurry to leave that they didn’t have time for the bread to rise. How do others feel when forced to leave even a place of violence? Questions like these bring the story of our tradition into partnership with the story of the world. That’s what it is to be a Jew.
Rabbinically Speaking is published as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Tampa Rabbinical Association which assigns the column on a rotating basis.