For almost two years now, I have spent my Thursday mornings at a local synagogue, joining them for Torah study. It’s been a wonderfully rich experience for me to study the Bible with my Jewish older cousins of the faith. Their wisdom steeped in centuries of ancient tradition has given me a whole other perspective from which to understand scriptures our two religions both revere as God’s Word to be read, trusted, and lived out. Just as important to me have been the new friendships I’ve made with my Jewish neighbors. I’ve come to admire their dedication to be faithful Jews within the framework of a religion that contains so much beauty, mystery, and meaning.
So a few weeks ago as I was walking out of Torah study, one of my classmates asked, “Chris, do you have someplace to go for the holidays?” He was asking about Passover. I loved the way he asked that. I’m a non-Jew– a Christian, a Gentile. Of course I’m homeless for the holidays! When I replied that I had no plans, he and his wife invited me to their Seder. I happily agreed.
As a Christian, I have been somewhat familiar with the Passover Seder. After all, our sacrament of Eucharist (The Lord’s Table), derives from the Seder celebrated by Jesus and his disciples. There are the scriptures from Exodus which lay out the requirement for Israel to observe the Festival of Passover with unleavened bread, bitter herbs, lamb, and a recollection of God’s deliverance of the Hebrews from their bondage in Egypt. Several years ago at a previous church, we put together and held a Seder meal, based on a Haggadah (the Seder ritual book) and experiences of members who have Jewish family members.
But I knew this would be different. This was the real deal- the Seder meal of a Jewish family, something which they have inherited and practiced over their lifetimes down through the lifetimes of countless generations. I was really looking forward to a treat like this.
My son Jacob and I ended up going together. I wasn’t sure how Jacob would do. He’s 8-years-old and has Down syndrome. There would be a lot of people, commotion, and food and rituals he didn’t know over a long, late night. For my son, that could very well have been a recipe for disaster.
The evening came and we arrived at my friends’ home to the rich smells of food cooking and the mirth of a house full of family and guests. Hor d’oeuvres, drinks, and conversation filled our first hour. Lots of last-minute cooking preparations were brewing in the kitchen with women rushing here and there to take food out of the oven and fill platters. Kids were hanging out together munching on vegetables, matzo, and various dips.
About an hour later, folks started to gather around several tables pushed together to accommodate about 25 people for the Seder. Plates, silverware, napkins, glasses, platters and bowls with matzo, maror, charoset, and salt water were all meticulously arranged and set. Copies of the Haggadah were stacked on each end of the tables. Like typical families, there were intense negotiations around who would sit where and who was serving what. Once settled, the Passover candles were lit, and we began reading through the Haggadah.
Reading through the Seder Haggadah was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced as a Christian. It was highly scripted. Certain things are done and said at prescripted times. And yet, as with any family gathering, the kids got the giggles, sometimes we got confused about who was reading what, and the occasional, “Hey, you’re not supposed to drink your wine right then!” Yet the whole thing rolled along with a force and intentionality that had the weight of centuries behind us. It was the perfect blend of unmovable tradition with family dynamic eccentricities.
It took about an hour to work our way through the Haggadah leading up to the meal. Jacob was doing amazingly well. Other than a soda, he hadn’t had a bite to eat. I couldn’t convince him to try any matza, and I didn’t even bother getting him to try bitter herbs or charoset! By this point we were well beyond our regular dinner time and even creeping past his bed time. I felt a melt-down on its way when finally we were served a very traditional hard-boiled egg which we were encouraged to eat with salt water. Jacob ate some of that. Then came the matzo ball soup. I wasn’t sure Jacob would eat it, and he wasn’t either, but by this time, rubbing his belly and beginning to cry, I think he would have tried just about anything. Jacob devoured the soup!
Then the meal proper was served. It was the largest family meal I have ever seen. Like any traditional family meal, every dish was a revered family recipe highly anticipated for Passover. There were four different meats, several traditional Jewish vegetable dishes, salads, plenty of wine, and deserts.
Following the meal there are traditionally many other prayers, including two more cups of wine, but this family typically doesn’t get around to that. No matter. Their obligation to keep the Passover- eating matza, maror, and offering the pesach- were kept and fulfilled. We remembered God’s faithfulness and God’s power to save his people time and again.
It was very late when Jacob I left. My friends’ house was still filled with family and guests eating desert and enjoying each others’ company. But the feelings from the deep impression that Seder made on my mind and heart still linger. It was a rich evening in every respect, and long into the night I kept thinking about how my son and I were swept up into a tradition that dates back to Moses and the Israelites in Egypt.
Much has changed with the Seder through the centuries, especially after the destruction of the Temple right before the turn of the first century C.E. Even as I try to imagine Jesus and his disciples having their Seder the night before he was crucified, I know that the ritual Jews follow today is substantially different from what first century Jews practiced. Some of the prayers and practices, the liturgy, and even the foods are different. One major difference is that Jews today rarely if ever use lamb for their Seder, even though the Bible commands it. With the exception of a roasted shank bone on the Seder plate, the absence of lamb is out of respect for the absence of the pascal sacrifices which discontinued after the destruction of the Temple.
Still, I sensed the emergence of a long, long tradition of prayer, questions, telling the story, eating unleavened bread and bitter herbs, psalms and songs, the strains of which stretch back through the millennia. The effort alone, based on the biblical obligation to keep the Passover festival and to keep it holy, which has been kept sacred through Israel’s long, long history, carried through times of peace, persecution, homecoming and exile, even the horrific devastation of the Holocaust- the holy commitment to keep the Passover has remained unchanged. The power of it surged to yet another incarnation with an annual Seder meal within one more Jewish home, a perpetual meal in which Jacob and I shared a taste, on that first night of Passover.
One last thought: at the great banquet table of God at the end of time, I would like to think that in addition to our celebration and singing, there would be plenty of wine, charoset, potato kugel, brisket, and my friend Joyce’s sweet potato tzimmes on the table. Short of that, their Seder was most definitely a slice of heaven.