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eJudaism: You Had Me At "Bread of Affliction" (Part 4/4)

04/14/2022 06:30:04 AM


Michael Greenfield

This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt; let all who are hungry enter and eat thereof. Here you go, have some bread of affliction. It's great with chunks of horseradish root. We also have greens dipped in the tears of our ancestors and a fruit & nut mixture that looks like mortar. Wait! Come back! We also have a burnt egg! Did I mention we drink four cups of wine?!

Part 4: We're going to need more wine.

The Seder has a narrative arc worthy of the Greek playwrights which mirrors the story of the Exodus. We frontload all the suffering, break for a meal, and then never look back. In Act I, Exposition, we set the stage. Because we were slaves unto Pharaoh in Egypt.... In the Confrontation of Act II we literally eat bitterness and tears and affliction like an epigenetic attempt to absorb our people's traumas. A festive and delicious meal - as required by the Haggadah - is the pivot that takes us to Act III's Resolution as the whole thing rises steadily toward the climax with a third cup of wine, songs of praise, a fourth cup of wine, and finally the beer-hall showstoppers - Chad Gadya and Who Knows One? - celebrating God, ancestors, covenant and Torah. Next year in Jerusalem!

Jews were telling their own stories for centuries before the Greeks showed up, but Greek influence on Jewish life became significant in all kinds of ways (I'm looking at you, Chanukah), and particularly so with regard to the Seder which has Greek fingerprints all over it (discourse, drinks & dinner = symposium, afikomen = epikomion, the reclining posture, etc.). But Jews and Greeks part ways about comedies vs. tragedies. Those were two different things for the ancient Greeks. For Jews, they are inextricably braided in life, in art, and in the Seder.

If the Seder is dinner and a movie, what kind of movie is the Haggadah? A heartwarming, underdog story? Walter Matthau takes a scrappy bunch of slaves from last place to the first Seder in...The Bad News Jews? Or maybe it's a RomCom? They've known each other since Abraham, but they just can't seem to get along until Pharaoh saying You can't! gets God and the Jews saying I do! in...Sleepless in the Sinai? The happy endings are there, but something's missing, right?

I'll tell you what's missing - real, consequential, devastating tragedy. Nobody mixes happy and sad quite like we do. Back in Act I, we told of Egyptians drowning our male babies and then we ate the bitterness of slavery because that's how we roll. Don't worry - we'll wash it down with sweet, sweet wine. We inevitably choose, as is the Jewish custom, to build our happiness upon the monuments of our sadness and wash away the bitter edges with the sweetness of wine (I'm looking at you, Purim). That's a choice that Judaism made, and not just because we didn't have any other kind of wine (could we not at least have come up with Port or even Moscato?!).

What we chose, what Judaism always chooses, what the Seder reminds us to choose each year, is simple even if it's not easy. It's this: We carry every tragedy of our people inside our very bodies, we remember what Pharaoh did to us, to US, when WE were slaves in Egypt, and we remember when God brought us, US!, forth from Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and WE learn from Psalms to gladden our hearts with wine, and at the end of the night we are singing in freedom as we celebrate redemption. Bread of affliction? Bring it on! I will happily eat my share of sadness because I've been to this party before and I know where it ends. It ends in song - beautiful, joyous, empowering, holy song.

May you find meaning in your celebration this Pesach, may you taste the joy of the holiday, and may your cup overflow with the sweetness of freedom.

Chag sameach, happy Passover, a zissen Pesach!

Sun, May 26 2024 18 Iyyar 5784