Larchmont Temple Chevra Torah

Questioning faith in the parsha

Seder and memory

Paradoxical, the institution of remembrance. Remembering is being reminded of the past in the present, but those who prescribed a ritual of remembrance were seeking to have their descendants remember the present in the future.

The first seder held the promise of all future seders. It sought to give meaning for all time not just to one of the great founding narratives – the flight from Egypt – but to the fact of Jewishness. It celebrated and defined the covenantal community.

Looking at it another way, the redactors seized a moment in the past as a lodestone or compass for the future. And at the time, they were concerned as much with excluding as with including. But this was at the same time a major step forward in the definition of community, which from then on consisted  of a group who ate together, who prayed together, where both eating and praying honour God, honour life.

This was also a step forward from the primitivism of the blood bond: the blood smeared on the doorposts recalling the blood of circumcision smeared on the feet of Moses, which protected him and his family from God’s violence…

So perhaps now in 2011 we would want to emphasize who can be included in and not excluded from the seder. Who, after all, would now claim that only the circumcised can partake? No doubt the orthodox, who do not merely remember the past but are trapped in it.

Can we remember and honour our collective past without being trapped by it: return to who we were while becoming who we are to be?



One response to “Seder and memory

  1. IrvZuckerman January 11, 2011 at 4:26 pm

    Other times, other Seders: Chaplain Chillington — The Yarmulke and the Crucifix
    Word was passed down the line that there would be a Passover Seder back at Battalion HQ. Like many trickles becoming a stream, individual dark shapes in steel pots with rifles slung, left their squads to merge into platoons, which, in turn, took the form of what appeared to be a company of men, filing into a huge pyramidal tent set up for the event. Hanging from the support lines were dozens of lanterns, their lights reflected by a huge, silver candelabra centered at the head table. That’s right! Tables! Chairs! We hadn’t sat at tables since we left England, weeks and weeks ago. And when had each of us last seen, let alone dined off, a tablecloth? Clearly, they were hospital sheets, but damask could have done no better in setting off the greatest miracle of all – plates of matzoh and bottles of red wine! Now where did that come from?
    In fact, where had we all come from? Were there that many Jews in the outfit? ‘Couldn’t have been. Unlike the Catholics and the Protestants, we never had a front-line service, so there was no way to even estimate our numbers. I hadn’t even seen a Jewish chaplain. But Passover, more than any other observance – even the High Holidays – had a way of reminding those who were born Jewish that they were once again Jews, if only for the occasion. Or perhaps it was the promise of a good meal. Come to think of it, I was pretty hungry – as were, probably, most of us. Yet, not one hand reached for the plates. The blessing of the wine and the unleavened bread (or the wafer) had not yet come. Talk about the power of belief! Here were men who, that very day had killed and seen others killed. Yet we were all sitting there like children, waiting for permission.
    Permission from whom? From him. No, not God, but His representative here on earth, or at least here in that tent. There he was — six foot and then some of him, his blond, crew cut partially obscured by a black yarmulke, in strange contrast to the crucifix glinting on his collar. Even the warmth of his smile was in strange contrast to his name: Chillington. He was, he told us, the Battalion Chaplain, and he apologized that this would not be a traditional Seder. For one thing, many of the foods were not available. For another, he had promised our company commanders that we would be back ‘at work’ in two hours – tops. He paused for the laugh his terminology had earned, and got it. Then he said he had a confession to make – a number of them in fact.
    First, he said, he had invited to this Seder anyone who cared to come. While we may all be of different faiths, he explained, we were all participating in a Passover to which the Lord has summoned us — to free the enslaved and oppressed peoples of Europe. This means, he said, that everyone in this tent is either a Jew or a Christian, while everyone outside it, was just a Gentile.
    Next he told us that he had finished at the very bottom of his seminary class in the study of Hebrew. Those of us trained in the liturgy might have trouble recognizing the blessings as he spoke them, but he would appreciate a hand whenever he stumbled.
    Last, and he gestured toward a series of vacuum containers stacked on tables at the rear; the dinner is turkey with stuffing. (Appreciative ahhhhhs from all present.) Then he added, ruefully, the news that it was a bread stuffing. (The laughter helped count the number of Jews, who knew that leavening was forbidden.) But his windup – “Let’s be thankful it wasn’t ham.” – was totally understood, judging by the noise level.
    He was right about his execrable rendition of the blessings, but those of us who could, chorused the pronunciation when he got stuck. After a rather tentative session with the candles, the wine and the matzoh, his voice and demeanor took on an air of greater authority. Even his body spoke a different language than the Hebrew he had been struggling with. He had been standing, as I had stood at prayer so many times, feet together, head and shoulders bending over the prayer book from which he had been reading. Now he put the book aside with a gesture that seemed like a signal. As if responding to a command that only he had heard, he assumed the position of ‘parade rest.’ Head erect, shoulders back, his combat boots the regulation twelve inches apart, hands locked behind his back, he waited for our complete attention.
    This was an attitude with which we were all familiar; the stance of the officer in command giving us the orders for whatever action we would soon be taking on. Yet, there was a difference. This man, clearly, held no threat of tomorrow, but there was still the unvoiced wonder at what lay behind this celebration. Even the most recent replacement among us understood that the army never did something for no reason. What other boot was Chillington about to drop?
    I have been privileged to hear many sermons by the great scholars of our faith, but nothing has stayed in my mind as clearly as that Protestant drasch. And no religious has stayed in my mind as clearly as the one who gave it.
    He started with the story of how God had appeared to Moses and told him that he had been chosen to lead his people out of bondage. “This meant,” he said as closely as I can recall the words, “that Moses was no volunteer. God appeared to him and gave him his orders. Like many here, he was drafted. Moses tried to get out of it by claiming he was 4F due to a speech impediment. But he did any way, and, on top of Mount Sinai, God gave hime the Ten Commandments, one of which was, ‘Thou shaly not kill.’
    “We — are — breaking — God’s law,” he continued, pausing between the words for emphasis. “And here I am, a man of God, providing spiritual support for taking life. But unlike most of our countrymen, we have borne personal witness to what has been done and by whom. So let our own guilt for the evil we must do be suspended. Let us absolve ourselves as we resolve ourselves to win this war and come safe home.
    “There is a Seder blessing that says, ‘Next year may we celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem.’ Let us hope by that time that you are all celebrating Passover or Easter or whatever in your own Jerusalem. God bless you and keep you. Amen. Now, let’s chow down.”
    And we did.

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