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The Seder As a Jewish National Mall

Posted on February 28, 2018

I love walking around the National Mall in Washington, DC. When visiting the monuments and memorials of great leaders like Jefferson, Lincoln, F.D.R. and King, you can read their words that inspired a nation. Whether the Gettysburg Address or a quote from the “I Have a Dream” speech, we can experience the words that helped shape a nation. One cannot help but be inspired by the history coming alive to remind us. But these monuments are more than just tributes to the past. According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, they share our national narrative and remind us that we are a covenanted nation.

To understand the relevance of the quotes on the monuments in the National Mall, just look at the monuments found in London, and in particular in Parliament Square, as being quite different.  On the life-size monuments of David Lloyd George (Prime Minister during WWI), Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela, the only words contained are their names. While this difference between the British and American monuments to our national heroes may not seem like much, Rabbi Sacks suggests that the differences reflect a fundamental difference between the “tradition-based society” of England and the “covenantal society” of America.   

Founded more than a millennium ago, as many people have experienced, England is a “this is how we have always done it” society and is a place where tradition holds great power.  Therefore, it is unnecessary to ask why. According to Sacks, “Those who belong know. Those who need to ask show thereby that they do not belong.” America, on the other hand, was founded as a covenantal nation. From the Pilgrims on, those who settled here did so by and large for purposes of religious freedom, personal autonomy from a monarchy and the rejection of a class system that benefited the elite. From its very beginnings, America was founded with a narrative of purpose and it is the sharing of that narrative that reminds us of our core values. Our earliest founders invoked the covenant of the Hebrew Bible as their mandate for creating a new order and such societies create narratives of purpose to tell the story of what they are about. When we walk the National Mall, we experience our national narrative and are reminded of the covenant that directs us toward a special purpose.

Approximately 3,500 years ago, the original inspiration for religious and personal freedom took place. It is the story of the Israelites who left the tyranny of Egypt to create a nation that was founded on principles quite different from anything else that existed at that time. While not the utopian society (slavery was still accepted and women’s rights still insufficient), it lived by a mandate that all people were made in the image of God. Other than a priesthood to lead the cultic life of the people, there was no distinction of classes; there was one law for all people. The Exodus is the foundational story of the Jewish narrative. It describes our struggle from slavery, the foundational structure of laws that reflect God’s will and the trials and tribulations that occurred on our journey to freedom.

While we invoke the Exodus in our daily prayers and it is a major theme of Shabbat, it is on Passover that we relive the experience. If the Jewish people were to have a National Mall, the Exodus would be the central feature. We spend time at the Passover seder not just reminding ourselves that we were slaves (this would be like the monuments in London), but rather we remember why freedom is important and what we should do with our freedom. Like the monuments on the National Mall, we tell our story. Passover is one of the key moments when we reflect on the Jewish covenantal relationship with God and with the world. It is no accident that we have so often carried the torch for religious and personal freedom. The Exodus has defined so much of what the Jewish people are about. Yes, it is a time for family, but more importantly, it is one of our covenantal ceremonies. The stories (and talking about the stories) are essential to the experience.

What does your seder look like?

Is it more like the monuments in London that remember the moment but not its significance? Or, is it like a stroll through the National Mall in Washington, DC that allows a reliving of a foundational experience? Without our covenantal narrative, we lose our sense of purpose, whether as Americans or as Jews.

In the coming weeks as you prepare for your Passover seder, may you reflect on ways to relive the covenantal experience at your meal. Tell the story of the Exodus in a way that will allow our national narrative to instill purpose into the Jewish people and to all those around your seder table. 

—Rabbi Stewart L. Vogel

 

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