The Missing Center — Thoughts on the Seder in Memory of My Son Niot

niot pictures 226Haim Watzman
My annual meditation on Pesach and the Seder, in memory of my son Niot on the fifth anniversary of his death, written for Shabbat Shalom, the weekly Torah sheet published by the religious peace group Oz VeShalom–Netivot Shalom.
לגרסת המקור בעברית

A void yawns at the heart of the Haggadah, at the very center of the Seder. All we speak of on this long night leads to the central ritual precept—the eating of the Pesach sacrifice. We tell the story of the Exodus, sing “Dayenu” and, in obedience to Rabban Gamiliel, cite the three items that, if unmentioned, prevent us from having fulfilled the obligations of the Seder. Then we move from speech into action—we eat matzah, we eat maror. But there is no Pesach sacrifice to for them to be eaten with.

At the time of the twentieth-century return to Zion, there were calls to resume the Pesach sacrifice. A halakhic polemic ensued. Rabbis and scholars traded fine distinctions regarding the laws of sacrifices, of the Temple, of the priests, but very few of them spoke explicitly about what it would mean to turn the great nullity of the Seder night into a manifest presence.

Sefer HaAggadah offers a surprising midrash about Pharaoh on the night of the smiting of the first-born. The source is Midrash Tanhuma, but Bialik’s and Ravnitzky’s version offers a more potent vision: “Pharaoh went among his servants, from door to door, placing each one in his retinue, and walked with them that night down every street and called out ‘Where is Moses? Where does he live?’”

I want to focus on that picture, not on the story as a whole. The picture has two elements: first, just prior to the Exodus from Egypt—that is, on the first Seder night—Pharaoh leaves his home. He goes from door to door like a beggar seeking bread and the warmth of a home and a family.

Second, he searches for something but does not find it. The object of his desire is absent. I hear an echo of the Seder that the author of the midrash himself celebrated. First, a Seder night centered on the leaving of a home (Egypt was, after all, the home of the Children of Israel, a home of affliction, but a home nevertheless), and a Seder centered on seeking, on the Seder table, the focal point that is not there.

According to Maimonides, these same elements—going out, and the absence of the object of desire—appear also on Shabbat, and are the keys to the sanctity of that day. Shabbat, too, marks the Exodus from Egypt. And it is also the day on which God, who was active in the world for six days, ceased to act and stepped back, as it were, from the world he had created. In Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides writes: “But the fact that God has given us the law of Shabbat and commanded us to keep it, is the consequence of our having been slaves; for then our work did not depend on our will, nor could we choose the time for it; and we could not rest. Thus God commanded us to abstain from work on Shabbat, and to rest, for two purposes; namely, (1) That we might confirm the true theory, that of the Creation, which at once and clearly leads to the theory of the existence of God. (2) That we might remember how kind God has been in freeing us from the burden of the Egyptians” (Guide for the Perplexed, Part II, Chapter 31, trans. M. Friedländer, my emphases).

Note the oppositions. On the one hand, Shabbat symbolizes our leaving the house of bondage where we could not desist from labor, and on the other, it symbolizes God’s desisting from creation. In other words, we recall God’s kindness by leaving our daily routine in which we do not serve either Pharaoh or God of our own volition and at the time we wish. But we leave for where? For a day in which God is not active. Paradoxically, during the six days of the week that mark God’s creation of the world, his intensive presence in the world, we are preoccupied with our everyday activities and thus cannot devote our full energy and attention to God. We are, in a sense, in a state of “Egyptian affliction,” even though these are the days of God’s creation. On the seventh day, when we are free of our daily cares and can focus on the divine, he desists. The holiest day of the week is the day on which God left the world to its own devices. On Shabbat we find the divine presence in a world in which creation is not an act but only a memory.

Likewise, on the Seder night we paradoxically remember the Exodus from Egypt by not observing the night’s central precept.

I suggest that, for us today, the absence of the meat of the Pesach sacrifice on the Seder table is not simply the result of a technical glitch, of the fact that we no longer have a Temple or priests who can perform the sacrifice. Rather, it is of the very essence of the Seder. When, at the climax of the Seder, we ritually consume matzah and maror together and without the meat of the Pesach sacrifice, we are in fact remembering the Exodus in the only way appropriate for our age. When we do this, we liken Pesach to Shabbat. On Shabbat we desist from labor, imitating God’s desisting from the creation of the first six days. This absence of action, marking the conclusion of God’s action in the world, is transformed into the holiest day of the week, the day in which we feel God’s presence most strongly. On the Seder night, the absence of the Pesach sacrifice brings us close to the God who once took us out of Egypt and who today has left it to us to take ourselves out of the bondage of our daily lives, to leave the home that is our routine and enter in to that unrestful state in which we seek him. Only thus, with our own powers, can we find the God who is seemingly absent and inactive (seemingly so because the act of desisting from creation can be seen otherwise, as an act of manifesting the divine presence in the world).

On this account, those who argue that we should resume the Pesach sacrifice today misunderstand the Seder ritual framework established by our sages. If the rabbis had viewed the Pesach sacrifice as the essential part of the Seder, they would presumably have found a way to continue the practice of the sacrifice, at least on some lesser level, as a rabbinic rather than a Torah precept. After all, that is precisely what they did with the taking of the four species on Sukkot. The fact that they did not do so is significant.

This same paradoxical process is potently illustrated in a short story by S.Y. Agnon, “The Home,” from his Book of Deeds (Sefer HaMa’asim). The story tells of a Seder night gone wrong. The narrator and his family leave their home on the Seder night and wander the streets, fleeing the hametz they have forgotten to remove from their home and the landlord who seeks to expel them. “Wordlessly, wordlessly we walked and listened to the sound of our steps,” Agnon writes. Not only is there no Pesach sacrifice—the entire holiday meal, including the matzah and maror, have been left behind. But instead of mourning the missed holiday, instead of demanding to stay at home and their table, the narrator’s children and wife comfort him as they lead him out. Agnon writes: “A wife knows her husband better than he knows himself … She put on her coat and said, what is prepared for us for tomorrow we will do today. She took our son and I took our daughter and we left our home.”

But precisely at this desperate moment, the family observes the commandment to remember the Exodus from Egypt more forcefully than they ever could have done at home. At the moment that they accept the absence, the absence itself, not the sacrifice, becomes the real precept of the day. “We entered a boarding house and I related that I forgot to remove the hametz from our home and that I did not want to trouble the rabbi with questions on Pesach night. The proprietor of the boarding house stroked his beard and said, in the language of the Haggadah, ‘Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat.’”

May the empty place at our Seder, and the Seders of the entire Jewish people, be filled with memories and sanctity and the observance of the holiday commandments.

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