Our family Seders have always been graced with a multiplicity of Haggadahs, indeed, we seem to have one to suit every taste. As well as the more standard editions, we still have the ancient “thee and thou” Haggadahs that my grandmother favoured, and as my father’s birthday is just before Pesach – and I am a chronically unimaginative present buyer – we always have many of the multi-commentated newer versions as well.
So, whether you prefer an old wine stained Haggadah that has stood the test of time, or a shiny new 50 rabbis per sentence – Haggadah, or anything in between, there is one just right for you at our house. We do like variety at the Walker Seder but the downside of this unconformity is the near constant background refrain of “that’s not what it says in my book” or “my book says stand, sit, lean or all of the above for this bit” or of course a plaintive “what page are we on?”
As a rabbi I try to learn from experience, so when we held our first shul public Seder, I decided to avoid that cacophony and bought a box of new Haggadahs so that everybody would be on the same page – literally! As I committed to conformity I asked myself, why on earth there are so many versions of this special book?
Granted, the mitzvah of retelling the story of our exodus is one of the foundational mitzvahs. As we retell the story of Hashem redeeming our ancestors from slavery in Egypt we rejuvenate our faith and most importantly lay the foundations of our belief in our children and grandchildren. But that still doesn’t really explain why the Haggadah is, if not the most printed book of all time, almost certainly the one that has been printed in the highest number of unique editions. Did you know for example that Israel’s National Library has a collection of 10,000 unique Haggadahs and that according to Dr Aviad Stollman, the library’s head of collections, the number of different editions printed over the years may be closer to half a million! So, why so many Haggadahs?
One of the great challenges that each of us face is how to make Judaism relevant to our modern lives. This is always important and is essential at the Pesach Seder when we rejuvenate our faith. Indeed, the Haggadah specifically enjoins us “in each and every generation, a person is obligated to regard himself as though he actually left Egypt”. The Seder is not the retelling of an ancient experience it is re-experiencing our collective history.
To make sure Judaism is relevant we need to reflect on whether our understanding has grown as we have grown. If we followed a typical Anglo-Jewish educational path, we first learnt about the exodus in our early years and we gained a deeper understanding as we moved into older childhood and the teenage years. The tragedy is that for many of us, our understanding and appreciation of the Pesach story and indeed all our Judaism has never really developed since then. The sad result of this is that many sophisticated adults still see Judaism through a child’s eyes. Is it any wonder then that Judaism appears irrelevant to our lives?
To be alive is to grow. Nothing is the same today as it was yesterday. We are not the same people we were when we sat at the Seder last year. Every day since then we have developed further as human beings. We have gained new insight with every second that has passed. It is incumbent upon us to bring that new perspective to our Judaism. We must educate ourselves and grow in our understanding and appreciation of our faith. Only then will our Judaism be relevant and vital.
The best opportunity to make Judaism alive and relevant is at the Seder. There are so many versions of the Haggadah because every generation saw something new, something beautiful and wondrous in those holy words that had never been seen before. We must also write together with our families a new edition of the Haggadah this year, an edition with a new commentary authored by us that explores how the message of the Seder can give meaning to our lives and most importantly, draw us close to Hashem!
I wish a happy and kosher Pesach to you and your families.