Read an Excerpt
New American Haggadah
By Jonathan Safran Foer, Nathan Englander
Little, Brown and Company Copyright © 2012 Jonathan Safran Foer Nathan Englander
All rights reserved.
Fill the cup with wine, rise, and reflect:
Here I am, prepared and ardent, allied and present, ready to perform the mitzvah of the first cup, the enactment of salvation's promise. As the Holy One, Blessed is He, declared to Israel:
And I will lift you out from under the millstone that is Egypt.
Raise the cup and recite (on Friday night, add the words in brackets):
[And God reviewed the whole of what he had done and, behold, it was a wonder. And evening went by and morning went by, constituting the sixth day. And the skies and the earth and all their legions reached their peak. And on the seventh day God had completed the labor of what He had done, and He settled on the seventh day from all the labor of what He had done. And God blessed that seventh day and distinguished it in holiness, because on that day God settled from all the labor that He had created for the very purpose of its doing.]
Join in, gentlefolk, dear masters, my teachers:
You are blessed, Lord God-of-Us, King of the Cosmos, Maker of the fruit of the vine.
You are blessed, Lord God-of-Us, King of the Cosmos, who selected us from among every nation, and raised us above every culture, and sanctified us with His mitzvot. And it is with love—Lord God-of-Us—that You gave us [Shabbatot to rest and] holidays for our happiness, that you gave us festivals and seasons to rejoice, that you gave us the day [of this Shabbat and the day] of this Festival of Matzot in the season of our emancipation, and designated it [with love] as holy—a commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt. Because it was us that You elected, and us that You set apart from all other nations, and it was [the Shabbat and] the holidays sanctified by You [with love and with desire] with happiness and rejoicing that You bequeathed us. You are blessed, Lord, who sanctifies [the Shabbat and] Israel and the seasons.
During the reforms of King Josiah, a "book of instruction," most likely the core of Deuteronomy, is read to the public, calling upon the people of Israel to offer a sacrifice to God on Passover (2 Kings: 22-23).
Jerusalem is conquered and destroyed by the army of Babylon, and the Israelites are taken captive as slaves. They live in forced exile for almost 50 years, until King Cyrus the Great permits them to return home in 538.
On Saturday night only, recite:
You are blessed, Lord God-of-Us, King of the Cosmos, Maker who bestows luminescence to the flame.
On Saturday night only, continue:
You are blessed, Lord God-of-Us, King of the Cosmos, who differentiates between the sanctified and the mundane, between light and dark, between Israel and the nations, between the seventh day and the six days of the Making. You differentiated between the holiness of Shabbat and the holy of the holiday, and you made the seventh day sacred above the six days of the Making. You held up and hallowed Your nation, Your Israel, in Your sanctity. You are blessed, Lord, the one who distinguishes between holy and holy.
On all nights, continue with the following blessing. Those who recited it during candle lighting, do not recite it now:
You are blessed, Lord God-of-Us, King of the Cosmos, who breathed life, and sustained life, and shepherded us through to the current season.
While reclining to the left, drink at least most of the cup of wine.
House of Study
"And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation."
On this night that is different from all other nights, it is fitting that we begin by recalling our own difference.
But how are we Jews different from all other peoples?
We are chosen, the Haggadah tells us.
Unlike salvation, chosenness is a question, not an answer; the beginning of a journey, not its end. It will not take place in the future and, therefore, we do not hope or pray for it. Instead, like the Exodus from Egypt, being chosen is something that has happened to us already, something that we must remember and, in so doing, make present in every generation. As modern people, we are used to choosing; being chosen is much more difficult, at least for many of us. Some of us do not accept it at all.
In the book of Numbers, Balaam declares of Israel: "As I see them from the mountaintops, gaze on them from the heights, there is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations." Chosenness can sometimes feel like loneliness; a burden. Perhaps for this reason, the Haggadah reminds us that our chosenness is an expression of God's love and a source for rejoicing.
We might even say that wrestling with being chosen, like Jacob wrestling with God—or was it with himself?—is Jewishness itself. We might, like Rabbi Hillel, say that the rest is commentary. Yet this, after all, is a night for commentary; a night for asking questions that we have been chosen to ask.
The Passover seder is conducted in an orderly fashion, with each ritual performed at a certain time, in a certain way, according to thousands of years of tradition. This is surprising, as the Jewish people do not have a history of being particularly well organized. Even God Himself often seems engaged in convolution, a phrase which here means "as if He has not quite followed His own plan." If you look around your Passover table now, you will most certainly see the muddle and the mess of the world. There is likely a stain someplace on the tablecloth, or perhaps one of the glasses has a smudge. Soon things will be spilled. You might be sit ting with people you do not know very well, or do not like very much, so your own emotional state is somewhat disordered. Nobody likes everything served at the Passover dinner, so there will be chaos within people's palates, and the room is likely to be either too cold or too hot for someone, creating a chaos of discomfort. Perhaps there is someone who has not yet been seated, even as the seder is beginning, because they are "checking on the food," a phrase which here means "sneaking a few bites" when they're supposed to be par ticipating in the ceremony.
This is as it should be. Passover celebrates freedom, and while the evening will proceed in a certain order, it is the muddle and the mess around the order that represent the freedom that everyone deserves, and that far too many people have been denied. With that in mind, why not excuse yourself, in an orderly fashion at some point in the ceremony, so that you might check on the food?
Judaism, particularly in its American expression, is not thought of as a law- and-order religion. But it very much is, if not in the string- 'em-up sense of the term—punishment in Judaism is accompanied by the promise of mercy. We are, of course, a people of laws, and we are also a people of order, of seder. Our foundation story, in the book of Genesis, is a tightly organized account of the making of order out of chaos. In the creation stories of other ancient peoples, we see gods who are in competition with man. This can make for narratives that are morally ambiguous and disorderly. In Judaism, there is no such ambiguity, and no such disorder; God orders the world through law. In Judaism, law is holy. But not all laws. The laws of man must be subjected to a vigorous test: whether or not they conform to moral law as set forth by God. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from the Birmingham city jail that "an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just." King was arguing against laws that separated the races, and he turned to a leading thinker of his century to buttress the case: "Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an 'I-it' relationship for an 'I-Thou' relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things."
It is possible to imagine that King had in mind the story of Shifra and Puah, the midwives who delivered Moses, when he argued for the equality of all God's children. Passover is the most politically radical of all holidays in part because, as the scholar Nahum Sarna has noted, the book of Exodus contains the first known example in ancient literature of civil disobedience. Shifra and Puah were instructed by Pharaoh to kill the sons of the Israelites. Pharaoh was the law. But the law was unjust. So these two heroic midwives broke one law, and most certainly risked their lives, in order to honor a higher law: "The midwives feared God and they did not do as the king of Egypt spoke to them, and they allowed the boys to live." Without Shifra and Puah, no Moses; no Moses, no liberation, no Sinai, no Torah. Their bravery forces us to ask ourselves: Are there times when we should have resisted an unjust man-made law, and did not?
Time rushes on, impassive and unmarked. It's we who domesticate the flux, parceling it out into countable units so that we can situate ourselves within it: I am young and live in expectation, I am old and nearing the end of my days. Differentiation creates order, creates duration, creates the sense of our lives.
A religious calendar imposes further divisions on time, separating out hours to be regarded as so significant as to achieve holiness. That, after all, is the meaning of the Sabbath and holidays, the holy days. In the traditional Jewish calendar, the borders around the sacred hours are delineated with obsessive precision, the time of the onset of a holy day calculated to the last minute. The notion of the chosen is applied to temporality itself, and hours are carved out of the flux to gesture toward eternity.
The celebration of Passover emphasizes the imposition of an ordered structure over the formlessness of time. From the beginning to the end of the seder there is a multiplicity of stages, with procedural instructions overlaid all along the way. First you must do this, we are told, and now you must do that.
Differentiation creates order, creates the sense of significance that makes duration endurable. And if there is a way toward sanctification in all of this, if such an ideal is even possible, then it lies somewhere here in the divisions, parting time as Moses parted the sea, effecting a separation where the extraordinary can make itself felt.
Wash your hands, without reciting the usual blessing, and dry them. Remain silent until after karpas.
Dip a small piece of vegetable in salt water and recite the blessing (keep in mind that this blessing also applies to the maror that will be eaten later):
You are blessed, Lord God-of-Us, King of the Cosmos, who creates the earth's harvest.
After the exiles' return from Babylon, the new temple is dedicated on Passover.
Break the middle matzah into two. Wrap the larger part—the afikoman—and hide it from the children for later. (Before hiding the afikoman, some put it on their shoulders for a moment, to reenact the Israelites' posture when fleeing Egypt.) Return the smaller piece to between the two whole matzot.
The world's Jewish population is approximately 300,000, or about 0.2% of the total global population.
The high priest of Jerusalem responds to a query from Jews on the Nile island of Elephantine on how to properly observe Passover: "In the month of Nisan, let there be a Passover.... Do not work on the 15th day and on the 21st day. Also, drink no intoxicants, and anything in which there is leaven." Tonight, the document is in the Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz in Berlin.
Uncover the matzot and say:
This is the poor man's bread that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. All who are bent with hunger, come and eat; all who are in dire straits, come share Passover with us. This year we are here, next year in the land of Israel. This year we are slaves, next year the liberated ones.
Just as You lifted nation from the belly of nation, and piloted Your people through the deep, may it be desirous before You, Lord God-of-Us and God of our fathers, to show compassion for our brothers, the whole house of Israel, to those hemmed in by misery and captivity and those trapped between sand and sea. Rescue and recover them—delivering them from gorge to meadow, from darkness to light. Break them free of their shackles and lead them on to salvation. Do it with speed and in our days, and let us all say, Amen.
Cover the matzot and move them to the side. Refill the cup.
It is altogether proper that matzah is called the bread of affliction, because it has been afflicted more than any other foodstuff on earth. It is born in a searing-hot oven and then completely ignored for fifty-one weeks of the year while people walk around shamelessly eating leavened bread and crackers. Then, Passover rolls around, and it is smeared with various substances, ground up into balls, and, in the morning, fried up into a counterfeit version of French toast. Everyone eats it and nobody likes it, and there's always one last box that sits untouched in a cupboard for months afterward, lonely, broken, and utterly unloved.
Of course it is practically impossible for free and fortunate people such as ourselves to envision a life of slavery, but as an exercise in imagining our ancestors, place a large square of matzah in your mouth and eat it. Listen to the cacophonous crunches in your ears like the blows of the slavedriver's whip. Feel the searing dryness in your mouth like the thirst of the Hebrew slaves for freedom. And then, with your mouth full of matzah, try to say the Shema, and watch the particles of oppression scatter across the table. Slavery spreads like a spray of crumbs, and it is very difficult to rid ourselves of slavery's great moral shame, which is why, even thousands of years after the Exodus, there are so many people enslaved, and why, even weeks after Passover, there are so many matzah crumbs in the house.
"This year we are slaves," the Haggadah declares, an odd presumption for it to make, as well as an anachronism. Slaves were what we were, not are, so what is the Haggadah talking about?
The open invitation that immediately precedes the baffling declaration suggests in what sense we still lack our freedom, as well as what we must do in order to possess what we do not possess and become what we still are not: "All who are bent with hunger, come and eat; all who are in dire straits, come share Passover with us." The needs of those outside our homes seem too distant to disturb us, and this is our impoverishment. Our failures in charity are chained to a narrowed vision of the world that makes too much of the differences between us, and this is our enslavement.
"All who are bent with hunger, come and eat."
This is one of those strange locutions linguists call a performative. The uttering of it itself constitutes an act. So, for example, one's saying, under the right circumstances, "I thee do wed" doesn't describe the action: it is the action. And so it is with this invitation to the needy. We utter these words, in true earnestness, and the utterance becomes an act of charity.
Words are so mysterious to us that word power can seem like magic power, which is why there are prayers, incantations, and curses. "Abracadabra" comes from the ancient Hebrew for "I will create with words." We do things with words. We confess and entreat. We threaten, wound, seduce, and forgive. And we perform acts of charity, as in this passage, where just such an act is deemed the means to end our slavery.
"Ha-Lahmah Anya" moves swiftly. It begins by describing the unleavened bread in terms of the remembered afflictions of our ancestors, then passes to the performance of a good deed, and finally ends by foreseeing our freedom. Past, present, and future are represented by words that first mourn, then perform, and then long—all of these embodying acts which are quintessentially Jewish.
Poor Man's Bread
Excerpted from New American Haggadah by Jonathan Safran Foer, Nathan Englander. Copyright © 2012 Jonathan Safran Foer Nathan Englander. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
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