A thinking person’s Haggada
The Royal Table, compiled and edited by Rabbi Dr. Joel B. Wolowelsky with commentary by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, The Senders Edition of the Passover Haggadah, OU Press 2010/5770
Few scholars have been able to communicate with equal efficacy in both the Beit Midrash and the pulpit. Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm has long excelled at both. A “rabbi’s rabbi,” he enjoys renown both as a Talmudic luminary and a masterful darshan. When I received semicha from him 25 years ago, and subsequently in conversations we have had over these years, he has always left me with the same charge and challenge, “go be ‘me-chadeish.’” Bring novel dimensions to your deliberations.
Rabbi Lamm has remained steadfast and insistent in this simple statement yet difficult assignment. Certainly over this last quarter of a century, I have heard the Rosh Yeshiva in Rabbi Lamm exhort his students to toil in the fields of new and novel interpretations. In an address to RIETS Rabbinic Alumni at one of our conventions he lamented the rise of a generation of scholars who distinguish themselves more by what they gather and relate in the names of others and less by their own new insights and inspirations. “Sadly we have become a generation of ‘me-laktim’ and not ‘me-chadshim.’”
It is clearly against this tendency as “hunter gatherers in learning” that Rabbi Lamm writes on so many issues and in so many places, not the least of which is this new Haggada. Absent from its liner notes are the commonly used pithy points that one can easily peruse and pick off the page as easy droplets to sprinkle onto the ongoing seder ritual.
While handsome in its layout and still easy to read, this is very much the thinking person’s Haggada. It is not set up for an easy appropriation of text and texture. Instead, it invites the reader into carefully considered discussions of the weighty subject matter that rightfully defines and distinguishes the Haggada as Jewish life’s signature pedagogy, and the seder context as the ultimate classroom and teachable moment.
Understanding the seder ritual as such, Rabbi Lamm uses his enviable homiletical talents and exacting intellect to provide the reader and would be seder participant with brief but strategically composed essay-like presentations on so many of the seder’s generative themes. He takes on the big questions of theodicy and human suffering as seen in his comments on Jacob’s suffering and King David’s despair.
Rabbi Lamm lends his own social commentary to diverse themes and ills in society, an example being his treatment of the dual nature of the plague of darkness. Humanism, history, and Halacha are woven together in an integrated whole that brings the timely to the timeless.
One noteworthy example emerges from his commentary on Chad Gadya, perhaps the most quixotic of the seder songs. Borrowing from the recurring thematic and typological associations we make throughout the Pesach rituals by our use of the number “four,” Rabbi Lamm introduces the typology of the Four Fathers and with it a new level of profundity, for this highly favored but otherwise hardly understood seder ditty.
While dutifully citing numerous sacred sources, Rabbi Lamm expands upon each in ways to better illustrate the lessons for life and the effective construction of community that of necessity must emerge from this annual exercise.
Once again we are in the Rosh Yeshiva’s debt for raising conscience through commentary. This is not the Haggada to simply go through for easy comments but rather one that will pass through and rest on its readers, leaving a new claim to a serious consideration of our contemporary Jewish condition.