It’s Shabbat Hagadol again, the “Great Shabbat” that precedes the seder. No one knows exactly how this anticipatory Shabbat got its name — but whatever its etymology, it announces Passover as our greatest holiday, because it gave us our birth as a people and introduced freedom as a supreme value for all humanity.
Either message should be enough to stop us in our tracks; together, they should bowl us over. Where would the world be without Judaism, the Jewish Bible, and the panoply of great Jews who have made history happen? As for slavery, numerous countries and cultures practice it still, officially or unofficially, openly or insidiously.
“God wants freedom” is a simple sentence on which the integrity of the Jewish people depends and the fate of the world turns. Any seder that does not drum home the audacity of this central Jewish affirmation should be judged a failure. The “Great Shabbat” was established to rehearse the Haggada in anticipation of making this old and venerable message sound altogether new.
Over the years our Haggada has undergone countless attempts to retain this freshness of message. In an oral era, people made it up as they went along. Early on, the four cups of wine, taken to represent God’s past acts of deliverance, were supplemented by a fifth to anticipate a final act of redemption. By the late Middle Ages, that became “Elijah’s Cup.” And nowadays, some people have added “Miriam’s Cup” as well.
The meal was originally eaten first, so its foods might prompt discussion. Instead of standardized “questions,” children offered spontaneous observations. When people began to “eat and run,” however, the meal was postponed to make guests sit through the discussion, and the “Four Questions” became standardized for the children.
At first, the seder’s high point was an opaque account of some “wandering Aramean” who was worse than Pharaoh. Traditional seders still include that midrash, although those who say it are unlikely to know it was a veiled reference to Roman domination — change the vowels and the Hebrew “aRaMi” (Aramean) becomes “RoMi” (Roman). After the Crusades, a new climax was added: opening the door for Elijah, and hoping for the Messiah.
Droves of new Haggadas appear annually, but more than a new Haggada, seders need leaders. Consider actually leading the seder this year! Ask people for a “fifth question,” the one we should carry home to bother us this year. Take time for guests to express the slaveries that eat away inside themselves, and what freedom might look like for them, personally. Reinvent that fifth cup, then take a vote on how much of it we should drink — how much has freedom advanced this year?
The book that celebrates freedom should not be oppressive itself, so skip Haggada readings that make little sense to you — the point of the seder, after all, is its message: the Jewish people’s mission to see a world redeemed from degradation.
Don’t just reiterate calmly what happened once; imagine boldly what might happen still. Slavery abounds, to this day, in the wide world without and in our personal lives within. “God wants freedom.” Passover is the time to believe once again in all its possibilities.