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Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. The views reflected in his columns represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated. For more Double Mitzvahs by Sender Rozesz, check out A Woman’s Vow, Sexual Motive, Choose Your Own Spouse, The Post-Honeymoon Journey, A Wise and Understanding People, The Blessing of Fertility, Abominations, Coitus Interruptus, Sexual Struggles,The Unspeakable Language of Passion, Cut vs. Uncut, The Silence of Bitterness, Sex and the Holiest Day of the Year, Shifting Beds and Sex in the Sukkah,Sex…In the Beginning, A Sexual Reboot, She’s My Beautiful Sister,Kosher Incest?, How They Met, Male-Female Intercourse, The First Kiss, The Power to Transform, Onanism, Daughters-in-Law and Moshiach, Issues with the In-Laws?, The Undoing of Captivity, Shift Beds – Part II, Pharaoh’s Assimilation Policy, Passion vs. Pleasure, Loving in Reverse, Music is Female, Fecund Fluids and Revelation, Sexism in the Commandments, Divine Lust, Name Calling, Mismatched Lovers, Sex and Mirrors, The Challenge of Real Loving, and Getting Undressed.
This Friday night, Jews all over the world will sit down to a Pesach seder with family and friends, to commemorate the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt and their liberation from slavery and involuntary servitude.
What is a Pesach seder? Well, let’s not kid ourselves. This is no Thanksgiving feast with a quick blessing of thanks immediately followed by a sumptuous meal. Oh, there may be a sumptuous meal at some point in the late evening, if you’re Sephardic, or a minimalist, or if you or your host have figured out how to create gourmet food out of the three food ingredients that Ashkenazic Jews are permitted to use on Passover. But even that doesn’t come until much later in the evening, by which time at least one of the seder guests have asked the question so obvious it has been made into a motion picture (a must-see, by the way): When Do We Eat?
Because the Passover seder is much more than a meal, isn’t it? It is an ancient tradition, one abundant in bizarre and meaningful rituals. It is about the Jewish saga, and it is a saga in its own right. For those who manage to stay with it until the end, you feel as though you have been through an experience (or an ordeal, depending on how it goes), or traversed a great distance. Wine, bitter herbs, salt water, Charoses, dipping, questions, answers, a story, Matzah, more matzah, more wine, more story, more dipping…We cover a lot of ground.
And it’s very uniquely Jewish. Jews from every walk of life can (and often do) show up at a seder and immediately feel comfortable in the seder setting, despite the strangeness of its rituals. There is an automatic familiarity and kinship that is shared among those who share the common history, the common lineage, and the common existential bond that Jews intrinsically share.
Yet, often enough, we bring to the seder our non-Jewish friends, partners and acquaintances — good sports, all of them, who are game (assuming they have been adequately prepped) to partake and participate in the foreign seder ceremony. How strange it must be for them! Sure, there are symbolic and universal messages of freedom and liberty for all of mankind, applicable to all the downtrodden, irrespective of class or creed. But at it’s core, it remains a Jewish experience, one to which Jews have a distinct response and in which we enjoy a certain…intimacy.
In his book The Jew in the Lotus, author Roger Kaminetz recounts his experience as part of a Jewish delegation to the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, the place of exile for thousands of Tibetan monks. Aware that the Jewish people have some experience in maintaining their identity and traditions in the diaspora, and seeing his own people struggling with the cultural-identity crisis that accompanies being displaced from one’s homeland, the Dalai Lama invited a diverse group of Jews to Dharamsala to pick their brains regarding the survival of a nation in exile. Fascinatingly, one of the ideas proposed to the Dalai Lama by R’ Zalman Schechter was that the Tibetan monks conduct the equivalent of an annual Passover seder at which, like the Jews, they would discuss and remember their past and origins, reflect on their cultural identity, and draw inspiration for the present and future. It was a good thought; yet even a “seder” based upon the Tibetan’s own story did not appear to truly catch on. There is something in the collective Jewish psyche with which a Pesach seder resonates, that others do not appear to have.
It struck me that there is some biblical precedent for this phenomenon: Where was Moses’s wife Tzipporah during the exodus story?
To refresh your recollection, Moses had run away from Egypt shortly after coming of age as the prince of Egypt, ending up in Midian, where he encountered the daughters of Jethro, priest of Midian. Jethro took Moses in, and he ended up marrying Jethro’s daughter, Tzipporah.
Then Moses encountered the famous burning bush, and received G-d’s instruction to return to Egypt to lead the Jewish people to freedom. Moses, however was now a married man, with two young sons, and he did not even consider leaving them behind. “So Moses took his wife and his sons, mounted them upon the donkey, and he returned to the land of Egypt.” Exodus, 4:20. Now, notwithstanding the verse’s singular syntax “he returned to Egypt,” it would seem that the Family Moses traveled to Egypt together Indeed, the animation film The Prince of Egypt prominently displays Tzipporah and her sister-in-law Miriam together leading the Jews from Egypt in song.
However, months later, after the Jews have been liberated and the Egyptian army drowned in the Red Sea, “Moses’s father in law, Jethro, took Tzipporah, Moses’s wife, after she had been sent away, and her two sons, one of whom was named Gershom…and one who was named Eliezer…to Moses, to the desert where he was encamped, to the mountain of God.” Exodus, 18:2-5.
So Tzipporah had been sent away, and never made it to Egypt! Rashi explains that, when Moses met Aaron on his way to Egypt, they had the following conversation:
“Who are these?” Aaron asked.
Moses replied, “This is my wife, whom I married in Midian, and these are my sons.”
“And where are you taking them?”
“To Egypt,” Moses replied.
Aaron retorted, “We are suffering with the first ones, and you come to add to them?”
Whereupon Moses said to Tzipporah, “Go home to your father,” and she took her two sons and returned home.
Now, Aaron’s argument to Moses was not particularly compelling. After all, Moses was returning to Egypt to liberate the Jewish people. His arrival thus heralded an end to the Egyptian slavery, and not a situation that would pose any risk to his wife and children, nor any burden on the Jewish people. Moreover, as the subsequent verses suggest, even in Egypt, whatever the plight of his Jewish brethren, Moses and Aaron themselves were free to come and go, and Moses’s wife and children would similarly have likely been left unmolested.
So what really made Moses decide to send Tzipporah home?
Perhaps he felt that he needed to have all of his available attention devoted to his mission, with none to spare for his family.
Or perhaps Moses realized that the exodus of the Jewish people was to be a uniquely Jewish experience; the culmination of the hundreds of years of slavery that G-d foretold he would visit upon a Abraham’s descendants. It would be the climax of hundreds of years of whispered traditions of the promise of liberation and redemption; tales of the special destiny in store for this beleaguered, suffering people. Moses’s love and affection for Tzipporah notwithstanding, Tzipporah was an outsider. She was not a descendant of Abraham. She did not grow up steeped in the Jewish traditions, dreams, and krechtzes. She grew up free and unfettered, daughter to the respected priest of Midian. She would not be able to fully appreciate and relate to the freedom that Moses was about to deliver to the Jewish people; and the Jewish people deserved to spend their last days of slavery and first moments of liberty in the company of those that fully grasped what that transition meant to the Children of Israel. Perhaps that is why Moses sent Tzipporah home.
That is not to say that you should disinvite any of your gentile guests. Indeed, “There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who resides in your midst.” Exodus, 12:49. So the seder is by no means intended to exclude those that are unable to share in the common history of the Jewish people. However, sometimes we forget that others do not share the myriad nuances (and neuroses) resulting from our collective Jewish identity. Without those, without our millennia of Jewish experience, persecution, Jewish mothers and Matzah balls, our traditions and rituals must look and feel entirely different to others than they do to us — even in our increasingly anti-nationalist culture. So perhaps this Passover, as a fun exercise, we can try to picture the seder through the eyes of our guests and companions, and attempt to fully appreciate its various dimensions and dynamic impact on those that may be participating without the benefit of the full historic context.
Have a kosher and happy Passover, and a meaningful and enjoyable seder!