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Pesach: The Memories That Shape Us

The following is a transcript of Episode 48 of the For Heaven’s Sake Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors. 

Donniel: My name is Donniel Hartman and I’m the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute. And this is For Heaven’s Sake, a podcast from the Hartman institute’s iEngage project. This is a special edition of our podcast, in honor of Pesach, and is entitled “Pesach: The Memories that Shape Us.” With Yossi Klein Halevi, senior research fellow at the Institute here in Jerusalem, Elana Stein Hain, director of the Hartman faculty North America, and myself. 

Historical memory is at the core of the Jewish experience. And especially at the Passover Seder. As Jews, there’s one memory that we are individually obligated to carry, the memory of having personally been freed from slavery in Egypt. We are a people shaped by this memory and have a longstanding tradition of eternalizing and internalizing events in our past, Egypt and almost everything that’s come since. Jewish memory has a purpose to challenge ourselves, to ask what we can learn from these events. As human beings, we’re empowered to shape our world. Significant moral challenges and opportunities face us on an ongoing basis and how we respond can have a great and at times grave consequences. 

Today, we’re living in a particularly momentous time. But as we live our daily lives aspiring to be good and decent people, or I hope that’s what we aspire to be, our behavior is not merely shaped by the circumstances and events before us, but also, and often principally, by the memories that we bring with us. Those memories serve as the lens through which we comprehend and ultimately determine what we believe to be the righteous path. 

In our podcast today, we’re going to embark together, Yossi, Elana, and myself, on a journey, on our personal journeys, into our own founding memories, the ones that define each and every one of us and shape both our moral choices and in many ways, our vision for Jewish life. Yossi and Elana. It’s wonderful to be with you and welcome to this new special format. 

Yossi: It’s great to be with you, Donniel, and Elana. 

Elana: Yeah, look at us. It’s great to view with all of us. 

Donniel: This time we’re a parallel chavruta instead of a sequential chavruta. 

Elana: It’s our own little seder. 

Yossi: Elana, you don’t even have to tell us about the Torah now, you can just really talk to us about like, whatever we talk about. 

Elana: Um, I, I’m not sure I can. I’m not sure I would want to not tell us about the Torah.  

Donniel: You know, you wanna know what’s going to be different. Um, one of Elana’s major jobs, is in a certain sense, Yossi, to figure out what we got wrong and to add a voice of wisdom and balance and nuance. And sometimes so like this time, she’s not going to be able to correct us.

It’s a wild work. It’s the three of us together. Elana, as you said, it’s a Seder. It’s the process together. So it’s really nice. And so I’m going to start today with Elana, let’s begin our journey. Uh, you know, we’re talking about memory that shapes our moral aspirations, moral behavior, moral consciousness.

What’s your memory? Take it however this question hits you, hi Elana. Welcome to our Seder. What’s your core memory? 

Elana: Yeah, so it’s so interesting. I, you know, I’ve had moments. We went to Soviet Jewry rallies every Sunday when I was a kid, you know, like I’ve had the moments that like fit into the geopolitics as I grew up, I’m not sure that people would say this is a moral, a memory about morality, but it deeply deeply shaped who I am uh, in terms of my moral choices. 

Donniel: Oh, by the way, Elana, I want to stop you for one second. Don’t worry. I didn’t ask for a moral memory. I asked exactly for what you’re saying, so you’re doing what I want you to do, you’re doing the, the task at hand. 

Elana: I love it. Well, so, when I was, I must have been in like sixth grade, you know, I must’ve been 12. I was a very intense kid. Um, I think that’s why we all relate to each other pretty well. 

Donniel: You were intense? No. Yossi, could you see it? 

Elana: Yes, I was. Exactly.

Yossi: That’s, that’s news to me, Elana.

Elana: Here I am. I’m 12 years old and we’re at my Hasidic cousin’s bar mitzvah in Toronto, you know, and I have cousins, I’m blessed with cousins from every Stripe of Jewish life. And I was behind a wall. It wasn’t a partition, it was a wall. And on the top of the wall, you know, I want people to imagine in their minds, there’s little windows that are open. The only other time I’ve ever experienced that is when I went to, uh, Sukkot, simchat beit ha shoeva, coats, a celebration in a Hareidi neighborhood in Jerusalem.

But this, I was 12 and obviously it was just not what I usually experience in terms of women’s involvement or engagement, or even visibity. And I was talking to my dad over that weekend and I said, dad, I’m so upset. I’m so upset with what I’m experiencing here. And my father said something to me that was so interesting. He said, but don’t you realize that they’re responsible for the continuity of Judaism and without them, 

Donniel: Wow. 

Elana: we wouldn’t have it. And I was sitting in there, incensed, incensed. I said to him, you’re not responsible for the continuity of Judaism? So what are we doing here? If we think that this is the way to be, then maybe this is the way we should be.

And as a twelve-year-old, what that said to me is if you don’t take responsibility for the way that you’re living your Jewish life, whether ritually morally, spiritually, all the things, well then, you’re going to leave it to somebody else to take responsibility for you. And if, and like 30 years later, 30, who am I kidding, 38 years later, 

Donniel: You could have gone for it. 

Elana: I should have gone for it, right?

No, no, it’s really 30, really 30. I am sitting here and I have a different reflection on the memory, which is looking back at it as an adult. I also realize that there is an ecosystem to the continuity of Judaism. They’re doing their part. I’m doing my part. Somebody else is doing their part. So it’s interesting how these memories, like it incensed me at the time and it forced me to take responsibility.

And then as I’m older, I say to myself, well, what do I depend on them for? And what do they depend on me for?

Donniel: Elana, thank you. We know each other for how many years? Close to 10, maybe?

Elana: At least eight, nine something? 

Donniel: From my age, that qualifies as close to 10. I could literally see a little Elana when you were telling that story. I could see the little Elana, it’s such a beautiful story and I could see you at that moment. And so thank you. And I understand deeply how that story shaped you. Thank you for sharing that. Yossi,, my complicated friend Yossi, what’s your singular memory?

Yossi: So let me surprise you both by drawing on a holocaust related memory, in fact, two short memories that are, deceptively simple stories, both are related to my father and his attempt to teach me his survivor ethos. And the first story relates to relationships within the Jewish people and the second relationship relationships with the rest of the world.

So the first story is, um, I’m a five, six years old and we’re living in borough park, which is, um, uh, in the early 1960s. Not yet fully ultra-Orthodox, but on its way. And there were basically, three types of synagogues in the neighborhood, there was the ultra-Orthodox, and these were known as shteebles, they were small rooms, really just the remnants of Hasidic communities. 

There were the American modern Orthodox synagogues, and there was one conservative synagogue left from the heyday of American Jewish Borough park. And the norm in the neighborhood was choose your synagogue and never go to the others.

If you went to a Haredi, an ultra Orthodox shteeble, that’s where you went, you didn’t even go to the Orthodox, let alone the Conservative. My father made a point of taking me to all three kinds of synagogues regularly. We would go back and forth. Where we mostly davened, mostly prayed was in a, um, a shteeble, a Hasidic synagogue that, uh, was, was related to a sect from his hometown in Transylvania, in Hungary.

And that was our base. And we were very much not Haredi. I looked different from all the other kids. But we went there for the most part because of my father’s friends. Every so often we would go hear a famous cantor in Beth-El, the big Orthodox synagogue, Moshe Koussevitzky was his name. And a little more rarely, but still every few months we would go to the Conservative synagogue, temple Emmanuel, where Koussevitzky’s brother, Dovid, was the cantor.

And I must have been perplexed at or disoriented because my father said to me one Shabbat, do you know why we’re doing this? He said, I want you to feel comfortable amongst all kinds of Jews. And that’s all he said to me, but the act of going from one to the other to the other was so disorienting in what I now realized was an extraordinarily positive experience.

It prepared me for a lifetime of being involved with the totality of the Jewish people. So that’s, that’s, 

Donniel: that’s, your first, it’s so interesting, this first one, because you and I often reflect on how different our upbringings are, like, almost like opposites. I think maybe some of my upbringing might’ve been closer to Elana’s other than the fact that I had male privilege. But other than that, it might’ve been a little more, a little closer.

Um, it’s a minor little difference. Maybe Elana. You know, a psik. 

Elana: Just minor. Just minor. 

Donniel: A minor little thing. 

Elana: Didn’t shape my whole life.

Donniel: A minor little thing. Ours is so different, but it’s so, this story is so beautiful because it’s about pluralism that comes from another place.

Yossi: Yeah.

Donniel: It’s how the Holocaust. 

Yossi: This is coming completely out of a Holocaust ethos. 

Donniel: It’s for me it came out of a modernity, liberal ethos, but it’s just so beautiful how our different paths could sometimes lead. And so Yossi. Beautiful. What’s your second?

Yossi: And how it brought us to the same place. 

Donniel: Same place. That’s why we’re working together, right? You said you had two?

Yossi: And parenthetically Elana. Yes. Yeah, I did. And just to Elana, a word, which is that even though Donniel and I were on the other side of that wall, and as Donniel said, we had male privilege, here we are, sharing the same commitment to empowering all parts of the Jewish people on whatever side of the barrier, 

Donniel: Yossi, on this, on this, we’re still trying to do teshuva. So its uh. 

Yossi: Yeah, that’s right. 

Elana: It’s great though. It’s great. The commitment matters.

Yossi: The other story from my father, relates to, uh, what he was trying to teach me about our relationship to the non-Jewish world. Now, my father raised me to be deeply wary of non-Jews. I had no non-Jewish friends growing up. No acquaintance. I don’t know if I spoke to a non-Jewish until I got to college.

And  that I felt was somehow honoring my father’s survivor ethos. Don’t trust them. They all want to kill us. That was what I understood from my father. And one day, I was probably in high school. Uh, we’re walking toward his car. He had a, a, a van. He had a wholesale candy business and this was the business van.

And I was accompanying him oon his rounds. It was a Sunday. And there was a group of kids sitting on the van, uh, local kids from the neighborhood, Italian kids with whom the Jewish kids always had an adversarial relationship. And they’re sitting on my father’s van. And I physically push them off like I’m brushing them away as if they’re animals that one has to just clear way, uh, even animals one wouldn’t treat them that way. 

And my father who I thought would be pleased by this display of my Jewish power and self-assertion, my father looks at me and I had rarely seen him be as angry. And I often saw my father getting angry, and he says to me, his is how I tell you to behave, like animal, you know, in his Hungarian accent, like animal. And he wouldn’t talk to me and I was so disoriented. I couldn’t understand, what does he want from me? I just fulfilled everything that he had tried to convey to me about Jewish power and self-confidence, and, and don’t trust the non-Jews, don’t have anything to do with them, they’re your enemy.

And that was a turning point for me. And when I put these two stories together, I realized the expansiveness of my father’s lessons from his survivor experience and what he was trying to tell me is, what we take away as a people, from what we’ve gone through is a generosity of spirit. 

Yes, of course, we have to protect ourselves. We have to be wary. We have to avoid naviety at all costs. And yet never forget that every Jew is your brother and sister, and never forget that every human being is your fellow, uh, your fellow human created in the divine image. And that’s, that’s what I learned from him.

Donniel: Thank you, Yossi. Um, if Elana did one memory and you did two, I should do three, but then we’d have to go back. 

Elana: But it has to involve a father. It has to involve a father figure. 

Donniel: It has to. Okay. Okay. Uh, for once, it won’t, um, You know, I, 

Elana: That already gives us plenty, Donniel. 

Donniel: and this one, uh, one of the things that I experienced, I find that I have so many memories, like both of you, and this exercise was a challenging one to try to pick. And one of the things that I found is that there are certain memories that accompany me all the time, but very often the most powerful memories that I have are the ones that are activated by certain circumstances. And this last experience that we’ve been talking a lot about over the last month or so, about Ukraine and Israel, has brought me back to a moment in my life. It was a naive moment in my life. It was the moment when I was absolutely intoxicated by power, where I was enchanted with acquiring it. 

And I literally remember, in my body the day that I went to the draft office in Israel as a 17 year old to be, to be tested, to have my medical examination, to determine what part of the army I was going to be in. And I always knew that I had eye problems, but like that wasn’t a big issue, you know, I was used to not seeing, um, and I go to the medical exam and they test me and they say, I’m sorry, you can’t be a combat soldier. I was devastated. I remember I was devastated. I was embarrassed and it was as if some part of me was cut off of me. Like I wasn’t going to have the power of a combat soldier, with all that it entailed, including, it was a combination of masculinity and Zionism. And when the two of them get together, beware.

And I remember very secretly, I came home and told my parents and they tried to look disappointed. And then I remember secretly calling up the army and asking to be retested. And I, to this day, I remember sitting in that office and, uh, they asked me cover one eye and I made sure to cover my bad eye first.

And I read the eye chart and then they said, switch eyes. And I switched. But now I knew most I could. I, the difference is, is another two lines and I concentrated really hard on those two lines and I cheated and I started to recite numbers that I couldn’t see. And I became a combat soldier. I got the new designation and I came home. And again, I remember physically, my mother was home and I said, Mommy, I did it. And I could see her face falling. You did what? And all I could see was the glory of power. There was no complexity to it. There was no responsibility to it. It was power as an end unto itself. 

And all I could think about now, in light of Ukraine, in light of Putin, in light of terror, in light of the questions of what Israel has to do and doesn’t have to do, I’m constantly going back to my naive embracing of power. And just like before trying to do teshuva for it, trying to recognize, I still love power, as you know. It’s still so much a part of me. It’s so much a part of my Zionism, but realizing that, that memory, the memory of something that is supposed to be simple. How much more complicated it needs to be. And how do I take that memory and the memory of its simplicity and recommit myself to the need and awareness of the complexity of it.

Elana: Do you remember when it changed, Donniel.

Donniel: Yeah, I remember, I remember. I remember it was the first time we were in basic training and that was just one big power trip, gotta tell you. It was just, you know, shooting, the fact that I couldn’t see and I had to use, I’m a righty and I can’t use my right eyes. 

So I actually couldn’t see the targets during shooting. So I had to switch and shoot with the wrong hands so that I could use the eye that could see, which was, it was a challenge. So, but it was still one big power trip. And then in the middle of basic training, there was some rioting in the West Bank. And they took us out of basic training and sent us to the old city to do guard duty.

And since we were such young soldiers, they paired each one of us up with a border patrol person. We were told to guard via Delarosa in the old city. This was my first action as a soldier. So besides being petrified, which also is another story, but my first action using my powe.

Now to guard via Delarosa you have to do so from the rooftops. And the only way you could get to the rooftops is to go through somebody’s house. I also physically remember the way they looked at me as I opened the door and marched uninvited through their living room. It was my boots, not the gun. It was the boots that I, I remember that moment too. 

Elana: Wow. 

Yossi: Well, Donniel, let me push back against your negative interpretation of your motives. Now look, obviously, you know yourself better than I do. Your memory, it’s not my memory, 

Donniel: Yeah, Yossi, leave my memory alone. 

Yossi: But. Well. Well.  

Elana: No I like this, but his memory Yossi, let’s, but the memory. 

Yossi: Do, um, the interpretation of the memory, because there had to have been not only a craving for power, which is understandable for a 17 year old.

But also a longing to serve and the shame, uh, which is also understandable for a teenager, of your friends going off to serve and you’re going to be behind the desk somewhere. I think that you’re a little too hard on yourself here. 

Donniel: It could be, Yossi. 

Yossi: It’s a combination, it’s a combination of motives.

Donniel: I see, again, as we say, this is my story. Right. But I’m telling just a part of it and you’re right. There were a lot of other motives.

But I’m just telling, there was a part of that story that it was a high on power. There were other parts, there was a Zionist part. There was a service part. There was a doing good part, but there was a part, if I’m honest about myself and I’m looking at it, power wasn’t complicated, power was.

And recognizing the gap between that moment, and just, you know, it was a year later as Elana asked, or now,  recognizing that gap, that journey, like all of you did and, and asking ourselves, what does recognizing where it started from, and then also recognizing the journey we have to go on, but let me let shift it a little bit.

And, you know, we started by talking about Egypt. Right. That’s, “chayav adam lirotnet atzmot kelu hu yatza miMitzrayim.” Ladies and gentlemen, if you don’t recognize that that was Donniell channeling Elana, quoting something in Hebrew, and now I’m going to translate it. A person is required to see themselves as if they personally, uh,  left Egypt, not your ancestors. You were in Egypt. We are supposed to remember Egypt. 

What do you remember from Egypt? Yossi, let’s start with you. And then we’ll go to Elana. We’ll innovate it and change up the order. 

Yossi: So I want to look at the verse you just quoted the, uh, not really a verse. It’s a line from the Haggadah. And I want to challenge the conventional way in which we interpret that verse, by actually taking the verse literally. What the verse is telling us is that each person is supposed to remember not what it was like in Egypt, but as if you yourself left Egypt. 

Now that’s a distinction that we usually gloss over, but I think it’s really important, especially for our generation. And I’m going to relate this to the Holocaust. Uh, the difference between imagining as if you yourself were a slave in Egypt and remembering as if you yourself left Egypt, is that those of us who were not slaves in Egypt have no right to that memory. We can’t pretend to imagine that trauma, we weren’t there, but there’s something about the act of leaving Egypt, the act of entering freedom, of owning freedom, which any generation can claim, any generation after Egypt can readily see themselves as if you left Egypt. 

You know, and the connection here for me with the Holocaust, first of all, I’m working on a book now, uh, which is partly about the meaning of post-Holocaust identity, nearly a century later, what do we do with it? And one of the central arguments of the book is exactly the misinterpretation of this verse.

For Jews to identify with the Shoah, after the Shoah, we have no right to identify or to imagine ourselves there. And any attempt to try educationally to imprint that trauma on future generations is counterproductive and destructive. But every generation has to imagine itself in 1945. 

Here we are after the abyss, what do we do now? For me, the great Jewish story of the 20th century is not the Shoah. It’s how we survived the Shoah. It’s the creation of Israel. It’s the emergence of the most powerful and self-confident diaspora in Jewish history. It’s the Soviet Jewry movement that Elana was talking about earlier, it’s the reempowerment of the Jewish people. This is imagining yourself as if you left Egypt. And so for me, that is the most precious of any of the writings of the Haggadah.

Donniel: Beautiful. That’s what you remember from Egypt, what you remember from Egypt is the Exodus. Elana, what’s your Egypt memory?

Elana: You know, it’s so interesting. First of all, Yossi, I think it;s fascinating, the distinction that you’re making. And I wonder if you Ukrainian Jews who are leaving during that time would agree with you. Meaning it’s not a Shoah memory of leaving Egypt, but there are other memories of leaving Egypt. I’m I, you know, I’m thinking about that, or Mizrachi Jews, like how would they relate? It’s good food for thought, I think, thank you for that. 

In terms of what I remember, I think. It’s actually the sense that you’re not, you just don’t think things can change. You know, I saw it for the first time this year. There’s this uh, academic David Henshaw who he actually writes that there are parts of the Seder where we say that God took us out with a strong hand and he says, you know, we usually talk about, a strong hand towards the Egyptians. Because I actually think that sometimes we might be referring to a strong hand that God had to force the Jews to leave because they had become, so just learned helplessness.

This is the way it is. This is the way it’s always going to be. I mean, we see it in the Exodus story itself where they’re just like, oh, Moses, you’re making it worse. Like you’re just making it worse. Stop trying to do what you’re doing. Right. Because thinking in like adaptive time periods that take a long time is very difficult.

You’re like just don’t ruin in the here and now, why are you doing that? And I think, I think that’s a really, really powerful lesson of Egypt, of what does it look like to leave something that you thought you couldn’t leave? And that, that inspires me every year.

Donniel: Wow. I really wish I was at your Seders. I love listening to you. It’s interesting for me, very different than yourself Yossi, all my memories of Egypy were pre the redemption, the redemption given my theology is not the story. So I don’t think about the redemption, even though I relate very much Elana to your move of moving out of Egypt and like, what that means.

But for me, I’m in Egypt and in Egypt, our tradition, even though all I know about Egypt, even though I was there, is the stories that my tradition tells me about Egypt. And it’s interesting. There’s two different words used to characterize us in Egypt. One word is we were slaves and the other one is we were strangers. 

And wen I think about those two memories and I see the way they play out in the tradition, the part of the tradition that says that you were slaves is very much a story of victimhood, which then activates anger and a desire for redemption. I need to be freed from slavery. I needed to be redeemed from it. And uh, winning, slavery is an uaccetable position to be in and I need to win. And I’m angry at those who enslaved me. There’s a whole package of things that comes with this memory of slavery, angry, aspire to get back, vengeance and a desire to victory. 

And you see a lot of that in the Jewish tradition, ultimately culminated in the part that I hate the most about the Passover Seder, which I, I refuse to say, and that is the “shvoch chamotcha el hagoyim” section, pour out your wrath on the nations of the world. It’s, but I could understand it, when you are firmly embedded in your victimhood and Jewish history had so much victimhood, vengeance, anger, us, them is there.

But stranger is more a descriptive reality. It’s not a comfortable one. But it was a permanent dimension of our history. And being a stranger in our tradition doesn’t lead me to aspirations for victory or vengeance, it teaches us, you shall love the stranger for you were stranger in the land of Egypy. Stranger-ship becomes a permanent feature of what it means to be a Jew. Slavery is what I have to be redeemed from. Strangerness has to accompany throughout my history. So part of Egypt is what I have to leave behind. 

Yossi: Yes. That’s correct.  

Donniel: And stranger ship becomes a permanent feature.

That’s why, even when I recognize my whiteness and my power and my privilege, part of being a Jew, part of my identity, will always be my strangerness, my minority status. It’s complicated. Um, so. 

Yossi: Your vulnerability. Your vulnerability, 

Donniel: My vulnerability. And it’s a vulnerability that makes me a better person. Slavery. I don’t want to forget it, but I want to be redeemed from it. Strangerness. I want it to be a permanent feature. So like I’m back in Egypt now as both a slave and as a stranger. 

Let’s go from Egypt to the celebration, to the Seder, to the order, the Passover Seder, the Passover order that we, and we, and most Jews and our guests will have together. What your favorite part of the Seder, Elana?

Elana: So I have two favorite parts. One favorite part is when we actually talk about those five sages who were sitting in B’nai Brak and they were studying and doing Seder all night long. And then they were like, so engrossed in it that somebody had to tell them in the morning. Okay. It’s time for morning prayers.

Like, you know, it’s over like, let’s end this. And the reason why I love it is because imagine if you were at a Seder where people were not looking at their watches, and saying, when are we going to eat? When are we gonna eat? When it’s gonna be over? What are the, or like the, well, how long did your Seder go? And how long did your seder go? Like, imagine if you were just so engrossed in it, where you try to make a Seder where people are so happy to be there. They’re so engaged. They’re so involved that like, who knows what time is passing, long or short. So that’s one thing. 

The second thing I’ll say is I really, really love that after we tell the stories in the section that is about the telling, the Maggid section. I love that we sing. I love that we do Hallel. I love that we praise God. And it’s not just, well, thank you, in my like very formal, highly intellectual, we talked about all these, God took us out, thank you so much, God, thank you. I’m going to stay, you know, very rigid, but it’s like no, break out into song. Wow. God, thank you for this. This is incredible. What a life. 

That just, enforced emotional engagement to me is so important because that’s what it means to feel like you’re free. Right. You just break out and I just love that. 

Donniel: Elana. Thank you. Yossi. What’s your singular favorite part of the Seder? 

Yossi: Nah, I’ve got two as well. 

Donniel: You can’t blame me for trying, you know, 

Elana: At least he didn’t say three. 

Yossi: No, no. And you know, Donniel it’s uh, it’s, I was tempted. 

But it’s interesting Donniel, like you, I don’t say the line about, pour your wrath out on the nations that didn’t know you. And one of the reasons that I don’t say it is because as a young person, I was deeply attached and invested in that rage against the world. And so I really had to, in some ways, rehabilitate myself spiritually. 

My favorite moment of the Seder is bringing out our collection of Haggadot and passing them around to the guests. It’s a fantastic collection. We facsimiles of the Haggadah of the Chinese Jews, of the Ethiopian Jews. Uh, we have a holistic Haggadah. We have a Haggadah from the kibbutz movement. We’ve got Rav Kook and Rebbe Nachman aid. It’s a tremendous range. And 

Donniel: Please let’s remember, also the Zion, the Noam Zion’s Hartman Haggadah. 

Yossi: Oh, that’s actually, that is,

Elana: We use it every year. We use it every year. 

Donniel: You know Noam Zion, you know half the Jewish world is in his debt, you know, or half of the English speaking Jewish world is in his debt. 

Yossi: And half our guests use that Haggadah. And what I love about that moment is realizing that this is the most unifying ritual in all of Judaism. That most Jews, even Jews who are remotely connected, somehow find their way to a Seder, certainly in Israel. And I suspect in the diaspora as well. 

Now the second aspect for me of the Seder that’s so precious is the way that we, as a community, around the table, transform the Seder from an external story to an internal process. And this is very much a Hasidic move where you see the Seder, you see the story of the Exodus as a metaphor for your own inner transformation. 

And the famous Hasidic teaching is don’t read Yetziat Mitzrayim don’t read Exodus from Egypt. Mitzrayim in Hebrew is Egypt. Read Yetziat Metzarim, the Exodus from the narrow places within yourself. And so the Seder becomes for us a means for an ongoing conversation through the night about what is it in each of us that we’re looking to free ourselves from, what are the lower aspects in each of us, that keep us from being fully who we are and who we’re supposed to be.

And that has become the core of our Seder. 

Donniel: Beautiful. Beautiful. You know, my favorite part of the Seder is right after Kiddush. And everybody comes and there’s this awkward part at the beginning. How are you supposed to start a Seder? And everybody’s saying, hanging around, and since we moved the clock, it’s already a little late and people are hungry, but it’s always difficult. Like what’s the opening line. 

And having everybody be like, oh, let’s make kiddush, or you know, you recite the order and you say kiddush, you just sort of, puts everybody at the table. And then, after the kiddush, you’re supposed to start the order. You’re supposed to go. And the next thing you do is you wash your hands with, without a bracha, and you proceed, but it’s there that I stop. And it’s evolved into my favorite part. I fill up the table with food. Potato chips, nuts, candies, make sure that everybody drinks a lot of grape juice. 

Because the biggest problem in a Seder is when people are hungry, but with some good grape juice and some potato chips and nuts, people are noshing away. And, um, at that point, I ask a question. First I ask, how’s everybody feeling, just how are you feeling? It’s a moment where everybody sort of begins to locate themselves. And then I ask them, today, what are you thinking about? What are you coming to, with this Seder? 

And this year I’m going to refine it a little bit and ask them the questions that I’ve asked the two of you. What’s your memory. I try to find a question that is not performative. It’s not about reading, just, what are you thinking about or what is your moment of redemption or, and then allowing everybody to talk and to bring themselves and to have everybody makes space for somebody. And this part could go on for an hour. And then in many ways, Elana, until the singing, whatever else we talk about doesn’t matter to me anymore. Just doesn’t matter.

We could read quicker, we could read slower. There’s all these words so some of us want to say all the words, but some of us don’t want to say certain words. Some of us think that the Haggadah is like a sitter, you have to say all the words. For me, it’s like, we’ve brought ourselves. 

And then, we start reading, I invite everybody at the Seder, stop all of us at any section that you have something that you want to share with, but it’s that moment, that pre-Seder moment where we talk about our relationship to Egypt.

And please it’s really critical. Since. We don’t want to remember that we were slaves at Egypt. We don’t want to make the Passover Seder a torture event. Put a lot of food out. Enable people to be relaxed because we know when Jews are hungry, you know, like, that’s not a good idea, but it’s that moment of relaxed reflection and conversation, which is for me, when it works, the Seder’s perfect. Just perfect. 

So, my friends, it was uh, really nice sharing Pesach with you. And to our friends, the audience, please take some of these ideas, share them, uh, think about them and, I wish you a wonderful Seder.

For Heaven’s Sake is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute was produced by David Zvi Kalman and edited by Gareth Hobbs, and mixed by Cory Choy at Silver Sound NYC. Transcripts of our show are now available on our website, typically a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, visit us online at

We want to know what you think about the show, you can rate and review us on iTunes to help more people discover the show. You can also write to us at [email protected]. Subscribe to our show in the apple podcast app, Spotify, SoundCloud, audible, and everywhere else podcasts are available.

See you in two weeks. Thanks for listening and Pesach Sameach. Have a wonderful, wonderful Pesach of joy, happiness, and some, or maybe a lot of meaning. Be well. Bye-bye.

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