The Seder the Ship and the Saga
Every year many Jews face the same dillema on Passover. We celebrate the holiday with a Seder, and we want to read the Hagada (the book traditionally read at the Seder) and remember and discuss the Exodus from Egypt, as Jews have been doing for thousands of years, but the words and structure of the Hagada are hard to relate to.
Or is it?
Would you believe that the Passover Hagada is set up just like the Academy Award winning movie, Titanic?
While I'm not proposing Leonardo DeCaprio as Moses, and don't want to lower the Seder to the moral level of Hollywood, I do think that the analogy can help us understand the Hagada.
Titanic is a long movie with two big parts and a few small ones. First we have a brief introduction in modern times, showing people's interest in the ship, outlining the story, and introducting the lead character. The movie then goes back in time and launches into an hour-long story of the lives of two main characters, Jack and Rose, and their relationship as the ship sails. After an hour of character building and relationships, the ship hits the fateful iceberg, Jack and Rose's whole world changes in an instant, and we have the second half of the movie: an hour of heart-racing action as the ship sinks. Up and down the ship they chase, trying over and over to survive. Rose is among the survivors, and we then end with a few minutes back in modern times, with the touching culmination of Rose's long and eventful life.
When the movie came out, a lot of people complained about the movie being too long. After all, a movie about Titanic should be about the ship sinking. Why do we want to spend a whole hour learning about fictional characters? And why do we need as many scenes running up and down the stairs trying to get off the boat?
One answer is given in the movie itself. In the second-to-last scene we see a modern-day scientist thinking about Roses's first-hand account of the ship's sinking. He says "I've been looking for Titanic for years, but she never got to me before." In other words, the event he knew so much about intellectually hadn't really touched him emotionally until he heard it in the context of someone effected.
This is the goal of the Passover Hagada. The point of Passover isn't just to know intellectually that the Jewish people were slaves in Egypt and were redeemed. It's supposed to "get to us." The Hagada says that we have to "see ourselves as if we came out of Egypt," and explains that "even if we were all smart, all wise, and all learned in Torah, we'd still be obligated to tell the story of the Exodous" on Passover.
The steps in the Hagada are remarkably like the scenes in the movie. (Or rather, the scenes in the movie are remarkably like the 2000-year-old Hagada.)
At the beginning of the Hagada we have an opening, before launching into the exodous itself, where we discuss the significance of the story. Like scientists obsessed with looking for Titanic, Talmudic sages stayed up all night at their Seder. Like the scientist's brief overview of the ship's sinking, we review the symbols of the Seder for a few minutes (in the 4 questions) and summarize the facts that "we were slaves in Egypt... and G-d took us out."
We then start the story, but not with the Exodous itself. The Talmud says that the Seder "starts with disgrace and ends with glory." The Hagada starts with two forms of disgrace, that our forefathers worshipped idols and that we left our own land, the Land of Israel, to become slaves, with horrible suffering, in Egypt. Without starting with the disgrace we can't truly understand the glory. Just as the story of Jack and Rose makes the ship's sinking so much more meaningful, our idol-worshipping ancestors and painful slavery should give perspective to G-d's taking us to freedom and making us His people.
This is why the Hagada spends so much time talking about the Jewish people leaving Israel for Egypt, and emphasizing all the things the Egyptians did to us during the slavery. It isn't enough to know intellectually that we were enslaved, we need to imagine what it was like to have burden added to burden, to have personal and family lives interrupted, to have our lives and the lives of our children disregarded by slavemasters.
Then the Hagada switches gears faster than Titanic hit the iceberg. The Talmud describes redemption coming "like the blink of an eye." At the stroke of midnight G-d brought us out of slavery, and our lives changed from suffering to salvation. Not just that, He did miracles and more miracles. Signs and wonders. 10 here, 50 there, 200 here, 250 there.
In Titanic, everyone who survived the disaster went on to live lives that they obviously wouldn't have lived had they perished. Rose promises Jack "never to forget," and goes on to cherish the pictures showing her life's many accomplishments. Similarly, G-d's taking us out of slavery didn't just save people then, it led to the future lives of all the Jewish people. That's why the true "ending in glory" isn't just being freed from slavery, it's being fed in the desert, receiving the Torah, being taken to the Land of Israel, and there becoming G-d's nation, none of which would have happened if not for the miracle of the Exodous.
In Titanic, if Rose had only survived the ship's disaster, "Dayeinu," it would have been enough. If she had also lived to marry and have children, Dayeinu, it would be enough to make her salvation a huge thing. But we see at the end that she (in the story) did more than survive, she had an entire life of childhood friends, horse-riding and airplanes, marriage, children and grandchildren. These accomplishments are what make her being saved from Titanic all the more amazing.
This is one reason we sing Dayeinu at the Seder. It's not because we'd have been happy to have been brought into the desert without being given food, or to skip any of the other things listed, but because each step in the development of the Jewish people after the Exodus made the Exodus itself all the more remarkable.
Then, if we can really internalize it all, if we can feel how bad the Egyptians treated us and how much G-d did for us, it should feel natural to start praising G-d with the Hallel, the prayer of thanks. Only after all that, only when we "get it," are we ready for the matza and marror (bitter herbs), for truly living out the holiday.
Can our Seders "get to us" as much as the movie Titanic? Can we care as much about the Exodus by the end of our Seders as we care about Rose's life in the movie's final scene? Unfortunately, most of us connect more with movies than ritual. But if we try, and focus on internalizing the message of each step in the Hagada, maybe we can come close.
Hopefully, if the message of the Hagada can really "get to us," we can achieve what the Talmud says, that just as the redemption from Egypt happened on Passover, similarly on Passover we will see the Messianic redemption and true world peace.
Chag Samayach, Happy Passover, and Le'Shana Ha'ba'ah Bi'Yerushalayim Ha'Benuyah.