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Seder Talk: The Art of Order and Chaos

Excerpted from Dr. Erica Brown’s ‘Seder Talk: A Conversational Haggada,’ co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books

The Art of Order and Chaos

On Passover, we create order to lose order. On this night, we balance between order and chaos, between organizing the Seder with a set chronology and in concrete stages and then telling a messy story that gets interrupted and upended with all of our commentary. It is a story of injustice and triumph, of human strain and divine salvation, of hesitation and progress. Of course, it must be told in fits and starts.

To begin telling the story, order is critical. We make sure that everything is in place. We clean our homes, scrub away any signs of leaven, and check every corner with the focused light of a candle. We organize the props that aid us in our storytelling: the symbolic food is prepared, the Seder plate is arranged, the cup of Elijah is poured, the Haggada – our script for the evening – is laid individually before each place setting for all to recount the Exodus. We make sure that the matzot we use for the night are whole, without cracks or the fissures of natural breakage. The table is beautifully set with our finest china. The children all shine in their new clothes and shoes. The cooking is finally done. There is a moment of pristine newness and perfection in all the order before us that has taken weeks to achieve. And we celebrate that order with a simple beginning that reflects this need for organization and method; we begin the Seder with a to-do list, a taxonomy of rituals: Kadesh, UReĥatz, Karpas, Yaĥatz…. We recite fifteen tasks that must be completed by the evening’s end. Some have the custom to return again and again to this list, musically checking off what has already been done by reciting only what is left to do, stage by stage. It is our laundry list, our planned statement of accomplishment that affirms our commitment to systems and goals, the rules that will signify the logic of the evening ahead. And in a way, this order takes us back to the very first days of Creation, making something out of the void, as Rebecca Goldstein notes:

The celebration of Passover emphasizes the imposition of an ordered structure over the formlessness of time. From the beginning to the end of the Seder there is a multiplicity of stages, with procedural instructions overlaid along the way. First you must do this, we are told, and then you must do that. Differentiation creates order, creates the sense of significance that makes duration endurable.

Human beings have a supreme need for order. It is the commitment to discipline that allows the randomness of events to have meaning. Things must be shaped and named, placed and organized. If “Seder” means order, then we begin as we intend to continue, emphasizing the imposition of order as our very first order of business.

But then all begins to unravel. We tell a story, and stories are never linear. We start with questions rather than definitive statements. Questions are always messier. We acknowledge that there are different types of children at our table who must all hear the story but who all need a different telling. Our story begins with baseless hatred, originating long before the Exodus, an illogical and unjust sentiment that drives the narrative. Even in a world so neatly crafted, we find that not all is under our control. We sing a slave song, “We were slaves.” Slaves have no control over their fate or destiny. They are objects in the possession of a master.

Had God not redeemed us, we would still have been in Egypt, our Haggada reports. We would have become an absorbed people in a collapse of empires whose distinct identity had merged with the surrounding neighbors. We would have compromised our uniqueness. The small window of opportunity would have  closed. As we read, this question of what would have happened makes the Haggada feel like a work of fiction where the reader can choose the next stage in the plot and flip the pages accordingly. Deep in the Haggada, we are momentarily arrested by the possibility that in life there are so many possibilities: stymied beginnings, unexpected turns, alternate endings that often turn into different beginnings.

As we turn more and more pages, we begin to realize that the Haggada is far from an ordered telling of the story. It is the oddest mish-mash of passages. We sing a song of praise and then talk about the way our sages talked about the
Exodus. A linear narration would require us to open up the Book of Exodus and read its first fifteen chapters, much the way Karaites and Samaritans mark the fifteenth of Nisan. But instead, in the Haggada, we read about the way that others read and told the story. A group of scholars in Benei Berak were so absorbed in the narration that they had no idea daybreak had come and that it was time to recite the Shema. R. Elazar b. Azaria did not know how to interpret a verse until the scholar Ben Zoma shed light on it. We skip around, beginning with “My father was a wandering Aramean” and jumping not long thereafter into a talmudic math lesson. Ten miracles soon become fifty and then 250. This is not storytelling. It is meta-storytelling. It is retelling how the Exodus has been told before. And with this realization, we feel that we have lost control over the story itself.

In fact, we are obligated to lose control. We are told to drink four cups of wine; after the first two, the world begins to get blurry. We recline, losing the stability of our physical positioning. With a few cups of wine, we find ourselves reclining naturally. Wine spills on the beautifully ironed tablecloth. The matza crumbles. How could it not? And soon, we discover, the order we imposed on the evening is forsaken. Even our to-do list of fifteen tasks is not really fifteen because we add song after song. Salt water drips onto the table. Then ĥaroset falls on the beautiful tablecloth, adding splotches of apples and nuts to the dark red wine stains. We hide the afikoman, and when we do not know where it is, we have lost control of that too. We pour more wine and talk about how our enemies still want to kill us. We are lost in random hatred. We push it aside and begin to sing, because to be a Jew means to sing in the face of adversity. We sing the Hallel and then, against all rational belief for most eras of our history, we sing “Next Year in Jerusalem.” We turn to the Haggada’s last pages and sing strange songs, like Ĥad Gadya, the Jewish version of “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” Some conclude even later in the night with Song of Songs. By the end of the evening, the tablecloth has become a testament to entropy. Order has been replaced by story. Stories are always a muddle of fact and fiction; they involve digressions and details and defy logic. Then story is replaced by song. Singing reaches us in a different place; singing unites us with others on this night. We all sing so that we can feel true joy and release and togetherness with those around us at the table and with those in the past, people we have never met but who told the same story once upon a time. We don’t care if you have a good voice or not. Anyone can sing. The pristine order that began the evening is long gone. The universe as we know it seems hazy. We are beyond tired. The children have dropped off to sleep. The songs buzz in our heads. We are free, blessedly free.