The Haggadah as Touchstone for Harmony

History, Unmoored and Tethered

A young Abraham Lincoln wrote his first significant speech in January 1838, which has been called the Lyceum Address. In it, he bemoaned the mayhem that had taken over American society and offered thoughts on how it came to be that people had turned on each other in lynching mobs. The words ring out as true today:

the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice.

When Lincoln penned his speech, he considered the fact that the generation of the American Revolutionary War was dying out. Those patriots which had fought against the British to obtain the nation’s freedom had almost disappeared. That multi-year war touched every family with dead or injured fathers, sons and brothers, with each carrying their scars into that present moment. But as “the silent artillery of time” was cutting down the survivors, and whittling the “forest of mighty oaks” of history, people lost their connection to that particular shared past. The new generation took the blessings of freedom lightly and asserted the desires of self over the shared responsibilities and common wounds of collective society. Passions born of a common history had served the nation well but those days have come to an end. “Passion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy.”

A breakdown of societal order and bond between people ensued, leading to chaos.

Lincoln’s approach to the dire situation of the infighting between Americans was to abandon passion for “Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason…. and a reverence for the constitution and laws.” Without the immediate link to the past, society’s passions would run wild, and therefore required an adherence to laws under which everyone was bound to maintain the peace.

Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik admired the Lyceum Address but believed Lincoln reached the wrong conclusion. While abiding by laws is indeed required for social order, the historic connection to the past should never be abandoned, and passion, well-placed, is an important human trait and good. 

The Passover Haggadah highlights the Jewish approach to maintaining the connection to the past, recognizing the birth of a nation finding freedom, and fostering a people’s passion into the future.

The Bible instructs Jews repeatedly to “tell their children and grandchildren” (Exodus 10:2, 12:26; 13:8; 13:14; Deuteronomy 11:19; Joshua 4:6; Joel 1:3) about the night of freedom, when God took the Children of Israel out of bondage on a path to the land of their inheritance. 

Lord Jonathan Sachs expanded on this biblical directive and how it manifests itself in the Haggadah used at the Passover seder, that the method of recounting that story does not use the Bible as its immediate source sheet. Instead, the Haggadah is a text assembled over centuries, and includes “Hillel in the days of the Second Temple, the second-century sages at their seder in Benei Brak, the teachings of the Amora’im of the third and later centuries, poems by Yannai and Kalir from the post-Talmudic period, an addition from Ashkenaz provoked by the terrible sufferings of the First Crusade, and children’s songs from medieval Germany. Every word we say has a history.” Each generation reflected on the  Passover story, giving a link through time to that midnight of disembarkation 3,300 years ago.

Time has muted the voices of a hundred generations past, but today we can imagine ourselves walking the desert sands while simultaneously instilling in our children that WE are critical links in and to that common history.

Laws of The Freedom Fighters

The story of the American Revolution is not the same as the Passover story. America’s story was forged with the vision and blood of American patriots who broke with the British monarchy to establish a democracy with new laws for its citizens to both protect it from the new government and establish a system to maintain a civil society. In contrast, on Passover, it was God who saved the Jews from the hands of the Egyptians and gave them new laws to live by.

Rabbi Shmuel Greenberg notes that the matzoh that we eat on Passover is the bread of slaves. Eating it together with bitter herbs is a reminder of being slaves to Egyptians, while eating it with the pascal lamb reminds us that the new lord is a benevolent one, the God who took people out of bondage and gave them commandments to live by. 

A Modern Breakdown In Common History and Law

As in the days of Lincoln, we are living in a society that feels broken, with mobs angrily fighting each other, mass shootings, and people with whom we disagree run out of careers and society. Swaths of the country do not trust the government or the media, so bind themselves into small fiefdoms. Perhaps it is from years suffering from the human losses from COVID, the emotional tolls of lockdowns, and the evaporation of savings as inflation robs people of security. 

But it may also be from the loss (abandonment?) of our common history. The ‘1619 Project’ and ‘Critical Race Theory’ advance a proposition that while “all men are created equal”, they do not share a common history. America was birthed with Black slavery with Africans dragged to the new world in chains. The makeup of society today includes immigrants and their descendants from around the world, not just the descendants from Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. 

To account for these facts, pubic school boards have started to require new curricula to teach about various ethnicities and countries around the world. Tragically, in some cases, the remarkable birth of America is being watered down, eliminated and/or vilified as poison at inception, a product of a racist White patriarchy advancing imperialism and capitalism. Not only do some schools advance that narrative of history, but argue that those systems continue to exist today and require new laws of “restorative justice” for certain groups. Not only does this approach break with celebrating a common past, but it argues we must have different laws for different groups today, including a seizure and redistribution of wealth from old White European colonizers to newer, darker colonizers.

The efforts deliberately pit members of society against each other.

America and Judaism on History and Law

To Lincoln nearly 200 years ago, the loss of the connection and appreciation of the nation’s founding may have been the beginning of the end. Unmoored from a common past, he believed society became vulnerable as a collection of competing strangers living in close proximity. His belief that history was a story of discrete generations left nothing but law to bind a nation.

The Passover Haggadah takes a different approach. History is taught as a continuous chain that must be strengthened at least once a year. The anchor of nationhood is the birth of freedom, and the seder is for remembering that fateful night AND how our parents, grandparents and ancestors also recounted that momentous day, and how that freedom came together with common laws.

Passover seder at the home of Rabbi Mayer Hirsch, San Francisco, circa 1920. (photo from Courtesy of the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life)

Freedom, law and history are both tools and criteria to connect society in peace and harmony. The Passover Haggadah is such touchstone that encapsulates each of these principles separately and collectively, as millions of people sit at tables – apart but together – around the world.

Hopefully it will bring all of us a renewed sense of brotherhood and peace.

Related articles:

Kohelet, An Ode to Abel

On History and Civilization from the Bible to Columbus

Transitions, Juxtapositions and the Night of the Exodus

Taking the Active Steps Towards Salvation

2 thoughts on “The Haggadah as Touchstone for Harmony

  1. Pingback: Of Kings On July 4th, In Newport, RI | FirstOneThrough

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