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The Tension Between Law and Redemption on Passover

There is a profound tension between law and messianism (defined broadly as that urge to bring about a redeemed world NOW) expressed in the liturgy of the Passover seder. Law tries to bring order to chaos, and the messianic impulse brings chaos (at least in the short run) to a deadened order.

Of course we know that that Passover practice is infused with more Jewish law than any other area of Jewish life. That fact seems to contradict the core story of Passover which is about our our experience of breaking out of a bad order in hopes of finding liberation. The piles of laws attempt to bind to our given, unredeemed, state of being the hope of freedom. In other words, where oppression may reign, the controlled world of Jewish law may serve to reconfigure the texture of liberation into something that is actually attainable, the fulfillment of law.

Law serving in that way has downsides. What if we end up feeling content in this pseudo freedom and not fully pursue true liberation. I argue in this article that the liturgy of the Passover seder is designed to promote this tension and to provide hints that the performance of the Seder itself can not be considered a replacement for the ultimate goal which is freedom.

The Seder itself is full of subversion. These subversions are challenging to the law itself and to the status quo which legal systems can often promote. These are the following places in the seder that I see this happening:

  1. The weird order at the beginning. Why the hand-washing without a beracha, and then no motzi? Later we break the matzah and still no motzi. This is subtle rebellion.
  2. Hashta Avdei, We are now slaves. In Egypt, Pharaoh's law needed to be overturned to be replaced by a new law. But we are still saying Hashta Avdei, we are now slaves. Doesn't that suggest we need to overthrow our current law, our current way of doing things?
  3. Ma'aseh b'rebbi Eliezer - They just keep telling the stories of redemption, going on and on and on. I get the feeling that if they could just keep on telling the stories of redemption, redemption would come for us again. But then they are bounded by Jewish law and also by nature. Law comes to tell them it's time for Shacharit, and it's the sun rising that lets them know. The time for the messiah to come is at night - despite all the longing, all the telling, law and nature again bound in that passionate desire for redemption.
  4. Amar Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah - here it is explicit - we talk about the leaving from Egypt at night - in order to bring the Messiah.
  5. Four children. Wise and Wicked engage in the realm of law. Simple and The One Who Does Not Know How to Ask focus on redemption. The urges live in tension.
  6. Vyotzieinu Adonai mi-mitrayim, Adonai took us out of Egypt. This is subversive. Lo al yadei malach, ve'lo al yadei saraf (Not by means of an angel, not by means of a seraph). The angel and the seraph are forms of mediation, as law is. God says this time: Ani ve'lo malach, I and not an angel. There are times when mediation isn't enough and direct access/intervention is required, or at least longed for. In the world of oppression this pointing to God's direct action is a plea to shift the paradigm--for some new revelation/action to be received/implemented immediately in order to radically change our situation for the better.
  7. V'avarti be'ertz mitrayim ba'laila, I passed through the land of Egypt at night , once again a reference to the night, and the connection between night and redemption. Under cover of night the status quo is more easily changed. At havdalah (note it is also at night) we sing about Eliahu ha'avi (who immediately precedes the coming of the messiah according to legend), but at the seder he gets an even higher status as invited guest.
  8. Dayeinu, it would have been enough. Dayeinu may undermine my point. I am saying that there is a core current in the seder which is pushing for a new version of redemption. But dayeinu's emphasis is on satisfaction with the gifts from God we have already received: we would have been satisfied with less; we can't believe how much God has done. But maybe it's a kind of pro forma humility, said with a wink and a nod. As we turn to the creator demanding something better, it may be a good strategy to show that we are not just complainers.
  9. The geulah prayer. The opening and closing of the prayer are in the past tense. But the middle talks about peace in the future. For myself, The images of eating the sacrifices there don't suggest a going back to the Temple so much as a symbol for a spiritual practice that might bring us intensely close to God. The prayer has bookends of thanksgiving but at its center is a longing to bring a better future.
  10. Hallel and Nishmat. What are they doing here at night (the rest of the year they only show up during specific morning services)! How totally bizarre! Again the tension is clear. This holiday is filled with laws. But woven into those very laws are the seeds of rebellion - pointing to a certain arbitrariness and unperfected nature of the system. By changing what is expected of our liturgy the seder points to the need for even greater change.
  11. Hasal siddur pesach k'hilchato We've concluded the seder according to the laws. Just as we were privileged to seder it, so may we be privileged to DO it. Do what? We just completed the seder. If this is a meditation about the seder, why isn't it at the beginning of the seder? Two thoughts: the first is that it's talking about doing the korban pesash itself in the future in a rebuilt temple. Another possibility is that it's talking about bringing into reality the values and visions we have just discussed at the seder table. We've talked about our experience of liberation and the need for ourselves and others to continue to be liberated, so now we hope to merit to DO SOMETHING about it--to bring our seder out into the streets! Listen to this prayer sung to a haunting Hungarian melody.


The subversive nature of the Pesach seder is less pronounced in times when our Jewish legal system and society at large are working well. In that case, the slow evolution of law is a fitting method for bringing about a slow redemption. But when society and/or Jewish law are not functioning well, then the dormant longings for bringing redemption sooner rather than later begin to sprout.

Type: Dvar Torah

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