I’ve been thinking a lot lately about options. Usually, we want more of them. I don’t want just two choices: vanilla and chocolate. I want at least 31 flavors, if not more. But there is a downside to multiple options too, which is that usually we must choose. Sure, some ice cream shops might offer something like the kitchen sink, which is just a big bowl of all the flavors, but if you actually eat it, you’ll end up regretting the decision.
Options are a challenge because they force us to narrow the field. Sometimes it is easier to not have a choice at all or to let someone else decide. That way you won’t regret possibly making the wrong decision. No one likes to look back and think they should have done something differently.
In teaching my recent class called The Haggadah In Depth, I have been struck by the Haggadah’s avoidance of choice. There are multiple times when the Haggadah is presented with two options but decides to include both rather than choose. Of course, it is not accurate to say that the Haggadah decides anything. It is an inanimate object, not a being with free will, but the Haggadah did not have one editor that we can point to and say, “This person created the book.”
This composite document is filled with multiple options that get blended together and are often not even understood to be options. For example, the Mishnah instructs that at the Seder when we begin to tell the story we should start with disgrace and end with praise. The rabbis knew how to tell a good story: start out with our heroes in trouble but make sure there is a nice Hollywood ending.
The Talmud picks up on this mandate but asks, “What is the disgrace we should begin with?” Two conflicting answers are given: either begin with “We were slaves” or “Our ancestors were idol worshipers”. These two possibilities are offered by two different rabbis who disagreed with each other and yet the Haggadah presents both, which is odd.
It would be as if a movie had two opening scenes. You can’t really do that. Only one option can be the true beginning. The result is that in our Haggadahs the story begins with “We were slaves” but then like a good post-modern film that uses a fractured timeline, the story jumps back in time to when we were idol worshipers before Abraham’s time.
Another example is in the blessing over the second cup of wine at the end of the Maggid storytelling section of the Seder. The Mishnah presents two opposing options. Rabbi Tarfon says the blessing should be to thank God for the Exodus and that’s it. Rabbi Akiva says the blessing should ask God to redeem us in the future by rebuilding the Temple. For Rabbi Tarfon, on Passover we should just be thanking God for the Exodus, but for Rabbi Akiva the story of the Exodus should be the framework for our future redemption.
Rabbi Akiva was the first to try and make the Exodus story relevant to his times, something we have been doing for thousands of years. A perfect example is the new Hitler Haggadah, written by a Moroccan Jew in 1943 to celebrate the victory of the Allies in North Africa.
Rabbi Tarfon’s point is valid too. The whole point of the holiday of Passover is to celebrate a discrete moment in Jewish history when God brought us out of Egypt. We were slaves, but now we are free. It is a moment to celebrate a great victory, but of course the Haggadah incorporates both Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva’s blessings.
Options are nice, especially when in the Haggadah we don’t have to choose. Instead we sing with joy at the wonders done for our ancestors. At the same time, we recognize that the world is still broken and there is much for us to fix with God’s help. May our Seders be full of praise for the miracles that were done in the past, even as we look toward new ones in the future.