This past Friday night, April 19, 2019, marked ninety-five years since a woman named Paula Harris, at the end of a long day toiling in her kitchen, set out a Passover Seder on the dining table of her home on Shady Avenue in Pittsburgh. It was not a meal in which she was destined to take part. No sooner had she finished setting the table than she left for Magee Hospital, in active labor. The following morning, April 20, 1924, my Nana, Elinor Harris (later Goodman), came into the world, a Passover baby.
Where was I Friday night? Marking the anniversary of that chaotic Passover Seder with a Passover Seder of my own, right down the street from where my Nana lived as an adult. It was in that house on Dalzell Place, just a block away from where I sit now, that I celebrated my own first Seder in 1974. It was in that house that, in 1980, someone hid the Afikomen, the half-sheet of matzah without which the meal cannot be completed, under the mattress in my cousin Avrum’s crib. In 1981, someone else stuck it in the brass mortar-and-pestle on top of the breakfront, 2 feet over the heads of everyone in my relatively short family.
Speaking of heads, it was also in that house where my Gramps, Ed Goodman, would taste the horseradish prepared for him by his best friend, Merv Binstock. Horseradish, or maror, is meant to remind us of the bitterness of hard slave labor in Egypt. At our Seder, it reminded us that both Gramps and our regular guest Sid Baker were shiny bald – and with every mouthful of bitterness, they grew red in the pate.
The bitterness of the maror is supposed to be cut by dipping it in the sweetness of a sticky concoction called haroset. Depending on where you’re from in the world, haroset can be made of anything from apples and walnuts to dates and bananas – as long as it is sweet and reminds us a little bit of the mortar between the stones of the pyramids. Bitter dipped in sweet – kind of sums up the holiday. Seder will always remind me of Nana’s birth – but for my father it will always remind him that his maternal grandparents, Aranka and Adolph Mehl, each died within a day of the holiday, one the day before and one the day after, though years apart.
Ritual, it seems, is what you make of it. Within the Seder itself, there is a debate over whether the Seder is meant to commemorate the passage from slavery to freedom, or the movement from worshipping idols to worship of one God. There is debate over whether we should rejoice over our redemption or diminish ourselves over the deaths of the Egyptians who pursued us to the edge of the sea – or over the other peoples of the world who are not yet free. It is hard to know how to feel.
One of our young guests commented on Friday that she had wanted to protest in her social studies class when learning how wonderful ancient Egyptian civilization was, to point out that they had achieved this with slave labor. To which one of the adults responded, “Not unlike the Founding Fathers of this country.” It is hard to know how to feel, not just at Seder, but about people and civilizations that are complex, that do wonders and evils at the very same time.
The commandment to Jews to celebrate the Seder begins as a pedagogical one: “And you shall tell your child on that day, ‘This is because of what God did for me when I came forth from Egypt.’” But the commentary quickly makes clear that this is also an emotive commandment: “In every generation, a person is to view themselves as if they came forth from Egypt.” Maimonides goes even further and reads the obligation, “as if they came forth this very minute from Egypt.”
It’s why I revel in the Passover Seder every year (much to the chagrin of some of my guests). The Exodus story is the ultimate metaphor – in particular, as my regular readers (all three of you) know, the ultimate metaphor for illness and wellness, with the “narrow place” of Egypt being the limiting, constraining state of illness, and the liberation and crossing the sea being the emergence into wellness.
Here, too, this year’s Seder proved instructive. I posed the question, from the margin of our Passover Haggadah (A Night to Remember, by Noam Zion), “What did it feel like to be a slave?” My youngest son began to answer, earnestly and empathically, about how hard the work was, and how tired it made him, when an older child piped in, “Actually, it’s really hard for him to think of what it was like because he never knew anything else. Only when we were free did we realize how bad things had been. And now that I am free, I’m not sure what to do with myself. I’ve been told what to do for so long, I think I need some rules.”
His answer reminded me of learning about some of the hormonal disorders, like thyroid and parathyroid disease. One older instructor remarked, casually, that for some people suffering from these disorders, the realization of how sick they had been would only come in retrospect; once treated properly and feeling well, they would realize how sick and limited they had previously been. Sure enough, one of the first thank you notes I received as an attending physician was from a patient with thyroid disease, sent during the flood of relief at feeling normal again for the first time in years. The flush of health is often so overwhelming that people aren’t clear what to do next.
One final lesson from this year’s Seder was on the balance between structure and flexibility. I’ve written before about Lawrence Weed, the physician who invented the modern structured “history and physical” and “SOAP note” templates for medical record-keeping to ensure his students weren’t failing to ask the right questions of their patients. Over time, these templates became hidebound rituals, mechanically used by trainees to ensure they wouldn’t get taken to task on rounds rather than to guarantee an accurate diagnosis – or by attendings to ensure they wouldn’t get docked payments by insurers.
A Seder, with the lengthy script contained in the Haggadah, the book containing the story we are supposed to tell (from the Hebrew “Lehagid”, to tell), can end up the same way. My generation of American Jews often grew up with Seders conducted by an older relative who read through the entire text of the Maxwell House Haggadah without stopping for breath (in Nana and Gramps’ house it was the old grey Union Haggadah); it put a lot of people off Seder entirely and a lot of others looking for something better.
Even the something better, though, can become forced. It’s true that there is a Haggadah for all occasions now: feminist, Zionist, communist, Lubavitch, scholarly ones like the Schechter Haggadah or the one written by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, progressive ones like the New American Haggadah by Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander, and even my newest acquisition – The (Unofficial) Hogwarts’ Haggadah. They are all insightful and brilliant – and if adhered to letter-for-letter, can become their own form of slavery, ignoring the people gathered around the table and what they can contribute.
A few minutes after the brilliant insight on freedom and structure, I asked another question of the kids. Again, my youngest was the first to respond. He said, “I want to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt.” And so, he did. Unprompted, unrehearsed, unscripted (except for the blank piece of notepad paper he held in his hand the whole time), he retold roughly the first eight or nine chapters of the book of Exodus in vivid details, complete with classical commentary and with far greater accuracy than DreamWorks did with Prince of Egypt. When he was finally done, one of the adults smiled and said, “Well, I guess we can skip to page 78 for the plagues, then, huh?”
When we are impatient, doctors ask a lot of questions to drag the story out of a patient, and parents ask a lot of questions to drag the “right answers” out of a child. When we allow ourselves flexibility, one question can teach us all we needed to know and then some. When we have a heart that is ready to share its story, a child who has reached the stage of development to stand on his own, or an illness narrative ready to be told, we no longer need a Haggadah or Lawrence Weed.
But moments like that do not come around all the time. The text of the Seder reminds us of a child who does not know how to ask – nor, presumably, how to tell. “You begin for him,” it tells us. Over the coming 1-2 years, I plan to create a new Haggadah, a “Healers Haggadah,” for those who may not be ready to access the voices of redemption and healing within themselves, but rather need to hear the right question, the right words of inspiration, in order to begin telling their story. And as it helps to heal, may it also help the healers, bringing Seder, order – and meaning – to the rituals of our daily practice of the healing arts, some of which feel as though they are so much bowing down to false idols desperately in need of smashing. And for those whose ritual is not the Passover Seder a ritual from another faith, may it reinforce for you the power of connecting body and spirit, of using ritual as a way to understand hurt and bring wholeness.