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Finding Hope and Inspiration in the Union Haggadah

Passover has always been my favorite holiday. Sure, Chanukah brought presents and Purim offered the opportunity to dress up like my favorite, feminist queen, but despite those bonuses, it has always been Passover that I have most looked forward to. I love everything about Passover- the smells of apples and cinnamon, boiled eggs, and matzah ball soup, the experience of dressing up for seder at my grandparents’ house, the feeling when I walk into their dining room and see our beautiful seder table filled with the small mementos of past generations… I could go on and on. I love every part of our family celebration and have always assumed that other families’ seders were just like ours. In fact, it wasn’t until I went to college that I realized that at least one aspect of our Bearman seders was distinctly different than the Passover experiences of other families. Namely, the haggadah that we use.

The Bearmans have used the 1923 edition of “The Union Haggadah: Home Service for the Passover” for decades. In fact, we’ve probably used it since it was published in 1923. My grandfather and great aunt grew up with these Haggadot and, over the years, each generation of Bearmans has been introduced to the beauty and inspiration contained within this small volume.

Because I had only attended seders at my grandparents’ home for the first 18 years of my life, it wasn’t until my first year at Middlebury that I learned that the Union Haggadah was, in some ways, very different than contemporary haggadot. For example, it wasn’t until that first Middlebury seder that I learned that many haggadot include the 10 Plagues- an element which had been intentionally excised from the Union Haggadah. I remember sitting in the dining hall at Middlebury, paging through this new and unfamiliar haggadah, and being mystified and ultimately disappointed by the lack of my favorite parts of the seder. Where was the line that made my sisters and I smile each year? How was it Passover if we never said, “What aileth thee, O thou sea, that thou fleest? Thou Jordan, that thou turnest backward? Ye mountains that ye skip like rams; ye hills, like young sheep?” In all seriousness, even while wearing my haroset-colored glasses, I can admit that the Union Haggadah is not a perfect prayer book. It reflects a mixture of its original and revised publication dates- 1908 and 1923 respectively- and the language is masculine and formal. And yet, despite its limitations, it is a beautiful haggadah that offers a powerful statement of what it means to be a Reform Jew.

In the back of the Union Haggadah, there is an essay titled, “Reform Judaism and Passover.” This is where you will find the governing ethic of the haggadah, namely, that “...the Passover is the festival of liberty-- liberty in political life, liberty in moral life, liberty in religious life. How immense the range!” The essay continues by explaining the rituals of the holiday and the emotional power that they can have for contemporary Jews. The author writes, “However burdensome the Passover minutiae, especially in regard to the prohibition of leaven, became to the Jewish household, the predominant feature was always an exuberance of joy… The modern Jew is beginning to see in the reawakening of his religious and social life in western lands the token of the future liberation of all mankind. The Passover feast brings him the clear and hopeful message of freedom for humanity from all bondage of body and of spirit.”

This is what I find to be so powerful about the Union Haggadah. Every year as we read through the different sections of the seder, I am struck again and again by the sheer optimism and hope that is embedded into every line of text. Without dismissing the very real tragedies that lie in the history of the Jewish people, the Union Haggadah leads us directly to an appreciation of our unique status as American citizens and American Jews. Each part of the seder reminds those around the table that we are responsible for both embracing our own freedom and seeking it out for those who haven’t yet experienced its beauty.

This message- that America is a country filled with ideals and beauty and that each of its citizens is the protector and beneficiary of the wonderful gift of freedom- is something that I have been thinking about a lot as Passover approaches and as every news report that I watch brings stories of darkness and hatred. I found myself wondering if the rabbis who wrote and edited this haggadah had been blind to the realities of politics or whether the politics of their days had simply been less vitriolic than ours appear to be. And yet, one has only to read the newspapers of the Jewish movements or the sermons of the rabbis of any era to know that there has never been a time when politics has not been a source of divisiveness and that the ideals of our nation have never been universally realized by every party and politician.

And, so, we come back to the Union Haggadah. Each family who prayers from this book learns that the struggle for freedom began in biblical times and continues to this day. And yet, the fact that this struggle has been so long lasting is not a reason for feeling hopeless. Instead, the Union Haggadah suggests that while the march toward freedom will never be finished, it is appropriate and necessary to acknowledge and celebrate the progress that we’ve made. This haggadah teaches us that we can and should embrace the responsibility and power that comes with being a citizen of the United States and in so doing, ensure that we bring an ethical voice to any political conversation.

At the end of every Bearman seder, we joyfully ask Who Knows One and then recite the many verses of Chad Gadya. But our evening does not conclude with these traditional elements. Instead, we turn to page 120 and sing together, “My country tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing; Land where my fathers died! Land of the pilgrims’ pride! From every mountainside, Let Freedom ring!” As we prepare for Passover this year, I encourage each of us to find a way to emphasize the hope, promise, and responsibilities that freedom brings to each of us. Whether we look to the Religious Action Center’s Guide, “Pesach a Season for Justice,” or the American Jewish World Service’s “Global Justice Haggadah” or Mazon’s Passover insert, “The Fifth Question,” I encourage all of us to find a way to connect our people’s biblical story with contemporary challenges that we face today. And finally, I hope that we use this year’s Passover to soothe our spirits and to find within ourselves the seeds of hope and optimism that will help us to bring ethical and compassionate voices to our conversations about issues and politics that range from the local to the international.

I’ll conclude tonight with an excerpt from the essay I mentioned before, “Reform Judaism and Passover,” which explains the importance of observing Passover for contemporary Jewish people. The author writes, “The Passover celebrates the beginning of the self- consciousness of Israel; the setting forth of Israel upon its mission. It is the festival which commemorates the giving of a charge, the founding of a mission, the institution of a brotherhood, which were intended to spread the knowledge of [the God of freedom] throughout the world.”

May we be inspired by our upcoming holiday and may our inspiration help us to embrace our responsibility to provide an ethical voice in our world today and always. May it be God’s will. Amen.

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