Last year during filming BBC1’s programme about the Seder, I was asked a question by one of the participants that challenged my thinking and enriched my Seder experience.
We had just finished reciting the Aramaic passage Ha lachma anya, which recalls the bread of affliction our ancestors ate in Egypt, when I was asked if we had reached the point in the Seder where we have symbolically left Egypt? I struggled to respond because the Seder is not a straightforward enactment of the journey from oppression to freedom.
The Seder begins with a symbolic gesture of freedom (drinking the Kiddush wine in a reclining position) indicating redemption but then, as if retreating back in time, this is shortly followed by dipping vegetables into salt water to evoke the tears of servitude.
The recital of the first half of Hallel indicates that we are free but this is then followed by eating bitter herbs, symbolically placing us back in Egypt. The Haggadah text itself veers erratically between passages that call to mind oppression and passages that stir up impressions of freedom in no particular order.
The Seder is by no means a linear journey from bondage to freedom; rather, like a post-modern novel, it plunges one in at out of the story with scant regard for the timeline. The Seder experience is not about travelling back in time but rather it’s about transcending time altogether.
The reason the Seder is so evocative is because it collapses time; generations, memories, dreams and hopes. Be they individual, familial or communal. And this is liberating because time, or more accurately one’s awareness of it, can be terribly oppressive; the weight of the past, unfulfilled dreams, the trauma of change, the desperate desire sometimes to go back in time and relive certain moments, the need to hold on to the present, the awareness of constant ticking of the clock, the lengthening of the shadows. Freedom from the tyranny of time may be what the Seder is all about.
One of the great post-modern novels, The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner, set in the south after the American civil war, tells the story of the erosion of the once proud Compson family.
Time weighs heavily like a burden on the main protagonist and eldest son, Quentin Compson. His entire world is rapidly changing along with his family’s fortunes. He seeks in vain to halt the advance of time and in the end it destroys him.
At one point he picks up a watch his father gave him and he recalls his father’s words: “I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire... I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it.”
On Seder night, for a brief moment, we forget time and experience the point where past, present and future intersect. This collapsing or condensing of time was manifest at the very first Seder when our ancestors in Egypt beheld God’s revelation at midnight; midnight being the immeasurable space between two days, a time that is not made of time.
However, there is a problem with collapsing time and that is that we cannot live without the awareness of the passage of time. The passage of time enables us to cherish what we have, it helps heal wounds and pain, it gives us things to look forward to; it gives us perspective.
The tragedy of a life unable to experience the passage of time is evident in the youngest Compson brother, the severally mentally disabled Benji. As he has no concept of time he experiences constant and fresh pain and loss.
Faulkner said of Benji: “To that idiot, time was not a continuation, it was an instant, there was no yesterday and no tomorrow, it all is this moment, it all is [now] to him. He cannot distinguish between what was last year and what will be tomorrow, he doesn’t know whether he dreamed it or saw it.”
The downside of transcending time is utter disorientation. The tragedy of the Compson brothers is that Quentin is unable to transcend time, while Benji cannot begin to grasp time. Both are cursed and suffer terribly, although in different ways, as a result.
Maybe that is why immediately after the Seder we begin the most time-conscious ritual of all: counting the Omer, as if to reinforce the importance of time in our lives. While the Seder creates the magical experience of collapsed time, it can only be momentary. We must inevitably get back to the temporal world; we cannot truly conquer time but we might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all our breath trying to conquer it. Seder night presents this opportunity and if grasped its magic will continue to be felt all year long.