Another week, another gifted commentary on the Haggadah, this time by Dr. Adena Berkowitz. Just released by Israel’s Gefen Publishing House, “The Jewish Journey Haggadah” is subtitled, “Connecting the Generations.” And so it does. While carefully following a traditional litergy, some of its notes echo contemporary themes.
In our online interview, Dr. Berkowitz, co-author of a previous work, “Shaarei Simcha: Gates of Joy,” shares the deep importance that Pesach holds for all of us.
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“Shabbos is special, all the Yom Tovim are special, but the Sedarim of Pesach stand out as one of the most educational experiences of our mesorah. Amidst the beauty of the Seder table, the delicious food, the variety of wines — Seder nights provide a unique chance to impart to all at the table key ideas of what being a Jew is all about:
“Our relationship with G-d; the meaning of freedom; the importance of both memory and living halachic practice; the requirement to remember what our lives were like during slavery; to feel for those who are enslaved, and of our hopes for current spiritual liberation.
“It is not just a meal — it is a spiritual meal, a spiritual journey that requires work on the part of those at the table. We are not just supposed to plop ourselves down. We have work to! We have to feel the backbreaking labor of Egyptian servitude. We have to offer gratitude that we were freed from Egypt. We have to feel the terror of the Egyptians chasing us with the Sea of Reeds in front of us. We have to bring to the forefront our emunah, our deep faith that the G-d who redeemed us from Egypt will now accompany us we cross the Sea Of Reeds with song in our hearts and, in our current lives leading to the Ultimate Redemption.
“When I grew up, our Sedarim, in addition to our immediate family (that included visiting grandparents and later just my maternal grandmother, who lived to over 100), would feature some veteran returnees and then be opened to an eclectic and broad-based group. We could be joined by frum friends, newly Orthodox children of friends, stars of the Yiddish theatre who long ago gave up observance, secular politicians, movie stars or radio/TV personalities or a simple neighborhood person in need of a place at a Seder.
“As the evening would progress, the joy and happiness of the people participating never diminished. The conversations and differing points of view (that never became rancorous, despite the varied backgrounds of those at the table) flowed as freely as the wine. In our house no one would get away with the 30-minute Seder, nor think of cutting out after 30 minutes. Just about all our guests would stay for hours, to the last Chad Gadya, the last L’Shana Haba’ah.
“When it came time for me to edit my own Haggadah, I realized that I would want the user to experience in some way the educational experience that I had on Seder nights as a child and what I hope my children would feel and experience at our Sedarim. I wanted to design a user-friendly Haggadah that would feature not only the traditional text, that provided an educational experience, as tradition mandated, but also, through the commentary, make the participants realize that they were going on a real spiritual journey. The participants had to feel as if as if they too were leaving Egypt that very night.
“The text had to be explained, making it both thought provoking, contemplative, and reflective. In addition to the traditional liturgy, the songs had to be fun, the melodies exciting, and the conversation relevant. The pictures used in the Haggadah would help the Seder to come alive — regardless of the background or the beliefs of this in attendance.
“One thing that motivated me was the realization that what makes the Seder nights so very special is often the variety of the backgrounds of the people present. That can be very challenging. Hence it’s a chance to convey the vibrancy of our mesorah, our religious heritage, in a way that everyone can find meaning — and in turn come to realize the power of Pesach and its message for us today.
“A traditional text coupled with a modern translation and transliteration surely comes together and helps those who do not read nor understand Hebrew, and provides exposure to traditional commentators and contemporary questions, stories, and parody songs for all to learn and benefit from for the many years to come.”