BENNINGTON -- Recalling the escape of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt, Passover raises questions of liberation and freedom -- individual, communal and global.
Such questions found varied expressions at the Passover Second Night Community Seder at Congregation Beth El in Bennington on Tuesday, April 15.
Passover began in the evening of Monday, April 14, and ends the evening of Tuesday, April 22. Jews celebrate Passover as a commemoration of their liberation by God from slavery in ancient Egypt, which was ruled by the pharaohs, and their freedom as a nation under the leadership of Moses, as described in the Scriptures. The Passover seder is a ritual feast retelling the story of this liberation and includes discussing the story, drinking four cups of wine, eating matzah -- a form of unleavened bread -- and partaking of symbolic foods.
The tables in the Beth El hall were set with items including wine, herbs and unleavened bread used and consumed at different stages of the dinner. Place settings also included the book "A Night of Questions: A Passover Haggadah" -- sort of a guide or order of service with explanation and commentary about each segment of the ritual.
"The tables are set just right, and we are going to take a look at all of the items on the table and use them to provoke questions," said Rabbi Jarah Greenfield before the celebration, noting that the seder is "about asking questions in order to evoke the telling of the story of the Exodus which ... was part of our ancestral collective history.
"But during Passover Seder it's not just told as history, it's meant to be experienced spiritually. And so tonight we're going to be focused on both the telling of the ancient Exodus from Egypt and then also relating it to contemporary issues of slave labor in the world," she said.
Those attending the Seder were encouraged to bring an object, photo or article representing a current challenge to freedom and human rights in the world. Greenfield brought information about modern-day slavery, noting that today roughly 21 to 25 million people around the world are enslaved -- more than at any time in history.
"It's just that we don't recognize it and actually look at things like we used to," she said. "We've brought a variety of contemporary issues to examine with regard to how to understand slavery and then what to do about it. So this is an experience of moving from a state of bondage to a state of redemption through telling stories and through connecting."
Jen Burt, volunteer coordinator at Beth El, began the seder with a topical ice-breaker. "The Haggadah says that we should act as if it was us who was one of the Exodus ... as if it was you who was going out from Egypt," she said. "So in that tradition I would like to try to have everybody introduce themselves ... and if you were part of the Exodus and you were fleeing and there was one thing you could bring with you, what would it be?"
Those present mentioned such things as a mandolin, crocheting, a family photo album, a cell phone, materials to write with, and the Torah.
Then Greenfield offered her first teaching of the night.
"Before we do anything, we have to prepare ourselves. This preliminary step of being spiritually transformed requires that we think about what we want out of our seder experience. Notice that I use the word ‘experience,' not necessarily the word ‘dinner' -- right?" she said. "The reason I use ‘experience' is that seder is a way in which we ready ourselves to spiritually return to Egypt, as slaves, so that we can then become redeemed again.
"The word ‘seder' itself means order, and it reflects the order of ceremony that will be the container for that journey tonight. An experience to think about that works on many, many different levels," Greenfield said.
The experience can work internally in memory, in the present moment of life experience, and it also works as a communal or a global experience, she said.
Greenfield quoted Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel before it was a state: "We were liberated from Egypt because it was so that we could bring liberation to the entire world, but first we have to liberate ourselves."
So she asked those present to ask themselves about their own "individual journey of liberation that you need to take this Passover? What do you need to let go of from the past to unburden yourself from and, looking ahead, what is the next step toward the life you want to create for yourself?"
The seder proceeded with many diverse activities. These included the asking of the "four questions." Traditionally, one of the questions is "why is this night different from all other nights?" Among those present were those could ask the four questions in such languages as Spanish, French and Gaelic. Burt played recordings of the four questions in Zulu, Turkish, Swedish and other languages.
Children happily took part in the seder, particularly the handwashing and in re-enacting the plaques of Egypt. At one point a battery-powered mechanical dinosaur crawled across the floor, apparently re-enacting the wild animals plague of the 10 plagues God is said to have inflicted on Egypt to persuade Pharaoh to let the Israelites go.
Contact Mark Rondeau at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @banner_religion