Virtual Talmud

I was wondering the other day why family gatherings for Passover are so different than those for Thanksgiving?

So many people find Thanksgiving to be an exercise in family dysfunction. In fact, an entire niche of the travel business is now catering to those escaping the drama of their family’s Thanksgiving mishegas. In contrast, Passover is still family-centered, generally lacking the psychodynamic fireworks of our more secular fall feast.

Perhaps the difference lies in what we do for these gatherings. On Thanksgiving, all there is to do is eat and talk. Without a structure or direction, family tensions and rivalries rise to the surface. If not handled tactfully, they can explode like a mishandled soufflé. Passover, on the other hand, is carefully orchestrated. There is an order to the evening. That is what the word “seder” means: order, as in the order of the service. (I am sure the four cups of wine help lend a mellow mood to the evening, as well.)

Whether one covers the entire Haggadah or selections of it, there are paragraphs to read and songs to sing. (Is it an axiom that the family who sings together, stays together?) There are questions to ask and points to debate, which gives the discussion a focus.

Indeed, the entire Passover seder is highly structured and directed. This is the power of ritual: It brings us together, bridging our differences with a shared purpose and identity. There is little time to focus on our differences when we are busy reliving what unites us. By the time we get to the free-form intermission of the meal, the ritual of the seder has worked its magic, binding us together by shared memories and experiences.

That is why I think Passover remains the last great refuge of the family feast. It is true that for some of us, the family gathered around our table may be one of friends because our own blood relatives live far away or because we have joined our fate to that of the Jewish community as converts. Nevertheless, it is within family that Passover remains most vibrant, evidenced by the role of the youngest child reading the Four Questions, to all the effort made to make the Seder engaging for the children, the next generation to carry the story into the future.

At its heart, Thanksgiving dinner is really about each of us, as individuals, and about what we each received, for which we take a sometimes guilty moment to be thankful. The ritual of the Passover seder, however, reminds us about the collective “we.”

It is about how our ancestors coped with oppression, not just in Egypt but in every age, and how we learned the hard way the importance of loving the stranger, since we know viscerally what it is like to be strangers in a strange land. It is also about how, when we stick together, we can survive almost anything, even the unthinkable.

As my mother of blessed memory would often say, “Blood is thicker than water.” That is really what family is about. While we are often attracted to the universal aspects of the Passover narrative, and justifiably so, at its heart, Passover is the story of our family, from our father, the wandering Aramean, to us sitting around the seder table this year and next.

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