Monday, September 15, 2014

Judaism's Top 40: Elul 21, #21 in the countdown: Seder - Order

In a chaotic world, Jews have always sought an organizing principle, a way to manufacture order, where order seems so elusive.

The Passover Seder is a perfect example of this, as symbolized by the set order and strict requirements of the ritual and most of all by the Matzah, that perfect embodiment of stability and steadfastness, that essence of uniformity and flatness.  Matzah is quintessentially controlled; scrutinized closely from its formative stages through the baking process. And on the Seder table it is handled delicately, uncovered ceremoniously and raised and broken with ritualistic precision.

But the Jewish preoccupation with order only begins there.  To understand it best, we need to view the world through the lens of the great calamities that have come so close to ending the Jewish enterprise.  The destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE was an almost incomprehensible disaster.  Our way of life was gone; our rituals were all centered around that smoldering temple.  A new order was needed.

That order came about over the subsequent generations, crystallized in the Mishna and later the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds.  The six organizing sections of the Mishna are, not surprisingly, called “orders.”  They are described in this article.

Despite the understandable Jewish preoccupation with order, there is much room for spontaneity as well.  Passover may be obsessive – compulsive, but Judaism – not so much.   And even Passover has its wild side, as symbolized on the seder table by the wine.

As I’ve written elsewhere: The wine is there to teach us that Judaism, like life, is infinitely too complicated for human beings to be able to impose total order on it. Judaism breathes through us. Watch how the wine and matzah vie for attention in the Seder’s drama. When one is raised, broken or poured, the other is covered, ignored or left empty. This epic battle between constancy and chance is like a blast of warm weather from the Gulf meeting a cold Canadian high over New England in early spring. And in the end, look which one triumphs. No sooner are we finished with the bread of affliction, finishing the last morsel of the afikoman; then the third cup of wine is poured. Serendipity gets the last word. The wine wins. Maybe the message here is that what’s most constant, even in this world of extreme, superimposed order, is change itself. No matter how much we try to hermetically seal our lives from yeastiness, chametz happens. The perfection of matzah turns out to be the ultimate illusion — but that doesn’t prevent us from striving for it all the more.

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