What’s the Passover seder for? If you ask most Jews, the answers would revolve around getting together with family and retelling the story of the Exodus. Those two elements are certainly essential. But as Prof. Marc Michael Epstein points out, there’s a third, deeper answer that serves to support the two others: seders are also about feeling.
In the Torah, we’re told to follow a commandment because we were once slaves in Egypt. Many of those commandments involve treating others with respect, including foreigners and poor people. Remembering the suffering of our ancestors helps us recognize the humanity of those who are suffering now, and reminds us not to ignore, or take advantage, of them. So it’s important to really feel that ancient suffering. We have to go beyond reciting the traditional lines and place ourselves in the mindset of our ancestors in Egypt.
That’s a big job for the seder, which is why it centers on a narrative: stories are far better than direct teachings at arousing emotions. And that’s why everyone needs to participate, so they can feel they are part of the story rather than just passive listeners. That’s also why we tell the story before eating, so we feel our ancestors’ deprivation in the midst of Egyptian affluence.
Art can also elicit emotions, as Epstein is well aware. A professor of religion and visual culture at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, Epstein is an expert on Jewish art, and he’s made a special study of the script for the seder, the Haggadah. As Jewish communities gained a degree of material prosperity in medieval times, they began commissioning beautifully illustrated versions. They knew that images would help promote empathy.
Epstein will be the scholar-in-residence at Temple Emanu-El’s educational weekend, March 23-25. On Friday, March 23, at 8:15 p.m., he will speak on the topic “Praiseworthy and Beyond: The Art of Passover.” Shabbat services will be held before the talk, at 5:45, followed by dinner, at 7, featuring German cuisine.
On Shabbat morning, near the end of the service, at 11:30, Epstein’s d’var Torah will connect Shabbat HaGadol with the topic of how Jews and Christians read the Bible differently. At 1 p.m., following a Kiddush luncheon of Eastern European dishes, he will delve deeper into the Ashkenazic world in “Hasidic Insights on the Haggadah.”
Epstein’s visit closes on Sunday morning with a program for children and young families. At 9:30, after a continental breakfast, it’s time for “Art Detectives: The Mystery of the Golden Haggadah.” The audience will examine the images of this splendid book, hand-painted in Spain in 1320. Epstein will lead them in appreciating how those images served the fundamental purpose of Passover, as well as the particular needs of its time and place.
The educational weekend takes place a week before the start of Passover, making it an inspiring way to prepare for the actual seders – the meal as well as the storytelling.
The talks are free and will be held at Temple Emanu-El, 99 Taft Ave., Providence. Anyone who would like to enjoy a meal at the temple should register at www.teprov.org or by calling 401-331-1616. There is a fee for Friday night’s dinner.
JOHN LANDRY lives in Providence and serves on Temple Emanu-El’s adult education committee.