Pen Ultimate / Looking Back at the Repast

On the aftermath of a momentous seder.

Often when thinking back on an event - pondering both my anticipation of it and my wisdom in hindsight about it - I promise myself that I'll check where the word "aftermath" comes from. This year, following the seder, shortly after the door opened for Elijah the Prophet was closed behind the backs of the departing guests, I made a beeline for my laptop, which had been stashed away during the meal.

I quickly typed the word in question, and the first result that caught my eye was from the Merriam-Webster site: "the period immediately following a usually ruinous event." This was a very appropriate definition, as before our seder, which included 23 guests (one in a portable crib) from four generations, all crammed into our tiny apartment - I felt as apprehensive as Moses when he was ordered by God, from within the burning bush, to deliver the Israelites out of their bondage in Egypt.

Now I'm not slow of speech or afraid of people, but performing before a crowd that included some non-Hebrew speakers, an assortment of toddlers and a number of adults who are usually most interested in the culinary part of the proceedings, I was concerned that "they will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice."

Furthermore, I admit I am one of those who like to show off while reading the Passover Haggadah. Admittedly, it is a familiar script, whose parts are recited by Jews all over the world on the same day, ostensibly to remind us of the greatness of the God who freed our forefathers and led them to the promised land. But I still like to come up every year with a new way of interpreting the story or of wowing my listeners with a brilliant exegesis of a supposedly well-known and obvious bit of the narrative.

This year the chosen morsel of Jewish wisdom concerned the fact that the Wise Son and the Wicked Son are not all that different. In the Haggadah, the former asks: "What are the statutes, the testimonies, and the laws that God has commanded you to do?" whereas the latter asks: "What does this service mean to you?" The Wicked Son is rebuked for setting himself apart from his people, standing to the side and patronizingly observing their behavior rather than participating, but actually the Wise Son's question reflects a similar sort of alienation.

Later on in the meal, before the wine overcame me, I managed to explain my interpretation of the Wicked Son-Wise Son conundrum to my son-in-law. I declared that wisdom does not preclude wickedness and vice versa. Secondly, the Wise Son's question, taken from Deuteronomy (6:20), was probably phrased in ancient times in the first-person plural (i.e., directed at "us"), and only later changed in the formal, authorized version of the Pentateuch to the third person ("you"). The scribes who penned the Haggadah manuscripts in later years amended it to follow the canonized text. Hmm, said my wise son-in-law, that's interesting.

I had much to say on this and other subjects, but was also aware that if I spread these pearls of wisdom before my English-speaking and adult guests, I'd lose the attention of those members of the very young generation for whose benefit the seder is held. Furthermore, I was aware that they were regaled in kindergarten with stories about baby Moses, who was hidden in the rushes and saved from untimely death - but are not aware that he is mentioned but once, and that only in passing, in the entire Haggadah.

So, I was overcome with apprehension about the aftermath of the seder, which loomed in my mind as something that could potentially be ruinous. (By the way, I later discovered to my surprise that the word in question does not derive from "math(ematics)" - summing up gains and losses, or reckoning after the fact. Rather, as Etymology Online elucidates, it was used to mean "a second crop of grass grown after the first had been harvested, from after + -math, from Old English, meaning "mowing.")

So as not to leave you in suspense, the aftermath of our holiday meal had nothing to do with the aforementioned, dreaded "ruinous event." Sometimes the seder spells the ruin of good family relationships, due to heated arguments over who will host and lead it, who will be invited, who will prepare which food, who will ask the Four Questions or who will get to read the good parts. In our case this year, we hosts basked in the glory of what was apparently an unqualified success, summed up by some with superlatives.

When I try to understand how this seder was different from all other seders, of course, I must give credit to "she who must be obeyed" (I'm not allowed to say anything more revealing about her), especially for her pre-meal planning and calculations. Our table, which actually comprised three separate tables, was arranged at an angle, dividing our living space like the Red Sea. Thus, to cross from one "bank" to the other, you either had to crawl under it - a feat performed with great pleasure by the kids of both genders, and by the more agile of the adults - or be carried like Moses in the basket over it, from one pair of able arms to another.

Credit should also be given to the guests, who were all in a relaxed and celebratory mood, and to our daughter, who printed in advance versions of the Haggadah with photos of all the guests and pages to be colored by the kids, depicting various relevant seder and Exodus scenes. Shortly after the Four Questions, the children were thus otherwise engaged, which allowed the adults to plow through the text. I'm not even mentioning the food or the wine, of which I partook in excess of the requisite four glasses.

As to myself, I learned one very important lesson following this momentous event: The seder is not just about making meticulous preparations (to which I contributed nothing, I admit), or about allaying one's apprehensions about possible foibles, culinary, logistical or social. It is mainly about "letting go" - about realizing that those present are usually members of the family and dear friends, whom we seldom have the chance to see in one place, happy and healthy. People who are often closest to our hearts, and certainly worthy of sharing a meal and a story with. Indeed, one can never know how many times we will enjoy such gatherings in the future.

As I'm surely no Pharaoh, I will never let them go - but I certainly will try to let myself go in the future, and enjoy the rest of the repast of life with them.