Think about the word "ritual." What comes to mind?
Now think about the word "play." Same question.
I recently asked our staff to do this exercise and to jot down words or images that they associated with both words. When we thought of ritual, we generally thought of words like "structure," "rules," "religion." Play brought to mind "children," "games," and "laughter," but also "boundaries" and "structure."
Ritual and play are related. In order to play, one has to have a sense of structure. Yet to be playful, you can't become bogged down in the structure.
This wonderful creative tension between ritual and play is central to the seder and to Passover.
The seder is, of course, our most child-centered event. We have the Four Questions of the seder, which are meant to be asked by a child, and the four types of children who receive responses appropriate to them. We have the game of hide-and-seek with the afikomen, in which children look for the missing matzah and can in fact hold up the conclusion of the seder until they give it back (this makes for some good negotiating). We have special songs and special foods, both of which are intended to make the night different and provoke a child's curiosity.
Yet as you think about the seder, do you think of it as more playful, or more ritualistic? Hopefully your answer is both. The seder cannot help but be a ritual--it is called a seder, meaning 'order.' It establishes a rhythm, a structure. And yet the seder is undeniably playful--both in the way that literally encourages play, and in the way that its structure is elastic and malleable.
This malleability, this play, is woven into the structure of the seder itself on a number of levels. First there is the level we described above, of the play of children. But on a more adult level, there is the play involved in re-enacting the drama of the Exodus from Egypt: "In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as if s/he personally left Egypt," says Rabban Gamliel. We are meant to act out the drama--to put on a play. This kind of play, in which we interact with the historical narrative, stems from the same root as the play of children, and it involves mediating our story with that of our ancestors. On yet another level, play is central to the seder in the instruction to create our own midrash on the verses from Deuteronomy 26 which being "My ancestor was a wandering Aramean." Here the play involved is a play of intertextuality--playing with multiple texts and finding the ways they comment and reflect on one another.
In each of these ways, the play of the seder is an expression of a particular kind of freedom: not an unbounded freedom to do anything, anywhere, at anytime with anyone, but a freedom to be masters of our own destiny, in dialogue and partnership with our Creator, our sacred texts, and the Jewish people past, present and future. To be truly playful, the seder reminds us, one must have a context, a sense of boundaries, within which we can find ourselves.
At the seder, we are invited to rediscover our playfulness. We are invited to be scholars, playing with the texts of our tradition. We are invited to be actors, to act out the play of our people's ancient yet ongoing liberation. And we are invited to be children, to rediscover that playful sense of awe and wonder that inspires us to marvel at the world and the blessing of our existence in it.
So have a playful and happy Passover!
Prepared by Rabbi Josh Feigelson, campus rabbi at Northwestern University