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Published by: outdash2 on Mar 21, 2013
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Seder Night: The Emergence of Covenantal Man
Self-selecting systems, such as the manner in which manyAmericans choose a vocation, have a very particular strength. Giventhe fact that almost no one becomes, for example, a particle physicist,because they were forced to do so, one may reasonably assume thatparticle physicists truly enjoy what they do. This benefits not only thephysicists themselves, who will derive much pleasure and joy fromspending their time thinking, experimenting, and writing about a topicregarding which they are deeply passionate, but society as well. In alllikelihood, the collective performance of the deeply passionate andcommitted professionals will translate materially into performance.Coercive, hereditary systems, like most religious systems,including Judaism, are thus faced with a serious dilemma. Given thefact that, by definition, one’s belonging to the system is not volitional,it stands to reason that many people will not enjoy certain aspects of the system, especially the restrictive ones. Lack of choice may notonly result in the absence of passion, but, very often, activeresentment, ultimately translating, generously speaking, intomediocrity in observance.
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 While this problem is intrinsic to Judaism, it is exacerbated at thecurrent historical moment, given the fact that other major lifedecisions, such as the aforementioned vocational choice, marriagepartner, place of residence, are very often volitional indeed. For many,the absence of autonomy regarding the most fundamental choice of all, religious identity, in contrast with other areas, is simply too muchto bear. The current possibility of assimilation, a historical anomaly,and the empirical data on the American scene of its pervasiveness,attests amply to the phenomenon outlined above. One doubts that thepercentage of particle physicists who abandon their field of choiceremotely approaches Jewish attrition rates. And small wonder. The halakha was not unaware of the dilemma that it confronted,and in my opinion, confronts this issue directly in the form of theSeder. The mandate that we have to envision ourselves as if weliterally were taken from bondage into freedom
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is a profound thoughtexperiment during which we are actually being asked to consider
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two
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The common Amish practice of 
rumschpringa
is obviously meant toinject an element of volition into a fundamentally hereditary structure,and highlights the universal dimension of the quandary.
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Mishna, Pesachim, Chapter 10. Cf. Medrash Tana’im and RambamHilkhot Chametz U’Matzah Chapter 7 for their version, which divergesin three significant ways.
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The Sages requirement that the Seder begin with questionsregarding the unique (I would say, transformative), and, in certaincircumstances, with one actually posing the questions to oneself,
 
radically divergent modes of existence, and still more radically, tohonestly confront which one offers us greater meaning; the non-covenantal experience of our lives in Egyptian bondage, or thecovenantal life into which we were catapulted through thetransformative process of Exodus. The Sages require us to explore thistransition deeply
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, on two parallel levels; we explore not only thenational-political bondage of Egypt, but the spiritual desiccation of ournon-covenantal experience as well. It is only through re-experiencingthat unique historical moment, when we could fully appreciate thetransition which we experienced from non-covenantal life tocovenantal life, that we can ever fully embrace our Judaism, as if ourbelonging to the covenant was indeed volitional.What, then, is characteristic of non-covenantal experience?Verily, ‘we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.’ Human history ischaracterized by the diabolical urge of man to power, at the expenseof inflicting terrible suffering upon his fellow. Non-covenantalexperience has few winners, the mighty, the powerful, the ruthless, thePharaohs, and many victims, the oppressed, the bereft, the aggrieved.Perhaps worse than the pervasive suffering itself is the absence of anycathartic, redemptive context for the suffering, any system of meaningthrough which the suffering is of any meaning. Man is left only howlinto the wind as a wounded beast might, confronted mercilessly by theCamusian absurd; ‘and the children of Israel groaned on account of thework, and they cried out.’
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Further, non-covenantal man is trapped by the present. What ishis relationship with the past or the future? He might be grateful foradvances of the past that, in a purely utilitarian way, have made hislife more pleasant. He might enjoy the study of history as anintellectual pastime. Likewise, he may entertain a vague, murkyaspiration for the distant future of mankind, but he can have nofundamental relationship with beings from whom he is, by definition,totally disconnected, separated by a vast, unbridgeable chasm of time.Most importantly, non-covenantal experience is marked byprofound unfairness and outrageous injustice. To whom do the spoilsgo? To those blessed, genetically or environmentally, with greatintelligence, wealth, health, or beauty. The masses of mankind, bymathematical definition, average in their talents, abilities, andaccomplishments, are largely ignored and perpetually undervalued.underscores this point. It is only a Seder if one is deeply confrontingthe existential issues that the transition to covenantal life actuallyraises, and hopefully, guiding one’s children through the process. SeeBT Pesachim 116a.
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Matchilin b’Gnut U’Mesaymim B’Shevach
. Ibid. The halakha requiresus to adopt both Rav and Shmuel’s positions.
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Exodus 2:23

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