[begun Saturday evening, finished tonight]
[edited for attribution]
I can’t help feeling this is anticlimactic now for some reason. But it does continue to amuse me, esp. after today we went through the hagaddah (service book) published by temple Berith Shalom (Wednesday is actually Passover eve, but we did it today because mom’s leaving on a cruise tomorrow morning). It’s a handy reference point, although it’s hardly the book I was raised on. This one is more reform, more concise, and more proactive in putting a name to the analogous contemporary injustices we Jews should be doing our part to stop.
So anyway. The Facebook Hagaddah was written by Carl Elkin, incidentally the creator of the oft-referenced “Yes We Conserve” application. For the uninitiated, this hagaddah is a mockup of a “Wall” on Facebook, one of the main means by which people converse, interact and stay informed on the site. Ordinarily, it would contain a list of messages and events in reverse-chronological order, with the most recent updates at the top. The fake page depicts some of the steps in the hagaddah (intertwined with elements of the Passover story told in the hagaddah) in this format, erroneously in forward-chronological order, so as to read more clearly.
The irony is that, just as routine Facebook users would expect an authentic page to read the other way around, Jews know and expect that the hagaddah will be read from back cover to front cover, even if it contains more Latin lettering (read left-to-right) than it does Hebrew (right-to-left). Berith Shalom no longer does this, probably in part because they’re heavily interfaith and stress modernization of traditions.
The fictitious Seder begins with a status message saying “Joseph is going to Egypt”. In the Bible, Joseph was actually dead and buried by the start of Exodus, but it’s kind of funnier this way. They’ve also managed to work in what I think is an oblique reference to Esther (the story behind another holiday).
The prophet Elijah chimes in to relate his progress in the evening rounds. According to tradition, every household conducting Seder leaves a door open and a small glass of wine to welcome the visitation of Elijah’s ghost. His tolerance for alcohol has apparently gotten impressive over the years, but even so the scale of the holiday in modern times is a bit daunting.
An “advisor” who resembles Haman is shown convincing the Pharaoh not to trust the Jews, who are thriving in his kingdom, and ultimately he enslaves them. Meanwhile some rabbis (Talmud scholars cited in the hagaddah, I’m guessing) are seen busily splitting hairs about something irrelevant, which is what they do best.
There follows an exchange: Pharaoh sent The Israelites Bread of Affliction. The Israelites: “This stuff tastes awful.” The Israelites: “This year we are slaves, next year we may be free!”
“Bread of affliction” or “bread of poverty” is a common term in the hagaddah for matzo, the unrisen bread which, when addressed as such, is an emblem of the suffering of the enslaved Jews. Matzo is baked thin and dry, like the desert. It represents the subjugation of the once-prosperous Jewish people.
Incidentally, “This year slaves, next year free” is part of a common formulation of the Seder, which is all about contrast. The first portion of the ceremony is meant to be solemn, in remembrance of the slaves’ suffering. The second portion is jubilant, in remembrance of their liberation.
The next entry is “25 things you didn’t know about me by God“. This parodies Notes, another aspect of Facebook. In the last few months, a popular trend among users was to send a note like this to 25 friends that revealed 25 interesting or surprising facts about them. Here we see a short passage from God’s note. It’s silly, although it contains at least two biblical “facts”: God kills a lot of people in the Torah, and he had other universes before ours. I seem to recall he had two? Someone can probably correct me on that.
Next is a result from a quiz, one of a class of generally annoying applications that has spread like wildfire since Facebook began allowing third parties to extend and publish to the site. It’s the “Which god are you?” quiz, and naturally Pharaoh’s result is that he is the sun god, Ra.
A related, but more positively viewed form of facebook activity is those which promote social consciousness, such as emission- and waste-tracking activities, and tools for promoting social causes and making actionable pledges. The Israelites are using one of these to make a pledge related to reducing their misery in the arid conditions.
Pharaoh publishes a photo album depicting the construction of two of his ancestors’ tombs. I’m not sure who Pithom was or why his wasn’t done yet. I think some accounts have Ramses II being on the throne during the events of Exodus, which fits here. Huge props for the “pyramid scheme” gag. Elijah writes in again, and he sounds like he’s having a rough time servicing the millions of Jewish households worldwide.
Next we go back to the symbolism of the Seder plate for a moment. As the aforementioned symbol of affliction, matzo forms a symbolic trifecta with two of the other ingredients on the Seder plate–the charoses, a sweet apple-nut filling that represents the fruitful labor done by the slaves with mortar and brick, and the maror, a bitter or pungent herb (usually horseradish) that symbolizes the bitterness of being forced to do this work for someone else. In one of the central and oldest remaining Passover traditions, these ingredients are eaten together as a sandwich. The procedure is attributed to Hillel the Elder.
For me, the ritual of The Four Questions stands out in mind because, as the youngest of the house, I am always designated to read them aloud. I really ought to have had mom teach me the Hebrew chant by now–it’s cooler than the English.
Offhand, I’m not sure what point in the telling of the story within Seder actually coincides with The Four Questions and The Four Sons. It’s probably moot because the two aren’t fully parallel, with different parts of the Seder covering and re-covering different parts of the story from a different angle. But for us these seem to fall at or slightly past the midway point of the service, before most of the action. They bring a change in the tone of the reading, from immersive to reflective.
The Four Questions serve to reiterate (in case anyone’s forgotten since last year) what the four main special rituals of the holiday are, and to initiate a dialogue on the reasoning behind them, which may or may not follow a script. This year I learned that among the many significant sets of four associated with this holiday is the four major periods of Jewish captivity, which I’m guessing would be counted as Egypt, Persia, Babylon and Rome.
The Four Sons provides the general motivation for the rituals, in the form of a dialogue with four hypothetical sons. Each son is asking essentially the same thing the four questions did–why is this night special?–but in a way that reflects wisdom, stupidity, lack of manners or lack of imagination. The hagaddah gives a different answer for each, but in all cases the first-person is used, hinting at the central point: ‘It is because of what the Almighty did for me when I left Egypt.’ In short, the purpose of the Seder is to relive and internalize the exodus, to keep its memory clear in the minds of the people.
From there, the Seder usually gets more interesting. Selected stories may be read about the Jews complaining to God, God commanding Moses to sack up, Moses’ demands to the Pharaoh, magical snakes eating other magical snakes, etc. The plagues themselves are treated in a separate ritual wherein a drop of wine is spilled for each.
Into this they insert the rambling of Mark Z., founder of Facebook, whose periodic wholesale restructuting of the site has apparently caused people to think of him first and foremost as a schlamiel who doesn’t know what’s important. He is rebuffed by God, in a strange sequence which I first thought had something to do with Twitter, but in fact was just an oddball reference to Jonah. There follows the ten plagues, and an amusing send-up of Talmudic scholars’ habit of mincing data. Pharaoh gives in after God takes the nuclear option, killing the scion of every Egyptian household. Dang, right in the family jewels…
The subsequent dialogue between Moses and the Israelites is the second meaning behind the flat bread. Moses, not wanting to wait and see if Pharaoh would change his mind, orders the Jews to flee while Egypt is still in chaos from the plagues. Normal activities are disrupted; bread for the journey is thrown in the oven before the yeast has had time to act on it. However they insist on stopping for a quick photo op and upload the pictures to Facebook. Then they resume the flight, the chase, the parting of the waters and that good stuff.
I think it’s this latter element of the matzo symbolism that relates mostly to activities following the Seder. For the duration of Passover, regular bread, and anything that has undergone fermentation of any kind, will not be considered Kosher. The Jews in their flight had neither the time nor the resources for such things. Today, the restrictions are implemented differently in different places, and are actually much more severe here in the US and in parts of Europe than elsewhere (hence Kosher coke).
Optional additional materials, such as the “It would have been enough if…” stanzas, can take the story as far as Sinai, though not in great detail. Recall milk and honey are not elements of the Seder table. This hagaddah ends with Elijah vowing to find his own team of magic reindeer, God sending his chosen people their commandments in the form of a “gift”, and the addition of Pharaoh to the Gehenna network.