Seder's End

Monday, March 29, 2010

The four cups have been drunk, the story has been told, and all have cried "Next Year in Jerusalem." Now comes the final act, one that, the late hour notwithstanding, it would be a pity to miss.

The closing pages of the Haggadah, a mix of sacred hymns and humorous songs, highlight the entire narrative's arresting mix of playfulness and pedagogy, the fine line it walks between the memory of slavery and persecution and the celebration of survival and destiny. The hymns, most of them seemingly unconnected to the Seder itself, widen its angle of vision as we venture out to the rest of the year.

"Who Knows One," of which a fragment appears in the Cairo Genizah, may be the most widespread of the songs, having found its way into Haggadot from Majorca to India. A variation on a common form of children's ditty, it proceeds through the manifold dimensions of Jewish life, from biblical origins onward, all held together by the mysterious unity of God.

But the best-known song is undoubtedly "Had Gadya," the tale of the little goat who sets in motion a stupendous chain of mayhem through the animal and human kingdoms, resolved at the last moment by the vanquishing of death itself: an act of grace so profound that only God could accomplish it.

This song, too, boasts an antique origin, in a talmudic passage (Bava Batra 10a) in which all the adamantine substances of the world cancel each other out until, the Talmud says, Death conquers all—but not quite, since, as Proverbs (10:2) assures us, "righteousness delivers from death." Many have read "Had Gadya" as an allegory of Jewish history, with one historical calamity devouring another until God trumps in the end—a reading that still fires artistic imaginations.

Perhaps the oldest of the hymns is "And It Came to Pass in the Middle of the Night," written by the great 7th-century liturgist Yannai. The plague of the Egyptian firstborn, which finally unlocked the prison of Israelite servitude, happened, the Bible tells us (Exodus 12:29), in the middle of the night. Recounting all the miraculous reversals that have occurred in those dark recesses, the poet closes by longing for a day "that is neither day nor night . . . when the night will shine bright as the day"—a time when the polarities of night and day will dissolve once and for all into the magical synthesis of redemption.

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