Those of you who have ever attended a Passover Seder recognize this as Yackatz, the fourth step in the retelling of the Exodus from Egypt. There are several lessons to be learned in this particular portion of the Seder. One of the most important is that some slaves, the Children of Israel, ate a portion of their rations when it was given to them and retained the rest for later. These smarter slaves, these survivors, are our ancestors.
The Seder can not end until we eat that other half of matzah. Years ago, when my children were small, I would hide the Afikoman. The kids, mine and the children of my friends who were in attendance, would do a mad dash through the house looking for the napkin holding the matzah. I was tricky. I even planted fake Afikoman, napkins with notes that said that they needed to continue looking. Bookshelves, piano benches, behind the couch – it could be anywhere. And when it was found there were prizes for everyone.
And then the kids got too big. Their searching could have been detrimental to the bookshelves, the piano bench, etc… And so we created a new tradition. Someone would take the Afikoman when I wasn’t looking. Eventually it would be returned and there would be prizes for everyone.
Now I don’t share this story with you out of some desire to recreate the past. I don’t. I remember fondly different houses, blended families, and the children of friends that are long past childhood. And those are moments in time that I will always cherish. The last two nights have been our annual Seders, and it would be odd to not reflect upon nearly fifty years of creating and recreating traditions in the service of a bigger truth.
My parents gladly ceded the Seder to me as soon as I asked to be in charge of it. Second grade. Not their thing. Growing up the Afikoman, and all of the Seder from Page 4 to Page 28 of the Haggadah was simply something I had to get through before everyone lost their patience. The Four Questions, the Four Sons, Spill the 10 drops of wine “DON’T MAKE A MESS”, Wash your hands a couple of times, and then it was time for dinner. Why was Passover my favorite holiday? Surely not because of the Seder. I found the story compelling.
I found it interesting that the Children of Israel had to actually do something. They were forced to choose to be part of a community.
I had limited exposure to other Seders while growing up. I’m sure we went to others, but I don’t recall any specifics. But 40 years ago, Passover 1974, I was invited to spend the first two days of Passover with a Rabbi and his family in Wooster, Ohio. Though the Seders were in his home, there would be a large cross-section of the community in attendance. Congregants, relatives, non-Jews. There were well over twenty people crammed into their home. I ate different foods. One lamb dish, in particular, blew me away. And I learned that you could smoke throughout a Seder. (The Rabbi and I weren’t the only ones who smoked, we just looked the happiest. Remember it was 1974.)
Somehow I ended up with the Afikoman and when I returned it, he asked me for my terms. There was a ransom involved. I was unprepared. Thinking quickly, I handed him the Afikoman, and said that I would reserve my reward for a later time. Now he was as surprised as I had been moments earlier. I heard the murmur of a couple dozen people wondering what would happen next. They were shocked by the audacity of this long-haired, bearded teenager. The Rabbi thought for a moment and then said that he would agree to my request and we all shared in the last of the matzah.
A few weeks later I met privately with the Rabbi. He was in Cleveland for the Brit of his first grandson. I told him that I was ready to discuss the Afikoman. My ransom? I asked for his blessing to marry his daughter. His blessing, but not his permission. He appreciated my choice of words and the respect that they carried for him, his daughter, and for our traditions. He readily agreed.
That was a long time ago. Many traditions have been created and set aside in forty years. But Passover will always be my favorite holiday, the Seder I lead uniquely mine, and the traditions kept and the stories told have been passed on to my children and our friends to modify as they see fit.
And it all works as long as you remember to finish the Seder with the Afikoman.