Torah: Advance planning can help ease tensions around the seder table


Leviticus 6:1-8:36

Malachi 3:4-24

Oscar night brought out the tuxedos last month –– and the critics. George Clooney received high marks, but Brad Pitt wears his pants “too long,” and they “puddled on his shoes,” according to the New York Times. The article quoted the deputy editor of GQ magazine as saying, “American men … think, ‘I’m a big guy, so I have to have big clothes.’” I guess that too loose doesn’t work in Hollywood.

Meanwhile, the Board of Education in Meriden, Conn., is considering a new dress code that would ban “skinny jeans” in school. The proposed policy states: “Pants should not be form fitting by fabric, cut and/or design … private body areas must not be evident or visible through clothing.” I guess that too tight doesn’t work in Connecticut.

Kohanim, priests in the Temple in Jerusalem, fell right in the middle. Our Torah portion describes their special vestments, a white linen tunic and pants, using the word mido, which means “fitted” (6:3). The Temple professional’s clothing had to fit. Not too loose, not too tight. He should be dressed appropriately for school in Connecticut as well as the Academy Awards show.

 But why make a point of this? He is engaged in a sacrificial service, not in social activity or walking a runway. Of course he wouldn’t wear clothing three sizes too big or way too small!

The Kli Yakar points out two potential mistakes that the Kohen would be liable to make. First, he might undershoot in size for a functional reason. Each day, there were ashes to be removed from the altar and he might try to wear his pants too short and tight so they wouldn’t get dirty. On the flip side, he was treated as a figure of religious royalty and might be drawn to think himself above the people and wear oversized flowing robes.

Neither extreme was acceptable. On the one hand there was a job to be done, and sometimes that meant getting dirty. But his role didn’t divorce him from the people to the extent that he should act as if they weren’t there and ignore his relationship to them.

This Torah portion, Tzav, is usually read on the Shabbat before Pesach. It is an appropriate reading, as the Kohen’s fashion dilemma mirrors the following Passover seder dilemma: You want to have a seder that has meaningful discussion of Torah and Jewish values.

Also present at the table is cousin Larry, whose ideal seder involves heading straight from the doorway to a steaming-hot bowl of matzah ball soup, with a maximum of 180 seconds of discussion or text reading. Sitting next to him is your sister-in-law, who wants to display each and every piece of art made by her preschool-age children. What is one to do?

Although I don’t have the solution I do believe a bit of advance planning can go a long way to soothe tensions around the table. Take it as a given that the seder is a time for family and friends with widely divergent interests in Jewish ritual to share a sacred evening together. Making it work will probably require a plan that allows for more than high-speed minimalism, but also takes into account attention spans, level of engagement and hunger.

First, be sure to communicate expectations of time frame in advance to your guests. Human beings tend to put up with a whole lot more when it is not a surprise. Next, try to make the seder more personally engaging. Sharing commentary out of a good haggadah is a joy for some, but being read to is a common means of lulling little ones to sleep. Instead, consider a few short comments or questions that could spark meaningful discussion, or have kids put on a seder skit.

Finally, be selective. Does every last commentary need to be shared at the table? Conversation about the Exodus, as well as songs and art shows, need not be confined to the “maggid” portion of the evening that tells the story. Save some for during dinner, dessert time or late into the evening after the most tired guests have headed home. After all, the rabbis mentioned in the hagaddah stayed up discussing the Exodus all the way until morning. Surely they had already had at least a bowl of soup!

Rabbi Judah Dardik
is the spiritual leader at Orthodox Beth Jacob in Oakland. He can be reached at [email protected]