The Seder of an Alternative Future

guest post by Zackary Sholem Berger

The Talmud is full of categories: man, woman, Jew, non-Jews, slave, poor person, rich person, am-haaretz, wise person, and others. Are these fundamental, or dependent on changeable social structures? 

Certainly the Rabbis recognize that people can move from one category to another, but in the same breath they qualify that transformation: an X can become a Y, but in certain ways stays an X. (Converts are Jewish, but a different kind of Jew, the Rabbis say in multiple places; when a rich person becomes poor, some passages indicate that one should bring them back to their former state.) 

This question of ontology (whether these categories are fundamental) is a challenge to understanding our world and others in it.  

The Seder scrambles these dichotomies. Are we slave or free? Are we in Egypt or a migratory people or already in the Land of Israel? Are we in historical time, the lived present, or the messianic future? 

All those things are true at once. We were freed from slavery in order to merit being bound to the commandments carved into the tablets, as the Rabbinic wordplay goes; we came into the Land of Israel to wipe out its previous inhabitants, then ourselves were exiled, telling stories about the exodus in the allegorical spirit of rebellion against contemporary Roman masters. Next year, we say, in Jerusalem, thinking of many kinds of Jerusalem at once, where enslavement and freedom coexist. 

The end of the story is not determined. There is nothing about being Jews, even redeemed Jews, that requires us to enter into the Land the way our texts say. We can imagine ourselves into another redemptive ending. “Live in your blood!” can mean, not that we dwell in the plagues, but use them to imagine a different life. 

A creative presence in multiple futures requires a multiplicity of experiential techniques. The Seder is social, a symposium characterized by thought and discussion, but is also a personal investment based on restructuring of the self. Affliction, questioning, sacrifice and redemption are melded in one mitzvah that only the individual can experience. A socially determined change and a transformation of one’s individual constituents go hand in hand. 

As the fourth cup of wine shades into (for some) the fifth cup, or (for others) slumber, or dishwashing and caregiving and preparing for the workday, the conscious and the unconscious, the chevra of the sacrifice and the individual of the mitzvah are present in a single collaborative. 

When all seems carved in stone or written in blood, we end with the taste of the Afikoman, the manna made by human hands that might signify a future more like Song of Songs than Deuteronomy, searching for love in a walled city. 


Zackary Sholem Berger is a poet and translator working in Hebrew, Yiddish and English.  He is affiliated with the Beth Am and Hinenu communities in Baltimore, where by day he is a mild mannered but politically rageful primary care doctor and bioethicist. 

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