THE MEANING OF THE LEANING
Fast forward 12 weeks from now to Seder night and the youngest child has made it to the last verse of Ma Nishtana: “On all other nights, we eat sitting or leaning, on this night, kulanu mesubin – we all lean”
Eating sitting up or leaning – none of us do that – grab a sandwich on the run, maybe sit down to eat once a day – but leaning?
Most sources link it to the practice of Roman noblemen and women in Talmudic times, who would recline on couches to eat their meals. On Seder night, whoever we are, we act as if we are free nobility, with the leisure to recline at a meal.
Yet the Midrash establishes a fascinating link to a verse at the beginning of this week’s parasha.
When G-d led us out of Egypt, He took us a roundabout route. Vayasev Elokim Et Ha’am – “G-d turned the people round.” (Shemot 13:18)
The Midrash notes a link between the word, Vayasev – “He turned” and the word Vayesev – “He reclined” and says: “From here we see that even a poor man must recline when he eats at the Seder.”
What relationship can there be between the Israelites taking a longer route out of Egypt and a poor person reclining at the Seder?
The late Rabbi J B Soloveitchik explains that the road to freedom is never short and direct. It is long and meandering. On Seder night, when we are called upon to celebrate the anniversary of our Exodus from Egypt, we remember the many occasions in history when celebration has been far from our minds. And this always applies to the poor in the community who are dependent on others for their needs. It is precisely here that the link is made with the original Exodus. Reclining (Vayesev) recalls meandering (Vayasev). That generation had to wander for forty years before they reached the Promised Land. This means that leaning at the Seder is not simply banquet etiquette, it recalls the faith of our ancestors on their long march to freedom.
This message is particularly necessary at this difficult time. The war in Gaza is proving to be longer and more challenging that many of us had thought. We need to remind ourselves that this is the lesson of Jewish history. Until the era of the ultimate redemption, there will always be setbacks. We hope and pray that by Pesach the conflict will be over. But if it is not, we will recline at the Seder recalling that G-d’s route to freedom is not always the shortest distance between two points.