One of the handful of Hebrew words known to virtually every American Jew is seder, literally “order,” referring to the liturgical meal that constitutes the main rite of Passover. But although the seder has a strictly scripted series of steps, its retelling of the story of the Exodus verges on chaotic. Yosef Lindell writes:
We seem to begin this narrative [at a natural point, with the words], “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord our God took us out with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.” Yet the Haggadah quickly gets sidetracked, speaking of rabbis who stayed up all night telling the story, expounding on the commandment to say the sh’ma morning and night, discussing four different types of children, trying to determine the appropriate day for holding the seder, and backtracking to the patriarchs and their idol-worshipping ancestors. When we then raise our glasses in joyful praise of the One who saves us time and again, it is long after sundown, and we still haven’t begun explaining how God redeemed the Children of Israel from Egypt.
To Lindell, the Haggadah’s haphazardness is not the result of editorial incompetence, or the accumulation of additions and insertions over the centuries, but of a deliberate effort to create a text that demands to be studied rather than recited.
Thus, spirited discussion becomes central to the seder. Around the seder table, we must study the Haggadah together. Its words are the beginning, not the end, of the conversation. The maggid, [the narrative portion of the Haggadah], is lively: full of questions [and] answers. . . . We interrupt, talk over one another, discuss the meaning of passages, or perhaps even demonstrate the plagues with plastic frogs. The Haggadah says that “whoever tells more about the Exodus is praiseworthy,” and the sages of Bnei Brak, [as the Haggadah itself recounts], led by example: going strong all night until their students reminded them to recite the morning sh’ma.
[T]he seder is many . . . things: a conversation between parents and children, a spirited discussion as colorful and sometimes as inscrutable as the Talmud, a family affair around the table with food. The seder is not exactly orderly, but it is all the richer for it.