Present At This Time
Reflections on rereading the Haggadah each year
Why do we watch the same movies over and over again? How many times have you seen the same episode of Seinfeld or Friends? When will I pick a new commute playlist on Spotify?
In 2011, Professors Russel and Levy, two researchers from the field of behavioral science wrote a paper with the aim of breaking down why we like to consume the same media over and over, or as they call it “The Temporal and Focal Dynamics of Volitional Reconsumption.”
Derek Thompson, writing in The Atlantic, summarizes their findings in 4 key categories (how very Passover of him): 1. The Simple Reason (not a 4 sons joke), 2. The Nostalgic Reason, 3. The Therapeutic Reason, and 4. The Existential Reason.
Let us focus on reason 4, The Existential Reason, as we near the eve of Passover.
Russel and Levy explain that “The dynamic linkages between one’s past, present, and future experiences through the re-consumption of an object allow existential understanding… reengaging with the same object, even just once, allows a reworking of experiences as consumers consider their own particular enjoyments and understandings of choices they have made.”
What they mean to say is that rewatching old movies can act as an opportunity to take an old memory (the last time you watched the movie) and overlay a new perspective, a perspective you’ve gained through all the experiences you’ve had since the last time you watched that movie. Put otherwise, same movie but new you.
Perhaps that is what we are doing when we join together every year for the Passover seder — we are rewatching an old movie that we never tire of, we are reviewing a text we know well, but we approach it with new eyes since we are bringing our new selves to the present seder.
Perhaps what is even more profound is that we typically don’t seder alone, so we collectively revisit the text of the Haggadah with our family and friends — we bring our new perspective and they bring theirs. We work out our new ideas and thoughts through our collective reading of the Haggadah, filled with questions and communal ritual (is everyone ready for mirror?!).
The Haggadah famously instructs us that “In each and every generation, a person is obligated to see himself as if he left Egypt.”
Why does it say ‘each generation’ and not ‘each year?’
Perhaps we can find the answer in the quote from Russel and Levy above, where they posit that the Existential Reason for re-consuming media is that one can experience the link between one’s past, present and future. We, as Jews, do this collectively and not individually.
The very next line in the Haggadah is our key to understanding this: “Not only our ancestors did the Holy One, blessed be He, redeem, but rather also us [together] with them did he redeem”
It’s all about us, not I or me.
We remember, with our collective generation, what it was like to be slaves in Egypt — we revisit the text anew with our generation’s experiences and fresh perspective but we don’t lose sight of our links to the past and the future.
There is one more aspect of Russel and Levy’s definition of the Existential Reason that I find to be instructive — when we approach an old movie for the second or third time it enables us to consider our “own understandings of choices [we’ve] have made.”
Therefore, their research can lead us to believe that not only do we have the opportunity to see the Haggadah in a new way, but we also have the opportunity to reflect on all the decisions we have made throughout the year. So when we recite the Shecheyanu שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ blessing at the outset of the seder this year let us be grateful for all of the experiences we have had that enabled us to be וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה (present at this time).