Getting ready for Passover

It has been the tradition of this column each year on the eve of the celebration of Pesach to write about newly published Haggadot.

It is privilege to maintain that tradition.

The Royal Table (OU Press) brings the insights, observations and considerable wisdom of Rabbi Norman Lamm to our Passover table and, of course, beyond.  

Rabbi Lamm is the chancellor of Yeshiva University and rosh yeshiva of its affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He served for many years as rabbi of the Jewish Center, in Manhattan and as president and rosh yeshiva (head of the yeshiva – one could say, headmaster) of Yeshiva University.

His renown as a scholar, educator, writer and pulpit rabbi extend throughout the world.

A rare thinker of his times for his generation, Rabbi Lamm’s Torah is a wide field encompassing all aspects of life that affect and deal with the many inevitably piercing or pleasant aspects of the human condition. His writing is founded upon the classic scholars of our traditions. Secure in his place within the thousand years of foundational scholarship, Rabbi Lamm adds to, expands upon, extends and augments our understanding of the meanings of the words that we recite each year with and for our family and friends around the seder table.

Ever the educator, Rabbi Lamm ensures that the table is as much for teaching and learning as it is for eating and reciting the story of the Exodus.

Rabbi Lamm explains the reason for the name of this particular Haggadah.   It is a the key that opens the door to his teacher’s room. He seizes upon the multiple meanings for the phrase in classic Jewish sources.

“The table is prominently mentioned in the Talmud as that on which the seder narrative is played out. And it is royal because the participants conduct themselves as victors in the ancient battle not only with the Egyptians but with others over the generations.

“It is also a term for food of the finest quality and… Conversely, it was used to express contempt for crude class consciousness.

“If indeed The Royal Table implies two opposites, then it fits right in with the dialectical experience [my emphasis] of Passover and especially its major symbol, the matzah.”

It is therefore the inescapable dialectic imperative of the teacher constantly trying to refine the point, investigating, reconciling opposites, pointing out or squaring contradictions that we read in The Royal Table.

As Pesach is – by its purpose and by its nature – the quintessential teaching moment, Rabbi Lamm’s observations are a perfect accompaniment to that, now, millennial moment.

The Royal Table was edited and compiled by Joel B. Wolowelsky using material from Rabbi Lamm’s sermons, divrei Torah and relevant selections from the rabbi’s written works.

Wolowelsky is himself a significant scholar and educator in the modern Jewish world. Dean of the faculty at the Yeshiva of Flatbush, he is also associate editor of Tradition and the series MeOtzar HoRav: Selected Writings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. He is a member of various professional advisory boards, including the Bar Ilan University Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, the Boston Initiative for Excellence in Jewish Day Schools, the Pardes Educators Program in Jerusalem, and Atid: the Academy for Torah Initiatives and Directions.

The Royal Table is a welcome new arrival for the seder table this year.

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For younger participants at the seder table, there is also the enthusiastic, cheery, playful and thoughtful new CD from the extremely talented Israeli-American music therapist Dafna Israel-Kotok called Halilah Hazeh!.

Israel-Kotok is the originator of Shir Fun, an excitingly innovative approach to early childhood education and development. Its very name bespeaks its clever, fresh, novelty.

“Shir,” in Hebrew, means song. And, of course, in English, it has a very clear homonymic meaning, too. Thus we have “Song Fun” or “Sheer Fun.” Either way, for the listener, it is both a promise and a fulfilment.

Israel-Kotok has a deeply pleasing voice, distinctive and original, and at times, at least to this listener, also evocative of stylistic and substantive echoes of the “huskier” singer Carol King and remarkably, too, of the laser clarity of Joan Baez.

The CD will delight listeners of all ages. It contains original and traditional tunes of and for the seder. It will bring many smiles to the faces and to the hearts of those who listen to it and who, inevitably, will also sing happily along.