The Haggadah: Burning Words

The first time I go to synagogue, I am swept away. I go to hear a speaker, invited by a friend. The speaker is the former ambassador to Morocco and—my friend tells me, in hushed tones—“He’s the first Jewish American ambassador.”
I don’t know if this is true but I want to hear what he has to say about the Middle East. He was born in New York, but grew up in Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon. He has held various appointments on Middle East Policy. Perhaps he has some words of wisdom for us—for this world.
But his flight is canceled so my friend takes my hand and leads me through those large wooden doors into the temple area. He shows me the Holy Ark, where they keep the torah scrolls. There is all this gold leaf and a panel of lights to honor the dead. My eyes are big but I feel small and he says it’s ok to take some pictures. He answers all my questions patiently, at times grappling for the right words. There is a sort of sweet sadness in his telling and I know he is gathering up all the lost years in his heart—scooping them into mine and trusting me to receive them tenderly. He tells me stories about his mother that kindle my heart and I see how much he misses her.
We take our time, walking through and then outside and around and he tells me about the stained glass, about the property. We meet a fellow who has driven a long way to see the speaker and my friend delivers the news: No speaker tonight. And they banter until they find a mutual acquaintance to settle on and each one smiles wide with new-found fondness for the other.
I kiss him on the cheek goodbye—not really wanting to go because I feel his longing to linger. But we are a practical lot and there’s no speaker tonight.
The first time I drive home from synagogue, I stumble upon an NPR interview with a Jewish man named Nathan Englander. He has written a book of short stories called What We Talk About When We Talk About Ann Frank. And he tells how the title story is based on a game his family used to play. A game called Who Will Hide Me or Righteous Gentile.
…it’s so deeply personal, he says. It’s not a game…I call it a game—it makes it easier to talk about…It’s something we play with dead seriousness in my family and that is…we would wonder who would hide us in the Holocaust…
I can’t even spell “Holocaust” without spell-check and I am horrified and heartbroken for a people all over again. Yet, Nathan Englander talks about how easily he gave up his faith…how easily…and yet, every word he speaks echoes the struggle.
…I spend my childhood in America feeling Jewish and not American. And it’s only in Israel — it was those years there — where I got to be an American because everyone’s a Jew…
When he was a young man he moved to Israel for a few years and it is in the first week of living there, he says, that he gave up organized religion. The irony is that he has spent the last three years translating a new version of the Haggadah—the story of the Exodus that is read aloud every year at the Passover to commemorate the Jews delivery from slavery.
When asked why he would do such a thing, Englander talks about his love of the text, saying that when one reads the Haggadah you should literally read it and weep.It’s just that beautiful, he says, and he is thankful for being given the opportunity to be faithful to the original Hebrew and Aramaic that he loves. He talks about wrestling with the translation of certain words and how, in the end, it’s the poetry and beauty and intention of the text he tried to be faithful to.
I wanted people to be thinking about what they are saying, he says…people are going to be praying from this…
And then he reads an excerpt from the New American Haggadahand I feel the burning bush—the fire that transforms but does not consume—the fire of holy ground. And I think about what he is reading. I think about the words, just as he intended. And I think about my friend and his synagogue and how a place can become a sacred text…how you can listen to the way your heart reads each nook and cranny…each memory.
And I go right home and order a copy of the New American Haggadah.
Because I need more burning bush in my life.  
This week’s memory verses:

with the amazing Jen:
and dear Michelle too:


  1. says

    Oh. Laura. Tomorrow I am posting the notes from Miroslav Volf’s talk at the Justice Conference and this is so on my mind…he spoke about honoring other faiths and listening for their truth. Just as you have done here, such tenderness and respect in your voice. I love this. Thank you for being such a friend, someone who can tenderly listen. And Lord Jesus, please, please make me the person whose name would be whispered in such a “game.”

  2. says

    Beautiful post, Laura.

    I recently was researching an artist who has created some beautiful work based on the Haggadah. I’ll be featuring the exhibition in an April All Art Friday.

  3. says

    I spent a few Saturdays this fall with some local friends in a Torah reading service. Not nearly the same as the depth of experience you describe here. Yet to touch the words standing in another spot, from a Jewish perspective… it changes everything. I hope this is something you can explore more.

  4. says

    I spent a few Saturdays this fall with some local friends in a Torah reading service. Not nearly the same as the depth of experience you describe here. Yet to touch the words standing in another spot, from a Jewish perspective… it changes everything. I hope this is something you can explore more.

  5. says

    I first learned of Haggadot from “Hurray! It’s Passover!” – a children’s book I bought when our kids were little, but you breathe new life into ancient words here.

    I’m learning more about how to pray for the peace of Israel, and what that means in a culture that’s increasingly hostile to Jewish people. Or maybe not increasingly. Maybe continuously.

  6. says

    My husband Brad heard that same NPR interview — we talked about it in depth a couple of days ago. Really fascinating. And this post, Laura, so beautiful. You make me want to buy a copy of that book that I can’t for the life of me spell…and I never heard of it until just this minute.

  7. says

    So very interesting, Laura.

    I have been interested for the past few years in Jewish history that draws me further into Christianity. Reading Hebrew words and delving into the meaning also is a real part of my study time. Thank you for sharing these insights. And, mostly, thank you for sharing through the lens of “Laura”.

    loving you, ~ linda

  8. says

    I lived with a couple in college who now head up the Jews for Jesus organization in Australia. I sat under his teachings all through college and I have found that my relationship with God is different than many who know little of the Old Testament. The understanding I have of God because of his starting point is so rich…I am very thankful for those years. You’ve peaked my interest with this New American Haggadah.

  9. says

    Oh, Laura, Yes! I went to Israel several years ago with JH Ranch, and was so moved to know more about this. I really need to blog it. The revelation I recieved about how the Jews viewed their faith caught me by surprise! Oh, what an amazing God we serve.

  10. says

    I think God has given you a very profound gift of being able to weave the words that the Holy Spirit gives you around a person, literally cocooning them around a person’s heart.

  11. says

    The beauty of organized religion captivates, but for me it overwhelms. That image is interesting, but it is a heavy load to bear.

    It’s just amazing how God filled you with what you needed, miss Laura, even if it was within the confines of your car. Thank you for sharing this evening. I’ve learned a lot.


  12. says

    Okay. I just ordered it. I’m Jewish – but my grandmother found Christ at a Billy Graham crusade. Needless to say, many of the traditions got lost in the evangelical zeal to be free from that. But I have a longing to go back –way back and learn from those beautiful traditions. Thanks for pointing me in the right direction

  13. says

    What a beautiful post, Laura!

    I started a tradition with my family a few years ago, where we celebrate a Passover meal, each year.

    I’ve had trouble explaining to people why we started doing this. No, we’re not Jewish. No, we’re not converting to Judaism. No, we’re not placing ourselves under Old Testament law, or observing all the Jewish traditions.

    Rather, it is a recognition that we gentiles have been grafted into the tree that has it’s roots in these Old Testament traditions.

    It is a recognition that God’s redemption and deliverance of Israel from Egypt was a foreshadowing of Christ redeeming us from the kingdom of darkness.

    And it is a recognition that it was at a Passover meal that Christ said, “As oft as ye do this, do it in remembrance of Me.”

    Sorry…ran long…maybe I should do a post on this topic before Easter…

  14. says

    Laura, I felt like I was walking with you through and around the synogogue. So beautifully written and moving to the spirit. God bless you.

  15. says

    Me too, me too.

    I need more burning bush in my life as well.

    I am an NPR junkie. Love it, but I missed this. Thanks for pointing me to it, and for challenging me in new ways, Laura.

  16. says

    Oh, my. What a beautifully woven piece, Laura. Maybe I’ll add that book to my wish list tonight – you’ve made me want to read it. One of my very favorite resources for preaching from the Torah is a literal translation into English which captures some of the feel of the Hebrew better than any of our usual translations. (The Schocken Bible – Vol. 1 – The Five Books of Moses) Maybe this book will be like that…

  17. says

    Wow. I love your thoughts here and Nathan Englander’s NPR interview had a similar effect on me. The Haggadah sits on my piano. I have read the words a bit — “…ruler of the Cosmos.” And I agree wholeheartedly with your thought about his words echoing his struggle leaving organized religion.

    When I heard him speak, I felt the struggle of my own heart between what we do in the organized world with organized religion and what Jesus would have us do with his organization of our heart, our mind, His Passover.

    Thank you so much for sharing this so beautifully.

  18. says

    Thank you for sharing this. With tonia, I also pray the Lord would make me such a person.

    My encounters with Jewish tradition have taught me so much. For several years the Lord gave opportunity to participate in a Passover Seder led by a Messianic Jew. The Lord Jesus is so evident everywhere in that feast!

    Lauren Winner’s writings have also blessed me. “Mudhouse Sabbath” particularly focuses on Jewish spiritual disciplines that have informed her life since conversion to Christianity.

    If the speaker reschedules, I hope you get to attend and share that with us, too. Grace to you in Jesus, friend.

  19. Anonymous says

    This is beautiful! Can I suggest another person who’s teachings on the ‘Jewishness’ of Christianity you might enjoy, who is Shane Willard. He has insights that I’ve never encountered from anyone else, due to his unique perspective.

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