Change battles constancy in one man’s seder

STAMFORD, Conn., March 28 (JTA) — As Passover approaches this year, I find myself particularly conflicted. I am usually a big fan of matzah, that perfect embodiment of stability and steadfastness, that essence of uniformity and flatness. Matzah never changes. Put a box of Manischewitz in a time capsule, and in 1,000 years it will taste as fresh as the day it was made. Matzah is indelible. Wherever it goes, it stays; whether that be on the dining room rug, the school cafeteria or the human digestive system. That’s why it is such a powerful visual aid in retelling the story of the Exodus. You can’t avoid it. Its crumbs are everywhere! Matzah is the symbol of planned perfection. If the operative word for Passover is “order” — seder in Hebrew — matzah is quintessentially controlled; scrutinized closely from its formative stages through the baking process. And on the seder table it is handled delicately, uncovered ceremoniously and raised and broken with ritualistic precision. When it is discovered that the middle matzah has been hidden, that is the one moment of the seder when all heck breaks loose. Jews aren’t the only ones with an obsessive need for order. Life is chaotic, after all. Or, as the latest iPod ad campaign puts it, “life is random.” Therein lies my dilemma. As much as I like matzah, I must admit it — I’m beginning to love my iPod even more. I’ve stored more than 1,000 selections on it, a veritable musical autobiography; songs from the pacifist anthems of my college days to the ones that pacified my kids on their high chairs. In my iPod, David Broza lies with “The Lion King,” Cat Stevens makes way for the Palmach anthem and Kol Nidre shares some disk space with Gregorian chants. I’ve even downloaded the audio broadcast of the Super Bowl. And when I put it all in “shuffle” mode, these memories flow past me indiscriminately, the boundaries separating decades and continents dissolve and my whole life flashes before my ears. There are those who claim that the “shuffle” is not so random after all. I must admit, it does seem strange that certain songs are repeated more often than others. My iPod seems to have a special affinity for Broadway. “It’s part of the magic of shuffle,” Greg Joswiak, Apple’s vice president for iPod products, told Newsweek, assuring us that the algorithm that does the shuffling has been thoroughly tested. “Random is random.” Technology writer David Bennahum said, “Life is random is a really great way of shrugging your shoulders in a Buddhist way of nonattachment.” And Roger McNamee, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, was quoted in The New York Times as calling the iPod ad campaign “existential marketing with maybe even a touch of nihilism.” Doesn’t sound so Pesachdik to me. Ah, but it is. Right across from the matzah on your seder table is the wine. The wine is the counterpoint to that unleavened cracker, the yin to matzah’s yang. Ever changing, ever flowing, entropy in a bottle, it embodies randomness. That line from the movie “Sideways” comes to mind, where Maya speaks sensuously of how a bottle of wine is actually alive, constantly evolving and gaining complexity. The wine is there to teach us that Judaism, like life, is infinitely too complicated for human beings to be able to impose total order on it. Judaism breathes through us. Watch how the wine and matzah vie for attention in the seder’s drama. When one is raised, broken or poured, the other is covered, ignored or left empty. This epic battle between constancy and chance is like a blast of warm weather from the Gulf meeting a cold Canadian high over New England in early spring. And in the end, look which one triumphs. No sooner are we finished with the bread of affliction, finishing the last morsel of the afikoman; then the third cup of wine is poured. Serendipity gets the last word. The wine wins. Maybe the message here is that what’s most constant, even in this world of extreme, superimposed order, is change itself. No matter how much we try to hermetically seal our lives from yeastiness, chametz happens. The perfection of matzah turns out to be the ultimate illusion — but that doesn’t prevent us from striving for it all the more. My iPod’s song list is quirky, but there is an internal logic to my tunes. The only way to decode the randomness is to run each song through the prism of my life. When you do that, it all makes perfect sense. Similarly, the uniformity of the Passover rituals masks the internal effervescence that is bubbling up within each participant, at every seder table, every year. So, while I won’t bring it to the table, the iPod is definitely kosher. I’ve already downloaded “Dayeinu.” Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn., and author of “thelordismyshepherd.com: Seeking God in Cyberspace.”

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