April 2, 2020

Into the Sederverse

Scene from “Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse.” Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Animation

The Passover seder is the most celebrated Jewish ritual in the world for the same reason “Avengers: Endgame” sold a record number of pre-sale tickets and likely will break all existing box office records: storytelling.

Everyone loves a good story. Yuval Noah Harari writes in his best-selling book “Sapiens,” that storytelling is what makes us human. Many species can communicate with one another but only we tell stories. Our epic stories and inspirational myths make us human. For much of human history, the best stories were told by religions — the incredible Jewish origin story is retold on seder night every year; today the best stories are told by Hollywood.

Superhero stories are modern mythology. They convey big ideas and lessons of morality through entertaining adventures. “Avengers: Endgame” concludes an epic story spanning more than a decade and nearly two dozen films. Stories of that magnitude tug at what makes us human, and our pilgrimage to experience superhero mythology at the multiplex is almost Pavlovian.

Every year, we go on a pilgrimage to our seder with family or friends to experience the wonder of our story. Passover is the Hollywood holiday, and we can learn a thing or two from Hollywood.

In many ways, modern mythology functions like ancient mythology. They share enough that the new illuminates the old and the old illuminates the new.

“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse” won the Academy Award in February in the animated feature film category and it’s one of the best superhero movies I have ever seen. Like all great stories, “Spider-verse” has many layers of beauty and meaning but one particular theme stood out.

“Passover is the Hollywood holiday, and we can learn a thing or two from Hollywood.”

Usually, a superhero is someone different than all of us but still a relatable character. There is only one Batman, one Wonder Woman, one Captain America and one Ant-Man. We might be able to learn from their stories but they are not like the rest of us. “Spider-verse” flips the script. Just before the credits, Miles Morales / Spider-man, says: “I never thought I’d be able to do any of this stuff. But I can. Anyone can wear the mask. You can wear the mask. If you didn’t know that before, I hope you do now.” 

Miles is saying that he is like the rest of us. We can all be heroes, and when we watch his story, it should feel like it can be our story. 

I have always had trouble with a line in the haggadah — the seder screenplay. “Every person is obligated to imagine they are leaving Egypt this year.” How am I supposed to do that? Those people were different than me. I could learn from their story — although they are not like the rest of us. But I think I see it differently now. Anyone can wear the mask. Anyone can leave Egypt. It doesn’t have to be super heroic; it can be personal and unique. My seder experience will be different this year because of Hollywood.

But there are limitations to parallels between Hollywood and seder night. In 500 years, I am sure Jewish people will still be sitting at a seder. I doubt anyone will remember “Avengers: Endgame” or “Into the Spider-verse.” What is the secret to the seder that makes it stick? It is the combination of ritual with storytelling. A religion of only laws and rules would be doomed —  who would sign up for that? A story with no strings attached sounds nice but without rituals, what’s the point?

The seder brilliantly intertwines storytelling with interactive ritual and that is what makes it even more powerful than passively watching a blockbuster film. 

Chag sameach.

Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and the former managing supervisor at the Journal.