What is the Passover Seder?
Is it mere ritual, commemorating the enslavement and Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt 3318 years ago? Is it an “excuse” to get family and friends together, no different than, say, Thanksgiving? Is it a time for nostalgia, for remembering our history?
If you answered yes to all the above, you would be right. But if the Seder is no more than ritual, why do we go through such an elaborate process of reenacting the events that transpired so many centuries ago? Indeed, we are instructed “in each generation” and “every day” to “envision as if we just left Egypt.” Most of us have never been to Egypt. Why is it so important to envision as if we are now leaving Egypt?! Why should we be reliving experiences that happened in another part of the world in a completely different time in history, utterly removed from our contemporary lives?
Frankly, if the Passover Seder (and for that matter, any religious tradition) is nothing more than nice nostalgia, why should our children embrace it? Can we possibly expect generations to come to remain committed to a tradition that is not absolutely necessary?
How many people have shared with me the boredom, or plain mediocrity, they experience during the Passover Seder…
The greatest challenge facing Passover today is experiencing its relevance. The only way that it will be fully embraced is if it seen as indispensable – as a resonating experience that addresses our personal lives with profound relevance.
And the only way to understand Passover’s relevance is to probe into its soul. Like everything in life – if you only look at its surface you will not appreciate its true personality.
Passover, like all Jewish tradition, has a body and a soul. The body consists of the rituals, laws and structure of tradition. The soul is its inner meaning and significance.
The body of Passover is commemorating the Exodus from bondage in a land called Egypt. The soul of the holiday is freedom: The entire objective of the Passover Seder is to achieve transcendence. The exodus from Egypt was not just a technical matter, about a nation leaving a country that enslaved it. “Mitzrayim” (Hebrew for Egypt) means boundaries, constraints and limitations. Exodus from mitzrayim is freedom from bondage to our fears, inhibitions and addictions. We are therefore instructed to always “envision as if we just left Egypt.”
The entire Seder, beginning with the Seder Plate, provides us with tools to achieve personal transcendence; to experience emotional and spiritual freedom. As such, the Seder is actually a snapshot of your life; a microcosm of your psyche; a reflection of your soul.
Various aspects of the Soul of the Seder tapestry have been discussed in this space: The Fifteen Steps of the Seder, the Four Questions, the matzo, maror and four cups of wine. Now we will focus on the soul of the Seder Plate, which establishes the structure and sets the tone of the entire Passover Seder.
The first thing we do Passover night, before the actual Seder begins, is construct the Seder Plate (ke'ara). The Plate consists of ten items: Three Matzot, six food items – z’roa (a roasted shank bone), beitzah (an egg), maror (bitter herbs), charoset (a pasty mixture of fruits, nuts and wine), karpas (a vegetable, such as an onion or potato), chazeret (salad; bitter herbs, used in the korach sandwich) – and the plate itself.
There are various customs how to arrange the Seder Plate. Here we will follow the structure of Rabbi Isaac Luria (known as the holy Arizal), which is the prevalent one in most communities.
In the words of the Arizal:
“Arrange the Plate on the table by taking three matzot and placing them one on the other: First the Israelite [the lowest matzah], on it the Levite [the second matzah], and on it the Kohen [the third matzah]. These are the three intellectual faculties, Chachma, Bina, Daat.
“Above all these, on the right, place the z’roa, corresponding to chesed, and opposite it, on the left, place the egg – gevurah. Beneath them, in the center, place the maror – tiferet. Beneath the z’roa, on the right, place the charoset – netzach, and opposite it, on the left, below the egg, place the karpas – hod. Under the maror place the chazeret used for korach – yesod. And the plate itself is malchut, which encompasses all the ten sefirot.”
Thus, the final Seder Plate is comprised of three matzot, lying one on the other, which cradle the six food items that form two triangles, like this:
Egg Shank Bone
On the “body” level various reasons are given for using these items on the Seder Plate. Briefly: The matzot are the centerpiece of Passover, symbolizing the unleavened “food of humility” that the Jewish people ate as they escaped Egypt. The shank bone symbolizes the Passover lamb offering in the time of the Temple, which was roasted and eaten as part of the Seder night meal. The hard-boiled egg represents the festival offering (Chagigah) in the Temple, which was also roasted and eaten on the Seder night. The maror (bitter herbs) commemorates the bitterness and harshness of the slavery which the Jews endured in Ancient Egypt. The pasty charoset represents the mortar used by the Jewish slaves to build the Egyptian cities. Finally the letters of the word Karpas (the vegetable), when reversed (samech perach), allude to the sixty myriads of Jews subjected to harsh labor.
However, at best these symbolisms are ways of remembering and commemorating the Egyptian Exile and Exodus. On their own they don’t seem to contain any personal relevance to our lives today.
Enter the Arizal – who exposes the “soul” dimension of tradition – and reveals the inner spiritual meaning of the Seder Plate, rendering it into a piercing glimpse into the structure of our own psyches.
The ten elements of the Seder Plate reflect the structure of human consciousness, which is comprised of ten dimensions – the ten sefirot, the “spiritual DNA” of all existence, and of man, who is a “universe in microcosm:” Three intellectual faculties and seven emotional ones.
The Seder Plate is thus the quintessential you. How you were meant to be and how you would be at your best. When you assemble the Seder Plate you should actually be (re)constructing your personality, your soul and your psyche, and reconfiguring it to its ideal, healthiest state.
The Rebbe Rashab, assembling his Seder Plate, once put it this way: “[We have] saddled the wagon,” meaning that the Seder (Plate) is like a wagon which takes you on a journey to your desired destination. He then went on to explain the power of the material world (the food items on the Seder Plate), which, when harnessed, has the ability to become a “vehicle” that carries you to a spiritual destination far greater than the place that the soul on its own can reach.
The first lesson is that harmony in life – and any form of transcendence – requires a proper alignment between mind and heart. The three matzot represent the three intellectual faculties, the three steps of the cognitive process: Conception, comprehension and application, or wisdom, understanding and knowledge. First comes Chochma, the spark of an idea, then the idea is developed through Binah, and finally it comes to a resonating conclusion through Daat.
Most human mistakes originate from impulsive and subjective emotions that get the better of us. The mind at its best is meant to be the reflective force that objectively directs the subjective emotional impulses, like a captain directing a ship.
When the intellect is infused with humility (matzot) it becomes an objective “captain” of the ship of emotions, reflecting and ensuring that the emotions not be manipulated and that they be channeled in healthy directions.
As the curved matzot carry the six items, the humble intellect serves like a container that cradles and protects the six emotions. We too must ensure that our minds – infused with humility – control our emotions, passions and desires.
Now we move into the actual emotional experiences of our lives, which divide into six (seven) dimensions: Chesed – loving kindness; gevurah – discipline; tiferet – empathy; netzach – endurance; hod – humility; yesod – bonding; and malchut – dignity.
When we allow the humility of the matzot to permeate our emotions, each of these emotions will function optimally, with the right balance between them all.
The outstretched arm of the z’roa (which actually means arm, from the verse “outstretched arm”) expresses the giving nature of love (chesed). Love is the root and single most important of all emotions – the ability to give, reach out and care for others.
The hard-boiled egg (which also reminds us of the Temple’s destruction) symbolizes discipline, which is necessary to temper and balance the transmission of love. Unchecked love can hurt the person you love, just like a flood can destroy fields. For love to be effective it needs to be measured.
The bitter herbs of maror elicit empathy (tiferet). Eating the bitter herbs is not about us feeling the bitterness of bondage (what would be the point? And can we actually compare the discomfort of eating bitter herbs to the trauma of slavery and genocide?). It’s about the empathy that it elicits – the Divine empathy and the compassion that we must feel for each other.
Even in our present time of blessed prosperity, we do not need to have actual bondage to feel sadness; today our sadness is about not feeling close to the Divine. In addition, our challenge today is complacency: never to take our freedoms for granted and remember that as long as we live in any form of constraint, we must cry out and that cry will evoke channels of empathy.
The pasty charoset reminds us of the clay and mortar used by the Jewish slaves to make the bricks and build the cities. Mortar (like cement) is known for its strength and endurance (netzach). Yet, the primary result of the hard work was that it taught the Jews to be strong and enduring in their faith. And the “more they were oppressed the more they proliferated.” That is why we use for charoset a mix of ground apples, pears, nuts and wine – all symbols of Jewish strength and virtue – to teach us the lesson of endurance, how to withstand and grow through every challenge.
The vegetable (karpas), which grows low, reminds us of the humility (hod) required in life, and especially the yielding necessary to balance the driving force of endurance.
The Chazeret eaten in the sandwich represents the emotion of bonding (yesod) – uniting with those we love and with G-d. It’s not enough to experience each of the emotions independently, but also bond then together like in one “sandwich.”
Bonding, like empathy, is a center force that integrates the right and the left. And like empathy which is elicited through the bitter cry (of the bitter herbs), bonding is also an experience that requires a cry form the depths of the soul, a deep feeling of need that fuels bonding.
Finally – the Seder Plate itself, is the dignity and sovereignty of malchut, which encompasses all the ten faculties. Malchut is selflessness. Like the moon it has no light of its own. But precisely due to its selflessness it reflects and contains all the light of the previous nine levels. The same is with the Plate: Without the three matzot and six items the Plate is empty on its own. But in its “emptiness” it becomes the tray that encompasses all the others, and the source of dignity. Dignity also has no substance of its own. True dignity and self-confidence comes from a sense that you were created in the Divine Image, and being a channel of something greater than yourself gives you the ultimate dignity.
The Seder Plate gives us the opportunity to review, throughout the 15 steps of the Seder night, each of these emotions and assess where we stand – in our love, discipline, empathy, endurance, humility, bonding and selflessness.
Even if you cannot focus on all these dimensions (which can be quite a task), choose one or two that you relate to or you feel needs work. As the Seder proceeds concentrate on these characteristics and look for ways to repair or improve your attitudes.
Obviously, much more can be said about each of these dimensions. But hopefully, this will suffice to get the ball rolling.
Above all, the main priority is to infuse the Seder experience with a dynamic, interactive, dimension – and turn it into a personal experience, rather than just another event we sit through.
Just imagine experiencing the Seder in this personal way – how much more powerful would we and our children experience the evening? Some food for thought as we prepare to celebrate a “night that is different than all other nights.”
May you, and we all, be blessed with a very transcendent Passover – one that opens up new channels of hope and trust.
But together with the blessing from above, may we each do our part to generate blessings. And the best way to begin is through infusing your Seder – whether you are host or guest – with profound personal relevance.
As we prepare the Seder Plate, remember the words of the Rebbe Rashab: “Saddle your wagon” well, and prepare for an exhilarating journey into the night and beyond.