The Passover Seder: A Blueprint for Freedom
In our shaken and uncertain world the message of Passover has never been more timely.
The Hebrew word for Egypt, ‘Mitzrayim,’ is rooted in the word ‘meitzar,’ which means boundaries, limits, restrictions. Thus Egypt represents all forms of constraints and confinements: psychological, emotional and spiritual. Any trap, any enemy from within or from without that inhibits our free expression is a form of mitzrayim.
Thus the Exodus from Egypt is the single most important element in life: The ability to free ourselves from our confines and traps. The need to do so always exists, but the necessity is even greater in these fear-ridden, uncertain days both here in America and in Israel.
What better time to reaffirm and relive G-d’s promise to Abraham that we will be freed from Mitzrayim and that we will come out with great wealth. This promise was true for the first Exodus from Egypt and is true today, as we relive and recreate the Exodus. “Each generation and every day one must envision himself as if he just left Mitzrayim.”
On the first night of Passover – this year Wednesday, March 27 – a new energy enters the world, the energy of freedom and transcendence. How do we tap into this energy? How do we access this power that allows us to transcend and eliminate our personal and global miztrayims freeing ourselves from their shackles?
The Passover Seder is the answer. The Seder is a profound mosaic that provides us with the keys to open the doors of freedom on Passover Eve. The actual name “Passover Seder” is an oxymoron: The word Pesach (Passover) means to jump, to pass over the normal order, whereas Seder means order and organization! The Seder is actually a systematic order that allows us to transcend order, a structure that allows us to transcend structure. Like music: By playing the defined structure of the musical scale we have the power to create music that defies all structures, and to play an infinite number of combinations and songs.
One of the objectives of the Seder is to connect us to our inner child. That is why there is so much emphasis on children during the Seder. Just as the innocence of a young child has not been tarnished by the harsh responsibilities and emotional entanglements of adult life, so too each and every one of us has an inner child which has not been negatively affected by the coarseness of the physical world. The fifteen steps of the Seder help to connect us to this unblemished innocence that is at the core of every person.
Here is a brief description of the fifteen Seder steps, fifteen keys which each of us can use to open up doors that help free us of our own limits and confinements, fifteen steps that we can climb to reach a greater place.
The Fifteen Steps
1. Kadesh – reciting Kiddush
We start the Seder with Kadesh, making a blessing over a cup of wine. Kadesh (from the word kedushah) means to sanctify – we sanctify G-d’s name and the wine by blessing it. Kadesh also means ‘to separate,’ referring to the separation between good and bad, holy and profane. The first step of the Seder process (and of every process) is to create a new space so that the journey toward freedom can begin. We separate ourselves from the mundane past that enslaves us and enter the sacred spiritual experience of the Seder which frees us.
On a cosmic level Kadesh is the counterpart of chochmah (wisdom), the first of the ten sefirot – the beginning of a new order, the first step in a process.
2. U’rchatz – washing the hands
The second step is U’rchatz: washing your hands before dipping a vegetable (Karpas) in saltwater. Following the separation between the mundane and the sacred, we wash and submerge our hands in water, cleansing our ‘tools’ in preparation for the following 13 steps. Every new process always requires a cleansing.
U’rchatz is the only one of the 15 steps to have a connecting letter vav, which adjoins Kadesh to U’rchatz. This is because they are twins: Kadesh is chochmah and u’rchatz is binah (understanding), the “two friends that never separate.” Kadesh is the commencement (chochmah), a mental separation from the past, U’rchatz is the development (binah) and tangible implementation of that separation. Together they help us create the transition from the confinement (mitzrayim) of the mundane to spiritual freedom.
3. Karpas – eating a vegetable dipped in salt water
The third step, Karpas consists of dipping a piece of onion or potato in salt water. This is done to provoke the children to ask: why? The Seder begins by stimulating the child to ask questions because a critical component of freedom is the encouragement and empowerment to ask questions. (More on this – see Maggid).
Why Karpas? The earthy vegetable (which grows from the ground) represents the body, which comes from the dust of the earth, and the salt water represents the salty tears shed in times of pain (the tears of those enslaved in Egypt then and now). We must take our physical body, made of earth, and dip it in salty tears. Salt is a cleanser, and tears are an expression of the soul. We cleanse our bodies with our soul’s tears.
After Kaddish and U’rchatz moved us into the Seder “space,” Karpas teaches us the secret that freedom is only possible by freeing ourselves from the illusion that binds and enslaves us to the material world. Our physical needs, which are vital for our survival and sustenance, consume us to the point that we can often feel completely dependent on them. The very nature of the material world is a narcissistic one, that cries out “I exist and nothing else.” As long as we are deluded by this perception, we can never be free.
Freedom comes when we realize that the material world is like a ‘vegetable’ that needs to be dipped in spiritual “salt water.” Karpas reminds us that the body is merely a means, not an end in itself. Like the vegetable being dipped in salt water, the body’s purpose is to transcend the world that it lives in, by connecting itself to the soul, and thus elevating and freeing both the body and the soul.
4. Yachatz – breaking the middle matzah
But even after we have this awareness, how do we actually release ourselves from the tight grip of materialism’s tentacles?
The answer is: Yachatz. We break the middle of the three matzahs of the Seder plate. Matzah symbolizes bittul, suspending oneself for a higher purpose. Matzah is made of water and flour; water represents the soul and the Torah, and flour represents the body. The antithesis of Matzah is chometz (leavened bread). Chometz is bread that is allowed to rise. This represents the inflated ego, which is mostly “air.” Matzah on the other hand is the bare minimum of flour and water without any inflated air
The subjective ego is the biggest trap that biases and blinds us from seeing a broader perspective. Matzah empowers us with bittul, the ability to transcend your own viewpoint and allow in a higher truth.
Breaking the matzah (yachatz) emphasizes this bittul even farther. Breaking the matzah is breaking the self. Even the self as represented by matzah is broken to ensure that even the selflessness does not become another expression of self.
5. Maggid – reciting the Haggadah
After the first four preliminary steps are in place, we now have earned the right to actually tell (Maggid) and relive the story of Exodus. Maggid includes the largest part of the Haggadah.
Telling the story – Maggid – begins with the child (both inner and outer) asking the Four Questions. As mentioned above, the first and perhaps greatest freedom of all is the freedom to ask questions. To probe, explore and challenge. Not only are we free to ask, we must ask. Healthy questions are an expression of the search and the striving for something higher, reaching for a place that is beyond us. If you are complacent and not curious, you remain stuck in your own space. Questions allow us the opportunity to truly grow.
After the child asks the Four Questions, we begin the answer by telling the story of Exodus. The story begins with the bitter Egyptian exile and ends with the liberation. Maggid is not just telling a story-tale of past events; it is reliving and re-experiencing them, recognizing how they play themselves out in our lives today.
Maggid – and indeed the entire Haggadah (which is rooted in the word maggid) – is the story of our lives, the story of all harsh and oppressive forces in our personal ‘mitzrayim’s,’ and our liberation from them.
The first and most critical element in achieving redemption is awareness that we are in ‘prison.’ As long as we convince ourselves that our constraints are ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’ we cannot even begin freeing ourselves. So, we tell the story. Our story. By relating and recreating the story we recognize the limits of our personal struggles and challenges. And once we define the parameters of our own internal “exile,” then, and only then, can we start the process of redemption.
6. Rachtzah – washing the hands
After we recite the story (maggid), we reach a new sublime level. And just as we washed our hands at the beginning of the Seder process (u’rchatz), we wash our hands again at this new stage. Once we are elevated to a higher level of holiness through the first five steps (kadesh through maggid), we need to submerge our hands once again in water, preparing ourselves for the next stage of spiritual growth and freedom.
What does this new stage consist of? The first five steps help put us into a psychological frame of mind of a free person, and to give us a taste of that freedom. Actual freedom is only possible when our minds and hearts are open to being free, when we have the hope and sense that there is more than our previous limited state. Once we reach that point psychologically and we have had a taste of it, we are then ready to begin manifesting and implementing this new-found freedom in our physical and material lives, and not just a taste of it but in a way that we can maintain it. Because after all, we live in a material world, and for freedom to be complete in this world it needs to be not just psychological but expressed in a real and tangible way, where the material world no longer holds us hostage. On the contrary, the material is transformed and even becomes a vehicle for spirituality,
7. Motzi – reciting the blessing HaMotzi
After washing our hands, we begin the process of transformation with Motzi: the first blessing on the matzah, HaMotzi lechem min ha’aretz, blessing G-d, ‘who brings forth bread from the earth.’
This first blessing emphasizes the ‘earthiness’ (the body) of Matzah (the primary ingredient of matzah is flour – which comes from grain of the earth – mixed with water). But unlike karpas, where the focus is on the negativity of materialism, matzah focuses on the positive side of materialism; on its great potential which is released when we reveal the Divine spark within it. “It is not on bread alone that man lives, but on the word of G-d,” the Divine spark within the bread. Indeed, the Kabbalah teaches us that the highest Divine sparks fall in the lowest places. Earth – symbol of all materialism – contains the greatest spiritual energy. But it remains locked and trapped in mitzrayim, until we begin to release it.
Lechem (bread) also means ‘to battle.’ A meal is like a war between the material and the spiritual sparks that lie hidden within the food, between our temptation to indulge and our ability to transcend and elevate the material meal by revealing and releasing these sparks. And when we release them lechem turns into cholom (the same letters as lechem rearranged), the power to dream and reach a greater place.
The first step of releasing and freeing these sparks is through making the blessing HaMotzi on the matzah.
8. Matzah - reciting the blessing on the matzah and eating it
The next step is the second blessing, the special additional blessing which is unique to matzah, blessing G-d for ‘sanctifying us with Your mitzvot and connecting (commanded) us through the eating of matzah.’ This blessing emphasizes not the ‘earthiness’ of matzah, but its spirit – the power of bittul and selflessness (see step 4, yachatz).
Then we eat the matzah. We ingest it and make it part of our body, sustaining our body and soul. You assume what you consume. By eating and consuming matzah – the food of bittul – we assume its qualities. As the Rebbe MaHaRash writes, eating matzah is like ‘eating G-dliness.’ On the first night of Passover matzah is called the “bread of faith.” On the second night it is called “bread of healing.”
Blessing and eating matzah is the first real food we eat Passover. And being that Passover is the beginning of a new year, matzah – the food of bittul and faith – is the first food that initiates us into a new year of meals, infusing us with the power to elevate all the food we will consume to its higher Divine purpose. This in turn help us achieve true freedom in our lives, integrating the material and the spiritual, body and soul.
9. Maror – eating the bitter herbs
However, materialism – including our food – still holds us in a powerful stranglehold. Therefore, following the matzah we eat the bitter maror, which reminds us that we are still enslaved in a world of selfishness, and the resulting bitterness.
Eating maror and feeling its stinging effect projects and transfers the bitterness of life into our tangible experience. It demonstrates our awareness of it, feeing us from the need to have to experience any more serious form of bitterness in our lives. Additionally, the bitter maror teaches us the process of growth. An olive does not produce oil until it is pressed. So too, maror hardens our mettle – the setbacks and pain in life strengthen us. Like steel that is hardened in fire and heat.
The maror is dipped into charoses (a sweet conglomeration of ground apples, pears, nuts and wine), sweetening it a bit (but not in a way that eliminates its bitterness). This demonstrates that even when we need to feel bitterness, its purpose and objective is not bitter, but to reach a greater freedom. As it was in Egypt – “The more they were oppressed, the more they proliferated and grew.” And today, 3314 years later, millions of their descendants sit around the Seder table all over the world celebrating freedom.
10. Korech – eating a sandwich of matzah and maror
We now unite both the matzah and maror experience all in one sandwich. Combining both the matzah’s earthiness and bittul and the maror’s bitterness (dipped in sweet charoses).
There is a time to sing and a time to cry. A time to celebrate and a time to feel the harshness of life. A time for the sweet and a time for the bitter. But then we must learn to join them both into one seamless experience called life – the mission for which we are sent here by G-d. And then we have freedom. Not through denial of the difficult and bitter, not through escape into the spiritual, not merely through either the material or the sublime, but through integrating them into one unit.
11. Shulchan Oruch – lit. ‘set table’ – eating the festive meal
And now, finally, we are ready… to eat.
After the first 10 steps (corresponding to the ten sefirot) of training to integrate spiritual freedom into our material lives, we are now ready for the first real test: Eating an entire material in an entirely new way, one permeated with a sense of Higher presence and G-dliness.
Let’s see how we do.
Why is the meal called “Shulchan Oruch (set table)”? Because a meal is not just a meal. It is not merely an exercise in self-sustenance or self-indulgence. It is a complete experience – like a set table, that has everything set and ready for all the participants to sit down and partake in the meal. When we feed ourselves and others – both physically and spiritually, when we educate and offer services to other – we must always do so in a manner that prepares and anticipates everything in advance, everything is ready and prepared like a shulchan oruch, a set table.
When we recognize that we have been blessed and we have received so much, including the gift of the Passover Seder table, we must in turn share the gifts with others. As Moses was told, that he must present the teachings to the people like a ‘set table,’ so too do we have the responsibility to set the table for others who may not have the opportunity (for whatever reason). We must offer them a prepared meal – both physically and spiritually, sharing and teaching all that we know, and setting the table by applying ourselves to provide all the necessary elements.
12. Tzofon – eating the afikoman
Following the meal we eat the afikoman (the larger half of the middle matzah that we broke and then hid away in Yachatz). Tzofon means ‘hidden.’ It also means ‘north,’ where it’s cold and seemingly void of spirituality.
After we have eaten a complete meal – the first meal of Passover and of the entire year – and we have eaten it as free men, women and children, a material meal eaten in a spiritual and refined way, we now have the power to reveal that which is hidden and unconscious – tzofon – within ourselves and those around us.
Furthermore, we have the power to conquer not just the revealed dimensions of materialism as adversary, but also its hidden dimensions. And we can reveal the enormous spiritual energy that lies hidden in the ‘north,’ in the places that seem so spiritually barren. As discussed earlier, that the highest ‘sparks’ are to be found in the darkest and coldest places.
The Afikoman is eaten as a dessert; not for sustenance but for pleasure. The matzah eaten earlier is bittul on the conscious level (for sustenance). The Afikoman matzah is bittul on the unconscious (hidden) level. Another point: The earlier matzah helps acclimate us to the bittul experience, as we learn to tame the ‘ego’ and ‘narcissism’ of materialism. Once we have reached bittul, we than can integrate it into the pleasure of our lives, where even our pleasures become permeated with higher purpose, with G-dliness.
Complete freedom is achieved only when we have been freed not just the conscious levels but also the unconscious and hidden ones.
13. Beirach – reciting grace
We conclude the meal with reciting grace. The meal is thus punctuated by the two spiritual poles – the first ten steps prior to the meal, including the washing of the hands and the blessings made on the matzah, and the grace said after the meal. This gives us the power to ensure that the meal – which is symbolic of all our material experiences – will yield the spiritual energy that lies within its Divine sparks.
Beirach (to bless) means ‘to draw down’ – to draw down into this physical world spirituality and G-dliness.
14. Hallel – reciting psalms of praise
Hallel also means ‘to shine,’ from the expression ‘behilo nero – when his candle shone forth.’ Hallel is recited on those occasions when G-d’s truth shines forth into our material world, revealing and manifesting that G-dliness is the ultimate reality and that the material is naught.
After we have done everything in our power to achieve freedom in the first 13 steps of the Seder, we now say hallel and through these words of praise we place ourselves in G-d’s hands. We surrender to G-d to complement whatever we cannot do on our own and to conclude the process of reaching complete freedom.
15. Nirtzah – G-d’s promise to accept our service
Unlike the previous 14 steps, this last and final step does not manifest itself in any prayer or action. We have reached a point that transcends words and praise. After we have completed our Seder service, we are accepted favorably – nirtzah - by G-d.
As such we are ready for the final and complete freedom and redemption
NEXT YEAR IN JERUSALEM!
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the Alter Rebbe, did not include at the conclusion of the Haggadah the passage ‘the order of Pesach is concluded,’ because the Passover Seder never ends. Instead, it continues throughout the year. To be sure, the illumination of every festival radiates every day; but Pesach extends continuously. Every day we must leave mitzrayim, transcend out previous limitations and reach higher levels of holiness.