The Sages designed the Passover Seder as 15 steps to make you enormously successful. Here's the key to unlocking the code.
Passover is the time when each Jew embarks on a personal journey from slavery to freedom. In order to guide us in our quest, the Sages carefully wrote a book outlining 15 steps to freedom. It's called the Haggadah. The Sages say that Passover occurs on the 15th of Nissan (the Jewish month), to teach us that just as the moon waxes for 15 days, so too our growth must be in 15 gradual steps. Think of these as 15 pieces of the Passover puzzle. Assemble them all and you've got freedom!
To begin the Seder, we make Kiddush and sanctify the day. The word "kiddush" means special and unique. The first step to personal freedom is to recognize that you are special. You have a distinct combination of talents, skills and experiences that qualifies you to make a unique contribution to the world.
In Egypt, the Jews were forced to build the store-cities of Pitom and Ramses. Why was this tortuous labor? Because these cities rested on swamp-land, and every time the Jews built one level, it sunk into the ground. Slavery is a life with no accomplishment, no achievement, and no meaning.
On Passover, we begin our journey toward personal freedom by asking: What is humanity's biggest need? What can I contribute most profoundly to nurture and protect the world? And... what am I going to do about it?
"Why do we wash our hands at this point in this Seder?" the Talmud asks. "Because it is an unusual activity which prompts the children to ask questions." The very name Haggadah means "telling," for the goal of the Seder is to arouse curious questions, and satisfying answers.
We've all felt the sense of awe upon meeting a fascinating person, or reading an enlightening new book. But as adults we may become enslaved by the idea that it's more sophisticated to "know it all." Passover teaches that to be truly free we must approach life with child-like wonderment. "Who is the wise person?" asks the Talmud. "The one who learns from everyone."
Passover is the holiday of springtime, joy and renewal. Nissan is the first month. And the very word for "month," chodesh, has the same letters as the word for "new," chadash. The Seder is filled with unusual activities. Be curious. Be a student of life. Be free.
We take a green vegetable and bless God for creating fruits from the ground. Gratitude is liberating. "Who is the rich person?" asks the Talmud. "The one who's satisfied with what he's got."
This appreciation comes through focusing on details. For example, to get this green vegetable to our table, it had to be planted, harvested, packed, shipped, unloaded, unpacked, displayed, and rung up by a cashier – before we even bring it home! If we truly appreciate all we have, we'll be constantly proclaiming: "Life is a wonderful gift!"
On a deeper level, we dip the vegetable in salt water to let us know that even those things which appear bitter – a lost job or a broken relationship – are ultimately for the best.
Gratitude is an attitude. It requires constant effort and attention. A Jew strives to say 100 blessings every day. The reward is emancipation.
We break the middle matzah, and put it aside to serve later as the Afikomen. Why do we break the matzah now if we don't need it until later? Because a key to freedom is to anticipate the future and make it real.
The definition of maturity is the ability to trade a lower pleasure now for a higher pleasure later. Children lack this perspective and demand instant gratification. (Why not eat 10 candies now? Because you'll get a stomach-ache later!) The challenge of adulthood is training ourselves to look at the long-term consequences. (Why not intermarry now that I'm in love? Because the future portends family tension, confusion for children, and estrangement from one's roots.)
"Who is the wise man?" asks the Talmud. "The one who sees the future." We break the middle Matzah, not for now, but for later. Because true freedom is a long-term proposition.
The Sages tell us that the unique ability given to humanity is the power of speech. Speech is the tool of building and construction. God used it to create the world ("And God said: Let there be light."), and the Kabbalists used it to create the golem.
On Seder night, we use our gift of speech for the central part of the Haggadah: telling the Passover story. The very word "Pesach" is a contraction of the words Peh Sach, meaning "the mouth speaks." The Hebrew name for Pharaoh, on the other hand, is a combination of Peh Rah, meaning "the bad mouth." For just as speech has the power to build, it also has the power to destroy. Gossip and slander drive apart families and communities.
On Passover, we use speech to "build" humanity – by communicating, connecting, and encouraging each other. We stay up long into the night, relating the story of our exodus, tasting and sharing the joy of freedom.
One aspect of freedom is the ability to elevate ourselves above the lowest common denominator on the street. We've all felt the sensory assault of billboards, gratuitous talk-radio, immodest fashions, and violence on TV.
At the Seder we wash our hands as a preparatory step before the Matzah, in order to carefully consider what it is we're about to eat. One who is concerned with spiritual and physical health is discriminating about all forms of consumption: which movies to watch, which friends to spend time with, and what standards of business ethics to uphold. The streets are filled with a multitude of options. But we must not consume indiscriminately.
We "wash our hands" to cleanse and distance ourselves from unhealthy influences. Freedom is the ability to say: "I choose not to partake."
We make the "hamotzi" blessing to thank God for "bringing forth bread from the ground." Which is odd because God brings wheat from the ground – and man turns it into bread! In truth, God gives us two gifts: 1) the raw materials, and 2) the tools for transforming it into life.
Today, technology has pulled us away from seeing the beauty of God's creation. We fine-tune our environment with air-conditioning, synthetic foods, cosmetic surgery, and genetic engineering. Mankind is perilously close to "playing God." But in truth, man cannot create anything perfect; man can only tune into God's ultimate perfection. Which is more awesome to behold – the world's biggest super-computer, or the human brain? Between your two ears are 10 billion nerve cells – a communication system 100 times larger than the entire communications system on Earth.
When we make "hamotzi," we hold the Matzah with all 10 fingers – reminding us that while human hands produced this food, it is yet another gift from the Creator and Sustainer of all life.
Both bread and Matzah are flour mixed with water, then kneaded into a dough and baked. What is the difference between them? The difference is that bread dough has sat unattended for 18 minutes and becomes leavened (bread). The Matzah which we eat on Passover has been baked quickly.
The spelling of "Matzah" is similar to "mitzvah:" Just as we shouldn't delay in the making of Matzah, so too we shouldn't procrastinate in performing a mitzvah. The lesson of Matzah is to seize the moment. Delaying even one second can mean the difference between an opportunity gained or lost.
Why 18 minutes? Because the number 18 is the numerical value of "Chai," meaning "life." They say that "baseball is a game of inches." Actually, life itself is a game of seconds. The Talmud tells of people who had sunk to the depths of humanity, and then in one moment of insight reversed their lives for all eternity. More than just the difference between Matzah and bread, the Seder teaches us the difference between life and death.
At the Seder we say: "In every generation they rise against us to annihilate us." The Egyptians broke our backs and our spirits. The Romans destroyed the Second Temple and rivers of Jewish blood flowed. And so it was in every generation: Crusades, Inquisitions, Pogroms, Holocaust, Arab terrorism. Intense and irrational violence has stalked our people to every corner of the globe. Why the hatred?
The Talmud says the Hebrew word for "hatred" (sinah) is related to the word "Sinai." At Mount Sinai, the Jewish people acquired the legacy of morality and justice – a message that evil cannot tolerate. We taught the world "to beat their swords into plowshares." We taught the world "to love your neighbor as yourself." We taught the world equality before justice, and that admiration belongs not to the rich and powerful – but to the good, the wise, and the kind. Hitler said: "The Jews have inflicted two wounds on mankind – circumcision on the body, and conscience on the soul." How right he was and how much more work we have to do.
Throughout the generations, the forces of darkness have sought to extinguish our flame. But the Jews have somehow prevailed. We have God's promise that we will be the eternal nation. For without our message, the world would revert to utter chaos.
At the Seder, we eat the bitter herbs – in combination with Matzah – to underscore that God is present not only during our periods of freedom (symbolized by the Matzah), but during our bitter periods of exile as well. He will never forsake us.
The Hillel Sandwich is "bricks-and-mortar:" broken Matzah held together by bitter herbs and charoset. The Matzah was once whole. So too, the Jewish people can become crushed and divisive. But we are held together by our common links to Torah and our shared historical experiences.
The Talmud says that as Jews in Egypt, we were redeemed only because of our unity. We were unified in our commitment to each other and to the future of our people. Weeks later at Mount Sinai, we stood together and accepted the Torah with one heart and one mind.
Today, we are fighting amongst ourselves under the watchful eye of the world media. It is both embarrassing and discouraging. The biggest threat to Jewish survival may be from within. Our only response is to stand loudly and proclaim: Every Jew is a Jew. Period. The inclusion of the "Wicked Son" in the Seder expresses our conviction that no Jew is ever irretrievably lost. We are all one family, responsible to love and care for one another.
The Matzah may be broken, but it can be restored. It is this Hillel Sandwich which has traditionally symbolized our commitment to glue the Jewish nation back together. On the merit of unity we were redeemed from Egypt, and it is on that merit that we shall be redeemed once again.
11. SHULCHAN ORECH
When we think of attaining levels of holiness, it seems strange that one of the mitzvots of Seder night should be eating a festive meal. That is because the Jewish attitude toward our physical drives and material needs is quite different from that of other religions. Our religious leaders are neither celibate nor do they meditate all day on a mountaintop. Rather than negating or denying the physical, Judaism stresses the importance of feasting and marital relations.
God wants it that way. The proof is that instead of creating all foods bland (or in the form of "protein-pills"), God concocted a variety of flavors and textures – orange, strawberry, chocolate, banana and mango. Why? Because God wants His people to have pleasure! Adam and Eve were put into the Garden of Eden – the Garden of Pleasure.
The Talmud says that one of the first questions a person is asked when they get up to Heaven is: "Did you enjoy all the fruits of the world?" On Seder night, we eat the festive meal to teach us that true freedom is the ability to sanctify life, not flee from it.
The last thing we eat all night is the Afikoman. (Matzah for dessert?! And I thought we were having macaroons!) We eat this final piece of Matzah – not because we are hungry – but because we are commanded. Physical pleasure, though an integral part of our lives, sometimes gives way to a higher value.
To illustrate this concept, the Talmud compares a person to a "horse and rider." The purpose of a horse is to take you where you want to go; but left to its own devices, the horse will get lazy and may even throw off the rider. That's why the rider has to be in control of making all the decisions. So too, our bodies are the vehicles for moving us through life; they require care and attention – but not to the extent of assuming a pre-eminent position. There is a difference between eating healthy, and flying to Europe in order to dine on authentic Italian food. A person dominated by material strivings is anything but free. Judaism says: control the physical so it does not control you. Become a master of yourself.
It is this ability to rise above our physical selves that demarcates the difference between humans and animals. The story is told of the Baal Shem Tov looking at his neighbor eating dinner – and instead of a person, seeing the form of an ox. The man was solely in pursuit of physical pleasure, no different than an animal. Freedom is the ability to put our soul in control. "Who is the strong person?" asks the Talmud. "The one who can subdue his personal inclination."
At the Seder, we hide the Afikomen, search, find – and win a prize! The same is true with our spiritual yearning to do the right thing. Although it might be buried inside, we can search for it, find it – and the prize is pure freedom.
Social pressure is one thing that holds us back from taking charge and doing the right thing. Barech, the "Grace After Meals" was instituted by Abraham 4000 years ago. Abraham would invite idolatrous wayfarers into his tent for a hearty meal, and then tell them the price of admission is to bless God. They thought he was crazy! Nobody believed in God! Abraham was called Ha'Ivri ("the Hebrew"), meaning "the one who stands on the other side." He was a social outcast and a lone voice in the wilderness.
Would we have been able to stand up to that kind of social pressure? Do we speak out today against the proliferation of media, sex and violence? Against drugs and crime in our streets? Slavery is a pre-occupation with self-image and social status. ("What will they think of me if I voice my objection? How will I bear the pain of isolation and rejection?")
The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim – from the root meitzar, which means narrow and constricted. When we left Egypt, we became free of the societal forces which restrict us to a narrow path of fashion, image and ideas. Freedom means doing the right thing even when it may not be socially popular. I have to live with my own conscience. The reality is liberating.
As the feeling of freedom inebriates our souls (helped along by the four cups of wine!), we sing aloud in joy. When the Jews came out of Egypt and crossed the Red Sea they broke out in song (Exodus chapter 15). When we see the upending of evil, the Egyptians drowning at the sea, we are instinctively grateful to the One who orchestrated the turnaround! God delivers us from slavery unto freedom – and we are amazed at the beauty and swiftness of it all.
The Jews in Egypt had sunk to the 49th level of spiritual impurity, and only when they hit rock-bottom did they turn to God and cry out. It was at that moment that they were redeemed. Redemption can be as quick as the blink of an eye. Our Egyptian experience began with Joseph sitting in the dungeon prison – and rising to the position of Prime Minister in the span of one day!
The Seder is the only one of the 613 mitzvot that is performed specifically at night, for on Passover, we turn the darkness into light. With "Hallel," we abandon all intellectual posits, and experience the emotional joy of freedom. Song is the expression of an excited soul. It is the way to break out of oneself and reach for freedom.
We conclude our Seder with the prayer, "Next Year in Jerusalem." Every synagogue in the world faces Jerusalem. It is the focus of our hopes and aspirations – not merely in a geographic sense, but in a conceptual sense as well. The Talmud says creation began in Jerusalem, and the world radiated outward from this spot. Medieval maps show Jerusalem at the epicenter of Asia, Europe, and Africa. The world flows into this place, and all of life's forces resonate there. From Jerusalem, the whole world is cast into perspective.
The name Jerusalem means "city of peace." Peace, shalom, is more than the absence of conflict; it is the seamless harmony of humanity genuinely embracing a common vision. Jerusalem is a vision of God in our lives, a metaphor of a perfected world. Jerusalem gives us hope to achieve what we as a people must do, to sanctify this world.
In Egypt, we hadn't yet absorbed this lesson: we were too burnt out from hard work (Exodus 6:9) and had become immersed in the spiritual abyss of Egyptian society. When we finally were redeemed, it happened so quickly and hastily that even then we were unable to grasp its full significance. What this means is that year after year, each successful Seder adds meaning to the original events, and brings us closer to the final redemption.
As the Seder draws to a close, we sense the process of redemption is under way. We shout aloud: "Next Year in Jerusalem!" We're on our way back home.