Jewish tradition, as we know it, is not entirely inscribed in the ink on the parchment of a Torah scroll. Rather, the dark letters interact with the space around them, which is filled with imagination and logic, invisible questions and responses—the ones evoked and expressed by midrash, the stories we tell about the stories we read in the scroll, the place where each generation leaves its own interpretive fingerprints.
We can view the seder in the same way. It is essential to our identity as a people to see this potential for transformative power in this Jewish ritual. How can we tap into that, when it seems so familiar—when even its questions are prescribed ones we recite by rote? If once-natural inquisitiveness has gelled into detached-from-wonder questions for generations, how can we get the seder unstuck so that it helps us come alive as we celebrate our freedom?
Looking to the Jewish Sages who invented the seder can help. Remember, only the ritual Passover meal itself is prescribed in the Torah even before we leave Egypt. God instructs Moses to tell us (Exodus, Ch. 12) that every year we should eat a roasted meal like the lamb we boldly roasted on our last night in Egypt, along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, recounting the story of our exodus. It will happen, God says, and this is what you will do every year after that and you will tell the story.
The ritual of the seder comes from the deep imagination of the Jewish Sages who bring this meal of roasted lamb into psychodynamic 3-D, transforming the menu into an alchemical recipe for inspiration through embodied experiencing of an intergenerational drama.
The Rabbis imbued the biblically prescribed menu with meaning, and we too can bring a new sense—and our senses—to the food arrayed before us like an experiential palate:
Matzoh, the haggadah reminds us, is about what is essential—bare necessities of survival, that is both a reminder of meager subsistence and poverty (anyone here identify with scraping by as you stretch financially or otherwise?) and yet also of the freedom of getting in touch with that which keeps us spiritually alive, without the clutter of so much else that piles up on us in life.
Then we taste salt water that can remind us (privately, if you must) of the taste of our own tears or sweat. Go there, this year, if you can. To your own tears, to that place of hurt and not-knowing if/when it will be okay. The parsley that drips with those salty tears is there as a reminder that spring does come eventually, and its presence at this moment invites us to connect with hope and the promise of a new beginning, even as we remember how it feels to taste our tears and sweat and sorrow when we feel lost.
Now primed to enter into storytelling about brokenness, we collectively look back to the matzoh in the middle of the table, and someone breaks the middle matzoh and tucks the larger part of it away into hiding. That moment can reverberate in us, that act of going into the protected part of us on the inside and breaking open what has been shielded and hidden. Wine will carry us through the meal, one meaningful cup at a time, softening edges and defenses and helps us reach into different dimensions of remembering and sharing our sometimes painful if ultimately redemptive journeys.
Bitter herbs become an opportunity to get out of denial about the pain we suffer. These plants connect us to the kind of pain that can burn us on the inside, like humiliation and shame, powerlessness and rage. You can decide this year if you’re going to be bold and allow yourself the unadulterated taste of that bitterness, the kind that can make you turn red and choke up for a moment as the tears begin to emerge. Sometimes it’s good to be reminded that we can cry in front of each other, and maror opens the door to that experience together.
The Sage Hillel extended permission to make a sandwich, so to the extent you need to, you can chase the deep pain of maror down with the haroset, the sweetest tastes of love.
And whatever your combination of flavors, haroset is a sensory reminder of the earth that veritably blossoms with sweet stickiness—honey, wine, apples, seeds, nuts, dates…. It is a sensory, sensuous metaphor for all kinds of love that nourish and change us and the world. Because after all, haroset (which is not on the menu that God gives us in Exodus, but which the Rabbis read into God’s love) is literally a blend of love metaphors: the recipes emerge from the Song of Songs, that sacred love poem that is Jewish tradition to recite after the seder in this holiday on the first full moon of spring when the world begins to bloom anew as it seems to when we know we are in Love.
On this full moon, every person is obliged to see the reality that we ourselves experienced an Exodus (Greek for “exit”) from the oppressive confines of a “narrow place” (the literal translation of the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim). Tonight, we are enjoined to taste the miracle that we made it through something that hurt so badly we thought it might be the end of us… and the deeper we go into the pain, the sweeter is the taste of our freedom.
The whole experiential ritual occurs in a nourishing frame layered with meaning and emotion.
A story that begins with taste prompts is meant to deepen even as we eat our sustaining meal (when it comes, at last).
But perhaps the most redemptive, significant note of all, is that we don’t leave the seder without reclaiming the part of us that was broken and hidden (tzafun) when we started this ritual meal. The afikoman isn’t meant to be the blandest dessert, it’s meant to be the puzzle piece that we bring back to the rest of us, the wholeness we hold out for even if the seder has stretched us past bedtime. We insist—we even pay the children a ransom to redeem—on fulfilling the collective agreement of the seder night not to let ourselves or each other stay broken, invisible, or unredeemed. How’s that for a transformative ritual moment? How sweet will the afikoman taste to you, this year?
On other nights, we have consider the seder to be written in the language of instruction. This night, we consider it to be written in the language of invitation.
We follow the lead of the Sages who transformed a biblical menu for the night before a journey into a recipe for journeying through feeling. The seder (literally, the order of ritual practices within the framework of a meal) supports our deep desire to get real and go deep in the safety of context—of people we love, of food that will touch us emotionally and spiritually and eventually offer us sustenance for the journey. Now that we know we will get to where we are—free, safe, and comfortable—let’s go into the experience we lived, even as we taste reminders of how it lives in us. And together, perhaps we can find our hidden parts and redeem them, too.