We celebrated Passover last night with the customary Seder–the ceremonial dinner for the first night or first two nights of Passover. My house is usually the gathering place. It is a big job. Traditionally, the preparation that goes into preparing one’s home, kitchen, dishes, and even inner self for Passover is daunting. In many observant homes, there is separate dishware that must be used during Passover. One’s house must be cleaned thoroughly (“kashered”) in order to rid the house of “chametz”, or any kind of leavened bread or leavening. All uneaten and unopened leavened food products must be donated while opened and partially eaten leavened food products must be disposed of. The kitchen must be thoroughly cleaned, and there are detailed instructions on how to do this. I learned just last week that the Israeli army just replaces all their metal kitchen shelving with Passover shelving. When Passover is over, out comes the non-festival shelving.
I have kashered my house a few times. The result? My house was clean. It felt clean, but I was exhausted. It helped me, however, experience the spectrum of Jewish observance. Today, I can’t be that observant although there is something about going through all your kitchen shelves and drawers and thoroughly cleaning them that scratches a particular itch. It cannot be about what is “good enough” though. It is about preparing my mind and heart for what this particular Seder will speak forth. What does that mean?
Every year, the Seder is different. For those of you who are still mystified by what I’m saying when I say “seder”, the Seder is essentially a meal directed by a liturgical ritual. The word “seder” itself means “order”, and we follow the order of this customary Passover meal from a text called the Haggadah.
It is the same order every year because the Haggadah tells the same story–the story of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt and God’s deliverance of the Jews from slavery. I like a very meaningful, thoughtful Seder because one of the key elements of the Seder is to read this story as if it were happening to you. In fact, the Haggadah that we used stated: “In each generation, everyone must think of himself or herself as having personally left Egypt.” The texts are supposed to be read as if you are living them out. This is why they remain relevant. What could be analogous to your life experience in the present? Who are you in the text? Who is your personal Pharaoh? Are you experiencing a metaphorical plague? Do you feel enslaved to something and require help or intervention? Do you feel hopeless? As our Haggadah said, “Our Seder goal is to relate personally to the Passover story.”
I remember going to a Seder at synagogue a few months before my marriage ended. I felt on edge, scared, and almost hopelessly uncertain about my future. My oldest daughter was about to graduate from high school, and I had three other daughters to think about. I needed surgery for an injury I sustained from my now ex-husband, and I had no idea how I was going to keep going forward. What did that Seder speak forth at that time? I looked around the table I was sitting at and saw people around me who would help me. I saw a community. I slowly began to realize that I would not leave “slavery” alone. I would go out with a group. I could try, and I did. Only two months later. My life, three years later, has changed dramatically–for the better.
What did last night’s Seder speak forth? At the end of the Haggadah, we read this:
“Redemption requires our participation. The Midrash says that God did not split the sea until one person, Nachson Ben Aminadav, took the first step into the water. If we take the first step, God will help us the rest of the way.” (A Family Haggadah)
Whether or not people believe in God’s intervention (or even a Divine) need not detract from the greater meaning of the experience. There are Jews who do not believe that God intervenes into the affairs of mankind. What I want to emphasize here is that action is required in order to obtain any sort of freedom from that which creates personal inertia and bondage. It can be almost terrifying to take first steps particularly when a big life choice is at hand. Divorce? Marriage? Career change? A confrontation that might drastically change a relationship? Moving to another part of the world? Going to therapy for the first time? Choosing colleges? Dating again after a long-term relationship? You name it. If it feels daunting and freezes you up in your life, then you’ve got a personal Egypt. In my experience, taking first steps often creates momentum and opens doors. I am experiencing this phenomenon right now in my life, but so often we don’t experience a fulfilling or meaningful life because we are stuck. We feel paralyzed or too fearful to take a first step. Or, we don’t know what the first step even is.
Engaging in the annual Seder ritual can prepare our hearts and minds for self-examination. If we have a relationship with God, then the Seder sets aside time for conversations about very specific situations in which we can listen to what God might say to us about our very personal Exodus story. If we are not theists, the Seder is still of value because the ritual itself provides time to reflect, look back, and then look forward. Because the Seder is an annual celebration, we experience an opportunity to track the trajectory of our lives, and this is what I find so interesting. I can look back a few years ago and recall what I took from that particular Seder–what I internalized as a much needed truth and encouragement. Yesterday, I contemplated where I had been and where I was going in the context of my present circumstances. I hope everyone who attended our Seder was able to enjoy some contemplation even though a Seder at our house is a little more like a festival celebration at the Goldbergs.
We try to be solemn and honor the sacred, but, in the end, it just ends up like that. My daughter’s boyfriend joined us. One man in a room full of loud, opinionated women. He said very little. I’ll crochet him a Pokemon yarmulke for next year. He’ll fit right in.
Making time–even if it is once a year–to contemplate your path and examine your state of freedom is a part of the Seder experience. You do not have to be Jewish to make this idea a part of your life. It is rewarding, useful, mindful, and helpful in terms of crafting a life that not only fulfills you but contributes to the betterment of the world around you.
It is another way to enjoy life so that you can keep going.