Jewish Journal


March 29, 2007

The seder offers 15 steps toward empowerment


Fifteen steps or ritual components make up the Passover seder.

Knowing that in advance can empower your guests and everyone else gathered around the dinner table. Most haggadot list the 15 steps at the beginning of the text. Think of it as a key, or GPS, to help you navigate through this age-old tradition. In our home, we sing the 15 steps together, repeating them up to the ritual section being observed until we've completed all 15 parts.

1) Kadesh. As with all sacred days we begin with Kiddush. The root of the Hebrew word suggests holiness, or that which is distinct. Rabbi Abraham Heschel makes the point that holiness is not to be thought of solely as physical space, but also as spiritual time.

Passover is holy time. If for nothing else, it is a time when family and friends can enjoy a meal together without the competition of work, the BlackBerry or television.

2) Urhaz. Washing without a blessing. The Passover seder is patterned after a Greek-Roman banquet, one enjoyed with many small individualized courses. In between the courses, one would wash one's hands. So, too, with the seder. There are other times a Jew is instructed to wash his or her hands. Most notably after leaving a cemetery, or upon waking up in the morning. Washing hands becomes a way of heightening transition. From a place of death, to a place of life; from sleep to regained consciousness; from slavery to freedom.

3) Karpas. A vegetable, usually parsley, or potato. Parsley, in particular, is a seasonal springtime crop representative of rebirth and redemption. They are common, lowly foods, indicative of our origins as a religious group -- lowly and downtrodden. But remember that more important than one's beginning, or lineage, is one's vision and direction in life -- where one ends up.

4) Yahatz. Breaking the matzah -- typically the middle of the three matzot. One half of the broken matzah becomes the hidden afikomen. All of us live with brokenness, expectations unfulfilled and loss. Often more significant than those present are those who are no longer seated around the Passover table due to death and estrangement. Passover is a time to confront the brokenness in our lives and attempt, once again, to begin anew.

5) Maggid. The story. Here is the heart of the haggadah. We are a people filled with stories -- life-transforming stories. Everyone has a story -- there is a book in every human being. Develop the skills to listen to someone else; listen to their story. Ask questions, seek a deeper understanding.

6) Rachtzah. Hand-washing with a blessing. The blessing offered is the same one said before eating bread. Ironically, the prayer does not mention washing the hands, rather lifting the hands. Ask yourself in what ways do you lift your hands, for what purpose? By extension, in what ways do you elevate your life? Public prayer is expressed with one's mouth; action is expressed through one's hands.

7) Motzi. Brought out. We say brought out (bread from the earth) in the context of a prayer said prior to breaking bread. The verb's root is the same as being brought out of Egypt. The holiday of Passover is one of transformation. From darkness to light; from being brought out of slavery into freedom. Life is by definition transformation and endless change.

8) Matzah. An unleavened mixture of flour and water. Matzah is a flat cracker cake. Less than 18 minutes differentiates it from bread eaten the rest of the year. How many things in life would have changed had the timing been different? That's particularly true in relationships.

Matzah is humble bread reminding us that we are not always in charge of the things that occur in our lives. Timing is important, but time itself is an abstract; it is a euphemism for life. The matzah, hurriedly baked, teaches us we are not the sole masters of our destiny.

9) Marror. Bitter. Right there in the middle of our seder plates sits a glob of bitterness, usually in the form of grated horseradish. Do we need bitterness in order to savor and appreciate sweetness? I'm not certain. I am certain of this: Life has with it bitter encounters; sore, unpleasant memories.

It's significant that marror is included in the Passover story. Given the often-bitter history of the Jews, it makes sense to include it. But it also makes sense to consume it, yes, in celebration of Passover. Ask yourself: Does bitterness consume you, or do you, with God's help and that of family, friends and community, consume it?

10) Korech. The Hillel Sandwich. Psychologists refer to the generation who have children and whose parents are still living as the Sandwich Generation. Whether your parents are living, whether you have children, to be a Jew today is to see yourself as part of an inseparable link between yourself and the next generation. Your Jewish involvement and concern must go beyond participation in an annual Passover seder meal.

11) Shulhan Orech. Arranged Table. Passover is a series of orders, an order within an order.

To arrange a table, to give it order, takes work. While Passover, once begun, is festive and relaxing, its preparation requires sacrifice and effort. Shabbat is a great example of that. At the end of the week, the last thing you feel like doing is "arranging" the table, and inviting people over to your home.

Like Shabbat, Passover is not a time for rest exclusively. The reality is anything worthwhile in life takes planning, arranging and effort.

12) Tzafun. Hidden, as searching for the hidden afikomen. Being a religious person is not just to feel differently, but to see differently. Search for those things hidden in your life; develop a method to see more clearly.

13) Barech. Blessings recited after the meal is finished. Blessings, along with prayer, are means to express appreciation. There are a number of holy, religious words: I love you, I'm sorry and, appropriate to Passover, thank you! So much of the Passover Seder revolves around the food; by offering blessings of appreciation we further emphasize the meal's importance and our need for it. 14) Hallel. Psalms of praise. Though we chant Hallel at night, and while seated, the chanting should serve as a reminder in our own lives of the importance of being positive. Too often we become critical of others, if not ourselves. The power of positive thinking has been proven, let alone the power, if not holiness, of being positive to one another. To become ambassadors of good, constructive thought and disposition, the Passover Seder is a good place to start.

15) Nirtzah. The conclusion. This is arguably the most important part of the Passover seder.

Not because people are sated and tired, but because holy time and space have limitations. I have always felt the most important part of Shabbat is Havdalah, and the most important part of Yom Kippur is the sounding of the shofar. Not that we wish these days to end, but that God created us to live in the world; a world unsuspended by a constant state of holiness, enmeshed in prayer, community and theoretical thought.

To take the renewed spirit that comes from these Passover days and use them to more fully engage in the day-to-day world of our existence, that is the challenge we face. Shabbat comes once a week; Passover once a year.

They are spiritual "magnetos," propelling us forward, one holy day to the next.

Very few things in life are either all or nothing. Use these 15 steps as a means of empowerment, not as a burden or a weight around your neck squeezing the joy and holiness out of the gathering. Passover is a seasonal, time-bound holiday that is timeless in its many nuanced messages. One message speaks of liberation and freedom -- improvement for all humanity. So, how do you begin to accomplish that lofty goal? How do you make God's world a little better?

If Passover teaches us anything, one place to start is in your home, seated around the dinner table.

Happy Passover!

Michael Gotlieb is rabbi of Kehillat Ma'arav Synagogue in Santa Monica.

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