I do two types of Passover seders — the public ones and a private one.
The public ones are the first two nights of Passover — the first night with as many people as will fit into a given room in our house, and the second night with as many as will fit into our snug synagogue. The goal of the public ones is to enjoy, with some degree of seriousness about the spiritual meanings.
The private one happens sporadically. Sometimes when I am preparing for a class, I turn my teachings inward. Sometimes when my wife and I are planning a bit of the serious side of the public seders, we contemplate the deeper dimensions together. Sometimes with students and study partners, we move from mastery of text to mastery of the inner life. In these sporadic seders, which take place a few weeks before the public ritual, personal insights, insights from spiritually oriented commentaries and other texts that shed light on the inner dimension of the haggadah are brought to bear. In these seders, I weave my own path of liberation for the year, based on the spiritual work in which I am engaged.
The seder, like all Jewish holy days and traditions, runs on four levels:
• The historical background: What happened in our history that created this tradition?
• The ritual background: How do we observe this tradition?
• The metaphoric background: What are the deeper, poetic meanings rooted in this history and these rituals?
• The personal application: How does this inner poetry, presented by the ritual and the history, help me to transform my life right now?
The haggadah, like all our holy texts and practices, is filled with subtexts, deeper worlds and opportunities for metaphoric and poetic openings that can help us make our own private transformative journeys and liberate us from lives that seem settled with a gray kind of mediocrity. Our tradition lays claim to our inner lives, not just our ritual practices or moral passions. Our texts and practices guide inner exploration and inner work.
Here are a couple of examples of how the metaphoric dimension of the haggadah can prompt this work.
There are two sets of four questions. The first set of questions asks: Why do the rituals of this night differ from other nights? An answer is given: Avadim hayinu — we were slaves, and now we are free. Added to that answer is: We have to talk about it all night. And no matter how smart we get or think we are, we still have to talk about it.
We can take this idea of questioning and the metaphor of slavery, and turn it inward. Maybe, on a metaphoric level, we are still slaves today because we are not asking questions, because we are not grappling with these things all night (at least now and then).
There is a basic rule of the spiritual life: If you don’t confront the existential questions of your life directly, they will haunt you and express themselves in clumsy ways.
I ask myself aloud the questions that are particular to me at this point in my life and that I can tell are resting right under my conscious self. Questions that come, perhaps, from being 55 years old, being a husband, a dad, a rabbi, a teacher, many other things. I ponder. Certain kinds of questions arise.
My physical body is showing the signs of age and wear — infirmity and illness are bound to come. Will those maladies define me, hold me captive, or will I define myself in some deeper way?
How can I move to yet another level of wisdom for love, in my marriage and with my family, as I enter the last third of my life? How do I let go of certain people and things, aspirations and ideas that are not healthy for me? What are the aspirations and ideas that should now gain sharper focus in my life? How do I let go of old attachments and old wounds? What should I be doing with my time and energy, as I see time and energy misspent from a shrinking account? How do I work through the sadness and loss that have accompanied me far longer than I thought they would? How can I shape my life around dreams and drives that have defined me since I was a young man and not push them off any longer? What fills me with joy and meaning at this point in my life? What in life prompts in me the deepest feelings of gratitude? I ask myself, what should I be talking about with my congregation that really matters to me and to them? I think of my students at the Academy for Jewish Religion, training to be rabbis, cantors and chaplains: Whatever the curriculum for the class is, what should I really be teaching to prepare them to care for the souls others?
These are things I would like to talk about all night.
“We were slaves and now we are free,” we are told, as a response to our questioning. Perhaps the questioning can help untangle inner conflicts and set us free from bad habits of thought and feeling. “Spiritual slavery” is not a metaphor, and spiritual liberation is not just a high-sounding phrase. We clergy are witness to a good deal of suffering, and we know: Some suffering is inevitable — such as in response to a loss, or when hurting from illness or a wound to our being. But much of the suffering we see is unnecessary. In those cases, we can all attempt to liberate ourselves spiritually by asking ourselves some hard questions and then taking the paths that open up.
Here is a specific example:
I see that you are oppressed by destructive guilt, an unreasonable sense of obligation to another person that burdens the soul. I try to help you break that habit, through the contemplative skill that I teach and practice. We have to ask questions that will pierce the veil of the feelings that burden us. For a person suffering from guilt, for example, I encourage the person to define precisely the nature of the obligation to another. Usually, the answer is very general: to make another person happy (or less angry or less sad). We push a little deeper: How much success have you and others had at making this person less sad or angry? And how much of a toll on you and others is taken in protecting another person from hurt feelings?
We go deeper: How did this obligation fall upon you? And how will you know when it has been fulfilled? We know that someone is demanding something from you, but is it a reasonable demand? What is your motivation for giving in? The need for the approval of others? The need for inner approval, that you gain a sense of inner worth by sacrificing for others? The need to avoid conflict?
One thing I often see with those who operate from guilt: They do what is asked of them, but they make sure to resent it. Not only are time and resources spent, but shackles are placed on our emotions. Resentment is a fool’s way of getting back at others.
Sitting quietly and taking the time to ask a series of hard questions can liberate us from the confusion that leads to spoiling the well-being of our inner lives. When people ask themselves hard questions, they sometimes realize that they are frittering away time, resources and energy working on a problem, but never working through it. They know they have to stop. Guilt, for example, resists rational thought. It does not go away quickly. What do you do? Ask guilt hard questions. Don’t let it order you around. Don’t let it become your inner Pharaoh.
Another example from the haggadah:
After the Four Questions, about the culinary curiosities and recumbent positions, we have a second set of questions, usually called the Four Sons. Interestingly, the answer to these questions is different from that of the first set. After the first four questions, the answer was, “We were slaves,” and we were told to talk about our movement from slavery to freedom in unbounded time — all night long. After the second set of questions, the answer is, “We were idolaters,” and then we see a text that limits the time. After the questions about the Four Sons, the haggadah asks (and this is my paraphrasing):
“Can we tell the haggadah any time from the beginning of month?” No, we are told, only on this day.
“So maybe we can tell the haggadah any time during this day?” No, we are told, only when the symbols are actually set before you.
Fascinating. When the answer to the questions is slavery, time opens up, as if to say: Life has more options than you think. Ask yourself some hard questions, and watch how the horizon widens and paths out become apparent.
When the answer is, “We were idolaters,” however, time narrows down. If we think of idolatry as, metaphorically, a wrongheaded idea, the narrowing of time seems to say: Not every idea is a good one. Find truth, and you will find freedom. When you find truth, your options narrow. Once you find the freedom of a life of truth, you are not free to do anything else. You are not free to return to slavery.
Let me give you a very mundane, and perhaps familiar, example of the slavery of a wrongheaded idea, my metaphoric interpretation of “idolatry”:
I have counseled couples whose relationships are soured by bickering, contempt and nitpicking. Good, smart, successful people. People who are perfectly likable as individuals, but who get mired in clay that locks them in perpetual conflict with one another. Likable, except when they are together.
They sometimes come to me, as clergy, to settle things. Who is right and who is wrong? Sometimes I can, in a given example, discern which person was more at fault in a given instance, but that usually doesn’t help. It takes awhile, but we usually try to teach that the real issue with bickering couples is not who is right (because next time that person will be wrong); the issue is often foolishness. The ancient rabbis say, “A person sins because a ruach shtut [a spirit of foolishness] enters into them.”
Under what foolish idea do many couples operate that creates a sordid and unsortable kind of misery? “Talking helps when we are angry,” is one very wrongheaded idea. “Talking with the person at whom I am angry helps me get in touch with my feelings.” But angry people are usually abundantly in touch with their feelings. What they are usually trying to do is find the words to match their volatile feelings, and so they often say things entirely regrettable and perhaps unredeemable. What they need to do is get in touch with the part of themselves that is not in the grip of misery-inducing foolishness and just be quiet until they are morally centered. They need to find the part of themselves that is not crazy. Sometimes one person really has been wronged, but anger typically only obfuscates.
Feeling anger at times is unavoidable. Allowing oneself to get mired in it, or wounding another person with it, is a choice. When we are angry, we suffer from a narcissistic self-righteousness. Angry people define what is right and what is wrong — and only they are right. Angry people, when they are in the grip of it, think they are God. This is another idolatry.
I have shared with you one little part of the seder, the two sets of four questions, and the kind of inner-life reflection it can generate. When we raise our hidden questions to the foreground, when we ask ourselves what our foolish ideas have been, we can begin to undergo a contemplative spiritual liberation, the moving toward a conscious life of virtue.
Every holiday, every tradition, can be put into the service of “spiritual liberation.” This is especially true of Passover, the holiday of national liberation. Once we start the work, our greatest tool outside our inner lives can be the Jewish tradition, the Holy Days, the sacred texts, the contemplative and reflective dimensions of our tradition.
“Spiritual liberation” is a mighty little phrase. With the help of our texts and traditions, we can put it to work.
Rabbi Mordecai Finley is the spiritual leader of Ohr HaTorah Synagogue in Los Angeles. He also teaches various classes at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California campus, and classes for adult learners in the continuing education department of American Jewish University.