Over the centuries, the festival of freedom that is the Passover seder has undergone many changes, but a key element remains: the command not merely to remember the children of Israel’s release from Egyptian bondage, but to re-experience it. Reliving the story told in the Book of Exodus forms a connection between memory and hope, making the ceremony a call to change the world, to change oneself, and to move from bondage to liberation, from slavery to freedom.
The seder is a celebration of family and extended family. [This year, the First Night of Seder will be celebrated on Friday, April 6; the Second Night, Saturday, April 7.] But there is also a great emphasis on reaching out to the poor, the lonely, the stranger. Indeed, the seder [“order”] begins with an invitation to all “who are hungry to come and join this seder meal.”
During the seder, ritual foods are consumed; there is the linkage of memory and hope; and the Haggadah (see below) offers all kinds of discussion, interpretation, dialogues, questions, stories, and testimonies on the Passover story. Anyone who is not Jewish and has attended a seder will note the impact it had on the development of the Eucharist meal. While scholars debate whether the Last Supper was a seder meal, there is no question about the influence it had on the apostles, who, after all, were Jews.
The Festival Begins
Those around the beautifully appointed seder table are guided through the rituals and prayers by reading, in turn, passages of the Haggadah [“the telling," an order of service]. Let me share with you some of the steps that form the structure of this rich, deep, and profound ceremony.
Early in the service comes the breaking of the matzah, the flat, unleavened bread eaten on Passover in commemoration of this being “poor man’s food.” A symbolic plate holds three matzahs; we take the middle one, break it, and hide a piece of the broken matzah. This reminds us of the broken state of our lives and of our world, and how we must struggle to put the matzah back together and move from brokenness to wholeness.
Now begins “the telling.” One by one, family members and guests read aloud Haggadah passages. In one section, the children ask four questions about the wonder and the different quality of this night. Originally—and at many tables now, too—it is a time to ask certain questions, the deepest and most profound questions that gnaw at our souls.
One Haggadah passage recounts four personality types (called “the four children”) and how they react to the story of the going out of Egypt and the Passover. There is a text about a group of rabbis who lived in Roman times—times of persecution—and saw the Passover story as an inspiration for their hope of redemption. And a text reminding Jewish readers that in every generation there have been those who have sought to annihilate us, and yet the power of the spirit and the Divine has enabled us to get through persecution and fear of death.
While we rejoice that Pharaoh finally let our people go, we still regret the loss of innocent Egyptian life—the firstborn Egyptian males claimed by the Angel of Death in God’s last plague. Therefore, at this point we take a spoon and remove a drop of wine from our cups, so they are not full as we ponder this grim reality. This step in the service is one of the ritual expressions of Jewish universalism; it becomes a cautionary note to what one person has called “moral imbecility,” in which the persecuted so rejoice in their deliverance that they relish the death of their foes.
Then the famous litany song “Dayenu” is chanted.
Dayenu—“It would have been enough”—is the constant refrain, teaching that cultivation of the attitude of gratitude is essential to the life of faith.
Among other steps, the celebrants eat the bitter herbs [usually, horseradish—no better cure for sinus congestion!]. This brings tears to one’s eyes, reminding us of the pain and suffering that brought tears to one’s eyes then—and now. This is followed by the “Hillel sandwich.” Hillel was one of Judaism’s greatest sages; he preceded, and had a profound impact on, Jesus. His sandwich consists of matzah with bitter herbs and a sweet mixture, called Charoset, of apples, wine, cinnamon, and nuts. It reminds us that to find the sweetness even in what is bitter, look for that silver lining.
“Learn to Experience the Celebration!”
Next comes the festive meal. This is NOT nouvelle cuisine, where one searches for the food on the plate. It is a feast! A huge feast! It’s a night when diets go out the window. Said the late and great Maurice Boyd, “You can’t have a party without excess!” Said the late and great Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, “On seder night—stop being such an intellectual! Taste the food, taste the wine, taste the matzah, taste it and experience and see! Learn to experience the celebration!”
The meal concludes with eating the “hidden matzah,” the broken piece that was hidden in an earlier part of the ceremony. It is the delightful duty of the children—the future generation—to find the hidden matzah and receive a gift, for the matzah symbolizes the future redemption.
We look forward to an after-dinner segment of songs of praise and hope for a redemptive future. Before that we place a wine goblet on the table for Elijah the Prophet, harbinger of the arrival of the Messiah. We open the door and sing a song welcoming him into our homes, and our hearts. But before we do that we drink a third cup of wine. Modern Jews also set a place for a goblet called Miriam’s Cup, filled with water. Miriam was the sister of Moses and Aaron, a prophet in her own right, and a reminder of the tremendous role that not only water, but women, played in the Passover redemption story.
The seder concludes with a series of joyous songs, most from medieval times, one in particular telling the story of a little lamb (the Jewish people) and the long journey of persecution throughout the centuries. What is crucial is the final stanza, in which God finally kills the Angel of Death, reminding us that in the eschaton—the future end days—evil and suffering, and yes, even death, will be defeated and justice, truth, and life will win out.
The last words of the seder are “Next Year in Jerusalem!” a declaration we utter at the end of the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur. The Hebrew word Jerusalem has in it the word wholeness. The seder began with brokenness but ends with wholeness, and so it is with our faith and commitment to the future, a message for all: Fear not! keep the faith! Passover tells us that yes, we have come this far by faith, and in the end we will prevail and end up in wholeness!
For generations, mothers and grandmothers—indeed, all the women of the family—have put in endless hours cleaning the house and preparing this feast, beginning weeks ahead. It is exhausting work, which is why my mother said every year at the seder, “Yeah, they freed the slaves and enslaved the women!” Even in these egalitarian times, her quip remains relevant.