Seder for the Soul

May 9, 2009

24 min read


The 15 Steps of the Passover Seder as a Guide to Self-Growth

Dedicated in memory of Laurie Berman

"Whoever is hungry let them come and eat, whoever is needy let them come and partake." The Passover Seder begins with an invitation to those who are hungry and needy. Hungry refers to physical sustenance, and needy pertains to spiritual sustenance.

The physical sustenance is obvious - the matzah, wine, and delicious meal of the Seder.

What is meant by spiritual sustenance? It is nourishing our soul's deep need for growth. This need sustains life in the truest sense - not just physical existence, but life that is meaningful and transcendent.

Our soul is made in the image of the perfect and infinite God. The soul seeks to actualize this "image" by growing. Growth is the way we move the potential G-d-like perfection waiting to be developed within us into reality. When this potential reaches the actual we gain spiritual sustenance.

We grow through gaining wisdom
How do we grow? Through gaining wisdom on crucial life issues such as: What is happiness? What is a good person? What is the purpose of life? Who is G-d? Growth also comes through developing and controlling our character traits such as empathy, patience, and the ability to love. These various ways of growing give us spiritual sustenance in the most real way - we become more G-d-like, actualizing the potential perfection of the soul.

When we begin the Passover Seder by inviting the needy to partake in spiritual sustenance, we're acknowledging our spirit's deepest need - our need to develop our potential toward perfecting ourselves.

There is a word that expresses our need to actualize the potential perfection that exists within our essence: freedom.

Freedom is the ability to do what we want to do. We want to fulfill our physical and spiritual needs. However, it's clear that physical needs are only a means to an end; we eat to live, we don't live to eat. The ultimate "want" is developing our spiritual potential. Therefore freedom is choosing to grow and realize our spiritual perfection.

Passover is a time to develop ourselves into something greater
Passover celebrates freedom. It's the time to break loose from the chains of personal limitations and leave the confines of a sense of self that is mundane. It's a time to do what we truly want to do - develop ourselves into something greater. This is the choice that the Jewish people made.

The Jewish people were slaves. Choosing to leave Egypt imbued them with the realization they are so much more than they thought they were, and so much more than they thought they could ever be. They grew from being slaves to being a Chosen People, a light unto the nations.

The Seder's 15 steps as our guide to self-growth
The Seder has 15 Steps. This corresponds to the 15 steps that led up to the entrance of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The mystical texts teach us that the physical world is an expression of the spiritual. The physical steps of the Temple allowed the people to "go up" into the Temple. So too, there are 15 corresponding spiritual steps that allow us to "go up" and "grow up." These are the 15 Steps of the Seder night. They are a way to self-growth. They fulfill our spiritual need to grow.

There is a commandment to remember the going out from Egypt every day. The same applies to the concept of freedom. The concept of the freedom to grow and fulfill our potential is not linked just to Passover. It should be a part of our daily life.

The Seder night is a wondrous moment of transformation, if we take the steps. The 15 steps guide us to personal growth on the Seder night and every day.

Using the Seder for the Soul

Keep the Seder for the Soul beside your Hagaddah as you go through the Seder. There is a custom to call out the steps of the Seder - Kadesh, Urechatz and so on, as you progress through the Haggadah. As you announce each Seder step, read aloud the summary at the beginning of each chapter - it will help keep the Seder night directed toward freedom and personal growth.

1. Kadesh
Taking a full cup of wine and pronouncing the blessings on the wine and on the holiday of Passover

The foundation of self-growth is to recognize that we are and therefore intrinsically valuable. Kadesh moves us to "set ourselves apart" - to realize we're and worthy of investing effort in our personal growth.

The first step to growth is to realize we are worthy of growth. We need to see the value of who we are so we will see that we are worthy of investing time, energy, and effort into developing our spiritual potential.

Kadesh is the first step. It's the foundation for the whole Seder experience. We see this in the word "Kadesh," which is translated as "sanctify," but literally means to "set apart," in the sense of designating something as and special. Kadesh is that moment when we "set apart" or sanctify the time we're in. We "set apart" the Passover night as holy and .

In this sense, Kadesh moves us to "set ourselves apart" - to realize we're so we can begin to invest in personal growth.

We invest in something only when we believe it has value. This is true in finance as well as in interpersonal relationships. We spend time and energy with people whom we perceive as having worth. This is also true with self-growth. We will invest our time and energy to develop our potential only if we believe we are worthy.

If we base our self-worth on what we possess and have accomplished, we lose our ness.
What is the source of self-worth? Consciously or sub-consciously we base our self-worth on what we possess and what we have accomplished: How much is my income? How big is my house? What kind of car and clothes do I own? Our possessions give tangible value, as do our achievements, our profession, which university we attended, whether we're married, and if we have children.

In fact these two barometers do not give us a true sense of our ness and value. Instead they cause us to lose our sense of distinctiveness.

We intuitively know that self-worth means feeling special. Feeling special stems from recognizing we are each . Rarity defines value. When we judge our self-worth by our possessions and accomplishments, that judgment can be made only by comparing our status to others. However, once we're comparing these external realities, the differences are in the quantity. A person's ness is lost in this "judging by comparison." I am just like everyone. The only difference is the quantity of external trappings. What makes me - and therefore valuable - is lost.

The Torah tells us that we are made in the "image of God." What is this "image of God"? Just as the Almighty is one - absolutely - every human being is one of a kind, , special and rare.

We are created in God's image and therefore we are worthy
It's not because of what we possess or have accomplished, but simply because we are. Our very existence is intrinsically valuable. We are created in the image of God, , and therefore worthy. This is what Kadesh teaches us.

2. Urechatz
Pouring water on the hands

Pouring water over the hands teaches us to clarify why we want to grow, and ensures our motivations are pure.

The second step of the Seder - the washing of the hands - presents an intriguing symbolism. The hands represent action, the action of growth. In general the Torah speaks of water as a symbol of clarity, and here in particular, the purity of our intentions. The meaning of washing the hands is clear: We must ensure we clearly understand why we want to grow and that our motives are pure.

Be clear on why you want to grow
We need to be clear on why we're taking the journey to spiritual actualization. We need to refine and purify that clarity so our motives are positive, meaningful and therefore lasting. I am becoming a greater person so that I can:

  • Do great things
  • Fulfill my purpose in life
  • Truly take pleasure in the gift of life that God has given
  • Contribute to the world

Without this "washing" - this purification - the growth can become empty ritual that doesn't last.


Are we seeking growth for negative reasons, such as impressing others, insecurity or fear? When growth is based on negative motivations, we can end up becoming a self we didn't want.

When our motivations are pure and our soul is involved,
growth is meaningful and permanent

If our motivations are not pure and our journey simply appears as spiritual improvement, it feels significant for the moment, but the growth soon fades as if it never was.

Cain and Abel brought offerings to God. Cain's offering was rejected and Abel's was accepted. Cain did not bring from the best of his crop, and Abel brought from the best of his. Cain thought, "It doesn't matter why I am doing this action; what matters is simply the fact that I am doing it." Cain didn't realize that the relationship he sought with God was rooted in his intentions. His action needed to express his motive. The giving of "second best" showed Cain's lack of pure motivation. He assumed the action alone would create the relationship he wanted.

Abel realized that action and the right intention would create the relationship. He expressed his motivation through his action. Abel's offering was accepted. His action took root. Cain's offering was rejected - it did not remain past the moment of the action.

With meaningful motives our growth will be permanently etched in our souls.

3. Karpas
Dipping a vegetable in salt water and eating it


Karpas awakens our taste buds to anticipate the delicacies to come. It reminds us to pursue self-growth in a way that inspires and energizes.

Dipping karpas in the bitter salt painfully reminds us of the growth that could have been. The salt symbolizes the sting of regret. Salt is a preservative and it's bitter. We preserve the bitter memory of lost opportunities for growth so that we will avoid repeating mistakes that brought us pain. Eating the karpas as an appetizer reminds us to awaken our desire for more growth.

Two things motivate: pain and pleasure
We want to flee from pain and/or pursue pleasure. Rather than viewing them as opposing forces, pain and pleasure actually work together for our benefit.

When we feel painful regret over opportunities for self-development that we missed, we're moved to make sure we achieve future growth.

When it comes to personal growth, we can be forgetful. We forget missed opportunities for growth because we want to avoid remembering the pain that came with those experiences. However, if we don't remember them, we lose a source of energy for growth. The pain of regret can motivate us to grow in order that we don't re-experience the pain. Of course, we shouldn't dwell too much on weakness and failure. Too much painful memory can make us lose confidence in ourselves and lead to stagnation.

We are also seekers of pleasure, from superficial, hedonistic sensations to meaningful and lasting pleasures. Ultimately, we pursue what we see as most beneficial and fulfilling. There is a challenge in pursuing pleasure - particularly deep, spiritual pleasures. They take time. There is no "instant meaning." Time, effort and patience are necessary. We can easily become discouraged and quit. We need to renew our enthusiasm for growth.

Awakening our determination to grow
We need an appetizer, a "taste" of growth - to awaken our desire for the more difficult task of achieving pleasure. Awakening our "appetite" to grow energizes our determination.

Our appetizer for self-growth is also related to our past. By remembering those moments when we did grow, we again "taste" the memory of growth we achieved. In that "taste" we awaken our desire to pursue greater growth.

Pursue self-growth in a way that energizes
This is the karpas, the appetizer of the Seder night. Karpas is a vegetable dipped in salt water that awakens our taste buds. We anticipate the delicacies to come. It tells us to pursue self-growth in a way that inspires and energizes.


Shabbat is an example of this concept. The Talmud refers to the Shabbat as a "taste" of Heaven - the next world. The next world is the world of perfection, where the reality of the absolutely perfect Creator is apparent. How is Shabbat a "taste" and an appetizer for the next world? The Torah says: "Six days of the week you will complete all your work, but the seventh day is a Shabbat to God." The Sages explain that the "work" we will "complete" during the six days is the work of self-perfection. When the seventh day arrives we are "finished".

On Shabbat we conduct ourselves as if we are complete. We have a 24-hour taste of what it means to be our perfect self, a 24-hour appetizer of the world of perfection. We strive to think, feel and live in a complete, perfect way. By living this way for 24 hours once a week we renew our energy, commitment and anticipation of the more perfect self we seek.

Maintaining our enthusiasm for our goal
The salt water reminds us to preserve the regret of lost opportunities for growth and use it to grow. The karpas is an appetizer - a taste of the more perfect self we seek. Karpas dipped in salt water energizes our enthusiasm for our long-term goal.

4. Yachatz
Breaking the middle of three stacked matzot into two unequal pieces

Breaking the matzah - Yachatz - teaches us to break down the "big picture" into each small step of growth.

Yachatz symbolizes the need to acknowledge the big picture, our final goal, while realizing and appreciating each small step of growth happening right now.

How do we see this in Yachatz? We take the middle of three stacked matzot and break it into two unequal pieces. The larger piece, called the afikoman, is hidden. The afikoman will be brought back at the end of the Seder as an essential step in completing the Seder; in other words, the "big picture."

The smaller piece is kept on the table. As we progress through the Seder, it remains a vital part of each step of the Seder. It represents the small steps of growth we take in our quest for self-perfection.

Be aware of the big picture but focus on the next steps
We need to be aware of the big picture we hope to become. But we also need to "hide it away" so that it doesn't intimidate us as we contemplate the effort it will take to reach such a plateau. In the marathon of self-development we need to focus on the next step in front of us.

A movie on film is made up of a series of photographic frames. Each frame is a small progression in the story. Each frame is a step to the completed picture.

Breaking the matzah teaches us to break down the "big picture" into small practical "frames" of accessible growth. We achieve the picture of our perfect self with the single frames of growth accomplished each day.

When we look ahead to the "big picture," we can feel tremendous anticipation. How wonderful it will be to accomplish the goal of a greater self! Do we merely dream of that far-off reality? Or, do we take the first step to achieve the goal? In a marathon, the runner doesn't dwell on the finish line. There is too great a distance to run. Marathoners focus their attention on taking the next step, and after they have taken that step they focus on taking another step and another.

Pay attention to the small steps needed to achieve your goal
Enthusiasm can be a double-edged sword. If we focus too much on the big picture we'll experience a burst of energy. But once our initial burst has worn off, the big picture can seem too big. A marathoner who focuses too much on finishing may quit in the face of the distance yet to be run. We too may find ourselves barely past the starting line and ready to give up

The fourth step, Yachatz, teaches us to put the "big picture" aside for the moment and pay attention to the individual "frames" needed to make that vision a reality.

5. Maggid
Telling the story

Being able to express our goals and define how we will achieve them helps us on our path of self-growth.

Maggid is the telling of the story of the going out from Egypt. It begins with reciting the four questions - "Why is this night different from all other nights?" In using the Seder as a model of self-development the four questions we ask are: What? How? Why? and When?

  • What is the growth I want to achieve?
  • How will I achieve it?
  • Why do I want to grow?
  • When will it happen?


By asking ourselves these questions over and over and saying the answers, we're clarifying our goals and the path toward achieving them.

Expressing our goals helps give us clarity
Maggid is a Hebrew word that means "telling a story." When we tell a story, we evoke feelings and awaken emotions. We move ideas from head to heart. The What, How, Why and When are not just an intellectual exercise. They are tools to move us deeply into our psyche, changing us and motivating us.

These questions bring about an emotional connection to growing. They also build confidence in our ability to grow. By articulating the What, How, Why and When, we bring clarity that empowers us with a greater degree of self-confidence.

Maggid is the commandment to tell the story of the departure of the Jewish people from Egypt. Even if a person is alone without anyone else to tell the story to, that person is still required to tell the story of the Exodus - even to himself. Why?

Articulating our ideas changes them from abstract ideas into clear goals
The power of speech has an impact on us as well as on those we speak to. Speech brings our inner, abstract thoughts into concrete, external reality.

When can we confidently say: "We have a clear understanding of our goals - we have clarity"? The step of Maggid teaches us that articulating what we know helps bring genuine clarity. When we can explain our thoughts we can confidently say, "This I know." Speech is not simply a vehicle for communication. It's a way of coming to understand and validate what we know. Growth requires clearly understanding our goals. Maggid brings an essential vehicle for clarity - speech - into the process of self-perfection.

The power of Maggid doesn't end with speaking. The Haggadah is written as a springboard to telling the story. Our own story of growth needs a Haggadah as well. Before Passover take the time to write out the What, How, Why and When of self-growth. After the holiday review your personal "Haggadah," adding the insights you've gained.

6. Rochtzah

Pouring water over our hands teaches us to move from theory to action in our growth, and to ensure that our actions reflect wisdom.

The water we pour over our hands symbolizes wisdom and our hands symbolize the effort to grow. Rochtzah teaches us to ensure that every act of growth is immersed in wisdom, the wisdom that we have discovered in answering the four questions: What, How, Why and When.

The symbolism of Rochtzah guides us to effectively implement our "self-growth" plan.

Water is physical life. This is not just symbolism. It is reality: "If the importance of a nutrient is judged by how long we can do without it, water ranks as the most important. A person can survive only eight to ten days without water, whereas it takes weeks or even months to die from a lack of food."

Death is inevitable without water. The Torah uses water as the symbol of the essential nutrient of spiritual life - wisdom. As the body craves liquid, the soul craves wisdom. Pouring water on our hands teaches us the importance of "pouring" wisdom on our hands. Why the hands?

To grow we must take actions - actions immersed in wisdom
In step two - Urechatz, we touched upon the symbolism of the hands. Hands represent action. The step of Rochtzah allows us another look at the profound symbolism of our hands.

Many aspects of being human, such as speech and cognition, distinguish us from animals. In the physical sense, our hands also express our distinctiveness: "The articulation of the human hand is more complex and delicate than that of comparable organs in any other animals. Because of this articulation, only humans are able to use and manipulate a wide variety of tools and implements."

Manipulating tools is a way for creating and changing the world. Getting our "hands dirty" - being involved in affecting life around us also changes the world of the self. Our hands symbolize the manipulation and effort in changing our world, our self.

Rochtzah emphasizes the importance of taking creative action toward growth, action "immersed" in wisdom.

7. Motzi
8. Matzah
Making the blessings for eating the matzah


Saying the blessing of HaMotzi reminds us that we have a partnership with the Creator in our self-growth. Saying the blessing on the unleavened matzah - a symbol of humility - reminds us to strive for humility.

The paradox of self-growth is that the self alone cannot achieve self-growth. We alone aren't able to successfully actualize ourselves to be a more perfect person. We need a partner.

The blessing of HaMotzi is a crucial reminder of the partnership. The blessing says: "Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth." The blessing seems to be incorrect. God does not "bring forth bread from the earth." People plant, harvest and ultimately bake bread. The blessing should more appropriately be "brings forth grain from the earth."

The lesson is apparent. We are the ones that take the grain and make the bread, not God. Yet we couldn't make the bread without the grain. The blessing reminds us of the partnership we have with God. Together, we create the bread.

We realize that with the Almighty's help we can overcome obstacles to achieving our goal
In Genesis God proclaims: "Let us make a human in our image." Who is the "us" God is referring to? In his book I Am I, Rabbi Avraham Twerski suggests the "us" refers to God and man. God is proclaiming there is a partnership in making a human being. The person in partnership with God will create that perfect, God like being - a human being.

The blessing HaMotzi brings the greatest degree of self-confidence in our pursuit of perfection. Knowing that we have a partnership with the Creator in our self-growth brings into focus the potential person we can become. We realize that with the Almighty's help, we can overcome obstacles to achieving our goal. King David had no fear because he lived with the reality of partnership. "Because You are with me, I will not fear," he proclaimed in the Psalms.

Every time we make the blessing of HaMotzi we're reminded that He is with us, ensuring that as long as we do our part, He will help us reach the self we seek.

Matzah reminds us not to let our ego get in the way of growth
There is a second blessing we say before eating the matzah. This blessing articulates the commandment to eat the leavened bread. Here we finally partake of the main symbol of the Seder night - matzah.

The symbolism of matzah reminds us not to let our ego get in the way of growth. Matzah is unleavened bread. What is the essential difference between leavened and unleavened bread? Air. "A special ingredient called a leavening agent is often added to make the bread rise by enlarging air pockets in the dough, giving it a lighter texture and more volume." The Talmud tells us in tractate Pesachim that leavened bread - the bread of "air" - is the symbol of arrogance. "Puffed up," "full of oneself," "just a lot of hot air" - all of these expressions refer to the bloated ego. Matzah - unleavened bread - the Talmud informs us, is the symbol of humility.

Humility allows us to join in a partnership with God to bring about the growth we seek
Humility - being humble and without pride - is the core of self-development. The step of Matzah comes right in the middle of the 15 steps of the Seder, signifying the centrality of humility in the growth process.


Humility allows us to join in the partnership with God - a partnership that will bring about the growth we seek. The greatest example of humility is Moses - Moshe. Moshe achieved something no one else will ever accomplish - he spoke to God "face to face." Humility was the basis of this intimacy. Moshe was absolutely committed to truth - the reality of God. This is humility - the ability to move past one's own subjective egotism and connect with the objective truth. Speaking to God was the result of an unwavering desire to break through the illusion of the material world and the confines of self-absorption, and see the reality of the Creator. In striving to grow, a commitment to truth is necessary. We have to be able to move past confusion, subjective desire and laziness to see the reality of our potential. This commitment to truth requires that we strive for humility. As we grow, we encounter obstacles. We become aware of our faults and weaknesses. We are distracted by worries and material pleasures. Without humility - without a selfless dedication to our potential for greatness - we take the path of least resistance. We can succumb to these obstacles. With humility the truth of what we're capable of becoming is clear. Without humility we end up with a loaf of bread - it looks good, it should satisfy; but in the end, it is just a lot of hot air.

9. Maror
Eating the bitter herbs

10. Korech
Eating of the matzah and the bitter herbs together

Maror is the bitter herb that teaches us the role of pain in self-development. Pain tells us that we're making the effort needed to accomplish our goals. When we combine the maror with the matzah and eat them together we express the connection between the means (maror) of painful effort, and the goal (matzah) of real growth.

By staying committed to what we want to accomplish, we're embracing the painful effort that is part of growth with the sweet realization we're getting closer to our goal. This is the meaning of Maror - the ninth step of the Seder.

We've already learned that matzah represents humility. The power of humility enables us to stay focused on our goal. In the tenth step, Korech, matzah represents the commitment to stay focused on our goal and maror represents the effort to get to this goal. Combining matzah and maror together reminds us that we need both focus and effort to become the "self we seek."

"No pain, no gain" was used to market exercise equipment. When it comes to our physical well-being, we accept the fact that there is going to be effort-filled pain. We anticipate the pain. It confirms we've achieved results.

When it comes to our spiritual development, we often don't feel the same way about pain. We would like to be perfect tomorrow.

The non-Jewish prophet Bilaam said it succinctly in the Torah: "Let me die the death of the righteous." He implied that he wanted to continue living a life of evil decadence, making no effort to become better - and yet achieve a perfect character.

If we don't focus on our goal of self-growth, we lose perspective on the effort we're making
There is no accomplishment without effort, and effort is painful. The maror is the bitter herb that reminds us of the necessity to accept, anticipate, and even embrace the bitter pain that confirms we're growing.

Next Steps