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The Seder: A Spiritual Journey

May 9, 2009 | by Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller

The Passover Seder is God's order for how to proceed from spiritual slavery to spiritual freedom.

Reprinted with permission from Rebbetzin Heller's website,

The Seder is a journey from darkness to light. The word seder means "order." The specifically delineated Seder that we perform on the first night (in Diaspora, two nights) of Passover is God's order for how to proceed from spiritual slavery to spiritual freedom. It may differ significantly from our own sense of order, which is usually based on efficiency and aesthetics. The Seder is our window into God's order.


The first step of the Seder is called Kadesh. It involves reciting the Kiddush over a cup of wine.

There is a profound principle that states: In spiritual reality, you get what you want. In physical reality, you get what God thinks is good for you.

Therefore, the first step in spiritual growth is to want to live a holy life. This is expressed through Kadesh, through committing yourself to holiness.

Holiness has two aspects: moving away from what is not holy and moving toward what is holy. This dual dynamic of from and toward is reflected in the four expressions of redemption that God uses in the Torah when He tells Moshe that He will redeem the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. The expressions, "I will take you out" and "I will rescue you" refer to moving away from bondage. The expressions, "I will redeem you" and "I will take you to Myself," refer to moving toward God.

Similarly, holiness requires moving away from everything that limits you. The medieval commentator Rashi explains that you fulfill the mitzvah, "Be holy," by being extraordinarily careful in all things relating to the separation between men and women. That would include the proscriptions against illicit relations.

Spiritual attachment is based on giving and commitment; physical attachment is based on exploitation.

Rashi defines holiness in terms of sexual purity because the most basic of all human needs is the need for attachment. Attachment could either be spiritual (which can include the sanctified physical) or purely physical. Spiritual attachment is based on giving and commitment; physical attachment is based on exploitation. Exploitive relationships move us furthest away from holiness, furthest away from the ultimate bond, which is true bonding with God.

Maimonides disagrees with Rashi. Maimonides maintains that holiness requires not just abstaining from the negative, but doing something positive. Not just the from, but also the toward. Holiness according to Maimonides requires consciousness of God and dedication to God. His famous dictum is: "Sanctify yourself with that which is permitted to you." He explains that you accomplish this by being moderate with what the Torah permits you. For example, don't become drunk on kosher wine and don't become a glutton on kosher food.

Then Maimonides says something much deeper. He warns, "Don't drown in materialism." Why does he use the word, "drown"? The Hebrew word for the material world is gashmiut. Gashmiut is derived from the word geshem, which means "rain." God vivifies the world through rainfall. If you dedicate your awareness to the world and not to its Source, you drown. You're inundated by all of God's giving to the point that you loose track of Him completely. So holiness means being aware of God.

The first step of the Seder is Kadesh because in order to start moving toward the light you have to commit yourself to a life of holiness. This requires separating yourself from the negative and moving toward God-consciousness.


The next step of the Seder is urchatz, which means "washing." It involves washing your hands from a cup, pouring water twice over each hand. No blessing is recited.

Washing at this point in the Seder is very artificial. After all, the karpas (green vegetable) could have been eaten with the meal, in which case there would be no necessity for washing twice. This would be more convenient. But again, this isn't our order, which has to do with convenience and efficiency. This is God's seder.

The statement here is that if you want holiness, your hands have to be clean. A verse in Psalms proclaims: "Lift up your hands in holiness and bless God." What does this mean?

Holiness comes down to what you actually do.

Your hands carry out your will. You not only have to want holiness, but your hands (i.e. your physical actions) must also be holy. For example, if you don't want to be materialistic, but you are living a materialistic life, or you want to be holy, but you're involved in an exploitive relationship, you are stuck in your journey toward redemption. There can be no forward movement until your "hands" are clean. Holiness comes down to what you actually do.


The third step, karpas, involves eating a simple green vegetable, such as celery or parsley, after reciting a blessing.

Karpas suggests the simplicity that the first humans were forced into after the sin in the Garden of Eden. Before the sin, the food in the Garden of Eden was essentially different from what we know food as today. The physical manifestation of the fruit in the Garden of Eden was the same as its spiritual root. An apple in Eden, for example, was an expression of Godliness, and it was perceived as such. The joy that the first humans had when eating that fruit was qualitatively different than the pleasure we get from eating.

Imagine how Adam felt after the sin, when he was banished from Eden and told that his new diet would be the grasses of the field. He was broken by this prospect. According to the Midrash, Adam complained to God, "What? I'll be like my donkey, that eats grass?"

God answered Adam that he would be different from his donkey because he could make blessings over his food.

To understand this deeply, let's look at a commandment later in the Torah, the prohibition against offering your children as sacrifices to the Molech, which was a pagan god. This is a delightful commandment, because it always feels good to have a commandment that you know you haven't transgressed.

In the text, God says of the person who offers his children to the Molech, "he has desecrated my sanctuary." Rashi asks: "What sanctuary?" He answers his own question: "The community of Israel." If you offer a child to the Molech, you have desecrated the entire community.

In fact, Rashi is quoting the Talmud. The Talmud uses the same Biblical verse about desecrating God's sanctuary to refer to a person who has any pleasure from this world without saying a blessing. The Talmud says of such a person, "he has stolen from his father and his mother." Who is his father? God. Who is his mother? The community of Israel.

Even that which is the most simple can be elevated by a blessing.

The Maharal of Prague, the 16th century mystic, explains that God created this world in order to give us the ability to be conscious recipients. When we say a blessing over food, thereby becoming conscious recipients, we have validated God's entire purpose for creating the world. Whenever we eat as Adam feared people would eat -- the way a donkey eats -- we've robbed God of the opportunity of having His purpose in creation validated. We've also invalidated our own destiny as a people, which is to acknowledge God.

The vegetables we eat for karpas are the simplest kind of food. You can eat them without any preparation. The idea behind karpas is that even that which is the most simple can be elevated by a blessing. This is the difference between us and the animals. Karpas is an essential step in the Seder process because before we advance any further, we must be humbled.


Yachatz involves taking the middle matzah of the three matzahs on the Seder table, and breaking it into two uneven pieces. The larger half is put away for the Afikomen; we recite the entire Hagaddah over the smaller piece.

Yachatz shows us that in order for us to truly move toward redemption, some aspect of ourselves has to be broken. A verse in Psalms declares: "God is close to those who are brokenhearted."

There's an essential difference between brokenheartedness and despair. The voice of despair is: "I'm no good and the world's no good, so I'll just sleep all day and eat chocolate and read Newsweek." The voice of a broken heart yearns for help, yearns for something more. It says: "This isn't where I want to be. I want more."

Today I was at the funeral of a baby who was killed in a terrorist attack. Someone leading the prayers at the funeral prayed with such brokenheartedness that we could feel it pierce the heavens. That was the voice of unwillingness to accept things as they are, and knowing exactly to Whom to turn. That kind of brokenheartedness leads to redemption.


Maggid, which means "telling," is the main part of the Seder, the recitation of the story of the Exodus as it is told in the Hagaddah.

"Telling" is different from "saying." "Telling" implies telling a story. A story, by definition, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. If you could see the events in your life all the way from their true beginning until their true end, you would observe the way God directs the world through His Providence. Normally we fail to see God's Providence because we notice only what is happening now, today, this week. All the amazing interactions of souls and history which led up to today, and all the intricate ways in which today's events will bring about the end of the story years, or generations, in the future, are hidden from us. The purpose of Maggid is to give us the long view, the wide perspective that starts generations before the Exodus with our ancestor Jacob and goes through the decades of suffering until the redemption, which so many of the Israelite slaves never lived to see. Maggid is intended to stretch our mode of perceiving, an absolutely indispensable step toward becoming God-conscious.

Maggid begins with a paragraph in Aramaic:


This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry, come and eat. Let all who are needy, come and partake of the Pascal lamb. Now we are here; next year may we be in the Land of Israel. Now we are slaves; next year may we be free men.


This paragraph begs several questions. Why is it in Aramaic, when the rest of the Hagaddah is in Hebrew? Why at this point in the Seder are we issuing an invitation to others to come and partake? Even if you're not the most organized person in the world, if the Seder has fifteen steps and you're up to step five, shouldn't you have invited people earlier? The "bread of affliction" -- the matzah -- is also considered the bread of redemption. How can one substance symbolize two opposite states?

The Hagaddah, like the prayer book, was put together when the Jews returned from the Babylonian exile, which followed the destruction of the First Temple. Prior to that, during the period of the First Temple, Jews all ate the Pascal sacrifice and told the story of the Exodus from Egypt in an informal way. The destruction of the First Temple and our exile to Babylonia, where we began to speak Aramaic, was the first major catastrophe of Jewish history. The sages instituted this paragraph in Aramaic to show us that no matter how far we fall, we are still redeemable.

The Maharal says that speech must be expressive of thought. If, as a people, we don't think in a holy way, then we can't speak the "holy language," which is Biblical Hebrew. From the time of the first exile, we, as a people, were reduced to speaking "foreign tongues." The Hagaddah includes this paragraph in Aramaic to remind us that even in the lowly state to which we have fallen, we are capable of aspiring for the future redemption.

This bread, the matzah, symbolizes the Egyptian bondage, when we didn't even have the leisure to make proper leavened bread. At the same time, the matzah is the bread of redemption, of simplicity. It's the bread that returns us to who we are. Matzah consists of only two ingredients: flour and water. Similarly, human beings consist of the body and the soul. When we can return to a state of simplicity, the pure simplicity of essence, redemption will follow automatically.

We invite other people to eat with us. Obviously, this is not meant as a formal invitation to guests, who should have been invited weeks ago. Rather, it is to remind us that our redemption is contingent on our seeing ourselves as the Community of Israel, not as individual Jews.

The more we see ourselves as part of the collective, the more redeemable we will be.

During Temple times, the Pascal lamb had to be completely eaten in one night. This necessitated families and neighbors getting together to share one lamb. This is because God's promise to redeem us was made to the collective of the Jewish people, not to individuals. The more we see ourselves as part of the collective, the more redeemable we will be.

Next comes the "Four Questions," usually recited by the youngest child present. The most perceptive insight about the Four Questions is that no child would ever spontaneously ask them. Children don't ask, "What is the meaning of this or that?" Children ask questions like: "Is Aunt Ethel fatter than last year?" or "I thought Uncle Harry died." I still remember asking this as a child. The looks I got! Especially from Uncle Harry!

These Four Questions could not possibly occur to the children for the simple reason that they refer to things, such as eating bitter herbs and dipping twice, which have not yet occurred at the Seder.

The Four Questions are, in fact, statements that are phrased as questions, because a prerequisite for learning anything is to realize that you don't know. We approach the Seder, which is called "the secret of redemption," by admitting that we don't know. We don't know, for example, why we recline when we are still in exile. These secrets are beyond our ken. The Four Questions are meant to be statements about who we are, expressions of our humility in approaching the awesome secrets of the Seder.

You may have noticed in previous Seders that the answer to the Four Questions doesn't answer any of the questions. Instead it is the basic answer to the essence of our questions: "Why do we live lives of paradox? Why are exile and redemption intertwined?"

The answer begins with the words: "We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt." Notice that there are two kinds of slavery: the slavery of Pharaoh and the slavery of Egypt. The word for Pharaoh is related to the Hebrew word paruah, which means "wildness." Pharaoh represents an approach that rejects all limitations and laws, an approach of libertarianism and licentiousness. The word paroah contains the same Hebrew letters as the word oreph, referring to the back of the neck, the seat of the reptilian brain -- instinctive and animalistic.

This approach claims to free, but Egypt in Hebrew is Mitzraim, which means narrow, constrained, limited. The more a person casts off rules of conduct, the more limited he becomes in his ability to experience anything higher than instinct, to the point that he becomes animalistic. What passes for freedom is in fact total limitation.

Jews, you may have noticed, have two salient traits: We are meaning-freaks and we want to fix the world. Jews have never said, "Just do whatever you feel," unless they thought it would fix something. No society could have been more antithetical to our true nature than ancient Egypt. We had to notice and experience how far the vaunted civilization of Egypt was from the essence of a Jew. To use the Maharal's words, we had to learn indelibly who we aren't in order to learn who we are.

We'll end this article (which is not the end of the Hagaddah) with the words that end that first sentence of The Answer: "God, our God, brought us out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm." We could never have freed ourselves. In the end, with all our effort toward spiritual growth, redemption is a gift from God. God's "hand" is a symbol of hashgacha, the Divine Providence which directs the world. God's "arm" is a symbol of His compassion. These two forces redeem us from spiritual bondage. True freedom is recognizing God's compassionate control of our lives.

Have a happy and kosher Pesach!

Reprinted with permission from Rebbetzin Heller's website,

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