A Spiritually Transformational Seder
Exploring the inner mystical depth and meaning behind the Seder's 15 steps.
The traditional 15-step structure of the Seder is pregnant with inner meaning and significance. The rhythm and progression behind the Seder are an eternal template for the deepest transformation of the Jewish soul. On Seder night we are able to receive a spiritual influx from above which jumpstarts a whole new cycle of growth for the coming year.
Every process of spiritual awakening contains three stages: “Hachna’ah” – submission, “Havdala” – separation, and “Hamtaka” - sweetening. This triple-beat shows up here too and turns the Seder into a powerful process that brings deep healing to your own beautiful soul.
First, submission – this takes place BEFORE Passover
In Judaism, the journey is an essential part of the destination. This is a paradigm shift for our western minds that fixate on the achievement of our goals. It is how we travel our course that allows God to palpably enter our lives.
In this vein, the transformational power of the Seder actually begins before Passover arrives. In the weeks of cleaning and scrubbing, shopping and cooking, we are getting ready to live life without chametz, leavened products. Not only are we eradicating the actual substance that represents the puffed-up ego, but the act of adhering to the will of God itself dissolves our egos. Whatever false self we clutched onto now slowly melts away as we eagerly wipe and scrub our homes to remove all its chametz. Submission is the first step of the path of transformation, as we rise above our limited identities and find ourselves comfortably part of God’s world and in His value system. This submission enables us to tap into something greater than ourselves. The stage is set for redemption.
Second, Havdalah, separation – and the Seder Begins.
1. KADESH – SANTIFICATION
With the recital of Kiddush as the first of the 15-step journey, we sanctify everything to follow. In Jewish etymology, the concept of holiness suggests separating ourselves from all that is profane. Therefore, with Kiddush, we set out on a journey with our intent to transform ourselves.
2. URCHATZ – WASHING THE HANDS
The first thing that needs to happen is the removal of alien forces that hover around us during the regular course of life, that impede our growth. These dark forces represent the aspects of evil that have managed to masquerade themselves as good to our own eyes and have actually taken on some of our affections. With the simple act of washing our hands, we are able to see these negative forces for what they are, (be they thoughts, emotions, behaviors or affiliations) and make the separation between what is truly good and what is not, what is holy and what is impure.
It is a powerful movement up the ladder of Jewish transformation, when we are prepared to take this honest look at ourselves and allow what is non-essential to be washed away.
3. KARPAS – VEGETABLE DIPPED IN SALT WATER
There is no authentic spiritual path without tears, dubbed the sweat of the soul. There is no joy of transformation without some degree of pain. Living a brave and authentic life takes courage and grit! While in the previous step we isolated our essence from all the non-essential layers of our beings and washed those away, in Karpas, we sow the seed of that new-found essence into soil and water it with the salt-water of our tears. As the psalmist says, “Those who plant with tears will harvest in great joy” (Psalms 126). These are the best tears we will ever cry as we are expanding our taste-buds/capacity for spirituality and are headed for nothing less than our greatness.
4. YACHATZ- BREAKING THE MATZA
The next step is the dissolving of that seed in the earth, the part of the process that appears the most devastating. Yachatz means brokenness, hinting that things might seem worse before they get better. We are finally letting go of whatever last vestige of ego remains as we confront the very vulnerable truth of what it means to be human. Staring directly at our vulnerability expands the little seed of perfect spiritual essence inside us, as we come into the coherent field of the simple truth that God is One and all that really is, and His love for us knows no bounds. Therefore, we can endure this breaking of the matza, since we know that the broken piece will become the crowning jewel at the end of the Seder, when it will reappear as the coveted Afikoman at the stage of Tzafun.
Third: Hamtaka, sweetening.
5. MAGGID – TELLING THE STORY
With Maggid, the real healing starts to happen. We tap into the characteristic energy of the month of Nissan, which according to the earliest mystical work Sefer Hayetzira is the energy of “holy speech”.
The gift of speech is the crowning feature of our humanity. With words, we are able to transcend even the most difficult of circumstances by expressing our desire for something different. The first stirrings of redemption came in Egypt when the Jewish people, persecuted, allowed themselves to groan. God heard their primal cries and knew they were ready for the first sprouting of their redemption1.
When we start to add words to that guttural expression, we are able to delineate the details of our story in the sequence in which they occurred. Maggid is a form of narrative therapy by which we begin to stitch all the details into one continuum within our hearts. This is the essence of the Kabbalistic idea called “sweetening”, as we suddenly realize that there was no piece of the story that can be excluded, and that somehow, amid twinges of pain and joy through its millions of nuances, there was always a higher order, an infinitely Great and Close Being, bringing all the parts together into one gestalt.
Through telling our story, we weave the bitter and the sweet into a tale of tension and pathos, of struggle and heroism, and most profoundly, of love. When we have the courage to view our lives in the way of a story, exploring our histories from their inglorious beginnings and everything we went through, unedited, we expose our deepest humanity and it is there that we find G-d. We realize that there was nothing extraneous and that, to our surprise, He was there all along. Perhaps the best part is realizing the emergence of our own resources, for as much as we have come to admit our imperfection, now we are able to admit to our greatness. Thus, our experience becomes integrated into our deepest identities and the good and the evil are no longer seen as two separate entities. This is the heart of the Seder and when the real transformation starts to take place, though it would not have been possible without any of the earlier steps.
6. RACHTZA – WASHING FOR THE MATZA
Now, we are ready to wash away whatever hasn’t been redeemable in our story, as well as the layers of our erroneous belief structures that only obscure our deepest truth. What is left is a re-kindled attachment to God, and we are now clear on our mission to move as His people in the world. The fragmentation and pull between good and evil that we may have felt at earlier stages is gone and replaced with the galvanization of all our inner resources.
8. MATZA – TWO BLESSING AND EATING THE MATZA
With this step in the journey, we are ready to imbibe the bread of humility into our very selves through the act of eating, for there is no ego left, only connection to God. Food has become sublime and the act of eating matza is the fulfillment of a positive commandment. We are ready to live with our commitment to our relationship with God as a natural part of our lives and to receive all that He wants to give us.
9. MAROR – THE BITTER HERBS
Maror is the “real-life” factor.
Ask yourself a question: what is more delectable, sugar straight from the bag or well-made chocolate? Sugar water or lemonade? Hot sweetened milk or coffee? In all of these pleasures, an intrinsically bitter component is added to the sweetness, and yields a far more pleasurable result than consuming the sweetness directly.
In a similar way, light is brighter when it is on a backdrop of darkness, and it is at this point in the Seder that we are able to relate to our suffering from a different place and extend our compassion to ourselves as well as to all those who suffer. For reasons we cannot fully understand, God in His infinite love adds painful challenge to the mix of life, and through it we are made great and our souls expand. A Seder without Maror lacks depth and beauty, and a heart without some pain lacks empathy. This is an advanced step and accrues the tremendous eternal reward of accepting our suffering with love. Ultimately, our pain brings us to an even more refined level of spirituality where we eliminate any vestige of impurity from ourselves and appear completely cleansed before God.
10. KORECH – THE SANDWICH
Here we are able to bear paradox and thereby go above the limitations of our minds. We lean like free men and make sandwiches as did Hillel in the time of the Temple. The sandwich is the ultimate mixture: the bread of freedom (matza) together with the bitter herbs (chazeres), dipped in the sweet mixture of the charoset symbolizing the mortar from the bricks of slavery. This is a real concoction, a sort of coda of the awareness we have been cultivating thus far, where we relate to our lives in a far deeper way than how they appeared to us at first. The bottom line: true freedom is derived from our relationship to God and gives our spirits the huge dimensions through which we can bear even the most intense paradox.
11. SHULCHAN ORECH – THE MEAL
At this moment, we have reached the level of sanctification where the act of eating our prepared feast is now the pinnacle of our Divine service. To prove that this is so, just before the main course begins, we actually say the first two paragraphs of Hallel, the praises King David composed to be said at our highest and most joyous moments. It couldn’t be clearer that the act of eating is not an interruption of the holy Hallel, but a continuation of our praises in the form of the partaking of our delicious meal. We praise God, fusing the physical and spiritual into one.
12. TZAFUN – REVEALING THE HIDDEN
Now, with a new relationship to our suffering, we are on the other side of any ordeal we have been through, and hold up our battle scars with hearts brimming with joy and eyes brimming with tears. In this advanced stage, we have a deeper understanding and see why it all had to be that way. Our souls are wide open. The hidden is revealed and we…
13. BARECH – GRACE AFTER THE MEAL
…move straight into the grace after meals, capitalizing on our joy which knows no bounds, as we identify God as the source of all the miracles that were unique to our journey. We are fully clear that both the difficult and the easy times originate from that very source.
14. HALLEL – PSALMS OF PRAISE
Now we utilize the power of our speech, which we have developed from the primitive groan of oppression to the brilliant articulation of our gratitude, into the realm of song. We master the art of turning our own lives into a song and we open our mouths to unashamedly sing that song that is uniquely our own. For this was the reason we came to the world in the first place.
15. NIRTZA – LONGING FOR REDEMPTION
We now come full circle, where all that is left to be heard is the scintillating silence after the song has ended its final notes and words are no longer necessary. The impression of our voices lingers in the still air while we bring our attention to our longing for the ultimate redemption. We pray that God receives all of our sincere offerings and grants us the ability to bring into reality all that we were able to touch within ourselves during the Seder. Next Year in Jerusalem!
1. The name of the festival of Pesach, in the original Hebrew, can be separated into two words, “peh” “sach”, a speaking mouth. This is in direct contrast to the name of Egyptian royalty, Paroah, which when spelled out into two words, spells “peh” “rah”, an evil mouth.