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Three Steps to a Meaningful Seder

April 15, 2019 | by Rabbi Levi Lebovits

Tapping into the essence of the Exodus story.

Due to the coronavirus, this year many people are making their own Passover Seder for the first time. How can we utilize the Seder to its fullest?

A helpful first step is to pinpoint what it is that we’re trying to accomplish.

Step 1: What’s the Seder All About?

The very first of the Ten Commandments tells us: “I am Hashem your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt.” The Exodus from Egypt is the cornerstone of every Jew’s faith. The goal of the Seder, our annual recounting of the Exodus, is to deepen our faith, emunah.

What is “emunah?” People like to translate it loosely as “faith” or “belief” – a woefully one-dimensional definition for an extremely multi-faceted concept. Emunah, in essence, means understanding that God has a plan for our lives. He’s assigned each of us a unique purpose, and He custom-designs every aspect of our lives to help us succeed in our missions.

Emunah means living life through that perspective. If we can develop an unwavering belief in God’s plan, we’ll change the way we look at life. We’ll change the way we act and the choices we make. That’s the goal of the Seder – to turn us into different people than we were when we started.

That might sound like a lofty goal, but our path to achieving it couldn’t be more down-to-earth. We’re not being asked to cram our heads with novel information. We’re not expected to chase after dazzling new insights. Our only task on Seder night is to tell the story of God’s plan for us.

Stories are incredibly powerful. Told well, a story draws us into a different world. We get absorbed, we identify with it – and suddenly we’re living it. The story becomes our story, the background for our life.

We all live life through the lens of our stories – whatever they might be. Building emunah means letting God’s story become the story of our lives.

Step 2: What’s the Story All About?

We’ve mapped out our goal for Seder night – to develop a new dimension of emunah by retelling and reliving the story of the Exodus. So we open our Haggadahs to brush up on our knowledge of the story – and suddenly we’re confused. Why are we finding references to our forefather Abraham… to our evil cousin Laban… and to the building of the Holy Temple, even further away on the timeline? If the mitzvah du jour is to retell the story of the Exodus, why does the Haggadah feel the need to pack in almost 1000 years of Jewish history alongside it?

We’ll answer this question, in classic Jewish style, with another question.

In the first of the Ten Commandments, God officially “introduces” Himself to His people and instructs us to believe in Him. How does He choose to present Himself? Not with the seemingly obvious title of the God who created the world. Instead, He tells us, “I am Hashem, your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt.”

Why does God wish us to base our faith on the Exodus? Isn’t Creation a bit more basic?

Believing in a Creator of the world is indeed a crucial first step – but it remains a first step. Emunah is so much more than a cerebral understanding. It is the guiding force that enables us to live our lives according to God’s will, no matter what challenges we face.

How do we access that force? By doing a bit of review about a concept called hashgacha pratit, Divine providence.

As we mentioned earlier, God places each and every one of us on this earth for a purpose. We’ve all been assigned a crucial mission that only we can fulfill. Yes, God expects that much of us – but He also promises to stay with us every step of the way. He customizes every single moment of our lives to set us up for success in our mission. Every breath we take, every toe we stub, every joke we enjoy – He’s orchestrating all of it. That is hashgacha pratit – God’s unflinching personal involvement in our lives.

Ideally, we’re supposed to make hashgacha pratit the lens through which we view life. We’re supposed to recognize every challenge, every difficulty, as a growth opportunity designed just for us by our loving Father. Instead of allowing our human nature to dictate our reactions, we would ask ourselves: “God sent this to me. What is He asking of me? How can I grow closer to Him through this challenge?”

Knowledge alone can’t create that level of loyalty and connection. For that, we need to access the power of relationship. So we turn to the Haggadah, our Sages’ chronicle of the Exodus. Why? Because our Sages understood that the Exodus story is so much larger than the tale of a bunch of slaves going free. It’s the story of the establishment of our relationship with God.

To get a proper feel for the story of that relationship, we need to travel through a timespan of close to a thousand years – back to the times of our forefather Abraham, and forward to the era of the Holy Temple.

Once again, we open our Haggadahs. We start with the section that illustrates the first step God took in building His relationship with us – drawing our forefather Abraham close to Him. We then read about how He protected and nourished Abraham’s family, miraculously granting children first to him and then to his son Isaac. God protected the next generation, Jacob’s family, from annihilation at the hands of the evil Laban. When the Egyptians sought to crush Yaakov’s descendants, God heeded our prayers and sent ten fearsome plagues to subdue the Egyptians. He then entered the scene in His full glory to rescue His beloved people from Pharaoh, personally striking down the firstborns of Egypt and sweeping His nation out of bondage with unprecedented miracles.

Once we were redeemed, He gifted us with the Torah, granting us the key to fulfilling our purpose in this world. He lovingly cared for us on our journey through the Wilderness, providing us a supernatural existence through the manna. That journey led us to His supernatural land of Israel, another gift to His People. It was there that He built us the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple) where we could cleanse ourselves of our sins, helping us restore our relationship with Him on a constant basis. (See the Dayeinu section of the Haggadah.)

The picture that emerges from the Haggadah helps us view ourselves as His. He formed us. He nurtured our growth. He tied us to Him with a bond of eternal love and primed us to be the nation that embodies His mission in this world.

This is what makes the Exodus story the perfect basis for our faith. Witnessing God’s steadfast commitment to us over hundreds of years enables us to become people who filter their lives through emunah and Divine providence.

This is the essence of the Haggadah’s story. This is the message to let into our hearts on Seder night.

So let’s not get stuck in the details of each paragraph; let’s instead allow the greater picture of the Haggadah to open our eyes. We’ll see with clarity that we’re here for a purpose – and that God has gifted us with everything we need to succeed in fulfilling that purpose. All we have to do is tune into the loving relationship He stands ready and yearning to build with us.

Step 3: Ma Nishtana – What Difference Does it Make?

We’ve been able to touch the true scope of the Seder’s story. If we can let the Exodus story become the foundation of our lives, we’ll be on our way to greatness. Emunah will become the filter through which we experience life. With this knowledge in mind, we’re set for success.

So why is that little voice of doubt still niggling at us?

Perhaps because… we’ve tried this already. Each Seder night, we retell the story with all the zeal we can muster – and we haven’t yet found ourselves suddenly bursting with renewed zest for Judaism. Why does it seem each year that we come right back to where we started?

The problem is that every year we come to the Seder with “baggage” – we feel like we’ve already heard whatever the Haggadah has to tell us. If it hasn’t worked magic on us yet, who’s to say it will this year?

That’s another facet of what’s holding us back – we’re waiting for inspiration to somehow strike us. We’d love to be uplifted by something at the Seder, but we’re not in action mode. So the Seder becomes just another routine obligation to check off. We focus our attention on our children, on our guests, on everyone but ourselves.

This attitude doesn’t make for a very productive Seder. If we truly want to tap into the magic of the night, we need to rethink our approach.

A good place to start might be the Sages’ instruction to tell the Exodus story in a question-and-answer format. To see this idea in action, we need look no further than the famous Four Questions – the “Ma Nishtana.”

We’re used to viewing the Ma Nishtana as the “kids’ zone” of the Seder – the little ones’ opportunity to have fun and show off how cute they are. But the Ma Nishtana is just as important for the adults at the table. It’s actually our ticket to a truly transformative Seder experience.

Picture that innocent five year old reciting the Ma Nishtana. There’s real wonder in his voice as he asks, what is so different about tonight?

On Seder night, it’s our job to step into that role. We need to develop a “Ma Nishtana mindset” – to come to the Seder table with real interest, curious about each aspect and how it can change our lives. We aren’t only asking what’s different about the Seder night, but what difference does this night make?

This “Ma Nishtana mindset” can be applied to any passage in the Haggadah. Take, for example, the section describing the Four Sons. By customizing the Seder’s message to suit each son’s style, the Haggadah teaches us a crucial lesson about the nature of the Torah. Some might see the Torah as a book of ideals that only the holiest, most righteous among us can possibly reach. The opposite is true; the Torah has a personalized message for every single Jew. It speaks to each of us on our own level, taking into account our personalities, our upbringings, our life circumstances, our experiences, our level of commitment – everything that makes us who we are.

Viewing that idea through the prism of our “Ma Nishtana mindset,” we find ourselves wondering: Where in my life can I hear the Torah speaking to me? Where am I being asked to stretch myself for the Torah’s ideals? Is it in a relationship? In a family or community matter? A health issue? A financial concern?

With this mindset, every aspect of the Seder becomes relevant to us.

Another example: Reading the passage “V’hi She’amda” calls to mind Mark Twain’s reflections about the improbability of the Jewish Nation’s survival. A tiny people constantly targeted by history’s greatest powers, we owe our survival completely to God’s miraculous protection.

Our Ma Nishtana mindset turns our thoughts inwards: what would our lives look like if we realized how incredibly unique we are as a people – and as individuals? If we understood that our existence is a miracle, that life isn’t our right but a precious gift from God?

With this mindset we can unlock the magic of the Seder.

This year, let’s imagine that we’re attending our very first Seder, reading the Haggadah for the first time, and allow the Seder to touch the deepest parts of us.

Click here to download Rabbi Lebovits' free booklet on Passover.


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