Each year during the Passover seder, Jews around the world ask four questions. They also look at the symbols on the seder plate and discuss their individual meaning. This year, I suggest that Jews ask many more questions and apply them to the symbols on the seder plate, as well as to some of the seder rituals, in an effort to look at their lives and to improve them as well as to feel inspired to create change in the world.
By improving each of our individual lives, we begin to improve the world as a whole. Today, maybe more than ever before in our history, the world needs improving. It needs more change agents on all levels. We find ourselves in Mitzraim, the Hebrew word for Egypt, which means a very tight or narrow place, and we need to find our way out both individually and collectively.
As part of the seder discussion, here are some questions I suggest adding into the “order” of the service so we can each look at our lives and think about how to create change both personally, communally and globally.
The first symbol of Passover, of course, is matzah. We are told that the Israelites left Egypt in such a hurry that they didn’t have time to let their bread rise. We are also told that the Egyptians fed the Jews matzah. So, matzah represents two things: the food of slavery and the food the Israelites ate in their haste to leave Egypt.
On a more subtle level, leavened bread symbolizes “puffed up” attitudes or egos — a person’s own inflation with himself or herself. The rabbis teach that a central concept of freedom is “pulling back from the ego.” This involves getting back to basics, or thinking about what really matters. When you are a slave, you have a different perspective on what really matters. You do without a lot, including basic freedoms.
As you look at the matzah, ask yourself: What really matters to you, and how have you lost sight of this? How can you reprioritize so that what really matters comes to the forefront of your life? How can you get back to basics? What luxuries can you do without? Have you placed too much importance on certain material things, and how can you change that perspective? How does your ego keep you enslaved?
The next symbol is zeroa, the lambshank, which represents sacrifice. Zeroa means “arm” in Hebrew, representing God’s “mighty hand and outstretched arm” that freed the Israelites’ from slavery. The zeroa also symbolizes the Paschal lamb offered as the Passover sacrifice in the ancient Temple and the lamb killed to place blood over the doors of the Israelites’ homes to ward off the Angel of Death during the last plague.
Ask yourself: What will you sacrifice to create positive change in your life? Or what are you sacrificing in your life that you don’t want to be sacrificing? What prevents you from living fully and freely?
Beitzah, the egg, roasted or otherwise, symbolizes rebirth and represents the second sacrificial offerings given at the ancient Temple in Jerusalem on Passover. Ask yourself: How do you want to be reborn? What do you want to “redo” so that you can start fresh, start over? What in your life would you like to give birth to? What is gestating inside of you that wants to be born and how will you help bring it into the world or nurture it?
Next comes charoset, symbolic of the mortar that helped build the Pharoah’s cities. When they were enslaved in Egypt, the Israelites bonded bricks with mortar for the building being constructed. The word “charoset” comes from the Hebrew word cheres, which means “clay.” Ask yourself: What are you trying to build in your life, your work, or your relationships, and how will you build it? How can you make it strong? What are the bricks you need to put in place, and what needs to go between them to hold them in place?
Next is karpas, the green vegetables that remind the seder participants that Passover corresponds with spring and the harvest. Now ask: What will you grow or what are you trying to grow in your life? How are you fertilizing it? Are you weeding your garden and watering it? Are you tending the garden, talking to the plants, spending time nurturing the things you are trying to grow? More importantly, did you plan your garden, carefully choosing the seeds and where they needed to be placed, putting those that need sun in the right location and those that need shade in the right location as well?
Maror, the last symbol, are the bitter herbs that represent slavery. Ask: Where you are enslaved in your life? What or who enslaves you? And how you will release yourself, how you will ensure that you are liberated? What can you do to find liberation?
Beyond these symbols come rituals worth including in your litany of questions during the Passover seder. As you drip wine onto your plate or tablecloth for each of the 10 plagues, for instance, consider the plagues in your life, especially as our world suffers from so many plagues today. Ask yourself: What plagues you? Are these plagues enough to move you out of your current situation? Will these plagues make you change your situation in some way? Or are you willing to live with the locusts and frogs and darkness, etc., or will you do something about them?
And, as you dip the greens into the salt water, which represents the bitterness of slavery and the tears of the Israelites, think about what you have cried over and what you would like to stop crying about. How will you accomplish that? How will you ensure that your tears stop flowing? Or how can you better express your sorrow and grief? How can you put your emotions to better use?
And as you open the door for the prophet Elijah to enter, remember if and when he enters your home he will herald the coming of the Messiah, which means also the time of the World to Come, a time of peace on earth. However, the way I understand this event, we have to create a world that is suitable not only for Elijah but for the Messiah. We have to create the World to Come. Neither Elijah nor the Messiah creates it for us.
So, during your seder this year — when the world seems so far removed from the World to Come — we have to remember not just to leave the door open for the prophet Elijah, but to create a world in which Elijah and the Messiah would want to live. We do that by performing good deeds, by creating peace, by giving tzedakah and performing righteous acts, by treating our neighbors as we would ourselves, by “paying it forward,” by helping others, by being change agents.
And we should do this all year long. The Passover seder just provides a wonderful reminder. Maybe that’s why we are told not to just retell the story of the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt during the Passover seder, but to relive it as if we were there in Egypt again. By feeling as if we are slaves in need of liberation, we are called to action in our lives and in the world.
Nina Amir is a Los Gatos journalist, author, Jewish inspirational speaker, spiritual and conscious creation coach, and the holiday and spirituality expert on the weekly podcast “Conversations with Mrs. Claus.” She blogs at www.purespiritcreations.com.