By Rabbi Shawn Zevit
The Pesach seder remains the most observed Jewish festival home gathering to this day.
Whether you observe one or two sedarim, the beginning of Pesach comes in with its millennia of observed and ever-evolving rituals, retelling of our story, reflection on what is means to be ever-leaving and arriving, to be enslaved and at the same time grateful for and vigilant about our freedoms, to be strangers and simultaneously at home. The end of Pesach often gets overlooked or becomes a countdown to the “finishing the matzah collections on the shelf.”
However, there are meaningful spiritual practices that can help bring the values and experiences of the seder into the week and weeks that follow.
The seventh night of Passover in some Jewish mystical and Chasidic circles, using the math of the ancient rabbis, became a time to reenact the Crossing the Sea. This led to an early Chasidic custom of holding a “mirror seder” on the last day of Pesach. There was an early Chasidic custom of the Rebbe giving over Pesach wisdom, of gathering around the table or in a circle and everyone rotating one chair to share their Passover wisdom from the “Rebbe’s chair.”
I experienced this through Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s updated egalitarian practice of this ritual, and then later thanks to Philadelphia’s own Simcha Raphael and Rabbi Geela Rayzel Raphael, who developed a narrative and song-filled “Seventh Night Seder.”
As Raphael writes in the introduction to the Seventh Night Seder Haggadah: “In looking at Torah and Midrash, through the lens of mythic understanding, it is possible to discover in the ancient stories a model, a paradigm, for seeing the deeper patterns of spiritual evolution unfold in our own lives. The idea of mythic re-enactment of an ancient tale is fully consonant with what we learn at the Passover seder: hayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu who yatzah mi-Mitzraim — ‘it is incumbent upon each person to see one’s self as if they themselves had left Egypt.’ This notion suggests that each time we retell the story of the Exodus, and (hence) the subsequent Crossing of the Red Sea, we are invited to find personal, contemporary spiritual connection and meaning for our own lives.”
Today, either during or around Pesach, holding an additional seder for interfaith and social justice causes has emerged with their own Haggadot such as the HIAS immigration seder, R. Arthur Waskow and Rabbi Phyllis Berman’s recent 50th anniversary Freedom Seder, LGBTQ seder, Jewish Labor Council seder and many more. After the seder(s), we move into the remainder of Pesach and the weeks beyond and the opportunity to integrate and embody in our lives, the experience, meaning and values of this festival period and the exodus itself.
According to the Torah, we are directed to count the days from Passover to Shavuot. This period of 49 days is known as the Counting of the Omer. An omer is a unit of measure for grain.
On the second day of Passover, in the days of the temple, an omer of barley was cut down and brought to the temple as an offering. This grain offering was referred to as the omer. Every night, from the second night of Passover to the night before Shavuot, we recite a blessing and state the count of the omer in both weeks and days.
The counting is intended to remind us of the link between Passover, which commemorates the Exodus, and Shavuot, which came to commemorate the giving of the Torah. It reminds us that the redemption from slavery was not complete until we received the Torah (a later interpretation of the meaning of Shavuot).
Over these seven weeks, daily reflection, work on one’s middot (characteristics) and potential inner and relational growth from this work on self was one way to pray for and invite the possibility of affecting one’s life and potential — nurturing and growing the fruit of our souls. These traits are not just designed to be “out there” in the esoteric world, but to be integrated and expressed in our everyday actions and relationships.
The reality is we are all slaves to something — to work, or a relationship, to fear, or food, to a lack of discipline, or too much discipline, to love, or a lack of love. The word Mitzrayim (“Egypt” in Hebrew) means limitations and boundaries and represents all forms of constraints that inhibit our true free expression. Our people’s redemption from Egypt teaches us how to achieve inner freedom in our lives. Enslavement is a habit that needs to be broken and transformed over an extended period.
To this end, I offer my own prayer for all of us as we conclude the week of Pesach and move toward Shavuot.
Gathering the mixed multitudes in my soul
I rummage through my belongings
In preparation for leave-taking.
What aspects of myself
Do I need to make the journey?
What can I leave behind
To memory in the narrow places?
Maybe this year, we will go out together
In broad daylight
Not in the still of the night,
In no haste
Soul to Soul
Holding each other in loving compassion
Knowing we — the mixed multitude —
Will cross together
Finding home at last
In the depth of divine waters
That part willingly
On the shores of a wilderness.
What if no one need drown this year
And you need not weep
For any of your lost children
Or parts of your precious planet?
So, let’s not leave in haste
And move in a mindful pace this year
Seeing the blessings and lessons that even
The narrow places have offered us.
For no place is without you
You who go by many names
Freedom, Liberation, Salvation
The Place —
Wherever we may be
On the journey.
Rabbi Shawn Zevit is the lead rabbi at Mishkan Shalom. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.