Yes, It’s (Not) All About the Seder

So what is the significance of these rituals? How do we choose what we will and will not do to take notice of this holiday?

It is said that Passover is the most-observed of the Jewish holidays. That observance varies from the traditional scouring the hametz (leavening) out of the house, not owning or eating any of the fluffy stuff for eight days and holding a full traditional seder — to just eating matzah that week, or a family gathering on that night whenever the family can to get together.

So what is the significance of these rituals? How do we choose what we will and will not do to take notice of this holiday?

While some who are brought up in the tradition may (or may not) know how to conduct a seder, and may (or may not) derive personal, emotional, spiritual and etiological meaning from the full eight-day observance, others simply— or not so simply— don’t. Some have never experienced it. Some suffered through seders that promised meaning that, in the end, felt more hidden than the afikomen.

We cannot judge them for it. Nor can we ascribe to them the attributes of the one who is wicked, simple, or does not know how to ask. Our lives, emotions, experiences and circumstances are too complex to be measured against such a monolithic standard, or against our ability to access spiritual awe on Passover, or on any other day, for that matter.

As a rabbi and hospital chaplain, I am awed to hear patients speak about their spiritual struggles, especially when illnesses have raised the specter of their mortality. They may express sadness, ambivalence, embarrassment and even anger about their lack of Jewish faith and knowledge, or their having been disappointed by God, or a rabbi, or a synagogue, or feel they have been driven into the wilderness by the high financial cost of Jewish life. Most of all, it is heartbreaking when they judge themselves harshly for failing in their struggle to access the spiritual.

And yet… they are very concerned with being home by Passover – whether they hope to attend a seder or not.

Some emotionally share memories of their youths at their grandparents’ seder tables. If they still attend seder, they are glad to pass this ritual to their children, even when they think the children just don’t grasp it. And if they are not involved, it is not unusual to witness expressions of heartbreaking regret and fear that the chain of tradition will be forever severed – even if they do not feel they ever had a firm grasp on it themselves. Either way… they can’t bear the idea of not being home for Passover, whether they will attend a seder or not.

Others identify themselves as non-religious or “cultural Jews” at the beginning of the conversation and then, after a while, express complex emotions around their lack of Jewish knowledge, frustrations with their experiences of Jewish life, their lack of connection to their Creator, and anxieties about seeking Jewish communal life. And yet… they are desperate to be home for Passover, whether they will attend a seder or not.

Some are decidedly secular, and did not raise their children in the faith. And they tell the stories of the seders of their childhoods and… they want to be home by Passover, whether they will attend a seder or not.

These wise patients remind us that the power of Passover is not the story, nor is it in the seder. It is the promise of the telling of the story, the promise of the ritual being enacted (whether or not they are present) and the promise of redemption that is spiritually essential. Why?

Because the promise of spring and rebirth all around us make us acutely aware of constrictions: our mortal limitations and our eternal spiritual longing – even if we are not consciously aware of it. The promise of healing from our bondage – our spiritual winter – awakens us and gives us the strength to walk forward, no matter what we are leaving behind, or walking towards.

My patients have taught me that any observance they can manage, be it on Passover eve or the week before or the week after – with 20 guests around the table or two – whether an hour or six hours or 20 minutes in length – or even a quiet walk of reflection, can be replete with meaning, because we are all leaving our own Egypts, walking toward a new beginning, and we don’t know the way. We may be marching in step with others, or keeping to the beat of our own drums as we walk toward the Promised Land within.

May your Passover be sweet and healing, however you chose to observe it.

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