A Microcosm of Your Psyche
What is the Passover Seder?
Is it mere ritual, commemorating the enslavement and Exodus
of the Jewish people from Egypt 3318 years ago? Is it an
“excuse” to get family and friends together,
no different than, say, Thanksgiving? Is it a time for nostalgia,
for remembering our history?
If you answered yes to
all the above, you would be right. But if the Seder is no more than ritual,
why do we go through such an elaborate process of reenacting the events that
transpired so many centuries ago? Indeed, we are instructed “in each generation”
and “every day” to “envision as if we just left Egypt.” Most of us have never
been to Egypt. Why is it so important to envision as if we are now leaving
Egypt?! Why should we be reliving experiences that happened in another part
of the world in a completely different time in history, utterly removed from
our contemporary lives?
Frankly, if the Passover
Seder (and for that matter, any religious tradition) is nothing more than
nice nostalgia, why should our children embrace it? Can we possibly expect
generations to come to remain committed to a tradition that is not absolutely
How many people have shared
with me the boredom, or plain mediocrity, they experience during the Passover
The greatest challenge
facing Passover today is experiencing its relevance. The only way that
it will be fully embraced is if it seen as indispensable – as a resonating
experience that addresses our personal lives with profound relevance.
And the only way to understand
Passover’s relevance is to probe into its soul. Like everything in life –
if you only look at its surface you will not appreciate its true personality.
Passover, like all Jewish
tradition, has a body and a soul. The body consists of the rituals, laws and
structure of tradition. The soul is its inner meaning and significance.
The body of Passover is
commemorating the Exodus from bondage in a land called Egypt. The soul of
the holiday is freedom: The entire objective of the Passover Seder is to achieve
transcendence. The exodus from Egypt was not just a technical matter, about
a nation leaving a country that enslaved it. “Mitzrayim” (Hebrew for Egypt) means
boundaries, constraints and limitations. Exodus from mitzrayim is freedom
from bondage to our fears, inhibitions and addictions. We are therefore instructed
to always “envision as if we just left Egypt.”
The entire Seder, beginning with the Seder Plate, provides
us with tools to achieve personal transcendence; to experience
emotional and spiritual freedom. As such, the Seder is actually
a snapshot of your life; a microcosm of your psyche; a reflection
of your soul.
Various aspects of the Soul of the Seder tapestry have
been discussed in this space: The
Fifteen Steps of the Seder, the
Four Questions, the matzo,
maror and four cups of wine. Now we will focus on the soul
of the Seder Plate, which establishes the structure and
sets the tone of the entire Passover Seder.
The first thing we do
Passover night, before the actual Seder begins, is construct the Seder Plate
(ke'ara). The Plate consists of ten items: Three Matzot, six
food items – z’roa (a roasted shank bone), beitzah (an egg),
maror (bitter herbs), charoset (a pasty mixture of fruits, nuts
and wine), karpas (a vegetable, such as an onion or potato), chazeret
(salad; bitter herbs, used in the korach sandwich) – and the plate
There are various customs
how to arrange the Seder Plate. Here we will follow the structure of Rabbi
Isaac Luria (known as the holy Arizal), which is the prevalent one in most
In the words of the Arizal:
“Arrange the Plate on
the table by taking three matzot and placing them one on the other: First
the Israelite [the lowest matzah], on it the Levite [the second matzah], and
on it the Kohen [the third matzah]. These are the three intellectual faculties,
Chachma, Bina, Daat.
“Above all these, on the
right, place the z’roa, corresponding to chesed, and opposite
it, on the left, place the egg – gevurah. Beneath them, in the center,
place the maror – tiferet. Beneath the z’roa, on the
right, place the charoset – netzach, and opposite it, on the
left, below the egg, place the karpas – hod. Under the maror
place the chazeret used for korach – yesod. And the plate
itself is malchut, which encompasses all the ten sefirot.”
Thus, the final Seder
Plate is comprised of three matzot, lying one on the other, which cradle the
six food items that form two triangles, like this:
On the “body” level various
reasons are given for using these items on the Seder Plate. Briefly: The matzot
are the centerpiece of Passover, symbolizing the unleavened “food of humility”
that the Jewish people ate as they escaped Egypt. The shank bone symbolizes the Passover lamb offering in the time of the Temple, which was roasted
and eaten as part of the Seder night meal. The hard-boiled egg represents
the festival offering (Chagigah) in the Temple, which was also roasted
and eaten on the Seder night. The maror (bitter herbs) commemorates
the bitterness and harshness of the slavery which the Jews endured in Ancient
Egypt. The pasty charoset represents the mortar used by the Jewish
slaves to build the Egyptian cities. Finally the letters of the word Karpas
(the vegetable), when reversed (samech perach), allude to the
sixty myriads of Jews subjected to harsh labor.
However, at best these symbolisms are ways of remembering and commemorating
the Egyptian Exile and Exodus. On their own they don’t seem to contain any
personal relevance to our lives today.
Enter the Arizal – who exposes the “soul” dimension of tradition – and reveals
the inner spiritual meaning of the Seder Plate, rendering it into a piercing
glimpse into the structure of our own psyches.
The ten elements of the Seder Plate reflect the structure
of human consciousness, which is comprised of ten dimensions
– the ten sefirot, the “spiritual DNA”
of all existence, and of man, who is a “universe in
microcosm:” Three intellectual faculties and seven
The Seder Plate is thus the quintessential you. How you were meant to be
and how you would be at your best. When you assemble the
Seder Plate you should actually be (re)constructing your
personality, your soul and your psyche, and reconfiguring
it to its ideal, healthiest state.
The Rebbe Rashab, assembling
his Seder Plate, once put it this way: “[We have] saddled the wagon,” meaning
that the Seder (Plate) is like a wagon which takes you on a journey to your
desired destination. He then went on to explain the power of the material
world (the food items on the Seder Plate), which, when harnessed, has the
ability to become a “vehicle” that carries you to a spiritual destination
far greater than the place that the soul on its own can reach.
The first lesson is that
harmony in life – and any form of transcendence – requires a proper alignment
between mind and heart. The three matzot represent the three intellectual
faculties, the three steps of the cognitive process: Conception, comprehension
and application, or wisdom, understanding and knowledge. First comes Chochma,
the spark of an idea, then the idea is developed through Binah, and finally
it comes to a resonating conclusion through Daat.
Most human mistakes originate
from impulsive and subjective emotions that get the better of us. The mind
at its best is meant to be the reflective force that objectively directs the
subjective emotional impulses, like a captain directing a ship.
When the intellect is
infused with humility (matzot) it becomes an objective “captain” of the ship
of emotions, reflecting and ensuring that the emotions not be manipulated
and that they be channeled in healthy directions.
As the curved matzot carry
the six items, the humble intellect serves like a container that cradles and
protects the six emotions. We too must ensure that our minds – infused with
humility – control our emotions, passions and desires.
Now we move into the actual
emotional experiences of our lives, which divide into six (seven) dimensions:
Chesed – loving kindness; gevurah – discipline; tiferet – empathy; netzach
– endurance; hod – humility; yesod – bonding; and malchut – dignity.
When we allow the humility
of the matzot to permeate our emotions, each of these emotions will function
optimally, with the right balance between them all.
The outstretched arm of
the z’roa (which actually means arm, from the verse “outstretched arm”)
expresses the giving nature of love (chesed). Love is the root and single
most important of all emotions – the ability to give, reach out and care for
The hard-boiled egg (which
also reminds us of the Temple’s destruction) symbolizes discipline, which
is necessary to temper and balance the transmission of love. Unchecked love
can hurt the person you love, just like a flood can destroy fields. For love
to be effective it needs to be measured.
The bitter herbs of maror
elicit empathy (tiferet). Eating the bitter herbs is not about us feeling
the bitterness of bondage (what would be the point? And can we actually compare
the discomfort of eating bitter herbs to the trauma of slavery and genocide?).
It’s about the empathy that it elicits – the Divine empathy and the compassion
that we must feel for each other.
Even in our present time
of blessed prosperity, we do not need to have actual bondage to feel sadness;
today our sadness is about not feeling close to the Divine. In addition, our
challenge today is complacency: never to take our freedoms for granted and
remember that as long as we live in any form of constraint, we must cry out
and that cry will evoke channels of empathy.
The pasty charoset
reminds us of the clay and mortar used by the Jewish slaves to make the bricks
and build the cities. Mortar (like cement) is known for its strength and endurance
(netzach). Yet, the primary result of the hard work was that it taught
the Jews to be strong and enduring in their faith. And the “more they were
oppressed the more they proliferated.” That is why we use for charoset
a mix of ground apples, pears, nuts and wine – all symbols of Jewish strength
and virtue – to teach us the lesson of endurance, how to withstand and grow
through every challenge.
The vegetable (karpas),
which grows low, reminds us of the humility (hod) required in life,
and especially the yielding necessary to balance the driving force of endurance.
The Chazeret eaten
in the sandwich represents the emotion of bonding (yesod) – uniting
with those we love and with G-d. It’s not enough to experience each of the
emotions independently, but also bond then together like in one “sandwich.”
Bonding, like empathy,
is a center force that integrates the right and the left. And like empathy
which is elicited through the bitter cry (of the bitter herbs), bonding is
also an experience that requires a cry form the depths of the soul, a deep
feeling of need that fuels bonding.
Finally – the Seder Plate
itself, is the dignity and sovereignty of malchut, which encompasses
all the ten faculties. Malchut is selflessness. Like the moon it has
no light of its own. But precisely due to its selflessness it reflects and
contains all the light of the previous nine levels. The same is with the Plate:
Without the three matzot and six items the Plate is empty on its own.
But in its “emptiness” it becomes the tray that encompasses all the others,
and the source of dignity. Dignity also has no substance of its own. True
dignity and self-confidence comes from a sense that you were created in the
Divine Image, and being a channel of something greater than yourself gives
you the ultimate dignity.
The Seder Plate gives
us the opportunity to review, throughout the 15
steps of the Seder night, each of these emotions and assess where we stand
– in our love, discipline, empathy, endurance, humility, bonding and selflessness.
Even if you cannot focus
on all these dimensions (which can be quite a task), choose one or two that
you relate to or you feel needs work. As the Seder proceeds concentrate on
these characteristics and look for ways to repair or improve your attitudes.
Obviously, much more can
be said about each of these dimensions. But hopefully, this will suffice to
get the ball rolling.
Above all, the main priority
is to infuse the Seder experience with a dynamic, interactive, dimension –
and turn it into a personal experience, rather than just another event we
Just imagine experiencing
the Seder in this personal way – how much more powerful would we and our children
experience the evening? Some food for thought as we prepare to celebrate a
“night that is different than all other nights.”
May you, and we all, be
blessed with a very transcendent Passover – one that opens up new channels
of hope and trust.
But together with the
blessing from above, may we each do our part to generate blessings. And the
best way to begin is through infusing your Seder – whether you are host or
guest – with profound personal relevance.
As we prepare the Seder
Plate, remember the words of the Rebbe Rashab: “Saddle your wagon” well, and
prepare for an exhilarating journey into the night and beyond.
A very blessed Passover
to you and yours,
Simon Jacobson and all
of us here at The Meaningful Life Center
After-note for Samach-Vav
After the lengthy Samach-Vav
discussion on the nature and properties of light, the Rebbe Rashab takes a
two-week Passover break before he returns to the discuss the nature of the
Everything in life
consists of a light and container. A life of harmony consists of the proper
equilibrium between the two – between the inside and outside, function and
form, fruit and shell, content and expression, product and package, soul and
Light is energy; each
of us has our own unique energy – your personality, abilities and talents.
Container is the way you express your energy – its method and form of manifestation.
When light and container
are misaligned we have an imbalance, an unhealthy situation. Reconfiguring
our lights and containers is the key to all healing, growth and development.
The Seder Plate manifests
the balance necessary between lights and containers – between the matzot that
serve as the containers that cradle the six items above them.
Yet Passover focuses
primarily on the light from above. The primary work with the containers begins
after Passover, especially through the Counting of the Omer, which consists
of refining the animal soul of the material world.