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Powerful Gems for Your Seder

Seven Meditations to Transform Passover 2020

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

  • April 8, 2020
  • |
  • 14 Nisan 5780
  • Comment

Class Summary:

Powerful Gems for Your Seder: Seven Meditations to Transform Passover 2020

In loving memory of Reb Yehuda Leib ben Reb Mordechai Avrohom Yeshaya Groner

1. Invite Yourself to the Seder

“Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat; whoever is in need, let him come and conduct the Seder of Passover.”

Since when do you invite people to an event, once the event started? And if you want to invite new guests, go outside and invite people. Why are you inviting those that are already here?

And how can we justify these words during the Seder of Passover 2020 when we are not allowed to invite guests?!

Here is one possible perspective.

What happens to you when you are on a plane, before take-off and they play the safety video? While your eyes may be watching it, you aren’t. You have seen it 300 times, and it doesn’t seem relevant. What are the chances of you needing to inflate your life jacket?

This statement in the beginning of the Seder isn’t an invitation to your physical body, it is an invitation to your mind. Invite your entire being to take part in this vulnerable journey, from enslavement, through your personal and collective pain and suffering, all the way out of Egypt, to seeing yourselves differently than the way you entered.

We read the story every year. We already know the story. We know the information. So that’s not the reason we are here. It’s like the life jacket speech on the airplane. Been there, done that. I know the salt water; I know the mah nishtanah; I know the Avadim Hayuni, the Dayanu, and the ten plagues.

The seder is about revisiting our personal narrative through the lens of our historic Jewish narrative. It is turning your history into your personal biography. We tell our personal story through telling the story of our people. 

It’s about the evolution of Jewish consciousness. It’s about personal evolution. Where were we last year? Where are we today? Where was I last year? Where am I today? And where do I want to be in a year from now? What is the “Jerusalem” I would like to be in next year, and how do I plan on getting there?

So every year, we begin with an invitation. It is a time to reflect on the transformations you have experienced: what experience have you gone through that transformed your life? What awareness has Coved-19 created for you? It is a time to reflect on the areas we are currently stuck in—what feelings and emotions “own” you? What happens to you when you are attacked by a feeling of insecurity? Of not belonging? Of trauma? Of depression? Of anger? Of apathy?

We all go through our ups and downs. We all get stuck, and we are all capable of experience emotional and psychological freedom. Tonight we ask: where am I in my relationship with G-d, and do I see how He is walking me through life? (If you would like others to share, begin by sharing something personal. This will take the seder from a nice seder to a life-experience your family may never forget).

Perhaps the seder was the first invention of group therapy.

This is the space we are inviting each other to. This is a safe space. We aren’t just going to read the words. This isn’t an intellectual journey. It’s a soulful experience. We are going to live through the exodus. We recline, we will eat the bitter herbs, matzah and drink the wine. We'll laugh, we'll cry and we will sing.

Let us pray that we have the courage to show up for this wonderful opportunity.

2. Tonight We Search for Incompletion


Why do we break the matzah? And the say the entire haggadah on that broken matzah?

The Jewish community looks for and celebrates what’s whole. We want the Shofar with no cracks, the Esrog with no blemishes, and the beautiful menorah that has pure oil. Yet tonight we have the courage to “break out matzah,” to discuss and search for the broken pieces.

Because to be free we must profess the courage to stop pretending that all is perfect and we can figure it all out on our own. We must be willing to admit that we are deeply imperfect and need each other to grow and heal. And just like it doesn’t humble me to admit that I need oxygen outside of me to survive, and I need those little plants and fruits to nurture me, I should not feel ashamed to accept how much I need.

I can’t handle all of life on my own. I need a spiritual nutrient in my life. I need to learn how to pray. I need to learn how to pass my stress to G-d – to rely on something greater than me.

I need to cultivate faith like my ancestors did, and not have to fret if I don’t know exactly what I will be doing the rest of my life. It is alright to be broken.

I have to be willing, like my forefathers, to go out of my comfort zone – perhaps all the way out – to a desert, to gain the wisdom of my people and not stay smug with what I know or think I know.

The Flawed Circle

Shel Silverstein, who died in 1999, was a Jewish American poet, singer-songwriter, cartoonist, screenwriter, and author of children's books. Translated into more than 30 languages, his books have sold over 20 million copies. One of his moving tales is about a circle that was missing a piece. A large triangular wedge has been cut out of it. The circle wanted to be whole, with nothing missing, so it went around the world looking for its missing piece.

But because it was incomplete, it could only roll very slowly as it rolled through the world. And as it rolled slowly, it admired the flowers along the way.

It chatted with the butterflies who landed on his back. He chatted with the worms he met along the way and he was warmed by the sunshine.

The circle found lots of pieces, but none of them fit. Some were too big and some were too small. Some too square, some too pointy. So it left them all by the side of the road and kept on searching.

Then one day it found a piece that fit perfectly. It was so happy. Now it could become complete with nothing missing.

The circle incorporated the missing piece into itself and began to roll again. But now that it was a perfect circle, it could roll very fast, too fast to notice the flowers and to talk with the worms. Too fast for the butterflies to land on his back.

When the circle realized how different the world seemed when it rolled through it so quickly, it stopped and left the missing piece by the side of the road.

It decides that it was happier when searching for the missing piece than actually having it. So it gently puts the piece down, and continues searching happily.

In some strange way, we are more whole when we are incomplete. That we can achieve so much more when we realize that we are still far from perfect.

Because a person who thinks to himself that he is perfect, without any loose ends and internal conflicts, becomes too smooth to even attempt to change and grow and realize how much more there is to accomplish. Such a person shuts themselves down from others, from themselves and from G-d.

Why is this night different? While every night we search for perfection, tonight we go out and search for the amazing gift of incompleteness, or openness.

3. 3333 Years Later, We Still Remember.

“Now we are slaves; next year in the Land of Israel. Now we are slaves; nest year we will be free.”

It was in 1937 when the handwriting was already on the wall regarding the future of European Jewry that David Ben-Gurion, later to become the first Prime Minister of Israel, appeared before the Peel Commission to allow the Jews of Europe to immigrate to Palestine.

The Peel Commission was created during the British Mandate over Palestine. After a series of heinous Arab attacks against the Jews, the British attempted to extricate themselves from this nutcracker of Arab violence and Jewish pressure by establishing a commission to study the problem, appointing the British Lord Peel as its chairman. Under the shadow of Hitler’s rise in Germany, England floated a trial balloon in the form of a partition plan. The proposed Jewish section would have consisted of tiny, barely visible slivers of land and could never become a viable national entity. But while the Jews were displeased by the Peel Commission Report, the Arabs were even more outraged and violence again spread throughout the country. Ben Gurion’s speech was given in the midst of the commission.

This is what he said:

"300 years ago, there came to the New World a boat, and its name was the Mayflower. The Mayflower’s landing on Plymouth Rock was one of the great historical events in the history of England and in the history of America. But I would like to ask any Englishman sitting here on the commission, what day did the Mayflower leave port? What date was it? I’d like to ask the Americans: do they know what date the Mayflower left port in England? How many people were on the boat? Who were their leaders? What kind of food did they eat on the boat?

"More than 3300 years ago, long before the Mayflower, our people left Egypt, and every Jew in the world, wherever he is, knows what day they left. And he knows what food they ate. And we still eat that food every anniversary. And we know who our leader was. And we know exactly how many Jews left the land! And we sit down and tell the story to our children and grandchildren in order to guarantee that it will never be forgotten. And we say our two slogans: ‘Now we may be enslaved, but next year, we’ll be a free people.’

"Now we are behind the Soviet Union and their prison. Now, we’re in Germany where Hitler is destroying us. Now we’re scattered throughout the world, but next year, we’ll be in Jerusalem. There’ll come a day that we’ll come home to Zion, to the Land of Israel. That is the nature of the Jewish people."

David Ben Gurion was an ardent secularist, but there were certain basics he understood well.

It is always deeply moving for observing a seder. After all the jokes about the boredom, the uncle who gets on our nerves, the horrible horseradish, and the endless dragging on of the afikoman search—here we are, 3328 years later, coming together on the very same night, retelling the story of our people.

Think about it, it is mind blowing.

We have been through everything—every conceivable challenge and blessing life has to offer. We have touched the heavens and we have been to hell and back. Yet every single year, without interruption, Jews came together around a table, sharing the same story, eating the same food, singing the same songs, and arguing about the same ideas. Ben Gurion was right. There is a reason we are still here, going strong. For each of our children knows the food they ate and the day they left.

4. Our Innate Potential for Transformation

“Avadim Hayenu…”

For centuries the children of Israel were enslaved in Egypt in bondage of body and spirit. They were crushed and beaten, physically and mentally. Spiritually too, they have lost their sense of identity and purpose. When Moses brought them the message of their deliverance from Egyptian bondage, they did not listen to him, the Torah states, "because of short breath and crushing labor." They were lost. However, after their liberation from enslavement they attained, in a comparatively short time, the highest spiritual level a man can reach. Every man, woman, and child of Israel experienced Divine Revelation at Mount Sinai, absorbing the highest knowledge and inexhaustible source of wisdom and faith for all generations to come—the only time such a thing ever happened in history.

We often think that if we struggle with a bad habit, a painful emotion, an addiction, a bad relationship, or a difficult childhood, or if we struggle with our Jewish identity, that it has to take a lot of time--perhaps many years--to heal or to change. It might. We don’t know how long it will take. But the story of the Exodus is essentially about the possibility of transformation. When we can look inside and see that who we truly are is beautiful, perfect, capable, full of love; how we are literally part of the Divine. Then in one moment we can transcend, let go of our old identity, and start living who we truly are.

Yet sometimes we are so filled with toxicity that we cannot even understand or feel how free we really are. That is what I want to ask you to do tonight: Start believing in your genuine potential for personal liberation in the profoundest way. Tonight, share with yourself this thought: “I'm not a body with a soul, I'm a soul that has a visible part called the body.”

The Kohen from Pinsk

Yankel from Pinsk arrives in the New Country. In the old shtetl, in the small Lithuanian town of Pinsk, he was a simpleton, a poor schleper; but now he decides he will open a new chapter in his life. He showed up for the first time on Pesach in shul and he was dressed to kill—a fancy new suit, an elegant tie, a classy hat, and designer shoes.

He sits down in the front row, establishing his reputation as an honorable man.

The rabbi, Rabbi Goldberg, takes a glimpse at the guest. The rabbi, himself a native from Pinsk, recognizes him immediately. He is impressed with Yankel’s new look.

Then comes the reading of the Torah. The Gabai asks if there is a Kohen in the synagogue. Yankel thinks to himself: Being a Kohen will give me an opportunity to become a popular member of the shul. After all, a shul always needs a Kohen, and I’d always be getting an Aliya.

Yankel raises his hand. “I am a Kohen,” he declares.

They call him up to the Torah, and then he blesses the community.

After the services, the rabbi approaches him, and welcomes him warmly: “Yankel! Yankel from Pinsk! Wow, what a pleasure to have you.

But let me ask you a question: I remember you from Pinsk, I knew your father, I knew your grandfather, and I still remember your great grandfather. None of them were kohanim. How did you suddenly become a kohen?”

To which Yankel from Pinsk responds:

“Hey, this is a new country. This is AMERICA. If you can come here and become a rabbi, I can come here and become a Kohen!”

5. Matzah—the Food of freedom

By the age of fifteen we think we have it all figured out. There is nothing new to learn. The rest of life is simply reaffirming what we already know to be true. “I always knew that we can’t trust that guy.” “This family is good, and from that family stay away.” We have a certain way of seeing the world and we lock into it. As we get older it becomes the “truth.”

We are stuck in our perception. We are arrogant. We believe that what we think of life and what we think of ourselves, and others, is true.

The staple food of Passover is Matzah. It represents the food of freedom. Why?

Matzah—as opposed to bread—is a humble food. Lots of care was taken that the dough should not rise. Matzah is the process of humbling ourselves. Not breaking ourselves, rather breaking our misinformed ego. It’s the realization that I don’t know. What I think, is simply that—what I think. It’s not the truth. We never know the full truth. 

Matzah is the gateway to freedom. The message of matzah is that instead of living in our self-fulfilling prophecy of reality, we let go and become open to a new way of seeing things. There is always another way to see almost everything.

Who am I beyond what I think of myself? This is food (for thought) of hope. This is food (for thought) of healing.

Dare to let go of the shackles of your intellect. Dare to question what was solid and “true” for you yesterday. This is where you will meet the G-d of Abraham. This is the G-d that took us—and takes us out of our perpetual state—of Egypt.

Dare to let go and you will fall into the all-embracing hands of G-d.

The Impressionist artist Pierre-August Renoir (1841–1919) once said: “I am beginning to know how to paint. It has taken me over fifty years to work to achieve this result, which is still far from complete.”

Renoir said this in 1913, at the age of seventy-two. By this time, the artist was a master at his craft. He was well established, and considered by many to be the greatest living painter in France.

He knew the secret of not knowing. The secret of freedom.

Trapped In Marriage

You're trapped in your marriage. You've said certain things, she's said things, both quite unforgivable, so now you're imprisoned in this cube of tense silence you used to call "home" and the only place to go from here is down. Yes, there is a way out -- just yesterday there was a moment, a fleeting opportunity for reconciliation. But you were too big to squeeze through.

Sometimes, the weather clears enough for you to see the escape hatch set high up in the wall -- the way out to freedom. But it's so small. Actually, it's not so much that it's small as that you need to make yourself small -- veritably flatten yourself -- to fit through. You need to deflate your false ego.

Chametz -- grain that has fermented and bloated -- represents that swelling of ego that enslaves the soul more than any external prison. The flat, unpretentious matzah represents the humility that is the ultimate liberator of the human spirit.

The liberating quality of matzah is also shown in the forms of the Hebrew letters that spell the words "chametz" and "matzah". The spelling of these two words are very similar (just as a piece of bread and a piece of matzah are made of the same basic ingredients) --chametz is spelled chet, mem, tzadi; matzah is spelled mem, tzadi, hei. So the only difference is the difference between the chet and the hei – which is also slight. Both the chet and the hei have the form of a three sided enclosure, open at the bottom; the difference being that the heihas a small "escape hatch" near the top of its left side.

Which is all the difference in the world.

6. No Dialogue, Just Endless Love

“What does the rebellious child say? What is this service you are doing?... You too Blunt/hit his teeth."

Really? Are you kidding me? A call for violence at the Seder table? And toward whom? Toward your own child?

There is, in truth, a deeper message here. It is the source of the expression: “Answer the person, do not answer the question.”

Real listening occurs when we are not distracted or diverted by our own thinking. We know that when we quiet down sufficiently, when we are present in the moment, we can reach beyond the content of the spoken word and hear the underlying intent of the other. There is what we see and hear—the behavior of the other person and their words—and there is what we don’t see—the inner feeling of the other person.

Now, think about it: When is the last time you were living in the most wonderful feeling, and you mistreated your spouse? It doesn’t happen. This isn’t an excuse to behave inappropriately; we are always responsible for our behavior. But it does allow us to look beyond the behavior and see what is really going on. When we see someone acting in a destructive manner, we know that they are hurting inside.

Your child may be yelling, throwing things or hitting his sister, he is completely reckless and lacks any form of decency and obedience. He should be disciplined. But what is going on beneath the surface? Is he anxious about something? The more we can go beneath the surface the closer we are to dealing with the root of the problem. In Hebrew, the word used for a bully is the same word used for a mute—אלם. Why? Because bullying is often a result of the child being muted and he has no way of expressing himself.

The bully must always be stopped. Yet it behooves us to look one step deeper so we can mend the inner heart of the bully and cause him to truly stop bullying forever.

When we hear the voice of a rebellious child, we often get carried away in what he says instead of looking beyond the word to what he is truly feeling. 

What are his words? “What is this service of yours?” It sounds as if this son is excluding himself, but if you listen beyond his words you will hear the cry of a lonely soul. We all know the feeling of not belonging, of being an outsider. Our troubled and “rebellious” child is doing his or her best to convey that to the ones around him or her: I feel like I don’t belong. I have no place, I am an outsider. I am hurting.

How are we to respond? Says the Haggadah: “Break his teeth”—don’t enter into a dialogue. Let this not be about teeth vs. teeth—and he who screams louder wins. Forget the words, forget the teeth. Shower him or her with unconditional love. Simply overwhelm him or her with enormous affection and acceptance, until they see that there is no such thing as an outsider; we all already inherently belong.

This is also the way to approach our own feelings of loneliness. Don’t engage. Rather look for a feeling of unconditional acceptance. This will always guide you to a place of clarity and perspective.

The Vilna Gaon once said: The Hebrew word שניו, his teeth, is numerically equivalent to 366. Now the Hebrew word for Rasha (רשע)is 570. So when we "blunt" his teeth and subtract 366 from 570 what are we left with? 206, which equals the word Tzaddik (צדיק). .In other words, when you remove the “teeth,” the sharp words, you will see that inside this child is a Tzaddik.

7. Nirtzah—I’m Never Good Enough

We conclude the seder with the final and very strange step of “Nirtzah:” We acknowledge that G-d has accepted and is deeply moved and pleased by our service.

This is enigmatic. All the other 14 steps of the seder connote an action of some sort: Kiddish, washing hangs, dipping, etc. What is the significance of this 15th step where we do nothing, but believe that G-d was pleased with our seder?

In truth, this is the climax of the seder.

One of our ego’s favorite lines is: “Not good enough.”

You commit to learning Torah twenty minutes a day, your ego comes and says: only twenty minutes? What can you learn already in twenty minutes?

You spend fifteen dollars and buy your wife flowers, your ego says that’s all you spend on your wife?! 

You gave someone collecting money for charity ten dollars, afterwards your ego says: you are not good enough, why didn’t you give him twenty dollars?

You start doing Kiddush Friday night, and your ego says: That’s not called keeping Shabbat!

Any project we do, there is that little voice inside that comes and says: “Not good enough.”

Remember this rule: This is the voice of the yetzer hara, of our ego.

You see, it is true that we should always improve, and there is always room for improvement. But this isn’t the intention of our ego. It has one intention--to deject us and take the life out of life. For how does it make you feel when you think “not enough”? It makes you a smaller person, it makes you think less of yourself, it makes you think that your actions are worthless. It drains you from your vitality and zest. It makes you feel sad and depressed. And it ultimately causes you to do less, not more.

It has nothing to do with the truth or with G-d; it is a creation of ego.

Once something was done, we surrender and say I have done the best I could have done in the moment. And we trust that our sincerity will be seen, by our spouse, the beggar, G-d and ourselves. 

Nirtzah. G-d accepts your offering. Do YOU accept your offering?

(My thanks to Rabbi Yanki Raskin for his assistance in preparing these insights. My thanks to Rabbi Nir Gurevitch (Serfers Paradise, Australia) and Rabbi Zalman Bluming (Duke University) for sharing their insights).

Please leave your comment below!

  • YLK

    YEHUDA L KLEIN -4 years ago


    I would like to first thank you for your stimulating essay.  However, I believe your understanding of tte significance of "The Missing Piece, by Shel Silverstein departs from the simple meaning of the story. (Seehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKGXEE-sZVs) for a nice animation.  Although the details you provide are accurate, it seems that the reason that the circle put down the missing piece was not because it could no longer stop to smell the flowers, as it were.  Rather, "now it was complete, it could not sing at all."  There must be a message in this detail as well.

    A guten Moed,

    Yehuda and Liba Klein

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • Anonymous -4 years ago

    very trippy excellent ego really enjoyed it too

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • Anonymous -4 years ago

    Thank you.

    Your words have enhanced my understanding of the upcoming Seder and will make this Pesach more joyful. Thank you. Zissen Pesach and Abi gezunt.

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

Pesach Seder

Rabbi YY Jacobson
  • April 8, 2020
  • |
  • 14 Nisan 5780
  • |
  • Comment

In loving memory of Reb Yehuda Leib ben Reb Mordechai Avrohom Yeshaya Groner

Class Summary:

Powerful Gems for Your Seder: Seven Meditations to Transform Passover 2020

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