Freedom and Passover

This week, we welcome the holiday of Passover, the holiday of freedom. During the Passover seder, we act out the story of our ancestors being redeemed from Egypt. In the Talmud, there’s also the idea that we are supposed to understand ourselves to have been redeemed from slavery, too.

And there are those who take it one step further. Our ancestors were redeemed in ancient Egypt, we too were redeemed, and not only that: The 19th-century Chassidic Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (commonly known by the name of his influential book, The Sefat Emet) teaches that each and every year we have the chance to be newly free – if we put in the spiritual work. He writes:

“On every Passover, a Jew becomes like a new being like we were during the Exodus from Egypt; like a newborn child. The inner essence implanted by God within our hearts is renewed. That inner essence is called lechem ‘oni [poor people’s bread–a synonym for matzah] because it is totally without expansion. Matzah is just the essence of dough, which afterward changes and ferments. In the same way, every Jew has an inner essence, a gift from God. And actually, our usual task is to expand that point, to draw all our deeds to follow it. This is our job throughout the year, for better or worse. But when this Holiday of Matzot comes, it is the time when that inner essence itself is renewed and purified from all defilement. Therefore, we must guard it from any “ferment” or change on this holiday.”

One way to take this is that matzah is our essential self, and bread (chametz) represents our poofed-up ego, what we are with all the trappings of identity and society on us. This is the one time of year when we must strip away all the shmutz (dirt) that has accumulated onto our essential selves. We must find and watch carefully over this inner essence of ours, this essential self, just like people watch over the dough of matzah to make sure it doesn’t poof up into chametz. This, in fact, is the freedom of the holiday of Passover: we get to become like brand new beings, getting back to our most essential, matzah selves.

Over the last two years, including two Passovers that were the most alone I’ve ever been, I’ve experienced being stripped of all those markers of success, power, and even relationship that I held dear. Maybe you have too. We’ve lost jobs and friendships. We’ve lost the chance to show off our wealth or clothes or artistic flair because we couldn’t leave the house. We’ve lost status. Frankly, we’ve lost a lot of that poofed-up ego we usually carry. Perhaps this year, it’s not the matzah self of this teaching that we most need to get in touch with; the pandemic has done that very well. Perhaps it’s the freedom that comes with it, and the starting anew. We have a chance to re-enter in-person society as the version of ourselves we truly want to be. That is a much deeper kind of freedom.

Originally published in The Wisdom Daily.

To Forget and To Remember

There are some dark times that we commemorate in a ceremony with the reading of names. And there are some that result in celebrating with oily foods and candles. And there are some where we were so terrified, and now we are so out of our minds to have averted the decree, that we drink. We drink to forget. We don’t ever want to remember it was so awful. Blot out the memory. Forget the darkness. This is Purim.

We tell our story of what we went through, and we are commanded to listen to every single word. And then we drink to forget.

Maybe this moment in 2022 is the Purim kind of dark time. The pandemic began with Purim and we emerge from it (G-d-willing) with Purim. It was so hard. We sat in sackcloths. We lamented. We are changed.

This may be a Purim kind of survival – we may be entering the roaring 20s of oblivion. However, Purim teaches us to forget – but, also not to forget. The Torah portion we read right before Purim is Parashat Zachor, the parashah of remembrance, in which we are commanded to both blot out the memory of Amalek (considered to be Haman’s ancestor) and to remember his terribleness when he ambushed the Israelites in the desert. It’s not just drinking and forgetting. It’s deliberate remembering. It’s being glad we’re alive.

And it’s giving gifts to the poor. If going through something awful doesn’t make us more compassionate, we’re doing it wrong. Let us be softened. This pandemic made us realize we are all of us broken; we are all of us suffering. (Even more so now, as refugees stream out of the homeland of many of our ancestors and relatives. The suffering is almost unbearable.) We are all of us broken. Let us not forget that in our rush to forget what we’ve gone through. Now that we’ve seen the suffering, we are called to do something about it. We celebrate by hearing the story and then forgetting it, but more importantly, by being softened by it and preventing future suffering.

It’s true that we will always be looking over our shoulders. Each year it could happen again. Each year we fast again the day before Purim, worried it might not turn out okay this time. After all, once the violence stopped, Persia’s Jews went back to living next to the neighbors who tried to kill them. Purim’s victory is not a certain one. It’s not a permanent one. It’s maybe even just the luck of the draw. But it’s a victory nonetheless. And we must celebrate it, no matter what else may be coming our way next.

Originally published in The Wisdom Daily.

Leading Creative and Engaging Passover Seders

seder plate

It’s that time of year again – planning for your Passover seder. Or avoiding planning for it. Or wondering whether you’ll insult/bore/entertain your family and friends with your seder choices this year. Here are some tips for leading a creative and engaging Passover seder, no matter what age your participants.

Tips for an Engaging Passover Seder

  1. Have the children help prepare for seder. They could make place-cards or cups of wine matzahplacemats (see one in this packet) that you can laminate, table decorations, prepare a short play or skit, learn Mah Nishtana and other songs, learn some of the blessings, cut vegetables, set the seder plate…
  2. Give homework. Have participants prepare a song, a skit, a drash (teaching), an explanation, a reading, a story.
  3. Buy time. To have interesting conversations or activities, people can’t be famished! For the karpas stage of the seder, when you dip parsley in salt water, have large trays of crudité and various dips to keep guests’ stomachs from complaining.
  4. Tell the story. The haggadah contains four different ways of telling the story, each beginning with a question, a response, and a praise of G-d. Add your own telling! Improvise your own play or use a script, for example from Sedra Scenes by Stan Beiner. Designate one person as Moses, one person as Pharoah, others as the other characters. A narrator can be helpful to move the story along.
  5. Ask questions. Liberate yourselves from the haggadah text and discuss it instead of simply reading it. What are ten things that plague us today? What do you want to be free from this year? Why does the haggadah tell us we should feel that we too were redeemed?
  6. Have fun. Sing silly seder songs. Make puppets for different characters. Do goofy things that make your kids ask questions – which, after all, is the point of the seder.
  7. Be inclusive. Give everyone a role, no matter their level of Jewish knowledge. Get the whole group involved in finding the afikomen or asking discussion questions.
  8. Use materials. Younger children will relate more to tactile materials. Sand paper for pyramids pictures, coloring sheets, cotton ball lambs, plagues puppets. A tambourine to shake once the Israelites cross the Red Sea, just like Miriam did. Wear costumes, use props.
  9. Try something new each year.
  10. Choose a good haggadah, or create your own! There are hundreds of editions. Choose one that’s right for your family. Some great ones are The Wellsprings of Freedom by Ron Aigen; A Night Of Questions, the Reconstructionist movement’s haggadah; A Different Night: the Family Participation Haggadah by Noam Zion and David Dishon. For interesting commentary and history of the haggadah, see The Holistic Haggadah: How Will You Be Different This Passover Night? by Michael Kagan; My People’s Haggadah by Lawrence Hoffman and David Arnow; The Women’s Seder Sourcebook: Rituals & Readings for Use at the Passover Seder by Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, Tara Mohr, and Catherine Spector. Create your own at

Adapted from Rabbi Ron Wolfson