We all want good and thoughtful ideas to share at the Seder. This collection of short and deep insights for the Seder are organized in such a way that each one is independent, but they also develop into a deeper theme when you read them all together. I hope they will aid you on your journey towards a meaningful and transformative Seder night.
Why Do We Announce All the Steps of the Seder?
On no other chag do we announce all the steps of the holiday ritual aloud before proceeding to perform them. On Sukkos, we don’t say: “Lulav, Shofar, Sukkah…”, on Purim, we don’t say: “Megilah, Mishloach Manos, Matanos Li’Evyonim, Hamantaschen…”. So why on the Seder night do we begin by announcing all the different steps of the Seder?
Any great journey begins with a clear goal and destination. As we say every Friday evening in Lecha Dodi, “Sof ma’aseh bi’machshava techilah”- the physical result originates first within the mind. In order to accomplish anything great you must first create a clear target and determine what direction you must take to get there.
The Seder is made up of 15 steps. This is the same number of steps up to the Beis Ha’Mikdash, and the same number of “Shir Hamaalos” psalms–songs of ascension. The Seder is likewise a 15 step process of ascension, a 15 step journey towards spiritual greatness. However, you do not accidentally achieve spiritual greatness, it requires extreme dedication. The Seder night is a genuine journey, an opportunity to tap into something special. On the Seder night, we are trying to experience true freedom, a deeper connection with Hashem, gratitude, and an understanding of our mission here in this world. Only when we lay out the steps and create a clear destination for our Pesach Seder can we achieve the extraordinary.
What’s With All the Questions?
One of the notably prevalent themes of the Seder is that of asking questions. While “Mah Nishtanah” is the most obvious example, the commentators explain many other parts of the Seder as purely serving as an impetus for children to ask questions. It’s not only children, though, who are enjoined to question. The Gemara in Pesachim (116a) says that if a man’s child cannot ask the questions, then his wife should, and if he has no wife, he must ask himself questions. Even if two Torah scholars are sharing their Seder together, they should ask each other. Why is questioning such an integral part of the Pesach Seder?
The only way to learn is to question. A question creates a gap- it allows you to recognize your current limitations, to step outside the illusion that you already know everything. You can only learn something once you realize that you don’t already understand it. The Gemara in Gittin 43a says that you can only understand something if you were originally mistaken. Only by recognizing that you don’t already know something, can you then break it down, analyze it, and see it in a new way, thereby building a newer and deeper understanding. If you think you already fully understand something, you’ll never allow for your mind to develop a new way of seeing it. Only by realizing a lack in your understanding and perception can you then develop deeper paradigms.
The Seder night is the time of passing over our mesorah- our tradition and legacy. It’s a night when we speak about emunah-faith, the meaning of being a Jew, and our purpose in this world. In order to teach these lessons to our children and ourselves in a deep and lasting way, we must encourage the Seder participants to ask questions, no matter the age or knowledge level.
Our yetser hara- evil inclination- convinces us that we are perfect, that we already know everything. As such, there’s no need to question. This pitfall is personified by Eisav, who was born fully hairy. Hair is the outermost expression of a grown human being–Eisav projected the belief that he was completely developed and therefore required no additional development. The name “Eisav” itself is the word “asui”–meaning made or completed. Eisav represents the illusion of being complete, perfect, not requiring any further work or growth.
Our goal and mission as the Jewish People is to grow, develop ourselves, and fulfill our potential. On the Seder night, as we focus on whom each of us can become, we ask questions–creating holes that we then yearn to fill with additional knowledge, insight, and growth.
The Ke’ara: A Pathway Into the Spiritual
The ke’ara- the Seder plate–contains many symbolic foods that we use throughout the Seder, such as matzah, a shank-bone, charoset, and an egg, among others. Some of these are eaten during the course of the Seder, while others we simply look or point at. What is the meaning of these simanim? Is there a deeper meaning behind displaying them on our Seder tables?
The simple answer is that we display these foods in order to engage the children, to encourage their curiosity and questions. We use simanim to accomplish this because children are not capable of grasping conceptual or intellectual ideas. They live within the world of the finite, and they require something concrete and tangible- something they can see and touch- in order to relate to a concept. Therefore, in order to include our children in the concepts and ideas that are taught and developed at the Seder, we use physical simanim to actively engage them.
There is a deeper idea which can be learned here as well, one that is applicable not only to children but to those of all ages. The most fundamental understanding that one can develop in this world is that there is always something deeper than that which appears on the surface. Living in a physical world can compel one to forget to seek out the spirituality inherent within every object, event, and person in this world. Seder night is when we instill within ourselves the pillars of emunah and our mission as the Jewish People. On this night, we must all learn this powerful principle. Each physical object on the ka’arah represents a world of profundity, but this is not limited to the Seder plate alone. There is spiritual depth within everything, we need only look for it.
What’s Our Goal in Telling Over the Story of Yetzias Mitzrayim?
We conclude the paragraph of “Avadim Hayinu” by proclaiming, “v’chol hamarbeh li’saper bi’yitzias Mitzrayim, harei zeh mishubach”–whoever elaborates on the Exodus from Egypt, behold, this is praiseworthy. The Rambam- Maimonides- codifies this as a legitimate halacha of Seder night. What is the meaning of this statement? What is the importance of telling over the Pesach story at great length, and why on this night specifically?
There are two ways to understand the statement of “v’chol hamarbeh.” The first is on a quantitative level, that one should tell over as much as possible of the exodus story. The second is a qualitative approach, that one should delve into the miracles and wonders that Hashem performed when taking us out.
There is, however, a third way to understand this statement, one that gives us a new perspective on Yetzias Mitrayim and the goal of our Seder night. Yetzias Mitzrayim was not merely a historical event, rather it was the birth of the Jewish People–our people, you and me. The story did not end with the birth of the Jewish People, it continues with them growing into the nation they are meant to become. When the Jewish People left Mitzrayim, we journeyed to Har Sinai and Matan Torah, where we were given the Torah and our mission in this world as Hashem’s chosen nation. This is the story that we have continued throughout history, that you and I are commissioned to continue to this very day.
Sippur means to tell over a story, and the hagaddah says that whoever does this increasingly is praiseworthy. Jewish history is not only “his”-story, it’s our story. It is our mission and destiny, and we must continue to grow and thrive in this mission. The goal is to make yourself a part of the Jewish story, to continue what began with Yetzias Mitzrayim, to become the person you were meant to be. V’chol hamarbeh…. harei zeh meshubach.
Wine on the Seder Night… Really?
Pesach is a spiritual time, where we connect to some of the deepest themes of Judaism. Why then do we spend the night drinking wine? We see repeatedly that wine is a very dangerous and damaging entity, connected to many infamous sins. According to one opinion, the eitz ha’da’as was a grape vine. Immediately after the mabul, Noach became intoxicated, repeating Adam’s original sin. Lot and his daughters errored with wine. According to one opinion, Nadav and Avihu’s sin was performing the avodah while intoxicated. If so, why do we spend our Seder night drinking wine?
Nothing in the physical world is objectively good or evil, rather, everything has the potential to be used for either good or evil. The choice is solely up to you! Electricity is neither good nor bad. An outlet can be used to charge your appliances, but it can also give you an electric shock. The same applies to money: it can be used to enable Torah learning, but it can also be used to fund destruction and chaos. A charismatic personality can be used to inspire others to grow or to seduce them down a twisted path. Everything in this world is merely potential, waiting to be used. Evil, therefore, is really the misuse of potential, when we choose to use an object for something other than its true purpose. Evil is the breakdown and corruption of good. This is why the Hebrew word for evil is rah, which means brokenness or fragmentation.
The reason why Hashem created the world in such a way is so that we can have free will. We get to choose whether to use things for their true purpose, actualizing their potential, or to misuse them, getting pulled into the clutches of evil.
The More Power, The More Potential
Having established that everything has the potential to be used for good or evil, it’s also important to realize that the more power there is, the more potential there is. For example, a 220 watt outlet can either charge your phone or give you a small electric shock you. But 20,000 watts can either light up your neighborhood or electrocute you. The more power, the more potential. Of course, this results in an important principle: the value in any power is only in as much as it can be controlled. Otherwise, the more power you have, the more destruction you will have, as we often see with nuclear energy and money. Just think about giving a child the power to cross the street by himself. When do you give him such a power? Only when he has the ability to control it, to know when not to cross the street.
Wine: The Most Potent Physical Entity
The Vilna Gaon explains that wine is the greatest paradigm of physical potential. On the one hand, it is clearly dangerous, and its misuse leads to complete and utter disaster. But when used properly, it lifts you up. The spiritual nature of wine is evident in its nature. Physical things rot, wither, and decay with time, such as the human body and food. Wine, however, only improves with time. Furthermore, as R’ Shlomo Zalman Auerbach explains, when it comes to most foods and drinks, the more you have, the less you want. You become full and lose your appetite. With wine, however, the opposite is true. The more you have the more you desire.
Wine is also able to open up the mind, and allow it to transcend its normal limitations. As Chazal explain, “nichnas yayin yatzeh sod”- when wine enters, secrets are revealed [both yayin and sod have the gematria of 70].The meaning is that wine opens up your consciousness to a level of experience that transcends the revealed level of reality.
This is why we have wine at every point of kedushah- at every point where we want to uplift the physical. It’s our way of showing that we’re taking the physical, something that has the potential for both spirituality and spiritual emptiness, and using it for the good. We therefore make kiddush on wine on Shabbos, on Yom Tov, at a wedding, by a bris milah, and for other such holy celebrations.
We drink wine at the Seder in order to uplift the night of Pesach. We are uplifting our Seder experience, but we are tapping into a larger experience as well. The Ramban explains that the grand miracles of Pesach are meant to instill within us the understanding that not only are the open reversals of nature miraculous, but the day-to-day workings of nature are miraculous as well.
Hashem performed outstanding miracles when taking us out of Mitzrayim, but the entire world of nature is a constant miracle of Hashem as well. This means that every aspect of this physical world is vested with Godliness, with the potential for spirituality, and we can therefore uplift every single thing we encounter to a state of holiness. As we retell over the Pesach story at the Seder, we learn about the inherent spirituality present within every facet of the physical world. What better way to do this than with wine?