An Artistic Journey Through The Passover Seder
So there I was, wide awake at 2am fretting about this and that…too tired to read a book…but not too tired to play on my phone. My soul felt dry and dusty…so I decided to go in search of the beautiful writings of Sarah Zadok. I first came across Sarah’s writing on Hevria; there was something about the sound of her soul that ushered light into mine. I found my way to her site…and she didn’t disappoint. I would’ve been happy with a little water; instead I found a pomegranate…its seeds bursting with juicy goodness. I gobbled them up. Not only was my soul refreshed, I was inspired.
Sarah had made a video, in which she discussed the Soul of the Seder; that is, the steps of the Seder and their personal application in our lives.
The first juicy seed is the word Seder itself, which means order…referring to the 15 steps of the Seder and the order in which they are to be followed. These steps, according to Rabbi Nachman, are sign posts for the way – i.e. the way to liberation.
The Seder is the special meal that takes place on the first night of Pesach (Passover), which is celebrated each year in commemoration of the Israelites’ release from captivity in Egypt. The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mizraim – which means boundaries or narrow place. As such, it is said that following the steps of the Seder can enable us to transcend boundaries or restrictive modes of behavior – i.e. those things that enslave us or hold us back.
I decided to follow these steps myself in order to gain release from something I felt was holding me back. To do this, I handmade pictures to represent of each step – this allowed me to meditate on and access the wisdom found in the Seder ritual.
It is these pictures – and the thoughts that occurred to be me while making them – that I share with you now.
1. Kadesh – Blessing of the wine
Words are very powerful – especially when spoken with intention; they have the power to create or destroy. Indeed, central to Jewish theology is the belief that the world was spoken into existence. This is a magnificent idea…and one that I love very much. It is no surprise then that Jewish rituals begin with words – beautiful words incased in light. It is amazing to think that this particular blessing has been repeated again and again for centuries. For over a thousand years Hebrew was only ever spoken in prayer or the recitation of scripture – making it a sacred language. This being so, liturgical Hebrew must have a very special vibration. Visually, on an esoteric level, I imagine a blessing such as this resembles a beautiful mandala – pulsing out into existence.
If you find yourself bound by a situation that you long to be free from, begin by speaking words of blessing into your life with a sincere heart.
2. U’rchartz – Washing hands
Sarah, at the beginning of her video, asks the question: what does holy look like? I wracked my brain over this – and finally came to an understanding when making this picture. The Jewish concept of holy relates to separateness – and refers back to offerings brought to the Temple – those things that were separated and sacrificed were considered holy. But what does that look like in our lives? It made me anxious to think about…as though we must have to do something grand to be holy – to be separate – as though holiness has to do with worthiness. Then I considered the step of U’rchartz – and I understood. At this stage, all we have to do – and all that is being asked of us – is to wash our hands; of our own volition, that’s all we can do to be holy…the rest comes later.
If you are on the cusp of change, don’t wait to be dazzled by a sense of your own piety…simply wash your hands and begin your journey.
3. Karpas – Dipping in saltwater
The 3rd step of the Seder is to dip a simple vegetable into saltwater – which is reminiscent of tears shed in sorrow. Sorrow is a powerful force in our lives; and, like saltwater on a rusty pipe, it can carve a deep hole in our being. Mostly we mask our sorrow and deadened our pain…which works for a while – until the thing we deadened it with becomes a source of sorrow itself…and the hole just gets bigger.
The lesson here is: dip into your sorrow, acknowledge it, taste it.
4. Yachatz – Breaking
The key item on the Seder plate are three pieces of Matzah (unleavened bread); step four is breaking the middle piece of Matzah and hiding half of it.
Breaking is a difficult but vital part of the liberation process. The reason we mask our sorrow, is because we fear it will break us. The secret is…to let it. For in breaking we release our creative potential and the source of our healing.
Allow the breaking of your heart to take place…trust in the process and prepare to be amazed.
5. Maggid – Telling the story
At every Seder the Exodus story is told…the captivity, the sorrow, the release, the drama…the whole story…every beautiful gory detail.
We must tell our story too – whether we write it down or speak it out. With repeated telling, our story loses its hold over us and we are released.
And we should take time to listen to other peoples’ stories. Not only will it enable the teller to gain release from their past – but we will no doubt find them rich in lessons for our own lives.
So, if you are somewhere you don’t want to be, tell your story. How did you get there? The telling will be like a light to your path and will show you the way. Lasting change can be a slow process, with imperceptible gains; but don’t lose heart – as long as you are headed in the right direction…you’ll get there eventually. Indeed, by the Seder’s reckoning, when you tell your story you are a 3rd of the way there.
6. Rachtzah – washing hands with blessing
Here we wash our hands again, only this time while saying a blessing – a fusion of step one and step two. Although we are performing the same simple act of purification as before, we are now drawing on the power of sacred words.
Visually, this made me think of Mikvah – the ritual cleansing of the whole self, which is done with intention – and the power inherent in such an act.
Never underestimate the power of ritual purification, especially when undergoing a process of change. The key is to be fully conscious while performing an otherwise simple act (like standing in the rain or dropping a pebble in a pond) – the way to do this is to speak your intention with an open and expectant heart. Try it, you’ll see.
7. Motzi – Blessing for grain
The Motzi is a blessing said in gratitude for grain.
The cultivation of grain – such as wheat – was the single most important step in the evolution of human civilization; we went from wanderers to settlers…and from there we built towns and cities and then the mega cities you see today. To be sure, being all bunched together like that, we have fought – primarily for resources and/or the control of them – but it has also allowed us to think beautiful thoughts and make beautiful things; we have healed each other, entertained each other, discovered galaxies and filled countless libraries with our knowledge.
How often are you grateful for the simple grain that made all that possible?
That is the lesson of the Motzi Blessing. Recognizing and being grateful for the little things – those things that may seem inconsequential and that you take for granted. Being grateful and saying thank you has the power to transform – it can heal fractured relationships and the fractured self – and is an important step on the road of transformation. There is ALWAYS something to be grateful for.
8. Matzah – Blessing and eating
Matzah is the unleavened bread that the Israelites had to eat when they fled Egypt – according to tradition, they left in such a hurry that they did not have time to let their bread rise. Matzah is also the heart of the Seder – indeed, the whole of Pesach, which is also known as the Festival of Unleavened Bread.
This then is the heart or turning point of your journey. Here you are asked internalize the process, allowing it to transform you. This isn’t always easy, for it means making a conscious effort to implement change. The trick is not to feel sorry for yourself. Just as eating Matzah isn’t much fun, and can feel like a deprivation…you soon get a taste for it and find it’s not so bad. Besides, you just learned in the previous step to be grateful…even for small things – so say thank you and get munching.
9. Maror – Bitter Herbs
How interesting that after passing through the heart of the Seder we are then reminded of bitterness. In the actual meal this takes the form of eating a bitter herb dipped in charoset – a sweet spicy mixture.
On a personal level, why after going to the trouble of implementing change should we be made aware of bitterness? I think because it is the most common thing that keeps us locked in the past and destructive behavior patterns or situations. When we internalize the transformation process and begin to change, we are laid bare. The past comes back to haunt us; and the bitterness and resentment of what happened can overwhelm us and make us feel justified in not changing. In which case we revert to our old patterns of behavior – to quell the bitterness…and it works; until the next time we are fed up and want to change. And so the cycle continues.
So, how to overcome the bitterness we feel? The Seder teaches us to dip it in sweetness.
Looking at the past and what led to your current state of entrapment is bound to bring up bitterness. When it does, dip it in the sweetness of gratitude. Gratitude that you survived, gratitude for the people it brought into your life, gratitude for the lessons you learned, gratitude for the compassion suffering has given you, gratitude for the tears that have cleansed your soul, gratitude for the change of heart that has taken place.
10. Korech – The Sandwich
For this step of the Seder, we take 2 pieces of matzah, some maror and some charoset and make a sandwich. To be sure it’s not the tastiest sandwich in the world, but it is a powerful metaphor in the process of change.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: what does a zebra have to do with a bitter-sweet cardboardy canape? Only everything.
You see, the thing with suffering is – it irrevocably changes us. Indeed, it is the single most powerful force for change in our lives…and the world entire. Take the Zebra. It’s got to be a hard row to hoe when you’re a stumpy-legged equid on the plains of Africa. But they’ve survived…how? Because of their stripes – which act as a form of camouflage, making it difficult for predators to distinguish a single animal from the herd, as well as distorting distance at dawn and dusk…typical feeding times for predators. There are lots of other wonderful facts about Zebras (I love them very much) but suffice to say, they earned their stripes the hard way.
Whether you like it or not, if you have known deep sorrow in this life, you’ll have stripes too…which is a bitter-sweet thing. The secret of this step is to embrace your stripes and find a purpose for your suffering. Don’t let your suffering harden your heart…allow it break it…then express it – whether through art or in service to others (really they are one in the same).
And don’t forget: the great thing with having stripes is…it’s easy to recognize other people that have them too…and the connection with such folk often run deeper.
11. Shulchan Oruch – The meal
Ahh…we made it. This is the part in the proceedings where we kick-back and enjoy a festive meal. What does this mean in terms of a personal application? Well, the clue is in the name: Shulchan Oruch – which means: set table. The state of repose that marks this step doesn’t just happen spontaneously…we have to prepare for it. This means arranging our lives in such a way that we are at peace with ourselves.
Simply put…do the things you are meant to do and stop doing the things you shouldn’t. This may mean relinquishing relationships – with people and things – or modes of behavior and that are no longer conducive to your peace of mind, as well as incorporating those that are.
Remember, it is life’s simple pleasures that yield the greatest peace.
12. Tzofon – Finding and eating the Afikoman
Way back at step 4 – when we broke the Matzah – half of it was hidden. The hidden portion – called the Afikoman – is now revealed and eaten. The Akikoman is an elegant metaphor for that which remains hidden…only to be revealed when we have gained the ability to see.
The silver lining of breaking is, you get to peep behind the veil of reality. It can be traumatic at the time and difficult to come to terms with; but further down the track, when you have healed and set your table, you’ll have the opportunity to revisit the understanding you gained, to explore it and delight in the revelation it brings.
13. Beirach – Reciting Grace
The blessing that is recited at this stage of the Seder is beautiful and is akin to pulling down grace into our lives. Here we ask for divine assistance to permeate our lives – and the world entire – with peace and happiness.
This step refers to a conscious desire to make the world a better place – to become source of grace – i.e. unmerited love and mercy. This can be harder than it seems. Gaining liberation from something is an inward-looking process and can become very self-indulgent…to the point where we hardly notice those around us (I’m talking to myself here).
You’ve come a long way, but you can’t just loll about in the grace you have received…to have to share it. Begin by being kind and helping those around you…you never know where it may take you.
14. Hallel – Psalms of Praise
The Seder is almost complete, the lessons have been learned, the past commemorated and released; what is left but to raise our voices in praise.
Hallel is the Hebrew word for praise and literally means: to shine. To praise is to radiate love. It is the most marvelous state to experience; it feels like every atom in your body – both material and ethereal – is glowing.
In practical terms, how can we live a life of praise? I don’t think it’s jumping around and singing about rainbows…that’s annoying. Rather, I suggest, keep the light low but constant. To do this, give your whole self to something…your spirit, mind and emotions…pour out your soul…create something beautiful…astounding…for no other reason than love. That is praise.
It is different for everyone. For me it is painting. What is it for you? Whatever it may be…shine.
The Seder has come to an end; our journey is over…and yet it has just begun…that is Nirtzah.
Nirtzah is mysterious; as such, the picture I made to represent this final step is intuitive and speaks to me of the possibility of a spiritual life.
Often, when we have been on a life altering journey, especially one that involves suffering and/or great change, the opportunity of commencing a spiritual path arises. It is like a gift that is presented to us…and we can choose whether or not to take it.
Where to start? The Seder teaches…at the beginning.
That, dear reader, is the Soul of the Seder – at least as I experienced it. I encourage you to explore it for yourself…to meditate on its meaning and unravel its mystery…it is, after all, that time of the year.