When we read this week’s Torah portion (Tzav) we cannot help but recall the greatest place where sacrifices would be offered: The Holy Temple in Jerusalem. And there, in the Holy Temple was the Holy of Holies- that place where the High Priest would ascend on the most Holy of days during the most holy of hours to the most holy location on earth. He would ascend up the stairs in front of the assembled crowd who understood that this act of ‘going up’ to the Holy spot was fraught with danger. In fact, they would tie a rope to the High Priest in case the worst happened while he was inside this special space. They intuitively understood that the holy could be dangerous.
Of course you may ask…what makes something Holy? Let me suggest that it is probably easier to define what holy is not: The ‘profane’ are those things that are part of the ordinary world and do not inspire, move or make us feel good. The ‘not holy’ are those things that we do not or cannot react to because they just have no real meaning in our life. But the holy…well, the holy is what lifts us and takes us to someplace that is indescribable- -a higher space and existence.
But going back to consider the act of ascending to the holy of holies in the Temple: We know that the High Priest would deliberately walk up fifteen steps before reaching that holy pinnacle. Fifteen steps taking the Priest from a low level to the highest level of holiness imagined. And what is so interesting….is that OUR Pesach Seder…well, it includes fifteen separate steps before reaching the conclusion of the Seder. Perhaps our Seder ITSELF is meant to be a vehicle for increasing holiness….with each step taking one higher and higher…
The seder starts with KADESH…which plainly refers to the Kiddish: The blessing over wine. But the word itself means “holiness” and it is our first indication that we are on a journey of holiness just as the High Priest was on a journey of holiness. The seder’s purpose is not simply to tell the story of the exodus…it is to RAISE US UP.
We move from Kadesh to URCHATZ…which is the ritual washing without a blessing. You see, water is one of the most basic substances of life. Without it we could not sustain life of any kind. And so….we TOUCH water…we feel its substance as it flows over our fingers. We are reminded of our fragile existence and we can feel the substance that keeps us alive. It is touchable but not solid. It is solid but clear. One moment we are wet and one moment later we are dry - so ephemeral and yet so present. Simple water. Simply complex. And as we feel the water we are so naturally nudged one step higher with…
CARPAS - the next step of the seder. You know this as the dipping of a green vegetable into salt water. I once read an explanation of CARPAS that explained that the word itself is an anagram of the number 600,000 which is traditionally the number who left Egypt. Perhaps this reminds us of how important each individual - each single soul - was as they left that land of oppression. But…there is something more, too. This small product of the earth is truly a miracle…it represents the gift of sustenance that keeps us alive throughout our lives. Without the produce of the land we could not live the lives of luxury that we enjoy. This is the miracle of SPRING and for us to go forward in holiness we must be AWARE of just exactly where we are. Somehow we must know not only our LOCATION in space but our location in TIME as well. Realizing that we are in spring helps us to locate ourselves. Only when we know where we are can we even begin to contemplate the next step forward in holiness.
YAHATZ. It is this point in the seder where we take the middle piece of matzah and break it in half! How appropriate! In our journey upward we must come to know that we still live in a world of brokenness. It is not only the brokenness of others but our own brokenness that we must somehow come to acknowledge. When we know the source of our own brokenness and are able to acknowledge that brokenness to ourselves then we are able to move forward…to move upward. It is the process of getting to know ourselves. Additionally, we must be able to realize that there is still so much brokenness in our world - so much pain! How can we live in our world without the Jewish urge to relieve suffering of others? What are we willing to do to help those in the world who yet suffer? We ask! We must answer…and we will then move forward….
To MAGGID. The TELLING of the story of the Exodus! The New York Times recently published an article by Bruce Fieler on the importance of stories in our lives. Humans are designed so that we MUST tell our stories….it is what allows us to form our own sense of identity that is so necessary in our lives. Young people need to be able to learn the story of their lives for healthy development and as we sit around the seder table we not only tell the story of the exodus but we tell the story of families; the stories of how we got to be who we are and where we are; the stories of the lives of our guests and friends who are at the seder as well. These are absolutely vital in developing our own sense of ourselves…in developing our own ability to know ourselves.
Our next washing is called RACHATZ and it is this washing that is done with a blessing. Here, we note that water has a powerful property. It has the ability to wash the dirt away from our hands. We are symbolically clearing away the old habits and any impurity that could stain our very being. It is this water that has the job of symbolically reminding us that we do not have to carry the past with us wherever we go. We have the amazing ability to begin afresh. After all, Pesach is one of the Jewish New Year celebrations and signifies, just as much as Rosh Hashanah, the ability to begin again. New “starts” are liberating and more than any other holiday on our calendar Pesach is meant to remind us of liberation. This is also the washing before the meal and is the washing of purity that was done in ancient times before the purifying rituals of sacrifice. This washing leads us directly to our next higher step.
The MOTZI or the blessing over the food. It is the moment that begins to prepare us for the meal ahead. We say this prayer before each and every meal, each and every day. We remind ourselves with these words that the food we are about to eat is not simply a result of our own effort but rather is a combination of our efforts and the gifts that God has given to us. It is this step where we solidify our feelings of gratitude that have brought us to this special moment in our seder.
We are now ready to eat the MATZAH. This bread is unlike the regular bread that we eat during the year. We refer to matzoh as the poor man’s bread and its flatness reminds us that not everyone can live a life of luxury. As we are ascending in holiness we cannot help but turn our thoughts to the wider world where hunger is still a fact of life; as we are ascending in holiness we pray that we may be inspired to live a life of compassion and empathy. In fact, it is our religious responsibility to remind ourselves to reach out to those in need and to recognize that the luxury that we enjoy gives us the responsibility to help those who need. Unless we are aware of this we cannot even begin to build a world where all can live a life of peace, security and sustenance.
In continuing our trek up the stairs of holiness we now come to eat the MAROR. It reminds us of bitterness that we have experienced in our own lives and that others are experiencing even now. Life cannot always be sweet. Sometimes life contains elements that are unpleasant and difficult. Surrounded at the seder by our loved ones and dear friends we are in danger of forgetting. Our religious responsibility is to remember more than just the good time but the bad times as well. Memory can have great power in our lives and has the possibility to inspire us as a community and as individuals.
Eating the Hillel sandwich is the step of the seder known as KORECH. It is a nod to the habits of a previous generation. What an amazing thing! We are here…now…in the year 2013 and partake of a recipe that is quite out of the ordinary for us but is based on something that our ancestors created years ago. For them it must of had a particular meaning but for us it is our way of saying that we recognize that we are connected to generations past and that we value the contributions that they have made to our lives. We do this even if we have to stretch to fully understand what the purposes of their customs might have been! Korech connects us to the past in a very personal way.
Everybody’s favorite part of the seder is the meal which we call SHULCHAN ORECH. In fact, it is the meal that was commanded to the Israelites by God at the night of that last plague. We read in Exodus that the Israelites were to sacrifice a lamb and have a meal with Matza and Maror and that will be their Passover sacrifice. The meal is what allows us (no, we don’t do sacrifices anymore) , to fulfill the commandment of Passover and like all sacrifices (karbonote) it is, at its root, the way we “come close” (karov) to God. Our system of mitzvot in Judaism is a system where it is what we DO and not what we say or believe that counts. It is in our actions that we demonstrate our commitments. But there is more, too, because a meal is a social convention that allows us to sit in family and community and share laughter, talk, discussion and each other’s presence. A meal brings us close to one another in a very special way.
Of course when we eat we are obligated to move to TZAFON or the eating of the Afikomen. Indeed, with the satisfaction of the meal we can seek to reintegrate the brokenness that we acknowledged earlier back into the seder and back into our lives. We are now strong enough to try and bring a sense of wholeness into our being. Finding the broken pieces, restoring them as part of our meal, makes our satisfaction with the meal even more complete somehow. For one to become whole they must fortify themselves first and then accept the inevitability that wholeness does not come about instantaneously.
BARECH and HALLEL are our most immediate responses as we near the top of our rise in spirit and holiness. That is to say, that blessing and praise (the translation of Barech and Hallel) come as a result of our spiritual sense of gratitude and satisfaction. Our hearts are opened and the only thing we can think to do is to look toward heaven with praise and song on our full hearts. And so we sing. We sing loud and we sing hard with the last remaining step in this journey just ahead.
Finally, that last step of the seder. The last step in the 15 steps toward the Holy of Holies. And what do we do in that last step called NIRTZA? We say to one another “Next Year in Jerusalem”! You see, my friends, it is only when we reach that top step, like the mountain climber who has reached the summit, that we have the vision and view to peer outward. From the peak our vision is the clearest and the cleanest and in this vision we look out not at scenery but at TIME. And we look toward a future that is full of hope! Jerusalem, the City of Peace, is more than just a physical location. Jerusalem is a dream of the highest religious nature. Jerusalem is the hope of mankind for peace and an ultimate kind of freedom. Jerusalem is liberation. When we climb the steps successfully we will have enough power and vision to see ahead and to pray that one day we WILL have a deep world peace and liberation that is the true meaning of this holiday.
I wish you all a Pesach of sweetness, togetherness and most importantly—-a Pesach of ascending steps toward holiness.
Chag Kasher Sameach,
Rabbi David Kaiman