Passover: finding meaning in the ritual


It’s spring!  Well, not really, but it’s Passover, so it might as well be spring.  The spring-ish weather can find us delving into our spring rituals.  Get the bicycles out.  Clean the grill.   Maybe clean a few closets or something.

Ah, rituals.  Ah, Torah.  There are few things as ritualized as this week’s parasha Tzav (Leviticus 6-8).  Tzav is all about the ritual of the burnt offering, i.e., the animals brought to the Tabernacle to be sacrificed for any number of reasons: guilt, thanksgiving, sin (not the same as guilt- more on that another time) and the regular old meal offering. Talk about getting the grill ready.  What possible relevance could  these rituals be to our lives?

Well, first let’s talk about habits.  Rituals aren’t the same as habits, but they’re related.  Sometimes we make rituals out of our habits, but rituals are a bit elevated.  They take the norm and make it special.  Reading the paper every day is a habit.  Reading the Sunday paper every week in your favorite chair, by a perfectly lit fire, with a cup of tea and a croissant – that’s a ritual.

So what to do when rituals become meaningless?  Two possibilities:  dump the ritual, or re-infuse the ritual with meaning. When it comes to Jewish life, I prefer the latter.  Like for example, Passover, which starts this week.  The Seder is a highly ritualized dinner.  We don’t even get to the dinner until 10 other things get done, in a highly specified order.

But there are other rituals of Passover that make up the whole holiday.  I’m deep into the “PPP” now – pre-Passover preparation.   Some may do more, some less, some different, but for many of us, these days before the holiday are an opportunity to examine our own “puffed-up-ness”, our own personal chametz.  Nothing deflates your puffed-up sense of self like hours of cleaning drawers, cabinets and appliances.  And little else puts you in the headspace of thinking about being liberated from slavery!  For some of you, there may not be as much to clean, but given my particular brand of housekeeping…well, it’s a good thing Passover comes around.

Whatever your PPP looks like, whatever your Seder looks like, I hope you get a chance to share it with dear ones.   This holiday is a friends-and-family holiday – the synagogue and rabbi really don’t have much of a role to play. This holiday is an educator’s dream – it’s all about questions.  This holiday is a theater geek’s dream – it’s all about playing out an old dramatic story, and seeing ourselves as if we personally were liberated from Egypt.  What roles to play! Miriam, Aaron and Moses, Yocheved (their mom), Pharaoh, and even God!  And as personal as this holiday can be, it’s also a communal holiday .  The traditions of the holiday require us to take a look at the society in which we live, and see the oppression that needs to be lifted, the suffering that needs to be alleviated, the things to which we are enslaved, or are witnesses to others’ slavery.

I hope you make a Passover ritual that’s truly yours, that reflects your own journey from the narrow places  into openness.  Metzar is the Hebrew word for narrow; Mitzrayim (Egypt) = the narrow place – same root word.  So, what do you take on your journey, and what do you leave behind when you leave your narrow place?  Perhaps take a moment at your Seder to ask that very question of each other.   Which traditions do you keep up, and which new ones do you develop to keep the ritual meaningful?    Ask each other questions –not just what makes this night different,  but what makes it worth ritualizing every year?  Don’t pass on Passover just because you don’t want to sit through your grandparents’ Seder, especially if you didn’t like it (Maybe you did!)  Instead, take the habit and make it a ritual.  Make your Seder yours.  Elevate it. Play with it.  Make it something worth leaving Egypt for.  Try some of these sites: and make your own Haggadah, the Thirty Minute Seder (  And maybe share some of your highlights next week on this site!

Chag sameach! Happy Pesach.

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