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15 Steps to Freedom


Haggadah - 15 Steps to Freedom
Passover occurs on the 15th of Nissan.

Passover is the holiday of springtime, joy and renewal. Nissan is the first month. And the very word for "month," chodesh, has the same letters as the word for "new," chadash.


To begin the Seder, we make Kiddush and sanctify the day. The word "kiddush" means special and unique.


"Why do we wash our hands at this point in this Seder?" the Talmud asks. "Because it is an unusual activity which prompts the children to ask questions." The very name Haggadah means "telling," for the goal of the Seder is to arouse curious questions, and satisfying answers.


We take a green vegetable and bless God for creating fruits from the ground. Gratitude is liberating. "Who is the rich person?" asks the Talmud. "The one who's satisfied with what he's got."


We break the middle matzah, and put it aside to serve later as the Afikomen. Why do we break the matzah now if we don't need it until later? Because a key to freedom is to anticipate the future and make it real.


The Sages tell us that the unique ability given to humanity is the power of speech. Speech is the tool of building and construction. God used it to create the world ("And God said: Let there be light."). On Seder night, we use our gift of speech for the central part of the Haggadah: telling the Passover story.


At the Seder we wash our hands as a preparatory step before the Matzah, in order to carefully consider what it is we're about to eat. We "wash our hands" to cleanse and distance ourselves from unhealthy influences. Freedom is the ability to say: "I choose not to partake."


We make the "hamotzi" blessing to thank God for "bringing forth bread from the ground." When we make "hamotzi," we hold the Matzah with all 10 fingers - reminding us that while human hands produced this food, it is yet another gift from the Creator and Sustainer of all life.


Both bread and Matzah are flour mixed with water, then kneaded into a dough and baked. What is the difference between them? The difference is that bread dough has sat unattended for 18 minutes and becomes leavened (bread). The Matzah which we eat on Passover has been baked quickly. Why 18 minutes? Because the number 18 is the numerical value of "Chai," meaning "life." More than just the difference between Matzah and bread, the Seder teaches us the difference between life and death.


At the Seder we say: "In every generation they rise against us to annihilate us." The Egyptians broke our backs and our spirits. The Romans destroyed the Second Temple and rivers of Jewish blood flowed. And so it was in every generation: Crusades, Inquisitions, Pogroms, Holocaust, Arab terrorism. Intense and irrational violence has stalked our people to every corner of the globe. Why the hatred?

Throughout the generations, the forces of darkness have sought to extinguish our flame. But the Jews have somehow prevailed. We have God's promise that we will be the eternal nation. For without our message, the world would revert to utter chaos.

At the Seder, we eat the bitter herbs -- in combination with Matzah -- to underscore that God is present not only during our periods of freedom (symbolized by the Matzah), but during our bitter periods of exile as well. He will never forsake us.


The Hillel Sandwich is "bricks-and-mortar:" broken Matzah held together by bitter herbs and charoset. The Matzah was once whole. So too, the Jewish people can become crushed and divisive. But we are held together by our common links to Torah and our shared historical experiences.

The Matzah may be broken, but it can be restored. It is this Hillel Sandwich which has traditionally symbolized our commitment to glue the Jewish nation back together. On the merit of unity we were redeemed from Egypt, and it is on that merit that we shall be redeemed once again.


When we think of attaining levels of holiness, it seems strange that one of the mitzvots of Seder night should be eating a festive meal. That is because the Jewish attitude toward our physical drives and material needs is quite different from that of other religions. Our religious leaders are neither celibate nor do they meditate all day on a mountaintop. Rather than negating or denying the physical, Judaism stresses the importance of feasting and marital relations.

The Talmud says that one of the first questions a person is asked when they get up to Heaven is: "Did you enjoy all the fruits of the world?" On Seder night, we eat the festive meal to teach us that true freedom is the ability to sanctify life, not flee from it.


The last thing we eat all night is the Afikoman. We eat this final piece of Matzah -- not because we are hungry -- but because we are commanded. Physical pleasure, though an integral part of our lives, sometimes gives way to a higher value. At the Seder, we hide the Afikomen, search, find -- and win a prize! The same is true with our spiritual yearning to do the right thing. Although it might be buried inside, we can search for it, find it -- and the prize is pure freedom.


Social pressure is one thing that holds us back from taking charge and doing the right thing. Barech, the "Grace After Meals" was instituted by Abraham 4000 years ago. Abraham would invite idolatrous wayfarers into his tent for a hearty meal, and then tell them the price of admission is to bless God. They thought he was crazy! Nobody believed in God! Abraham was called Ha'Ivri ("the Hebrew"), meaning "the one who stands on the other side." He was a social outcast and a lone voice in the wilderness.


As the feeling of freedom inebriates our souls, we sing aloud in joy. When the Jews came out of Egypt and crossed the Red Sea they broke out in song (Exodus chapter 15). When we see the upending of evil, the Egyptians drowning at the sea, we are instinctively grateful to the One who orchestrated the turnaround! God delivers us from slavery unto freedom -- and we are amazed at the beauty and swiftness of it all.


As the Seder draws to a close, we sense that the process of redemption is under way. We shout aloud: "Next Year in Jerusalem!" We're on our way back home.



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