Passover is fast approaching. Many of us are busy shopping and cleaning, searching for and removing chametz from our homes. We are planning our seder menus, and deciding how we will replay the Haggadah journey at our tables; there is excitement in the air. For some, remembering and re-enacting the miracle of Pesach is the single most meaningful moment on the Jewish calendar.
And yet, for others, Pesach can be the most challenging holiday in the Jewish calendar. We are commanded to tell and retell the story in a particular order (seder is Hebrew for order). A significant part of that order involves wine — not one, not two, not three, but four glasses of wine. What happens when alcohol or other substances enslave us? How do we come to the family table to share the Passover experience when addiction is part of our lives? Whether we are an addict or in recovery, whether we are a parent, spouse, or child of someone who is living that story, we experience the holiday differently than others and our experience impacts the guests at our table.
From a practical perspective, we can drink grape juice instead of wine. That seems easy enough although it sometimes results in complaints. (In my family, replacing our traditional charoset with another version to accommodate a child with a nut allergy resulted in much tumult.) Eliminating wine from the seder table can feel like an insult to the holiday experience.
I suggest that before we sit down at our seder tables, we look to the meaning of Pesach and the purpose for retelling our story.
The Torah commands us to teach the story of the exodus to our children so that they will understand the meaning of going from slavery to freedom.
Perhaps we can implement a new framework that explains that slavery is not just a physical condition. Slavery can be physical and spiritual (or psychological). If we are to relive the experience of fleeing Egypt, then we must relate slavery to our lives and understand the story as if it were our own. Because it is.
Why don’t we ask each guest to consider what they might be a slave to? We don’t have to single anyone out. This question is relevant to everyone; no one has to share, no one has to speak — simply frame the seder around this question.
My friend Harriet Rossetto, founder of Beit T’Shuvah, the first residential Jewish, faith-based addiction recovery center in the United States, observes that you don’t have to be an addict to be in recovery. We are all slaves to something. We are all broken in some way. Perhaps we can relate that universal brokenness to the yachatz, the ritual breaking of the matzah. Maybe yachatz is not just about saving the broken afikoman for dessert. The Israelites who left Egypt were physically and spiritually broken, this is why they needed to wander in the desert for 40 years — to rid themselves of the mental shackles that remained, despite their physical freedom.
Pesach is called in the Torah Chag HaMatzot, the Festival of Unleavened Bread. Why the command to remove leaven from our lives?
The Talmud Bavli, in Berachot 17a, tells us that the “yeast in the dough” is what blocks our hearts. For one week, we refrain from eating the stuff that puffs us up. Being puffed up blocks us from seeing who we really are. We can see neither our strengths nor our weaknesses clearly. The Talmud tells us that the yeast represents our yetzer harah, the evil inclination, and prevents us from being our best selves. So on Pesach we remove the yeast from our lives for one week. It is like pressing the reset button.
God commanded the Israelites to clear themselves of the leaven that was blocking their souls, and we do the same. We are inspired to remember how we were freed, saved, redeemed, and chosen to be God’s people. God had faith in us and knew our redemption would take time. Knowing that God is with us on our journey can empower us to save ourselves from our broken pieces.
Perhaps when approaching Passover this year, we can look at the seder in a new way, with new eyes, and new freedom. We don’t need to be enslaved to do our seder the same way we have done it in the past. Every year we have the opportunity to experience freedom again, in a new way, with a new perspective, and an open, yeast-free heart.