6 Suggestions for a more Spiritual Seder

Because my family and I live in different states, others have generously extended their Pesach tables to me over the years. In this way, I’ve gotten the chance to see lots of Seder styles. Some have been fun and fast, others dry and boring. But I can attest that meaningful Seders take the afikomen.

Elevating Ideas:

Set an Intention. At the start of the night, focus everyone on the purpose of the Seder.

Though a reminder of the past, the Seder also serves as a spiritual tool to plug us into the very same power the Israelites used to escape slavery. That mega-wattage can be accessed through the Seder, so that we can break free from our own modern-day limitations.

At some tables, everyone takes a turn sharing their focus, revealing their “pharaoh” per se, that they intend to leave behind.

Different Haggadot. Rather than have everyone use the same Haggadah, collect different ones so no two people have the same one. There are so many cool choices out there: illustrated Haggadot, kabbalistic Haggadot, children’s Haggadot, Sephardi Haggadot, Ashkenazi Haggadot, Haggadot from different synagogues, schools and rabbis! Let each person choose the one they fancy.

The main text of each Haggadah will be relatively the same, allowing round robin reading to continue. But, the footnotes, stories and tidbits will be different. Encourage each participant to share ideas s/he finds interesting. Because no two people share the same Haggadah, this is an easy way for everyone, even newbies, to contribute something unique to the Seder.

Lice, tzfardeah, action! Act out the story. Interactive, kid friendly and memorable, performing a mini-play helps everyone embody and internalize the story.

One family I know assigns roles to each person at the table. Of course, the Dad plays the pharaoh and the kids argue over (but decide in advance) who will play the heroes, Moses and Aaron. They throw on some costumes and bring the story to life through their practiced scene.

Plagues and corresponding props are assigned to everyone else at the table so that when we reach “tzfardeah!”(frogs/crocodiles) a bunch of mini-jelly frogs go flying into the air.

Gamify your Horseradish. Buy the horseradish root fresh. Cut it just before the Seder and make ‘em weep. Eating truly bitter horseradish serves an important purpose (beyond cleaning your sinuses).

Rather than swallowing as fast as possible to get it over with, try chewing and chewing the fresh stuff until the bitterness becomes sweet. Challenge yourself to stick it out. It will happen. It will. But not before smoke comes out of your ears, your neck turns bright red, and tears stream down your face! That’s ok. That’s part of it. No one said converting bitter to sweet was easy.

Bring it home. Have something specific in mind and convert your personal bitterness to sweetness. Sweat it out.

(A word to the wise: Have tissues on hand. Noses may run amuck.)

Make an Entrance: Open the door for Eliyahu, open the door to miracles. The ideal moment for prayers arrives along with Eliyahu HaNavi (Elijah the prophet). At this point in the Seder, Hashem is all ears. The gates are open to your biggest dreams! So, put it out there.

One family I know has a beautiful tradition. Each person takes a tea light and kindles it from the holiday candles. They go to the front door together and welcome Eliyahu inside with verbal greetings, “Bruchim HaBaim! Welcome!”

Then, they step outside with their tea lights and take a private moment to themselves to focus on their intention. Everyone shuts their eyes, meditates, silently talks to Hashem, and dreams under the stars. After taking this time, everyone comes back in, leaving the tea lights outside.

Packed with kavanah (intention), those 10 minutes or so add a lot.

Get into the Hebrew. Look, let’s be frank—English translations don’t cut it.

I assume I’m not the only one for whom the term “Passover” conjures up images of that creepy green “Angel of Death” smoke from The 10 Commandments that passed over the Jewish homes, sparing their first born sons. (That smoke terrified me so much as a kid that I would crawl into bed with my brother at night. Not to save him, let’s be clear. I’m the first born, you see, and…I guess I figured the Angel of Death was hip to the women’s lib movement.) How did Pesach become creepy-green-smoke-evoking Passover?
Tsk. Tsk. A poor translation.

Pesach literally means “a talking mouth.” (peh=”mouth,” sach=”is talking”) Right away, the Hebrew reflects the mitzvah of Passover which is to read the Haggadah and communicate the story ourselves.

Curiously, the word Haggadah comes from the Hebrew root higgid, which means “to tell.” We use the Haggadah to tell the story during the seder.

Seder translates to “order.”

Aha! The Hebrew itself shows us that on Pesach, we use our mouths to tell the story with the Haggadah and in so doing, we create Seder, order.

Order from what, you ask? Well, Egypt in Hebrew is Mitzrayim, which means “narrow straights, limitation.” (mi = from,” tzar= narrow/tight) There’s the answer: the Seder restores balance, order and freedom from dire straights and limitation.

Hebrew words hold secrets. Just by looking at a few key words, the holiday’s core essence begins to emerge.

Whether trying these traditions or creating your own, the only thing we should pass over during Passover are our limitations. A spiritual Seder can part the sea.

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Bringing Israel Home: Hebrew Newspapers

Although I didn’t grow up speaking Hebrew, Hebrew has spoken to me since I was a kid. It started with my first visit to Israel at age 11. How strange to feel so at home in such a foreign place? I experienced then what I’ve experienced during every trip since—a happy heart. It’s a soul thing. If you’ve been, you likely understand what I mean intimately. And when you feel your soul smile, you want that feeling to last and deepen and grow.

The key to such expansion, according to me, is Hebrew, which connects a person to Israel and Judaism like nothing else. On the simplest level, I believe that because languages unlock new worlds. The vocabulary, the sentence structures, the emphasis, the sayings all reveal the way a culture sees and interacts with life. Understand the language of a land and be converted from an outsider to an insider.

At age 30, I realized my dream and went to Israel to learn Hebrew. I attended the best Ulpan (intensive Hebrew classes) in the country and emerged speaking Hebrew. High Holiday services that year thrilled me because, for the first time, prayers that were once gibberish had meaning, far beyond the forced translations on the left.

Papers like Hebrew Today’s “Yanshuf” carry on Ben Yehuda’s legacy, using newspapers to teach Hebrew around the world. This brilliant resource comes with a dictionary, pages with and without vowels, a CD to guide pronunciation and games. (!)

Returning to the US, the challenge of maintenance set it. You don’t use it, you lose it, and I wasn’t about to let that happen. Enter Hebrew Today which publishes Hebrew-language newspapers, available around the world that are made especially for students at any level. I’m always excited to find it in my mailbox.

Fascinatingly, the newspaper itself plays an instrumental role in Hebrew’s resurrection as a modern, spoken language. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who pioneered the movement in the 1880’s, published a newspaper called Hatzvi that covered contemporary issues and in so doing, introduced new words to the ancient language. Jews throughout the diaspora read his newspaper and learned modern Hebrew! Thanks to Ben-Yehuda’s dedication, when Jews arrived in Israel after years of exile, they returned speaking the language of their ancestors.

Reading these Hebrew papers are one small way I can bring Israel home, strengthen my connection to Judaism, and continue the legacy of Hebrew and learning as a constant in the story of the Jewish people.

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Happy Making: Talking Dogs

Dog_Kelev_Joyish“It’s a great mitzvah to always be happy.” Rabbi Nachman’s deep and (deceptively) simple words give me the perfect excuse to share happy-making finds like this ridiculous app that animates your pets and has made. my. week.

See, I have this quirk/problem/tic where I talk to and for every animal I see. This habit began innocently at home with humans. Before my baby brother learned to talk, I’d talk for him. He’d grunt, I’d translate, “He wants this. He needs that.”

In time, my brother began speaking for himself, and my penchant needed a new outlet; and found one in anthropomorphizing (yes, there’s a word for this), meaning speaking for animals…all animals, but in my case, especially dog animals. For some reason I understand them more than any other four-legged friend.

What is it about a wet nose that melts my heart? Maybe it’s that dogs themselves are hearts, hearts with feet. And that opinion doesn’t belong to me alone.

The word ‘dog’ in Hebrew is Kelev כלב (KEH-lev). Looking more closely, we see:

“Keh” = כ = “like a”
“Lev” = לב = “heart”

Then “Kelev” כלב literally translates to “like a heart!” How apropos.

Examples like this got me hooked on Hebrew. The language isn’t just a language. It contains secrets and lessons; the words themselves point to and reflect the subject’s core essence.

Below, I’ve shared my Feivel Flapjack and Rocky dog voices with you. They come from the heart.


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