The Ecological Inclusiveness of the Seder

by Rabbi Natan Margalit

One of the things that always strikes me about the Passover Seder is how we can’t decide whether we’re free or still in slavery. We celebrate our freedom by reclining, drinking four cups of wine, and singing Hallel, but we also eat from the “bread of affliction” and express the hope for “next year in Jerusalem” which is our language for saying maybe next year we’ll really be free. 

Which is it? Are we free or are we enslaved? Of course, we’re both. That is one of the secrets of the Seder, and of all earthly life: we need to embrace the maror with the charoset, the bitter and the sweet, life and death. The Seder is such a living, organically wise tradition because it is so inclusive— all of our senses, emotions and experiences are invited and necessary. 

The Seder, I believe, has been so successful through the millennia as a ritual because, like much of Jewish tradition, it is organic— a branch of the Tree of Life that is Torah. So, it is not surprising that it works like an eco-system. Walking in nature, even the small patch of woods by my house, I observe that nothing is neat or antiseptically sealed: it’s a wild, vibrant community of the living and the dead, the decaying tree trunks are home to insects, birds, fungi, and much more. The rich soil is teeming with microscopic life and underground tendrils of roots and mycorrhizal fungi are talking to each other, connecting the trees from below as they are connected by their leaf canopies and their chemical signals carried on the wind from above. Everyone has their place and unique role. When I enter this woods with my eyes, ears and heart truly open, I feel the Sources of Life present in each of these beings; I feel a reflection of the holiness and love that is embedded and enfolded into the fabric of this world “And God saw everything … and it was very good.”       

This year more than ever we need that natural inclusiveness of the Seder. We come into Passover this year with a jumble of mixed emotions and feelings. We are mourning all the losses of a year of pandemic even as we are starting to feel the taste of freedom dawning a day at a time, a vaccine a time. We still feel the pain and frustration of division, hatred and corruption, even as we see signs of a new consciousness emerging. We’re terrified and traumatized by the chaos of climate induced storms, droughts, fires and floods, even as we see signs of hope that we are finally facing the crisis with action.         

When we tell our story every year at the Seder, adding our voices to the chain of tradition, we tell it inclusively: including the degradation before the celebration, breaking our matzah as we invite all who are hungry to come and eat, including all our children’s (and adults’) learning styles, opinions and quirkiness— even our cranky uncle with the wrong political opinion, even the bored cousins rolling their eyes— and welcoming all questions, from the snarky to the rebellious, including the intellectual, the naive and even the silent question. Some of us will be tentatively gathering in small, vaccinated or masked and distanced groups, some will be enduring another zoom seder, but perhaps thankful for the side benefit of being with people too far away to have joined us in person.   

This ecological inclusiveness is part of the world of holy love and life and it runs radically counter to the mechanistic, antiseptic world that we’re often surrounded by in modern society. Our society likes to put that which we don’t want to see out of sight and out of mind. We love our cheap meat,  but keep the appalling conditions— for animals and workers— of factory farming and industrial slaughtering out of the public eye.  Our corporate economy pushes us to keep adding to our first world luxuries and conveniences without thinking about where they come from, who produces them or what their true cost is. We create a world full of waste because we have forgotten that in the natural, holy pattern of the world, nothing is waste, everyone is valued and all have their place in the pattern. 

There are hidden secrets that are found when we include and dive into the whole story—our whole story. One of my favorite commentaries comes from Michael Kagan in his beautiful Haggadah, The Holistic Haggadah. He writes (p. 138-9) that even though we usually say that the charoset represents the mortar that was used to make the bricks in Egypt, there is a deeper secret meaning— the ingredients of charoset: apples, nuts, honey, wine, or date and figs, are all foods and plants that are featured in the Song of Songs, the love poem that we read on the Shabbat of Passover. What we thought of all these years as mortar is hiding the essential secret of the Seder— it’s about love and sweetness— we just need to be open to the whole mixture.    

Our true freedom comes with this ecological inclusiveness. This year, when we tell our stories, our healing may come from putting our stories into the frame of the Seder: telling of our journey from degradation to celebration, including all our many voices and opinions, each with its part to play. Feeling the grief and letting it speak its truth to us, so that we may be fully present for the joy that comes with wholeness and the knowing that nothing is wasted, all is holy and each voice is valued.