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Passover at the Intersection: Mindfulness Practices for the Seder

וְהָיָה כִּי־יֹאמְרוּ אֲלֵיכֶם בְּנֵיכֶם מָה הָעֲבֹדָה הַזֹּאת לָכֶם׃ וַאֲמַרְתֶּם זֶבַח־פֶּסַח הוּא לַיהֹוָה אֲשֶׁר פָּסַח עַל־בָּתֵּי בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּמִצְרַיִם בְּנגְפּוֹ אֶת־מִצְרַיִם וְאֶת־בָּתֵּינוּ הִצִּיל וַיִּקֹּד הָעָם וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ׃

[When your children ask you, “What do you mean by this Passover rite?”]

You shall say, “We gather close to the compassion of Life Unfolding, which came as compassion upon the houses and children of all the god wrestlers in Egypt, striking the place we were bound and sparing our houses.

Exodus 12:26-27 (Translation drawn from traditional Rabbinic and Hasidic sources) Over the ages the word Pesach, signifying the Passover rituals set forth in Torah, have become associated with the lamb that was sacrificed to protect the enslaved people from suffering Pharoah's karma. In early Jewish history, though, as seen in the above 3rd century translation drawn from Onkelos, Pesach was interpreted as a rite of compassion. Today we can bring the first Jewish festival into our homes to express gratitude and generate connection and compassion.

When we break the word Pesach into two root words, pei (mouth) and sach (conversing), it becomes the Festival of Conversing Mouth, a dynamic exchange between generations, with words, food, song and ritual. Just as Life Unfolding breathed life into the first humans, we sit at the Pesach table and breath life into our connections with each other. At the Passover table we retell the story of every people's and every generation's journey to freedom as if it is happening to us. We step into the shoes of everyone who has ever strode forth to freedom.


Opening the Door to Compassion

We especially transmit this capacity to honor and care about other peoples' journeys to our children. This is the source of healing the world given over by the ancient prophet Malachi and incorporated into the Passover seder ritual during Rabbinical times.

On the Shabbat before Passover we read from the Book of Malachi, which ends with these strange and powerful words: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of Adonai. And He shall turn the heart of the parents to the children, and the heart of the children to their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction.” (Malachi 3:23-24)

At a dramatic high point of the Passover evening meal, we open the door to Elijah [Eliyahu in Hebrew.] We can reenact this at the seder as parents and children together opening the door to compassion. We invite all who are hungry to join us in our festive meal. And we turn to each other and ask, how can I do better at turning my heart toward you? Passover continues for eight days. We can spend time each day sitting with children, parents and all the generations, exploring what each needs and wants to turn our hearts toward each other.


"As If" Communication between Parents and Children

Torah presents the Passover ritual as an opportunity for us to listen to each other's narratives "as if" we ourselves have lived them. An example of how we might use "as if" practice to turn our hearts to the children is by looking deeply at how we hear a younger person saying, "as if." The first time I heard a younger person reply with an, "as if," I noticed they also were rolling their eyes. I felt disturbed, maybe even hurt, as I was telling myself that their response meant they weren't interested in what I had to say.

Bringing my "as if" practice into this, turning to listen to them in their shoes, I see something else. I understand their "as if" to be their way of communicating that it's hard for them to trust that I really understand their experience. I hear it as a need to reaffirm trust. I listen to get as close as I can to what they are communicating about their feelings and needs.

As Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in poetry now put to song:

Please call me by my true names So I can wake up And the door to my heart Will be left open The door of compassion


Collective Consciousness

We open our hearts to those closest to us and, as we elevate into more and more collective consciousness, our journey into freedom deepens.

As Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach from the Hasidic tradition explained in a Passover teaching in 1994, "All the slaves walked out of Egypt, not just the Jewish slaves. Pharaoh went crazy because the entire Egyptian empire was based on slavery."

It wasn't just the Hebrew slaves who left Egypt. It was a mixed multitude of enslaved peoples, those who never gave up on being in dynamic relationship to life and freedom. This shook the very foundation of a society built upon slave labor.


"As If" Mindfulness Practice of Collective Liberation

An essential element of the ritual Passover meal is retelling the story of a society founded upon slave labor and the story of those slaves. The ritual meal is fashioned in an order, the meaning of the word seder, so that it is as if we ourselves have come out of a place of complete constriction into freedom.

In the stunning and important documentary film WhoWeAre about the history of white supremacy particularly in the US, civil rights attorney and educator Jefferey Robinson shows us how the very fabric of America was woven by the system of brutal enslavement of Africans and African Americans. Passover in Torah is the story of a people rising from enslavement into nationhood. Who are the peoples today we can stand with so that we truly touch living this journey as if it is our own? How do we open our hearts so that we can do this and teach it to our children?

For some of us, our first mindfulness practice can be to retell the story of how each of our families are woven into the fabric of African slavery (or other collective enslavement, as your locality and history reflect). How do you live this truth now? Make a plan for your family and those around your table to watch the stirring and informative documentary WhoWeAre together, or participate together in the Joint Israeli Palestinian Memorial Day on May 8. Then organize a follow up sharing with the intention of sharing as if you are among the peoples seeking freedom today.

The Haggadah, the seder story itself, recounts the first seder of four rabbis in B’nai Brak (today in Israel) under Roman Occupation. Their retelling of the story of ancient Egypt in furtherance of the liberation struggle of their day is a forceful demonstration of Torah's imperative for us to tell and retell the story "as if" it happened to us.


"As If" Mindfulness Practice of Personal Liberation

Passover is also very much about our own inner struggles for freedom. In my family seders we embody the "as if" experience by going around the table and sharing an experience of personal liberation throughout the meal. Each person recounts a step into freedom they took that year, a step they want to celebrate with us.


Miriam's Cup: Embodied Consciousness Practice

The Prophetess Miriam is a central figure in the entire Exodus and Passover story. When we prepare the Passover table as our home altar, we set out a special cup for Miriam. In the Passover story, when the sea parts for the escaping slaves, Miriam leads the women to freedom in joyful singing and in a circle dance. In Jewish tradition, the women's circle dance represents circle consciousness; the awareness that my freedom is dependent on your freedom; that each life form is inter-dependent on all life forms.

Before blessing and drinking from Miriam’s cup, everyone willing stands and forms a circle around the table. Take a few moments to make eye contact with each person in the circle, and anyone sitting. As you connect with each person, hold their humanity in your heart, say a blessing or other words to bring you into connection with their full humanity. Then begin a slow circle dance, bringing into your awareness how each of you is now connected to everyone in the circle.

Finish by passing the cup around and mindfully tasting or smelling it's rich grape flavor.


Elijah's Cup: Refilling our Empathy Cups

Both Elijah and Miriam represent the consciousness-to-come, the world which we humans will participate in creating if and when our collective consciousness transcends dualities such as inside and outside, worthy and unworthy, deserve and un-deserve, reward and punishment, etc. (Etc. here signifies that we don't yet know which dualities will be transcended.)

Late into the seder night, perhaps at midnight, we open our doors and pour wine for Eliyahu. As we walk outside, or in small groups, we can reflect on ways we can do better at turning our hearts toward our children and parents.

We can create a speak truth session at the seder, inviting children present to tell us, what can we do to hear you better? What would bring our hearts closer together? We can ask for a follow up session to continue in private! Passover lasts for eight days!

Reb Shlomo connects liberation from slavery with turning our hearts and deep listening to our children. He asks, "Do you know the difference between being slaves of Pharaoh and servants of God? The way I serve a human master, I make myself so small, it is completely effacing my own individuality....just listening to what the master says, I have no rights, I have nothing to say, its not even important what I think."

Shlomo continues, "In the world, in the school system, discipline means the teacher has power over the children, that they have to bow down before him. But to me, a good teacher is one who lets the children stand so tall...and really develop their individuality.

...So on seder night, we let the children talk. Instead of educating the children to be quiet, the real education is to let the children tell us what they really want, what's bothering them. We educate them to let us know what is really on their minds, what is really bothering them, to ask all their questions."


Eating Meditation with Matzah

Matzah is food from the Tree of Life. This is the tree of non-duality, of inter-being. In the seder itself we refer to the matzah as both the bread of affliction and the bread of liberation. Which is it? What determines which it will be?

The answer in spiritual traditions from Judaism to Buddhism to Sufism is: it depends on which we feed. Do we feed liberation or affliction with our lives, our narratives, our conversations and environments? Which seeds do we water?

Inspired by the prophetic words of Malachi, we can use the Passover seder to water the seeds that incline the hearts of the children to the parents and the parents to the children. We eat the matzah to remind us that we are all each other's parents and children. We are one human family, created in the image of Oneness.

We slowly chew the matzah, combining our saliva with its dryness, allowing the consistency to transform within our mouths. We stay present with the entire process of transformation.

We can share at the meal, what is it in our lives that is both an affliction and a liberation. How can we come into better balance in our values and the way we live our lives?


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