Passover is not a Jewish form of spring-cleaning. It’s also not a banquet. Passover reminds us of a process where we forge our unity and thereby become a nation. And once we achieve that state, we become an example to the world of how people can cultivate brotherly love above their differences, above the inner mount Sinai (meaning hate in Hebrew). When we have achieved this, we will have passed over from unfounded hatred to brotherly love, and liberated ourselves from the shackles of our egos, the Pharaoh of our time.
Every year, comes Pesach (Passover), the Jewish household switches to frenzy mode. As Passover cleaning merges with spring-cleaning, the house is turned inside-out, and in again. No family member gets off the hook, from baby to granny, everyone chips in, and the entire operation is masterfully orchestrated by the supreme commander, a.k.a., Mom. Within a few days, on Passover night, the house will have been refurnished, repainted, and (slight exaggeration) virtually revamped.
But with all the fuss, how often have we wondered what is all this about? Why are we making such an effort to clean up? What does the special Seder meal mean? Like all Jewish festivals, there is a deep spiritual meaning to the Passover customs. If we know what they mean, Passover takes on a whole new meaning. Let’s take a look at some of them.
1. Pesach Means to Pass Over (transformation)
The name, Passover, actually refers to passing over. But we do not pass something over to another, or pass over from place to place. That is, according to the story, we pass over from Egypt to the desert, but more than the story details historic events, it symbolizes a spiritual process.
Passover means passing from one inner quality to another. The name, Yam Suf (Red Sea) comes from the words Yam Sof (Sea of the End), marking the end of egoism. Egypt, and especially Pharaoh, symbolize man’s negative inclination, the desire to do harm to others, otherwise known as “ego.” When we escape Egypt we flee from the negative inclination in the hope of nurturing a good inclination: love of others.
2. Cleaning the House – Cleansing the Heart
This year, as we clean the house for Passover let’s have a better idea what it represents. Actually the cleaning of the house is derived more from spring-cleaning than from Passover cleaning. The Passover cleaning relates mainly to the food and kitchenware. Eating symbolizes the satisfaction of our desires. The special food we eat, and the meticulous cleaning and purging of hametz (leavened bread) symbolize a process by which we examine our desires, and use only those with which we can do good and connect with others. We leave the rest of the desires for a time when we can use them in a good way.
This process is an important stage in the preparation for the unity that will forge us into a nation at the foot of Mount Sinai, when we pledge to be “as one man with one heart” and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
On the night before Passover, we symbolically collect the last pieces of leaven left in the house, and burn them the following morning, right before the festival begins. Burning the leaven means that I have burned the bridges between me and my egoism, and I will never return to it. Now I am ready to cross the Sea of the End (Yam Suf, the Red Sea).
3. Mount Sinai – a Mountain of Hatred
Although the gathering at the foot of Mount Sinai is not part of the Seder, it’s worth a mention in the context of Passover. The word Sinai comes from the Hebrew word sinaah (hatred). In order to merit the title, “nation,” we had to first overcome a mountain of hatred between us and unite “as one man with one heart,” abiding by the law, “love your neighbor as yourself.”
When we lost the ability to love one another and began to feel unfounded hatred instead, we also lost our land and were exiled and dispersed. Now many of us have returned to Israel, but we have a long way to go before we reinstate the unity and love of others that initially defined us as a nation.
Our sages tell us that until we reestablish brotherly love, and in so doing set an example to the world, the nations will not leave us in peace. Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein wrote in his book, A Name Out of Samuel, “When Israel are as one man with one heart, they are as a fortified wall against the forces of evil.” But once we have united, writes The Book of Zohar (Aharei Mot [After the Death]) we endow the world with peace, as well: “You, the friends who are here, as you were in fondness and love before, henceforth you will not part from one another… And by your merit there will be peace in the world, as it is written.”
4. Seder – an Order of Actions that Teach Us to Love
Everything is symbolic on Passover night. The ritual meal, when we read the Haggadah (the Passover narrative) and eat symbolic food is called Seder (Order). It reflects the order by which we correct our desires from egoism into loving others. The songs, the food, the Seder plate, and of course, the wine, all represent specific stages. Each stage is a revelation of another desire, which we examine and purify, meaning turn it from egoism into love of others.
5. Four Cups of Wine – Four Stages of Liberation from the Ego
Just as on Purim, drinking wine symbolizes one’s relationship with the ego. Without getting into details beyond the scope of this pamphlet, the ego is created in four stages. Wine represents \ a force that corrects the negative inclination, our egos. Afterward, it fills us with pleasure. It tells us our egos are formed in four stages, so they are healed in four stages. This is why we drink four cups of wine on Passover, to symbolize the passing through the four stages.
6. Matza – Detachment from the Ego
The Matza (unleavened bread) is baked with only flour and water, and sometimes a tiny bit of salt. Not surprisingly, its other name is “Bread of Poverty” or “Bread of Affliction.” But there is a good reason for this thriftiness of ingredients. The Matza represents detachment from our desires. In the spiritual state known as Matza, we avoid using any desire other than the most basic ones, such as for food and shelter.
After Passover, when we return to using leaven dough and much richer and tastier bread, it is as though we have acquired sufficient mastery of our desires to use them in order to please others.
Seder Takeaway—Food for Thought
Passover is not a Jewish form of spring-cleaning. It is also not a banquet. Passover reminds us of a spiritual process where we forge our unity and thereby become a nation. And once we achieve that state, we become an example to the world of how people can cultivate brotherly love above their differences, above the inner mount of sinaah (Sinai). When we have achieved this, we will have passed over from unfounded hatred to brotherly love, and liberated ourselves from the shackles of our egos, the Pharaoh of our time.