If I was to psychoanalyze the Passover Seder, I’d diagnose it as bipolar. When studied, it appears to contain not one, but two running themes. The first recalls our nation’s bitter past; the second celebrates our favorable present and promising future. Half of its text and rituals deal with slavery and its better half with freedom.

We toast to the latter with four cups of wine, while the former is commemorated by eating bitter herbs (the chazeret and maror).

We dip ourselves into cushions like royalty and our food into salt-water (the karpas) and mortar-like paste (the charoset).

If I was to psychoanalyze the Passover Seder, I’d diagnose it as bipolar. When studied, it appears to contain not one, but two running themes. We eat a meal fit for a king (the shulchan aruch) whose appetizer, an egg dipped in salt water, and dessert, a final slice of matzah (the afikomen), call attention to our diasporic status and national state of mourning.

We tell the story and sing songs of exodus and liberty (the Haggadah and hallel) and then say things like, “Now we are slaves; next year we will be free men.”

Most paradoxical of all is the holiday’s chief food and icon, the matzah. It exemplifies the Seder’s split personality par excellence—containing two opposing themes rolled/baked into one.

On the one hand, in the prologue to magid, the Haggadah’s author dubs matzah the “bread of affliction.” The rationale behind this name is provided by the 14th century scholar, Rabbi David Abudraham:

From a personal experience of being imprisoned in India, Ibn Ezra1 testified that prisoners are fed matzah, which is satisfying in small amounts because it is slow to digest. Thus, as slaves, the Jewish people were fed matzah in Egypt.

On the other hand, the matzah takes on a whole new, and contradictory, personality when the Seder’s main players are formally introduced and characterized, not even a cup of wine later:

This matzah (unleavened bread) that we eat, is for what reason? Because the dough of our fathers did not have time to become leavened before G‑d revealed Himself to them and redeemed them.

So is matzah a symbol of freedom or slavery? Talk about an identity crisis.

The truth is that the break-down of matzah’s character takes place with the break-down of its physical substance come Yachatz, when the matzah is broken into two unequal pieces. The smaller piece, over which we bemoan the slavery of our ancestors, represents the state of exile; the larger cut, which is hidden away until dinner’s end, represents the ultimate redemption, the messianic “end of days” that have yet to come.

The Biblical name for this holiday of duality, Chag HaMatzot, The Festival of Matzah, now seems strikingly appropriate…

The Gift of Hope

If we had lived in the second millennium BCE, the millennium of Abraham, and could have canvassed all the nations of the earth, what would they have said of Abraham’s journey? In most of Africa and Europe, they would have laughed at Abraham’s madness and pointed to the heavens, where the life of earth had been plotted from all eternity ... a man cannot escape his fate. The Egyptians would have shaken their heads disbelief. The early Greeks might have told Abraham the story of Prometheus... Do not overreach, they would advise; come to resignation. In India, he would be told that time is black, irrational and merciless. Do not set yourself the task of accomplishing something in time, which is only the dominion of suffering. On every continent, in every society, Abraham would have been given the same advice that wise men like Herculitas [and others] would give his followers: do not journey but sit; compose yourself by the river of life, meditate on its ceaseless and meaningless flow.

–Thomas Cahill , The Gifts of the Jews

Hope is the mother of Change, the child of Imagination coupled with Belief that dreams can come true, that tomorrow, you and I can be better than we were today. It is this revolutionary Jewish idea we call Hope, articulated so eloquently by Cahill, that provides coherence to the Seder program and context to its text. Hope is the ability to see the world not as it is, but as it should be, and it is the driving force that propels what should be into what can be. Hope is the womb from which the Jewish people were born, and it is the guardian of Jewish survival and continuity.

Perhaps we might say that, allegorically, Hope is the gift that G‑d gave Abraham when he blessed his descendants to be “like the sand and the stars,” that is, with the ability to be stuck in the sand and yet reach for the stars.

Hope is what was stamped onto the coins minted by some of our nation’s greatest heroes.2 The coins of our Patriarch Abraham had the figure of an old man and an old woman on its face, and those of a youth and a maiden on the obverse, signifying that after Abraham and Sarah had grown old, their youth was renewed and they had a son.

The coins that King David issued had a shepherd's staff and satchel on the face, and a tower on its backside—an allusion to his having been raised to the throne from the sheepfold.

And in the story of Purim, Mordechai’s coins bore sackcloth and ashes on the face, and a crown of gold on its back—emblematic of his personal, and the collective Jewish, change of fate.

Hope is what led the founder of Chassidism, the Holy Baal Shem Tov, to sign his name as he did—not as “Israel from Tlost, Galicia,” after his birthplace, but as “Israel of Okop” (Polish for trench) or “Israel of the Trenches,” after the circumstances into which he was born.

Tlost was originally a walled town, but at some point in history the walls were destroyed, leaving numerous trenches. His parents were so poor that they could not afford even a modest home in which to live, so they sought refuge in one of these trenches.

Yet this child of poor descent, an orphan, persecuted in circles both religious and otherwise, went on to light the collective Jewish soul and imagination on fire with ideas that still reverberate today and are said to affect the coming of the Messiah.

Hope is what gave the Jewish slave in Egypt reason to wake in the morning, to bring children into a world of genocide, to join a speech-impaired leader in rebellion against a mighty empire, and to walk into rushing waters hoping, no, expecting the Sea to part.

Hope is what allowed a group of human beings treated sub-humanly to act human again, and it is what enabled a decadent pack of slaves to become a “light unto the nations.”

Hope is the mother of Change, the child of Imagination coupled with Belief that dreams can come true, that tomorrow, you and I can be better than we were today.

Thus, Hope is what connects the beginning and end of the Passover story, and it is what gave rise to our people’s spiritual and moral metamorphosis: “In the beginning our ancestors were idol worshipers [starting with Abraham], but now the Omnipresent One has brought us close to His worship.”

Hope and Faith are the light at the beginning of history’s tunnel that has kept our people marching on from desert to death march, through Temple and Exile times, dark ages and golden eras, through the sands and stars of time.

It is that place in mind and spirit where Passover’s paradoxes come together; where slaves becomes princes, and exile becomes redemption, where bitter herbs meets wine, and the bread of affliction itself becomes a symbol of speedy redemption.

What’s in It for Me?

Judah said in Rav's name: ‘What is meant by, Touch not My anointed (meshichai), and do my prophets no harm?3 Touch not My anointed refers to school children…”4

But why does G‑d consider children to be “meshichai,” or “messiahs,” any more than he does grown adults?

I once heard the following beautiful explanation from Rabbi Adin Even-Yisrael (Steinsaltz).

Which child in the world does not dream of bettering or (if more ambitious) saving the world? Which child does not want to grow up to be a police officer or fireman, a doctor or nurse?

The natural state of a human being is not to “understand” suffering or come to terms with evil. Before being taught cynicism disguised as realism, the nature of a healthy child is to dream of a better place, to imagine a perfect world.

This is especially true of the children of Israel. Since time immemorial, they have sought to bring healing to a fractured world, to affect Tikkun Olam, the repairing of our world. No wonder they’re called “messiahs.”

As the following quote demonstrates, sometimes it’s the Gentile (as in Cahill’s quote above), or even the most virulent Anti Semite, Hitler, may his name be obliterated, who describes the Jew quite well:

The struggle for world domination is between me and the Jews. All else is meaningless. The Jews have inflicted two wounds on the world: Circumcision for the body and conscience for the soul. I come to free mankind from their shackles.5

Ever since the first Jew Abraham challenged the status quo of his day and age, it has become the nature of the Jew of History to challenge the status quo of theirs.6

Consider the following point made by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, in a private audience that took place in the seventies:

The same way that if you asked somebody in 1930 about the socialists (that is, “Who are their founders and leaders?”), they would have said, “It must be the Jews.” And if you said in 1940, “So and so is a communist,” they would have said, “It must be a Jew”; if you ask somebody who doesn’t live in New York about the hippies they would say the same thing…

A common theme and motivator of these movements and the many “isms” (Marxism and Zionism included) that arose in the last century was a utopian vision for perfecting our world.

Passover, the holiday that celebrates children, is a time to reconnect with our inner child and natural idealism. And the Seder’s rituals and prayers call on us to look at the dark world we inhabit, and into the lonely and broken human spirit that is our generation’s, and yet to not despair, but to imagine, and more importantly to work towards creating, a land and spirit that “flows with milk and honey.”

No matter where one is located in the world, or what their circumstances in life, come Seder’s end we sign off positively (in both senses of the word): “Next year in Jerusalem!”

Inspired by the Rebbe’s second talk given on Passover 1960.