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Seder-Ready Snippets from Rabbi Teller and Houston Community Rabbis

Shalom all,
Brith Shalom collaborated with UOS, Beth Yeshurun, HCRJ, and HOD (the Hebrew Order of David) at the 13th annual Man’s Mock Seder.

The rabbis prepared brief, seder-ready snippets of rabbinic commentary for use at your seder table. 

Chag kasher v’same’ach, 

Rabbi Teller

Rabbi Steven M. Gross

Houston Congregation for Reform Judaism

Placing Ourselves in the Passover Story


In just a few days, Jewish families around the world will sit down around a beautifully set table and dramatically retell and re-enact the story of Passover. As we have taught our children throughout the generations, we must strive to place ourselves within the story. We are not supposed to be an audience, but rather participants that put us at the center of an Exodus from slavery and oppression to freedom and salvation.


The story of Passover is not to be understood as a story of others long ago, but rather it is OUR story. We are to imagine that we were there. We were slaves; we tasted the bitterness of oppression; we cried the tears of debasement; we made bricks and baked flat bread; and we were liberated through great miracles and God’s love.


The goal of this ritual re-enactment each year is to provide us with a lens through which we must see and understand our responsibilities in the world today. The haggadah is the map we use to lead us through the story of enslavement, and throughout our history it has served as a catalyst in stimulating a communal sense of empathy for those who suffer near and far.


Each of the foods and rituals we enjoy are used to help us recognize that our freedoms and comforts are not to be taken for granted. Whether it is though the dryness of the matzah, bitter burn of the horseradish, the saltiness of the saltwater, or the brick-like appearance of the charoset, our Seder rituals compel us put ourselves in the shoes of the oppressed. The haggadah calls upon us to make a difference in the world, and its rituals provide us with simple tools to elicit compassion. It is up to us to act.


May our Seders with our families help each of us see ourselves as agents of change in the world today so that the future may be filled with more freedom and justice for all.

Rabbi Brian Strauss

Congregation Beth Yeshurun

Checking Our Hametz


The Mishnah in chapter one of the section entitled, “Pesachim” states:

On the night of the fourteenth (of Nissan) we must search for the hametz by the light of a candle. Any place into which hametz is not brought does not require a search.


Rabbi Yisrael HaMagid of Kotznitz, basing his comment on this Mishnah, tells us that checking for hametz reminds us to remove the tendency towards evil that dwells in each and every individual. For it is not the way of men and women to check their own deeds so carefully, the rabbi notes, but to look at the deeds of others and to find their faults.


It is to this point that this teacher in the Mishnah is cautioning us, for when he mentions “a place where there is no hametz”, this means one should not check the actions of others at Passover, rather only one's own hametz must one remove and thereby repair one’s deeds.


Yet how many times do we criticize someone’s else’s comments, suggestions, or simply their character? Passover is a time that reminds us to use that energy to only worry about our own behavior. To refine our comments, suggestions, and character. May we all grow this year by concentrating on ourselves.


According to the Talmud we must have four cups of wine. A man once asked Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, father of the modern Mussar movement, if it was permissible to fulfill the obligation of drinking four glasses at the Passover Seder with milk instead of wine. Rabbi Salanter asked if the reason for the switch was that the man was ill. He responded that it was not for health considerations but that he could not afford wine. The rabbi took out 25 rubles and gave them to the man. Onlookers were puzzled and asked the rabbi why he gave the man 25 rubles when 2 or 3 would have sufficed to buy wine. The rabbi responded, “If that man was thinking of drinking milk at the Seder, not only did he not have enough money for wine, he wouldn’t have enough money for the other necessities at the Seder either.


What was the question? Could milk be used instead of wine for the obligatory four cups at the Seder? No, because R’ Yisrael really listened, he was able to hear so much more. May Passover inspire all of us to listen more attentively to all of those who are in need.

Mah Nishta HaLila Hazeh Micol Halelot

“Why is this night different than all other nights?” At every Seder, these four questions will be asked again. But I know a question that may really be on everyone's mind -- A 5th question: "When are we finally going to eat?"


There lies the problem. The Passover Seder, one of the most widely observed rituals among American Jews. And yet, for too many -- it is a boring, tedious experience -- a service to zoom through so we can quickly get to the gefilite fish and matzah ball soup.


The Mishna teaches that at every Seder, one is obligated to also ask a new question:

How can the timeless lessons of Passover be relevant in our times? I want to present to you four modern-day questions that I hope will help us.


#1 -- On all other nights, we eat either leavened bread or matza, but on this night we eat only matza.

Based on this question, let me suggest that we should also ask: Tonight, we are learning to give up foods we like, but do we realize that there are many people who don't have food all year round?

Just as God showed compassion to our people when we were strangers in Egypt, Passover reminds us that we as Jews are commanded to imitate God’s active concern for the poor, the persecuted and the outsider. At our holiday tables, can we discuss what we have done this past year to help those in need and what more we can do in the future?


#2 -- On all other nights, we eat other vegetables, but on this night we eat maror.

This question reminds us that the question we can also be asking at our Seder table is: Tonight, we feel what it is like to be persecuted because we are Jewish, but are we doing our best to make sure we are not persecuted again? And are we doing enough to help protect Jews elsewhere who are not as safe as we are in Houston, Texas?


#3 -- On all other nights, we need not dip our vegetables even once, but on this night we dip twice.

Let me suggest to you that an additional question we can ask ourselves is: Tonight, we are being very Jewish but are we being Jewish enough other times of the year? If we are only Jewish on Passover, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur, is this enough? Or, do we need to be more Jewishly active throughout the year in order to ensure that our descendants will also be celebrating Passover years from now?


#4 -- On all other nights, we eat either sitting upright or reclining, but on this night we all recline.

This question reminds us that the question we can also ask this year is: Tonight, we are taking our time, relaxing in leisure, and enjoying our time together. But are we doing enough of this rest of the year?

A Hasidic rabbi once asked: Why do we say Ma nishtana halila hazeh “Why is this night different than all other nights” on Pesach? We should ask it on Sukkot when it’s strange to eat outside in the fall when it could be raining and cold. But we ask the question on Passover because, for too many, it’s strange to eat a long and full meal with our families. Can we make it not so strange this upcoming year?

Rabbi Barry Gelman

United Orthodox Synagogues

The Invincible Zeroa


According to the Talmud, we are supposed to have a piece of meat on our seder table. What is it supposed to represent? According to the Talmud, it symbolizes the paschal sacrifice. We call it the “zeroa” or the shank bone. This zeroa can represent two things. Since the paschal sacrifice was eaten for the first time on the night that the Jews were to leave Egypt, it can commemorate the fear and dread and feelings of anxiety that must have been present as the Jews left Egypt. It can also remind us of God taking us out of Egypt with an outstretched hand -- called the “zeroa netuya”. Often the word zeroa means strength, defense, and protection. Thus, the zeroa is a symbol of God as superhero -- evoking feelings of national pride and even invincibility. May we be blessed with God’s protection and everlasting care.

Meaning Behind the Wine

According to the Talmud we must have four cups of wine. Many of us know why we have four of something, but why must we use wine? Why not four kumquats. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin says we have to use wine because it best symbolizes the changed status of the Jewish people. Bnei Yisrael went from slavery to freedom, so we do something that changes our status to commemorate that change of status. This helps us fulfill the obligation to see ourselves on seder night, as if we left Egypt. May the seder and all its mitzvot energize us to find personal redemption, to change bad habits, and to bask in the glory of God’s love.

Laban and Jacob and Our Jewish Identity

Haggadah Text:

Go out and learn what Lavan the Aramean sought to do to Ya’akov, our father; since Pharaoh only decreed [the death sentence] on the males but Lavan sought to uproot the whole [people]. As it is stated (Deuteronomy 26:5), “An Aramean was destroying my father and he went down to Egypt, and he resided there with a small number and he became there a nation, great, powerful and numerous.”


Why is Laban considered so bad?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks refers us to a different verse to answer this question:

“But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.” (Ex. 1:12)

Pharaoh and his people afflicted the Israelites, but “the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread”.


Laban did not afflict Jacob. To the contrary, while he was with Laban, Jacob grew rich. The danger was that he would remain with Laban and forget who he was. So Moses warned at the end of his life: “Be careful that you do not forget God… When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the LORD your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God...and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt.” (Deut. 8:11-14)


Interpreted this way, the passage contains a powerful message: Do not think that the story of Pesach ends with the exodus. It only begins there. It is a reminder of the challenge of remaining a Jew while embraced by the general society.

Ask yourself: What steps do I take to protect my Jewish identity?

Rabbi Ranon Teller

Congregation Brith Shalom

Telling the Story


In the Torah, the festival is called Pesach, after the Karban Pesach, which the Torah translates as Passover. Question: Pesach is not a common word; the passing over is a small detail of the story, and therefore strange that it would become the name of the festival. What else could it imply?


The Kabbalah interprets Pesach to be two separate words, peh sach, a mouth that speaks. In this interpretation, the Torah itself imagined a time when the festival would be transformed from the Exodus--through the karban experience--into the contemporary seder that’s based on telling the story. The Torah is speaking to us, in our day, and celebrating our form of Pesach. Pe-sach is about our mouth speaking the story of our journey from slavery to freedom. The primary mitzvah is for us to simply tell the story of the Exodus in a way that the people around the table can hear it. As we fulfill the mitzvah of sippur yetziat mitzrayim, and tell the story, may we be privileged to sense the weight of our history and the power of our God, the God of redemption, who took us out of Egypt. Amen.

Four Expressions of Freedom

The four cups of wine are based on four expressions of freedom in Sefer Shemot. They represent and correspond to the four expressions of freedom and redemption that the Torah uses to describe the Exodus. As it says in Exodus, Chapter 6: “Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out (v’hotzeiti) from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you (v’hitzalti) from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you (v’go’alti) with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people (v’lakachti), and I will be your God.’”


The four cups remind is that redemption is a process. That was true for the Israelites in their day, and for us in our day. Our world, too, is in need of repair and redemption and the Torah gives us a paradigm. V’hotzeiti – stop the negative behavior. V’hitzalti – look for salvation and solutions. V’go’alti – go through the steps necessary to make the change. V’lakachti – and celebrate, and reinforce the redemptive energy.


Just as the Israelites went through a change process to get out Egypt, so too may we go through our own redemptive process to break free from the routines and negative habits that keep us enslaved. May we, too, be redeemed from slavery to freedom and darkness to light.

Kabbalah and the Seder Plate

At the seder, order is important. There is a specific order to placing the symbolic foods on the seder plate, which can be attributed to the custom of Rabbi Isaac Luria (the Ari). The 16th-century Kabbalist included three matzot, which were placed under the seder plate, and chazeret, charoset, a shank bone, an egg, karpas, and maror.


For the Kabbalists, the placement of each item is essential. From their perspective, every item corresponds to one of the ten sefirot of Kabbalah; each represents a midah through which God relates to, and interacts with, the world. Placing the symbols on this plate, on this night, in this order, has an effect on shamayim. Maror is tiferet/beauty, z’roah is chesed, charoset is netzach, and so on. The seder plate facilitates connections between God in the spiritual world and us in the material world. It allows divine energy to flow between us.


By acknowledging this Kabbalistic connection, we can deepen our seder experience, and know that when we simply set our seder plate and sit down at the seder table, we are connecting with God and triggering God’s midot in this world.