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So You Want To Be Strict On Passover?

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This article is co-authored by Ronit Tsadok, Rabbinic Intern, IKAR.

It's less than one week until Passover and you may know what that means. For the next few days Jews worldwide will be finding new and inventive ways to drive themselves (and others) quite bonkers in preparation for the breadless, matzah-filled, freedom extravaganza.

For those of you who delight in the nitty-gritty and uniquely stringent kosher laws that govern Passover, all you need is in the Rabbinical Assembly's "Pesah Guide." The following article will not dissuade you from that holy and spiritually excessive practice. It will attempt, however, to use the "stringent" theme to offer four additional ways to act strictly for Passover, while simultaneously feeding your soul, enlivening your religious life and bringing heightened awareness to those around you.

1. Cleaning out the hametz (leavening) from your domain.

The tangible representation of this obligation is, well, Spring Cleaning. We are instructed to remove all traces of leaven from property under our domain before the Passover holiday begins. The Hassidic rabbis expanded our understanding of hametz and matzah to move beyond the physical representations of each and to include the psychological as well. Hametz, leavened food, represents hubris and unhealthy ego, while matzah, flat unleavened bread, represents humility and self awareness.

Ideally, the period leading up to Passover is a time for deep, serious, religious transformation. Teshuvah, as it were. Our goal during this period is to rid ourselves of the excessive pride that often consumes us, the inflated ego that interferes with real relationship, and substitute it with modesty, openness and the ability to see beyond ourselves.

Is there a strict practice to govern this repentance? Of course. Set aside at least five minutes a day to work on yourself. That includes self introspection, but more importantly, checking in with those whom you trust to give you an honest, safe and open critique of how you carry yourself as you navigate life's complexities.

2. Telling the Passover story at your Seder.

This is the core biblical obligation of the Passover Seder, as Exodus 13:8 teaches us: "And you shall tell your child on that day, saying, 'Because of that which God did for me when I went out from Egypt.'"

This central part of the Seder is often rushed through. The tendency is to take turns reading ancient words, paragraph by paragraph, perhaps without much thought (except for thinking about the impending meal). But that is surely not the intent of either the Torah or the brilliant rabbinic artists who composed the Seder. Ideally, each person should leave the Seder space having understood, internalized and personalized the Passover story. Being strict during maggid (telling the story) means not leaving until everyone at the table has achieved this. It demands preparation, creativity and an openness to not only listen attentively to others, but to communicate, verbally or nonverbally, such that you know your message will be heard.

3. See yourself as if you, too, are leaving slavery for freedom.

A pinnacle moment of every Seder is the declaration, "Each and every person is obligated to see herself as if she had personally left Egypt." This moment often engenders meaningful discussion in its attempt to situate each of us in a specific theological/historical and precarious moment. But let's be honest for a minute. Most of us probably have a difficult time situating ourselves in something that happened to us personally last week, let alone going back and experientially exiting ancient slavery. Imagining the horror of physical oppression and the tangible taste of freedom is one thing -- truly understanding it is another. This calls for thoughtful preparation with no leniency, and it's easy to misinterpret what is being asked of us here. It isn't that we have to dress up like like ancient Israelites and pretend we are enslaved (do that for maggid!). Rather, we ought to recognize that each of us knows Egypt all too well. And by Egypt (Mitzrayim), we mean its literal translation -- narrow, dark and hopeless moments of anxiety. Without having to open up the deepest part of your soul, share with people: What are/were your "Egypt" spaces? In what ways have you created Egypt for others? How might you find redemption?

But don't stop there. If you really want to get a sense of today's universal Egypt, don't be afraid to leave the comfort of your Seder and step out into the parts of your community that make you uneasy. Talk to people, help people, those who are simply unable to live a life that celebrates their God-given human dignity. As political philosopher and Princeton professor Michael Walzer recently quipped, "Wherever you live, it is probably Egypt."

4. Inviting guests to the holy space of your holiday. Welcome back Elijah the Prophet!

True liberation will come when we fling our doors open, not only for Elijah at the very end of our Seder, but also for the hungry and needy at Seder's start. "This is the bread of our affliction," we recite, before the famous Four Questions. "Let all who who are hungry come and eat." In recreating the first Passover meal, eaten by the Israelites on the eve of their redemption from Egypt, we must diligently adhere to this rule: no person should eat alone. Can we celebrate our release from oppression without remembering to include the outsider, the Jew with no place to go?

The Torah tells us, over and over, that because of our enslavement in Egypt we have an even greater responsibility to the stranger, the "other." You (yes, you!) remember what it is like to feel marginalized, degraded and completely alone. Therefore, do whatever is in your power to ensure that others never do. Especially on Seder night.

While you probably already cook enough food for a dozen unexpected guests to show up at Seder time, you still may want to plan ahead. Call your local synagogue and let them know you have a seat or two available. New faces in comfortable places are scary, true. But really, could anything be more awkward than Uncle Morty's rendition of Dayenu to the music of Eminem?

So go ahead and be strict on Passover. How? Clean -- inside and out. Share your stories. Step outside your comfort zone. Bring new people into your home.

Happy Passover!