Passover Pesach

Tell Your Own Story

Pesach is many things to many people: memory, message, meaning, food, tradition, song or a call to justice, action, and transformation. Regardless how Pesach may resonate with you in your own life, give yourself a unique Pesach gift: the blessing of telling your own story.

This can be interpreted literally of course: we tell the stories of our ancestors at our Seders, just we chant Hallel, the festive psalms, at our Festival services. From Kiddush to Chad Gadya, from Maggid to Nirtza there is plenty of story and song. We can also, however, transcend the literal understanding and look at a deeper meaning: what does it mean for us to tell our own story?

The word Haggadah means ‘the telling’. It’s interesting that our tradition has chosen this word when other terms would have fitted too: ‘Limmud’, ‘the learning’ would have been adequate – after all, the Seder has an undeniable pedagogical methodology through its melodies, foods and rituals. Yet, it’s the verb ‘lehagid’, ‘to tell’ that has become the centerpiece of Pesach. As the Torah commands us, ‘higadeta levincha bayom hahu lemor: ba’avur zeh asah Adonai li betzeti mimitzrayim’ – ‘and you shall tell your child on that day saying, it is because of this what the Eternal did for me, when I came out of Egypt’. (Ex. 13:8)

When studying this verse, we usually focus on ‘ba’avur zeh asah Adonai li betzeti mimitzrayim’ – ‘it is because of this what the Eternal did for me, when I came out of Egypt’. This verse provides the basis of the famous statement by Rabban Gamliel in Mishnah Pesachim 10:5 that ‘in every generation a person must regard him or herself as though he or she personally had gone out of Egypt’. Personalizing the Seder as if we suffered the deprivation of slavery and the liberation of the Exodus is one of the cardinal commandments of the Festival. In each age, we are called to hear the ‘tza’akah gedolah’, the ‘great outcry’ of our time and cultivate radical empathy.

Still, there’s another dimension to the verse from Exodus: ‘higadeta levincha’ – ‘and you shall tell your child’. What is it about this ‘telling’? A story is more than just a series of facts. A story aspires to bring intent to its telling. A report may focus on dry data. A story, however, is meant to bury its way into our kishkes, our innermost, intuitive selves. The gift of Pesach is that we are invited to take ownership over our stories and write them.

What an amazing, powerful thing. The difference between victimhood and empowerment is wafer thin, like the matzah we eat. Many peoples, nations, cultures and faiths have narratives centering on their own hardship and oppression. What makes our Jewish narrative unique is that our ancestors had the courage to tell our story in a different way. The Torah and Mishnah encourage us to tell the story with radical empathy; with a living, breathing concern for the other. We are charged to control our own message and ultimately we are shaped not merely by our circumstances but through our choices and commitments.

What story will you be telling this year? The words and melody mutate across the centuries, but the sacred intent remains constant. Our liberation is tied up with the liberation of all humanity. We empower ourselves not at the expense of our enemies but in the name of ethical monotheism. We place at the center, like the Seder plate at our home Seders, our own vulnerability and derive incredible strength from it.

Give yourself this gift. Tell your own Pesach story. Tell those who you love, tell the world, tell God what your great dream is. Call out, sing praise, dance at the shore, cry bitter tears, laugh and love and through all of these, see the divinity in our common humanity. Know that we can transform trauma into redemption in the crucible of our People’s greatest gift: the ability to tell our story. That our stories may be a blessing to all.

Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz serves  Congregation Agudas Achim, in Iowa City, Iowa.

Passover Pesach

This Passover, I Want to Break Free from the Busyness of Life

I never seem to be ready for Passover.  It always springs upon me, this rite of spring, and I’m always left feeling like I’ve just barely recovered from Purim and the sensory overload that repeat exposure to carnivals can cause (because let’s be real: one can only handle so many bounce houses).  But then Passover arrives without delay, completely unsympathetic to my protest or pleas, wholly indifferent to my fatigue.

No matter how prominent its place on my calendar, Passover still comes in like a tempest, turning me upside down and inside out when it finally hits.  And inevitably, I look around only to realize I have a house full of chametz and nary a box of matzah in sight.   It’s ironic because I am surrounded by signs of Passover’s approach in nearly every aspect of my life, both personal and professional.  I’ve got seders at work and seders at my children’s schools, matzah covers coming home in backpacks and more homemade haggadot (beautiful, precious, sweet and so appreciated!) than I know what to do with.

But while the countdown to seder ticks loud and clear, life often seems to tick louder, preventing me, or perhaps distracting me, from all I need to do, from everything I need to prepare.  This year, especially, life has felt inordinately full with all the requisite personal responsibilities: the birthday parties to plan, the doctors appointments to make, the dentists and orthodontists to consult; the school functions and the charity events and the family gatherings; the overstuffed sports schedules and labyrinthine after school schedules; the chess, the piano, the ballet, the art; the everyday hustle we know as life, along with all of my professional responsibilities as well.   It’s hard to see beyond the daily grind; and it’s even harder to make way for a holiday as all-encompassing and routine altering as Passover.

This year, I confess, I feel particularly compressed by the endless, relentless activity in my home and in my life, and by the incalculable physical, mental and emotional exertion this life demands.  Sometimes it feels like the more I do, the smaller my life becomes, reduced as it is to going and coming, coming and going.  Life is defined by straight, rigid lines, rather than curved, flexible arcs, and it is tightly bound by schedules, timetables and agendas.   It’s a paradox, really, that more does not always yield more, but rather, more often yields less.

As Passover approaches, I admit I feel constricted by the narrowness of this intensely crowded life, a life, albeit, that is filled with so much good and so much blessing.  Yet I worry I’m racing as fast as I can, but falling further and further behind.   It’s hard to stop.  It’s hard to unwind a life that, even with its challenges, feels so ingrained and so familiar.   Sometimes I wonder, where do I even begin?  To be quite honest, I don’t really know.

But I do know the story of Passover and I do know that our ancestors moved through the straits of bondage to discover a freedom they had never known.  They left the narrow places that constrained them and made their way into a vast, open wilderness where promise awaited them.   This is the story we tell every year around the seder table, and in so many ways, this is the story of our lives.

I am so grateful to live a life of freedom and to enjoy the liberties so many yet yearn to call their own.  But I know there is a life on the horizon that is even more expansive and even more bounteous, even more free.  It is a life that is full—not of endless activity and motion and striving, but one of possibility and generosity and love, a life that is waiting for me, for all of us; as our promise.   The challenge of reaching that place is as simple as it is hard: how to leave the narrow spaces we know so well and journey forward into the unknown?

Rabbi Sara Sapadin serves Temple Emanu-El in New York City as Adjunct Rabbi. 

chaplains Passover Pesach

Welcoming Elijah in Iraq

During my 38 years of military service, I had the honor of traveling twice to Iraq to celebrate Passover with deployed service-members, and numerous times to Kuwait.  In every location, soldiers were so grateful that a rabbi would travel all the way from the US to share the seder with them.  So many thought that they were the only Jew within hundreds of miles, and the familiar prayers and songs created an instant sense of community.

In 2005, I was especially moved by the ritual of spilling wine from our cups as we recalled the plagues in Egypt.  During a war, it is an all too available temptation to dehumanize the enemy. Sometimes it feels like a necessary part of preparing for battle.  As we participated in this ancient ritual, we were reminded that it is neve r appropriate to rejoice over the suffering of others, even our oppressors and even those who may be trying to kill us.  Removing the wine from our cups reinforced this message that our joy is diminished when we contemplate the necessary pain that was part of our liberation.  

At Forward Operating Base Taji, the lights kept coming on and off as the generators ceased to function, and I quipped that we were reenacting the plague of darkness.  After the service, one young woman told me that “It was almost like being at home.”  In 2006, at Forward Operating Base Sykes we began the seder and were introducing ourselves, when one participant said-

“I’m glad that we are locked in this CONNEX behind closed doors in a relatively secure place, for our own protection.”  When we opened the door for Elijah, there was a moment of hesitation and a collective intake of breath.  Wow!  There was a real feeling of risk and some danger, but I decided that it was critical that we open the door and proudly sing Eliyahu HaNavi.  We read about other doors in history, flung open by the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusaders, the Nazis.   It was a powerful, powerful moment and a huge assertion of freedom in that hostile place.  Our celebration of freedom was especially meaningful as we were, once again, fighting for freedom from tyranny.

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell serves Temple Chai in Phoenix, AZ and currently holds the rank of Colonel as a military chaplain in the United States Army Reserve.

Passover Pesach

The Roundabout Tale of the Orange on the Seder Plate

The orange on the seder plate is a newer tradition in the Passover seder, which especially speaks of the balance between the old and the new. This tradition has come to symbolize for some feminism and the equality of women in Judaism.

I remember the first time my aunt put an orange on the seder plate.  I think I was in rabbinical school at the time, and it was a powerful symbol, as we perceived at the time, of women in the rabbinate.  I was extremely appreciative of the gesture at the time—and that my family was embracing the idea (and not just when I insisted on my parents putting one there when the seder was at our house).  And I’ve come to be increasingly appreciative of the orange on the seder plate, even as I’ve learned more about how it came to be—and what it truly symbolizes.

The story, though, is not as we first heard it.  The actual tale, from Susannah Heschel’s point of view, comes from an experience she had at Oberlin College in the 1980’s, where she was shown an early feminist Haggadah which suggested including a crust of bread on the seder plate, as a sign of solidarity with Jewish lesbians. She changed the tradition to an orange—symbolizing the fruitfulness of Jewish life when all are included and contribute to the community—and also the pits of hate that should be spit out. She broadened the definition to include all who are marginalized in Jewish life. To her, the crust of bread implied that those who were other were somehow chameitz—that they violated the spirit of Judaism like bread is forbidden on Pesach.

Over time, the story itself transformed into the legend of a women speaking in Florida, at which a man heckled from the audience, saying, “A woman belongs on the bimah as much as an orange on the seder plate.”

As Heschel reflects, “A woman’s words are attributed to a man, and the affirmation of lesbians and gay men is erased. Isn’t that precisely what’s happened over the centuries to women’s ideas?”

But the story of this story gets even more interesting—the women who wrote that Haggadah at Oberlin wrote recently about their version, in which they shared that they had never put the bread on the seder plate.

Instead, they took the crust of bread concept from a short story, and transformed it into leaving a blank space on the seder plate, “A Makom (place) on our seder plate for all who have been condemned and excluded because of fear or ignorance.”

In Heschel’s telling of the story, the act of the students was erased, even in an act of attempting to be inclusive.   And so this orange becomes a symbol of those who have been erased…and also the idea of how stories change over time…a symbol, perhaps, of the very idea of the balance of our sacred obligation not to change and that which demands change.

Rabbi Elisa Koppel serves Congregation Beth Emeth in Wilmington, DE. 

Passover Pesach

Passover Round-up from CCAR Members

RavBlog has collected a series of supplemental readings from CCAR members for a  special “Passover Round-up.”  These are meant to be meaningful supplements for your seder, for use in addition to your Haggadot.  If you are in need of last minute Haggadot for your seder, remember that CCAR Press offers both The New Union Haggadah and Sharing the Journey: The Haggadah for the Contemporary Family on your eReader!


Rasha 5778 by Rabbi Dean Shapiro

Pesach Yizkor: Redemptive Remembrance by Rabbi Jennifer Gubitz

Dayenu: For All Times by Rabbi Lucy H.F. Dinner

Ask Me a Seder! A Passover Trivia Game by Rabbi Leah Berkowitz

Dayenu- A Special Passover Reading For American Jews by Rabbi Lance J. Sussman

The Women of the Passover Story by Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik

The Four Children of Metropolis by Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik

Cancer Supplement for Seder by Rabbi Ben David

Dayeinu…When Will Enough Be Enough? by Rabbi Marla Feldman (originally for the Women of Reform Judaism)

2018 Passover Seder Supplement by the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice at Queens University of Charlotte



Passover Pesach Social Justice

In Every Generation

A Reading for Pesach 5778*

In every generation

We come out of Egypt.

Let freedom ring.

In every generation

We stand up to Pharaoh.

Let freedom ring.

In every generation

We part the waters.

Let freedom ring.

In every generation

We march toward the Promised Land.

Let freedom ring.

In every generation

We teach our children.

Let freedom ring.

In every generation

Our children teach us.

Let freedom ring.

In every generation

We march for our lives.

Let freedom ring.


In this generation

Columbine, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech- we march for our lives.

Let freedom ring.

In this generation

Orlando, Las Vegas, Parkland- we march for our lives.

Let freedom ring.

In this generation

Two hundred sixty five million guns fill our country- we march for our lives.

Let freedom ring.

In this generation

Ninety seven souls die from gun violence each and every day- we march for our lives.

Let freedom ring.

In this generation

Young and old, black and white, Jew and gentile…said enough; enough.

Let freedom ring.


*Participants at the seder are invited to echo the repeating lines.

Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz serves The Jewish Publication Society in Philadelphia and Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, NJ.

Passover Pesach

Seek Justice for All

How do we teach our children the story of Passover when there are so many atrocities? How can we play with plague puppets and plastic toys when reciting curses that befell other people? In what world is it ever okay for a divine emissary to slay children?

These are some of the questions I was asked while facilitating a conversation for interfaith parents while their children learned in a small and vibrant Jewish religious school one room over. They struggled with deep fear over the Passover narrative and left the question lingering for me about the role of victim in our communal narrative.

In a pinnacle moment of the Passover story, the angel of death passes over the Jewish homes and spares our children’s lives. Suddenly, we are not the victims of the newest tragedy – the Egyptians are. Instantaneously we transform from being the helpless people of the story to the lucky ones, with God on our side.

Yet the pain we feel from everything that happened previously doesn’t vanish, so we are reluctant to recognize this shift from destitute to saved. We continue to think about our own slavery experience instead of mourning with and for our Egyptian neighbors.

It’s true, we lessen our joy by diminishing our cups of wine and we have rabbinic commentaries telling us all the people of the world are God’s children. Yet while expressing gratitude over making it through every step of the story we praise events that caused others pain.

We cannot let go of our narrative of being the downtrodden – even though in that moment – that morning – there were others far worse off.

This reluctance to recognize our blessings and cling to the narrative of victimization remains an enduring struggle for the Jewish community.

While others may see us as successful, lucky and blessed, we continue to see ourselves through eyes of fear.

Though we have legitimate gripes about past wrong doings and potential future pain, a failure to see ourselves as the lucky ones in the story of life becomes a failure to see those who truly are victims of our times and in need of our help. If we cannot see the other who needs our voice and support than we squander the privilege we have and do a true disservice to our ancestral narrative.

I’m not saying we don’t have the right to feel broken by life’s hard moments. As individuals and as a community we sometimes endure great pain. All I’m saying is that remembering our experiences of pain shouldn’t prevent us from seeing the pain of others or prevent us from recognizing the blessings we do have.

This is the reason vocal liberal millennials turn a blind eye to our claims of anti-Semitism while embracing flagrantly anti-Zionist behaviors that fill our society under the guise of intersectionality. It brings me great frustration, but I’ve come to see that until we acknowledge the ways in which we are the lucky ones and others are the trampled we will not only fail to find partners for our cause but others will prefer that we not engage in theirs.

Let me be clear – I do not believe there is anything wrong with having privilege, power, and promise. However, there is something wrong when memories of our times without these strengths lead us to believe we are forevermore without agency. That is the exact opposite of why we retell this narrative.

Our Torah reminds us over and over again of our experience of slavery, not to spread fears of anti-Semitism but rather to encourage we seek justice for all. So even though there are moments in the Passover story when we feel God is acting on our behalf at the expense of others, we will not teach our children that this is easy, silly, or just. We will sit with discomfort and acknowledge that we care about all people on this earth, not simply our own.

Rabbi Samantha Kahn serves Interfaithfamily in the San Francisco Bay Area and blogs at

Passover Pesach

Pesach by Foot

I write to you from the Israel National Trail (Shvil Yisrael), which was conceived of in 1995 by Avraham Tamir after he hiked the Appalachian Trail. I chose to do this for my sabbatical from my congregation with intention of experiencing a sacred pilgrimage. So often I travel around Israel either via a tour bus or by car. This time I wanted to do it by foot. (You can read more about my journey at

When I was preparing for doing the Shvil I began reading about other people’s sacred journeys by foot from Cheryl Strayed’s Wild to David Grossman’s To the End of the Land. In each of the stories, the path is just as important as the people who are walking upon it. They choose to walk not for relaxation and to get away from it all, but because the path has called to them and they want the challenge. Or as Phil Cousineau puts it, “Journeys are rhapsodies on the theme of discovery.”

Over a week ago on the trail I was wondering what the Hebrew word was for pilgrim and one of my fellow shvilists told me it was, “aliya laregel.” Of course, I thought to myself about the Hebrew, remembering the term: shalosh regalim…which refers to Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot, when pilgrims traveled to Jerusalem.

As Passover approaches while I am on the trail, I have thought a lot about our pilgrim ancestors walking to Jerusalem (which I hope to achieve by mid – April). They journeyed with commitment, to be in community, and to bring sacred gifts to God. When we celebrate these holidays we often do it sitting down at a table still perhaps with these things in our hearts, but not so often with these intentions in our feet. So I imagine this year while on the shvil having these intentions in my feet…thinking about my commitment to Eretz Yisrael, the joy from walking the shvil in community with people from around the world, and with love in my heart for God and God’s promise of this land for the people Israel.

Rabbi Molly Kane serves Brooklyn Heights Synagogue and is currently blogging at

Books Passover Pesach Social Justice

Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: The Obligations of Our Exodus

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s newest book, Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice, we’ve invited Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, co-editor of the book, to share an excerpt of the book on Passover. Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority is now available for pre-order from CCAR Press.

A couple of months ago I was arrested in the grand rotunda of the Russell Building of the United States Senate. Nearly one hundred Jewish clergy and leaders joined in song and prayer, demanding that the United States Congress pass the DREAM Act, which would grant citizenship to the nearly eight hundred thousand Dreamers who came to the United States as children and are every bit American as my own daughters. As we sang “Olam Chesed Yibaneh” (“We will build this world with love”) over and over again, hundreds of Dreamers stood cheering us on from the balcony, ringing us like a human halo. In an intentionally ironic twist on the famous cry from Moses to Pharaoh, we chanted, “Let our people stay!”

When we were handcuffed, removed by the Capitol Police, and placed under arrest, we understood that we were following directly in the footsteps of our ancient Israelite ancestors. Ironically, our being put into fetters was inspired by the Hebrew slaves, who rose up from their slavery in Egypt and cast off the chains of Pharaoh’s bondage in their journey to redemption. As our hands were locked in cuffs and we were led away, we chanted the verse taken from the Song at the Sea “Ozi v’zimrat Yah, vah’yi li lishuah,” “God is my strength and might, and will be my salvation” (Exodus 15:2). There seemed no words more fitting than those our ancient Israelite ancestors sang as they passed through the parted seas of their redemption.

Even as we were led into police custody, our group understood that we were walking in the footsteps of countless generations of Jews before us, generations who internalized the Rabbinic mandate in the Passover Haggadah that “it is incumbent on every generation to see itself as if they themselves—every person—had personally escaped from Egypt” (Babylonian Talmud, P’sachim 116b). Our deeds of civil disobedience were an act of moral resistance to the injustices being perpetrated on the Dreamers, along with tens of millions of other immigrants and refugees. We acted on the spiritual authority inherited from recent leaders like Rabbis Richard Hirsch, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Maurice Eisendrath, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. because they internalized the most often repeated commandment in all of Torah: “You shall love the stranger, because you were a stranger in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34). Jews have marched throughout history because the core narrative of our people, the defining master story of our tradition, is the archetypal tale of redemption. Our Exodus from Egypt is the story of the transformation of the world-as-it-is, in which “strangers” are continually crushed by oppression, into the world-as-it-should-be, one where all people know justice. The power of the Jewish master narrative lies in its inherent call to every generation to live empathy; because our ancestors were strangers, we—in this era, and in every era—are to love the stranger.

Jews not only retell the master story of redemption throughout our ritual and cultural life; we have relived it throughout history. Our history has served to reinforce the most central exhortation of our Exodus narrative: we are obligated to love the stranger as ourself.

Among the many gleanings of the Exodus narrative that ground Jewish life and values, three stand out as the sources of the spiritual authority demanding that Jews resist injustice and champion morality in every age (and regardless of the challenges we face). First, we learn not only that resistance is required by our faith and experience, but also that it is always possible. Second, we are reminded that our empathy extends beyond the “stranger” to all those who are vulnerable in our midst. Finally, we instill in our souls that the Exodus is not simply about freedom from bondage; our master story culminates with the agency to enter into a covenantal community in which all people are bound to one another.

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner serves as the Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He has led the Religious Action Center since 2015. Rabbi Pesner also serves as Senior Vice President of the Union for Reform Judaism. Named one of the most influential rabbis in America by Newsweek magazine, he is an inspirational leader, creative entrepreneur, and tireless advocate for social justice.  Rabbi Pesner is the co-editor of CCAR Press’s  upcoming book, Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice, as well as a contributor to Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation.

Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice is now available for pre-order from CCAR Press. 

Passover Pesach Social Justice

Each Person Must See Themselves As If They Went Out of Egypt

“In every generation, each person must see themselves as if they went out of Egypt.”

This is my favorite line in the Haggadah.

In the Moss Haggadah, an illuminated text created by the artist David Moss, the page with this text depicts Jews from many different generations and places—Jews from ancient Middle Eastern countries, medieval European countries, colonial America, and so on. And in between each picture is a small mirror, so that when you look at the page, you see yourself along with all those Jews of different generations.

This year, when I look a the Moss Haggadah, I will see the faces of my maternal great-grandparents who came to the United States fleeing persecution in Czarist Russia in the 1890’s, and my paternal grandparents, who fled Nazi Germany in 1939. I’ll see my mother’s parents looking like folks straight out of a Sholom Aleichem play; I’ll see my dad’s father, age 7, in his lederhosen. I will add their faces that page of the Haggadah in my mind’s eye.

They told desperate stories to their families of their harrowing escapes, the laws they bent and broke to get out from under the tyranny of their native lands, and stories of the pride they felt in making it to America as refugees, as asylees. I will see I will see my maternal grandparents as they struggled to adapt to life in the United States, to learn English, to learn a new culture. I’ll see in the Moss Haggadah an image of my father’s parents as they spoke with tears in their eyes of all the family they left behind.

And then I will see– there on the pages of the story of our exodus from Egypt, the story of the miracles it took to free us—I’ll see those mirrors on the page. I will see myself—not as a refugee, but as a witness.

And I will see, if I squint hard enough, the faces of my children and grandchildren and great grandchildren. I will hear a question in their eyes. I will hear them asking, “What did you do in your generation to live out the Torah’s admonition, ‘In every generation, each person must see themselves as if they went out of Egypt?’ What did you do, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, in your time, when people were facing persecution, fleeing the only homes they’d ever known, seeking asylum? What did you do?”

And what will I say? Will I say, “well, my children, there was nothing I could do”? Or will I say, “well, my children, it was a different time, because it wasn’t Jews who were fleeing”? Or will I say something else? Will I perhaps tell a story of which I am proud, of a time when the Jewish people, when the majority of people of conscience in my home country stood up for the rights of those whose lives were under threat in their native lands?

That is what I will reflect on this Passover as I look in those mirrors, as I see faces of future generations staring back at me. The mirrors are a little blurry. This story is not yet written. We still have a choice. I pray that I will write—that we as a nation will write—a story we can proudly tell our children. I pray that when they open this page of the Haggadah and see us, that they will smile with pride, and be agitated to be matir asurim, those who free captives, in their own time.

Rabbi Joel Mosbacher serves Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City.