Jewish holidays don’t just take place; they require preparation. We make latkes for Hanukkah and hamentaschen and costumes for Purim; we buy food and cook it for Shabbat, etc. But the holidays requiring the most preparation are Pesach and the High Holidays, which represent the two pillars of the Jewish calendar. In both cases, the preparation is not just for the holiday itself–8 days and 2 days–but prepares us for an entire season of heightened spiritual activity and awareness.

For many people, the Passover holiday is an occasion to recall our own suffering and liberation in order to remind ourselves of the suffering of people today, Jews and non-Jews, and think about how we can support their liberation. Passover is a holiday of remembering; to remember effectively, we start to remember by taking action weeks before: sending invitations, cleaning, reviewing menus or travel plans. Before we remember the poor, before we remember to remind ourselves that we were once slaves, poor and oppressed–before we sit down to our meal with friends and family, we must remember to prepare. As in a classroom, if we just show up and leave when it’s over, the learning is unlikely to stick.

Before we can celebrate the holiday, we must work hard to prepare our homes by removing chametz. Chametz, leavened food, is often likened to human arrogance, the vain strivings in our lives that lead us to puff up our egos, our sense of our righteousness and self-importance. Another way of saying this: chametz is the dust that gets in our eyes, that causes us not to see, not to care about the people who resemble who we were in Egypt: the poor, the enslaved, the oppressed. The seder requires an act of radical identification, which we cannot achieve just by showing up, reading the words and enjoying the food and wine. When I was a child, I remember thinking that the Passover happened so long ago, and how hard it was to identify with slaves in a comfortable middle-class home. Today, I realize that slavery is not an institution of the past but is shockingly still present, all over the world and even in our own country.

The Haggadah itself frames the act of remembering the affliction of the past with an act of remembering people suffering in the present. Before we get to the heart of the seder, of remembering the exodus from Egypt, we remember what it is we are supposed to remember by reciting Ha Lachma Anya, This is the bread of affliction… We invite kol dichfin, all who are hungry, those who have no festival food and no place to eat, to join us. Since many of us may not have poor people ready to invite, there is a tradition to give ma’ot chittin, “wheat money,” so that the poor can celebrate the holiday. We remember that the seder is not about me alone, about how I was saved and raised up. It is about me as part of a we, a people that includes everyone, together–rich and poor, learned and unlettered, ill and well, and all of the ways that we are different, suffering and thriving. The seder reminds us that our personal stories lead us to our collective story. We remember that our coming together has a symbolic significance just like the items on the seder plate, a ritual gesture toward unity through gratitude, study, conversation, food lovingly prepared.

May all of our exertions to prepare, in our schools and homes, help us to make the act of remembering at the seder nights the transformative experience it was meant to be.
And for a fun seder activity that teaches about customs of different Jewish communities, check out these plate cards, courtesy of Bechol Lashon.