The contrasting meaning of Passover’s ritual items can open the door for thoughtful discussion.

Express Newsletter – April 2024

Rabbi Mark Cohn

Rabbi Mark Cohn

Director of Partnership Development

Passover, like the Jewish tradition itself, like life itself, is complex. 

What is matzah? Is it the bread of affliction or the bread of freedom? 

Who are the four sons? Are they four distinct children with varying perspectives or one child at four different parts of his life? 

The parsley is a sign of Spring but when we dip it in salt water, it comes to remind us of the tears shed in slavery. 

The tasty charoset is sweet and delicious but serves as a reminder of the bricks and mortar we were forced to make.

When we open the door for Elijah are we praying for the Messiah or for God to pour out wrath on the nations who do not know God? 


The Haggadah and the related rituals of telling our story for Passover encourage debate and discussion. The very structure and words contained inside the Haggadah force us into expansive thinking, demanding that we investigate and explore further. The rabbis of old gave us a tremendous gift: they’ve tasked us with being  rabbis for a night  and embracing a talmudic mindset of turning something over and over and over again because there is always something new – and old – to be discovered. 

Leading Israeli thinker and writer, Micah Goodman, brilliantly asks us to consider how this moment in Israel demands that we go beyond  binary-thinking: Israel has neither lost the war nor won the war. There are wins and losses which have mounted over the last six months. 

The great challenge that is facing many of us, as we prepare our homes for our Seders, is how we incorporate this expansive thinking in our discussion around the Seder table. How do we create spacious room for discussion and what to do when one child appears as  “the wise one” and another as “the wicked one”? 

In my humble opinion,  too many of us have resorted to stark binary thinking when it comes to Israel, the U.S. President, Israel’s Prime Minister, and yes, Palestinians.  Life is far more complex. The conflict is more complex. Israel’s options are more complex. Constructive conversations about Israel require sensitivity and nuance. How do we make our Seder an opportunity for such discourse?

That doesn’t mean, of course, that everything is up for discussion. There are some absolutes: Regardless of whether we should regard it as the bread of poverty or of freedom, matzah is the bread we eat rather than that which is leavened. There must be some common framework. 

The Jewish people need – and have – a homeland. Israel is not perfect and there is what to criticize. But the idea and validity of a Jewish homeland is irrefutable and indisputable. 

The hostages must be brought home. The joy of the holiday of freedom is lessened significantly as we sit as free people in our homes while members of our people are held in the horrors of Gehinnom somewhere in the depths of Gaza. The ancient fleshpots of Egypt are present day reality for those still held. 

May God protect the captives. 

May the holiday find us with room in our hearts and minds for substantive debate and discussion that is not divisive and destructive. 

May the rituals and rites of the Passover seder inspire you for renewed engagement in our sacred heritage and ready to take the lessons of the rabbis in our on-going work to foster robust thinking as we fight illiberalism that is not just antisemitic but intellectually oppressive. And may we all experience freedom this coming year.


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