When I was growing up, Passover and the traditional seder meal were a big deal. Twenty-four hours before Passover began, Mom “hid” small pieces of white bread on our bedroom window sills and around the kitchen. Dad, feather and rag in hand, with Mom and three kids trailing behind, traveled through the house in search of the leavened bread. Using the feather, he swiped the crumbs off the window sills and placed them gingerly in the white rag. After finishing his search, he tied up the rag and burned it, a symbol of eliminating all the chametz (leavened bread and other food forbidden during Passover) from our house.
For days before Passover, Mom would clean and cook – gefilte fish, turkey and matzo ball soup. With our help, she’d swap all the silverware and dishes for the Passover sets, so no chametz polluted our eight-day celebration. When the night of the seder arrived, we dressed in our holiday finest and welcomed grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins to our table.
It wasn’t until I started studying Mussar (Jewish ethics) that I learned that in Hebrew, seder means order. The seder meal has an explicit order, and order is one of the soul traits that we develop through Mussar practice.
My mother taught me seder not only during Passover, but also every other day of the year. A reluctant cook, Mom had a predictable order to her menus: Monday, brisket; Tuesday, chicken; Wednesday, meatballs and spaghetti; Thursday, filet of sole or blintzes; Friday, chicken; Saturday, leftover chicken; and Sunday, hamburgers. And there was seder after the meal. We would immediately clear the table and do the dishes by hand, with Mom washing, my sister and I drying.
My father liked things clean and tidy, so we always made our beds first thing in the morning. Everything in our house had its place. When Dad came home from work, if I was sitting on the couch, engrossed in a book, a frequent occurrence, he would slide his index finger across the coffee table to ensure I had finished my dusting chores before reading.
As an adult, I follow the family tradition of hosting a big seder dinner with family and friends. And thanks to my parents, seder in my daily life is a deeply embedded habit, a Mussar trait I don’t have to spend much time cultivating. Instead I can focus on other traits, like patience, that I find more challenging.