Coping with the Empty Chair at the Seder: A Personal Journal for Memory and Contemplation

Haggadah Section: Karpas ,Yachatz ,Maggid - Beginning ,Rachtzah ,Commentary / Readings ,Bareich

Each year, the chairs around our seder table are filled with different individuals who join together to retell, once again, the story of our enslavement and our redemption. The Passover seder is more than a history lesson, for each of us is instructed to see ourselves as if we had personally been freed from Egypt. It has to become our own story, told in the context of the generations of our family and community. We add new layers as this year’s experience melds with the memories of the past.

Yet some years are painfully different. A beloved family member or friend has died during the past year. There is an empty chair at the seder table. We may find ourselves dreading the coming holiday. How can we go through the same rituals, when life has been so drastically altered? What if we begin to cry at the seder table? What if everyone is so afraid of pain that they ignore the empty chair? Are we even allowed to bring our sadness to the seder, which seems like it should be a happy occasion? Sometimes death changes family/ social relations and yours is also the empty chair at a seder. How do you find meaning in the holiday now?

Using the traditional structure and rituals of the seder service, as found in the Haggadah, below are ways that enable you to pay attention to your journey of grief. Each represents one step of the seder with teachings, comments and questions relating that Jewish ritual or prayer to the individual experience of memory, loss and healing.

Karpas | כַּרְפַּס
The First Dipping Hors d’oeuvres of Spring Greens:  Salt water represents our tears as slaves in Egypt. In my bereavement, as time goes by, what are s the sources of my tears? What makes me cry? Is there anything that still enslaves me to my tears? The karpas, a spring vegetable, represents renewal that comes in the springtime. As I move from grief and mourning into a different yet potentially full and renewed life what is growing in me and what comes alive in me again?

Yachatz | יַחַץ
Breaking the Matza:  This matza represents brokenness. As the matza is broken in half, the broken piece is set aside for the afikomen, which when found toward the end of the seder, symbolizes renewed wholeness and redemption. In my broken-heartedness, have there been paths of healing for me? In my brokenness, have I found places of greater strength within me? Can I imagine moving towards a new kind of wholeness?

Maggid | מַגִיד
Telling the Story:  One of the central mitzvot of Pesach is telling the story of oppression and the journey to liberation. It is interesting to note that the Haggadah offers us at least four versions of the Passover story. There is telling through symbols, historical recounting, moral expositions, and facts with expanded interpretations. What are some of the different ways in which you tell the stories of your loved one and the journey you took together?

Rachtza | רַחְצָה
Washing Before Eating Matza:  When we have been to a cemetery, it is customary to wash our hands before entering a building. It is a remnant of the Biblical idea that contact with the dead puts an individual into a different state. Purification by water is necessary prior to reentering the community. What rituals have been helpful to you in making the transition from focusing completely on your loved one and your loss, and being able to be more fully a part of your own changed life?

Birkat Hamazon – Barech | בָּרֵך
The Blessing after the Meal:  They who sow in tears, shall reap with joy. You have shed many tears since the death of your loved one. What are the blessings you received from your loved one which continue to nourish you? What are the blessings that have come into your life since your loss?

From: Coping with the Empty Chair at the Seder: A Personal Journal for Memory and Contemplation,

Prepared By Rabbi Stephanie Dickstein, LMSW, The Jewish Board


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