The seder plate is filled with symbols that in themselves and combined with others offer us many metaphors for the mixture of bitter and sweet in our lives.
The egg is a symbol of spring, birth, the cycle of life — and of mourning. The egg also appears on a different ritual platter, served to mourners with round bread and lentils when they return from the cemetery. This is the “meal of consolation.”
As Jews, we understand that death is part of life and that we are guided by rituals which help us to hold the grief while we comfort the bereaved.
So, too, we have Jewish ways of facing our own mortality and preparing for our own death in the midst of our family and community. Passover, when families gather together, can provide a special time for opening up these discussions.
According to a powerful 12th-century midrash, God, reluctant to tell Aaron that he is dying, asks Moshe to do it. Moshe studies the creation story with his brother, indirectly approaching the topic of death. Eventually Aaron asks, “Is this matter meant for me?” Aaron accepts his impending death and the brothers speak openly. Together with Aaron’s son Elazar, they prepare. Together, in the sight of the people, brother and son accompany Aaron on his final journey up the mountain.
Jewish tradition teaches us that life is good, we are obligated to seek healing when we are ill, and that saving a life is one of the paramount mitzvot. It also teaches us that we are mortal; our time to die will come. It advises us to speak with our loved ones and our religious advisors about end-of-life issues, and about our wishes, fears, and hopes. It commands us to offer comfort and companionship, but it forbids us to prolong dying and to hinder the journey from this world to the next.
Questions are an essential part of being human and Jewish, and are essential to the seder. We cannot begin the maggid (telling) section of the Haggada without a question, any question, first being asked. These questions are framed in an intergenerational format: “When your child asks, you shall tell.”
A beloved part of the Haggada is the story of the four children. This part of the Haggada suggests ways in which we might think about family conversations regarding our own acceptance of mortality.
The wise child asks: “What are the statutes, the laws, and the ordinances which our God has commanded us?” You should instruct this child of all the laws, including the idea that the body belongs to God and we inhabit it for a limited time; that we are created in God’s image; and that we are obligated to try to heal.
We should teach that organ donation is a mitzva of the highest level, and that we cannot commit suicide or euthanasia.
One may pray for death to come and hope for miracles, but there are laws to determine when we may forgo life-sustaining treatments, and avoid “heroic” measures that only prolong suffering.
We must provide effective palliative care and treat pain. You should tell this child what is most important to you and guide him or her in general ways concerning your thoughts about medical treatments that might be offered at some point.
The difficult child asks, “What does this all mean to you?” To this child, you need to speak of your own experience and be clear on your needs and wishes. But you must not turn this child away, but instead try to understand the fear, the anger, the grief which separates her from you and to reach out for reconciliation, offering or asking for forgiveness if at all possible.
The simple child asks. “Ma zot, what is this all about?” To this child you should speak about the human journey, about your faith, about the values of your life, and how you have tried to live them. You should instruct this child in the guidance that is available and the people who will be resources on the journey, when the time comes.
And for the child who does not know how to ask, you should open the discussion, beginning with love, moving on to trust, and speaking about the importance of hope and the fact that there is always something to hope for.
Although the Haggada presents the four children as unique one-dimensional caricatures, the text actually recognizes that the situation is more complex. My favorite visual midrash is the picture of the four children found in the Rabbinical Assembly’s Feast of Freedom Haggada.
Each of the four children is made of a primary color, but each figure also contains the other three colors. As we ask questions at different times along the journey of health and illness and in different kinds of relationships, each of us will, at times, be each of those children. And because death does not just come to the elderly, and illness can strike at any age, we must make sure these discussions are multi-directional.
At the end of the seder, we sing Had Gadya, in which we imagine that the Holy One slaughters the Angel of Death. Until that day comes, Judaism offers us wisdom and guidance for the journey from Mitzrayim, through the narrow places. May we all be granted the words and the companionship on the way.