So much attention is lavished by all of us on the night of the seder; the meticulous preparations, the elaborate menu and of course the Seder proceedings themselves. Of course, what with the wide variety of Haggadahs that one can purchase and the vast amount of material online, so many people around me are busy preparing the intellectual component of the seder as well. My question is about the very end of the seder, and it never really gets addressed. What should we do at the Nirtza stage? Most of us are ready to simply move on by that point and just get the whole thing over with. However, it seems to me that there must be more to it than simply, “Okay folks, it’s over.”
I hear you loud and clear. No one will argue with you. Mah Nishtana, the Four Sons and “Dayenu” get all the attention! It is time for us to shift our collective Passover gaze gently over to the end of the seder and give a little equal time to the last step of seder night, Nirtza. We have imbibed those four cups of wine, crunched down on that Hillel sandwich, and maybe even slurped down one too many matzoh balls, but folks we’ve got to pull it together and do the right thing for that oft-neglected lonely last step of the night. Nirtza, this is your moment. Your time has come. I offer you the Nirtza Chronicles!
Dramatically different than all the other steps of the Haggadah, Nirtza demands no action of us. Where the other 13 steps direct us to actively make the kiddush, wash our hands, dip the green vegetable, break the middle matzoh, tell the story, wash again, eat the matzoh, then the maror, make the sandwich, eat the meal, followed by the afikoman, recite the grace and sing Hallel — it is decidedly unclear as to what is expected of us during this final last step. Could one say that Nirtza is a state of mind? It is more an emotion than an action. We hope our seder is “Nirtza,” translated usually as accepted, as in, “We hope our observance is accepted” or “that our seder is acceptable to the Almighty.” It’s a happy awareness of duty truly performed.
Perhaps Nirtza is the moment when we take a step back and reflect on the entire enterprise of the evening: The blessings, the mitzvot performed, the story of the Exodus told. We then, with a sense of confidence, recite the 11th-century liturgical poem written by Rabbi Yosef Tov Elem of France: “Chasal siddur pesach kehilchato” — “The seder is concluded according to all its laws in accord with all its laws.”
That is what we recite if we are Ashkenazic. The Sephardic tradition does not include this short poem taken from the Ashkenzaic liturgy of the Sabbath before Pesach. Nor is this short poem recited in the Chabad community. The Alter Rebbe taught that the seder should never come to conclusion — it should metaphorically span the whole year long.
That said, we are then left wondering, what is this Nirtza? The Lehman Haggadah provides this rhyme to capture the moment:
He who celebrates the Passover service aright
Will acquire true grace in Heaven’s sight.
The idea then is that it is not just a sense of satisfaction that we have completed the evening’s obligations. No, there is more. We hope that our deeds are accepted favorably on high.
Different Haggadahs, and there are quite a few, explain Nirtza with this short clarification: “If you did the seder appropriately it will be ratzoi, desired before God and you will merit many pleasant and good years.” Another offers this: “If one did this seder like this, God will desire his deeds and he will be blessed from Heaven.” Though abundantly comforting after the monumental efforts we all make in order to make our seder, there seems to be something a bit too pat about these tacit glosses.
Interestingly, this very word “Nirtza” appears in the book of Vayikra in the section that outlines the laws of the sacrifices. There, it is critical for understanding an essential characteristic of sacrifices. The one bringing the sacrifice places his hands on the offering and then it is accepted for him — it is Nirtza for him. Commentaries struggle to understand this phenomenon. A person offers a sacrifice, places their hands on it and — Poof! — it is accepted?
Rabbi Yaacov Mecklenberg, in his work “The Ketav Vekabbalah,” explains that the word Nirtza is reflective. It is not that we are able to discern whether or not heaven has bestowed forgiveness upon the one bringing the offering, but on the person who brings the offering is himself transformed by the act of bringing the offering. He is Nirtza, more acceptable to himself, by having been transformed by the action of sacrifice.
Now we’re talking. Perhaps this last step of the seder is asking us not to simply sit back with satisfaction: “We did it — great seder — let’s hope God liked it.” But rather, we’ve gone through this huge experience, we need to ask ourselves, to demand of ourselves, “In what way have we been transformed? In what way have we been changed by the experience?” Not an easy question to answer.
The hope is that perhaps by responding to the questions our children, family members and friends have asked through the night, through the dialogue of exchange of ideas, we are now hopefully better people and parents then when the evening began. Did we listen to our children? Did we pay attention to what others have had to say? Were we open to the voices of others?
Are we changed people after taking an entire night to remember the Exodus and recall what our people have been through? Are we changed for the better for having paused to appreciate our freedom and to recommit ourselves to being instruments of change in the world? If we can answer these questions, well then, Nirtza, we are indeed a bit more acceptable then when we began.