A Brainy Seder: Four Questions that Guide Us to One Brain, One People and One God

At our Seder table, I’ve watched children growing into adults with children of their own, grandchildren who once recited the Four Questions on my lap now attending college, and friends old and new sharing this special time. However, these Seder delights can distract us from a darkness just beyond our view. Chairs where loved ones once sat are now empty. When moments of doubt, unsettled days, and disconcerting feelings like those that plagued our fleeing ancestors obscure our path, we find support and a way forward through Seder rituals and story, family and friends. This year we will bring special light to our journey as we explore Seder through Interpersonal Neurobiology, the science of our brain in relationship. The first of our Four Questions opens the door.

Why is this Passover different from all others?

On all other nights, we just read the Haggadah but on this night, we will create a special link between spirit and body, blessing and eating by examining Passover through the scientific understanding of our brain. Interpersonal Neurobiology connects our brains, minds and relationships. It tracks the information and energy flowing within our brain and body (the biological), and in our mind (the psychological) as we interact with others (the social), where this internal information flow becomes visible on the canvas of relationship. Thus Interpersonal Neurobiology suggests that we become who we are in large measure through our interactions with early caretakers and later loves.

In this context it is worth noting that in the Exodus story, God often takes on the mantle of caretaker, responding to the Hebrews’ cry, effecting their escape, as well as providing safety, guidance, and nurturance.

From birth, our brain is built for and through relationships. Repeated neural firings create the neural networks that we experience as behaviors, thoughts, meanings, and emotions. Attention within our mind and brain steers the flow of information and energy toward this person or away from another, affecting neural firings and shaping our physical brain. These mind and brain functions will show themselves in the Exodus story and at our Seder table.

The left and right cerebral hemispheres are the focus of our attention at this brainy Seder. While both participate to some degree in all that we do, each hemisphere has preferences, driving energy and information in its own particular direction and approaching relationship in a unique way. The resulting tension carries the potential for conflict. Yet the goal of Seder, of prayer, and of our lives is to heal separateness and move us toward wholeness and unification.

Like our ancestors, we love and learn with our relationship brain, desiring, getting stuck in tight places, and yearning for release.

Risking all, as they fled Egyptian slavery and stumbled into an uncharted wilderness, our ancestors lived into powerful questions: How to escape both the physical bonds of slavery and the mental rigidity that was needed to survive it? And having crossed the Sea of Reeds, how to navigate the uncharted desert? Today, while our personal bonds and uncharted challenges are different, they are nonetheless potent in our lives. So we must address different Seder questions: Did I get it all right? Why are we doing this again? How do we connect food and family with ritual and God? These three questions will guide us toward the wisdom of brain and spirit contained in Seder and the Exodus.

Did I get it all right?

Seder means “order” and this draws our attention toward our left hemisphere and its partiality for listing, literality, linear learning, and language, all of which contribute to its preference for order. Precision, everything in its place, words following words in proper sequence — these are our left hemisphere’s forte. The sense of certainty and rightness that flows from these preferences can be very appealing but within them is an often-overlooked vulnerability. Many of us have endured a Seder with our eyelids drooping, wondering if it would ever end. Rituals were performed with every word correctly spoken; yet something was missing. Precise, literal delivery disconnects order from enlivening experience. While it may process all things in proscribed order, the left hemisphere may operate in a social vacuum. That is its vulnerability, for we are weakened when certainty separates us from the unpredictability and compassion that breathes life into order.

Why are we doing this again?

Enter the right hemisphere. Yes, we bless the greens, the matzo, and the wine. Yes, we retell the story. We were slaves, Pharaoh was mean, and God helped us safely through the Sea of Reeds. Yes, we want to complete the Seder rituals and stories. But what do they mean to me, to us? How do I make sense of them? Our brain’s right hemisphere looks at the Seder through these questions, seeking to place the bits and pieces into context, striving to understand how one part relates to the other, and desiring to bring this understanding into our own lives. This relational, global, contextual approach weaves the pieces together, moving us toward meaningful personal experience. Personal flexibility is the right hemisphere’s gift to us. Yet it also includes a vulnerability, for if the right hemisphere over-emphasizes the big picture, the essential order may be undermined. Our right hemisphere may see little need for ritual and order, or, alternatively, it may feel overwhelmed when too many details collapse into a mushy muddle. The right hemisphere may not understand that a family crunching matzo without words or rituals, gathered for fun and food without order and structure, is not a Seder.

When one hemisphere wins over the other, we all lose. So before linking the strengths of our two-hemisphere brain, we must tackle a problem lurking within the Passover story.

The Exodus story is built on a win-lose assumption: Hebrews plus One = winner, Pharaoh minus two = loser. Since winners write the history, the good guys always win. In the Exodus conflict the stakes are especially high, since the outcome serves to validate our belief in God and God’s power. The first sentence of the Ten Commandments reads, “I the Lord am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage” (Exod. 20:2). In the Biblical perspective, the fact that the Hebrews with their One God beat Pharaoh, who lost both his army and Hebrew work force, was proof of God’s existence and power. Not so in relationships between humans and not so within our brain, for here the win-lose assumption carries calamitous consequences.

As we recite the Ten Plagues, Seder reminds us to mitigate the win/lose belief. Removing a drop of wine from our cups as we speak each plague’s name reminds us that there is something more important than winning. Each drop removed diminishes our fullness and directs our attention to the pain and loss the Egyptians experienced. From the brainy perspective, each drop triggers the mirror neurons and resonance circuits in our brain and allows us to feel a bit of what the Egyptians might have felt. And since neurons firing in our brain have no calendar, the sadness we feel today about an empty chair at our Seder table is no different than the sadness an Egyptian’s brain experienced about those empty chariots. Drop after single drop falls from our finger but on our plate they merge into one pool. In the same way, our brain’s empathy circuitry links those around this table to our own losses as well as to ancient winners and losers. In joy and in pain, our brain’s capacity for empathy and connection balances the underlying winner-loser disconnection, allowing us to shift our attention to integration.

How do we connect food and family with ritual and God?

Honoring the strengths of each of our brain’s two hemispheres while managing their vulnerabilities, Seder moves us toward integration. Order and predictability are valuable but they must be infused with a personal meaning and context. Bringing them together, we integrate order and meaning, food and God.

We integrate when we link separate elements into one functioning, meaningful whole. Seder again guides us, beginning by pointing to each individual item on the Seder plate. Once we’ve honored each in its proper place, Seder draws us into the story, rooted both in pain and promise. “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and populous nation” (Deut. 26:5). These potent words remind us that loss and lack can be transformed into a potent multitude, and that what is stuck can find release.

Our emotional brain can get stuck. Too much order locks us into rigidity, while too much connection and context spins us toward chaos. Like our ancestors, we must seek balance between these conflicting paths, for the costs of rigidity and chaos are high. Always being correct according to a prescribed pattern, this rigid rightness excludes the needs of the people at our table and across the globe and attempts to override the challenges of changing circumstances. Like Pharaoh, we can get stuck in a life that is correct according to its internal logic but isolated from the world around us. On the other hand, by allowing the needs of others to overwhelm our own, we slip towards chaos. Walking into the unmarked desert sands without a clear map leaves us bouncing from one place to another, connected, but without path or purpose to guide our feet.

Passover helps us get unstuck. A few Hebrews descended into Egypt where they increased dramatically in numbers — but not in organization. The Passover story reminds us that their lives had been directed, not by their own desires, but by the needs of a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph. This Pharaoh imposed ever-tightening rules upon them, leaving them less and less room to take a breath of their own. Get up now, gather more straw, mold tighter bricks and stack them here for Pharaoh’s building. A few Hebrews had traveled to Egypt, but their multitudinous descendants had become enslaved in mental rigidity. Stuck, and then . . .

A wordless scream of pain erupted from the depths of the Hebrews’ heart. Akin to our right hemisphere, this single howl connected peoples and worlds as well as healing centuries of seeming separation between God and the Hebrew multitudes. It succeeded where no logical left-hemisphere list of grievances could. To that cry God responded by reaching toward the Hebrews in ways they were able to comprehend. Moses, although reluctantly recruited, spoke God’s words to both the Hebrews and Pharaoh. Then God turned the natural world on its head, riveting human attention and undermining social stability. Blood poured from the sky, insects swarmed across the land, and itching skin erupted with boils. Darkness locked people in their houses, alone and isolated. Disrupted order shocked both daily routines and embedded beliefs. Pharaoh’s rigid rightness was finally shattered by the death of his and all other first-born sons. God used chaos in nature to shatter social rigidity. But God also created rigidity, for it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart. To dislodge the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery, God integrated rigidity and chaos toward a single purpose.

Our Seder rituals take us back to moments of chaos and rigidity. We break the middle matzo and then mix it with maror and charoset. We wash our hands without and with prayer. We dip not once but twice. We recite the whole Hebrew Haggadah or adapt it to meet our guests’ preferences.

We seek the path between rigidity and chaos that leads toward connection and integration, as did our ancestors. When a brain is locked in linear logic, that person is cut off from the person sitting in the next chair in the same way as an Egyptian was isolated in that impossible darkness. When a brain is lost in a chaotic muddle, that person doesn’t know whether to step toward or away from others and may end up walking in circles as the Egyptians did when their world tumbled over and over. So how do we find our balance?

Attuning melts rigidity and moderates muddles. When we allow ourselves to experience another’s emotions in a way that neither locks them out nor overwhelms us, we are attuning. The people’s painful cry helped God shift attention back to our enslaved ancestors. At the same time, through tenacious leaders and dramatic disruptions, the Hebrews’ attention was shifted back to a promise of Divine connection that had been long muffled in brains stuck in slavery.

As God attuned, humans slowly heard the message and opened to the potential connection. But stepping out of certainty, however rigid and unrelenting, into the unknown was as difficult for our ancestors as it is for us, especially when there’s even the slightest whiff of chaos beyond the threshold of our present reality. Many plagues and much convincing were required to disrupt the Hebrews’ sense of certainty and drive them through the Sea of Reeds toward the uncharted desert wilderness. We love freedom but resist giving up certainties, even unpleasant ones.

God’s actions suggest attuning, but what about the Hebrews? Once liberated, our ancestors fled — in fear. They ran from, not towards. Only when they stood on the far bank of the Sea of Reeds, after watching the dying breaths of the Egyptian horses and riders bubble up through the engulfing waters, could they reach to God in song. Released from fear, it was their attention to God’s power that fueled their song, but this is not attuning. Their bodies had exited slavery but their brains, like matzo, were not yet ready to rise into freedom. Attuning required further training during the desert march. Today reclining at our Seder table, a free people unburdened by authoritarian constraints, we must ask, how does Seder help us attune to God and to each other?

Bringing These Four Questions and Our Two Hemispheres into One Seder

We attune by connecting with others and by blessing. Each time we smile across the table, encourage a child, or listen to an elder’s story for the tenth time, we attune. Each time we say, “Blessed are You . . .” we open a connection with the Divine One, one word at a time, one act at a time. By the candle’s glow, by the greens salty in our mouths, by the flow of water over our hands, by the snapping of that solid yet fragile matzo, and by honoring the grapes transformed into wine, we train our brain to reach beyond ourselves. And most importantly, we attune to holiness when, gathered around that table, we engage our mirror neurons, allowing our awareness to reach beyond this body and belly to those living in other countries and at other times. By reaching out to other people, we wire our brains to connect to the Divine.

Even though the meal may receive the evening’s most enthusiastic response, the Seder itself helps our brains bridge worlds and times. As we remember and believe, kvetch and nosh, recite and bless, we connect ourselves with others. Neurons fire, triggered equally when lifting the matzo, seeing it raised, or by thinking about the act. As we retell the Seder story, those neurons link us back to relatives no longer with us and forward to generations not yet born. As we direct our attention to balancing pain and joy and living fully in strength and vulnerability, we rewire our brain towards wholeness.

Seder challenges our emotional brain to pursue an integrative path, avoiding rigidity and chaos, navigating between orderly stability and personal flexibility. Understanding the strengths and vulnerabilities of our brain’s right and left hemispheres and the power of integration, Seder helps us live well in this ever-challenging world. As my Aunt Belle says, we stride forward, “stepping firmly on a wobbly boulder.”

Suggested readings for Interpersonal Neurobiology:

Cozolino, Louis, The Neuroscience of Human Relationships, 2006.
Iacoboni, Marco, Mirroring People, 2008.
McGilchrist, Iain, The Master and his Emissary, 2009.
Siegel, Daniel J., The Mindful Brain, 2007.
Siegel, Daniel J., Mindsight, 2010.
Torah quotes are from Etz Hayim, 2001.

Credit for left brain, right brain image: Creative Commons/vaXzine.


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