The Riddle of the Fours

Four questions. Four sons. Four expressions of geulah.

Four cups of wine. Dam (=44) was placed, in Mitzrayim, on the doorway (deles, “door,” being the technical spelling of what we call the letter daled, whose value is four).

Let us move fourward – please forgive (fourgive?) me! – on the question of… why.

The chachamim who formulated the Haggadah intended it to plant important concepts in the hearts and minds of its readers – especially its younger ones, toward whom the Seder, our mesorah teaches, is particularly aimed.

Which it why the Seder persists, not only in the memories of all who are reading this, but in those of countless Jews who have strayed far from our mesorah.  So many Jews who are, tragically, alienated from virtually every other Jewish observance still feel compelled to have at least some sort of Seder, to read a Haggadah, or even – if they have drifted too far from their heritage to comfortably confront the original – to compose their own “versions.”  (I once, long ago, joked before a group that a “Vegetarian Haggadah” would likely appear any year now, and someone in attendance later showed me precisely such a book – though it lacked the “Paschal Turnip” I had imagined.)

Part of the brilliance of the Haggadah is its employ of “child-friendly” elements.  Not just to entertain the young people at the Seder and keep them awake, but to subtly plant the seeds of important ideas in their minds and hearts.  Dayeinu and Chad Gadya and Echad Mi Yodea are not pointless; they are pedagogy – and of the most effective sort.

There are riddles, too, in the Haggadah.  Like the Puzzle of the Ubiquitous Fours.

The most basic and urgent concept the Seder experience is meant to impart to young Jews is that Yetzias Mitzrayim forged something vital: our peoplehood.  It, in other words, created Klal Yisrael.

Before the event that we celebrate on the Seder night took place, a multitude of Yaakov Avinu’s descendants were in Mitzrayim. Each individual rose or fell on his or her own merits.  And not all of them. Chazal teach us, merited to leave Mitzrayim.  Those who did, though, who emerged from their blood-adorned doorways and passed through the channel of the Yam Suf, were reborn as something new: a people.

And so, at the Seder, we seek to instill in our children the realization that they are not mere individuals but rather parts of an interwoven whole, members of a nation unconstrained by geographical boundaries but inexorably linked by history, destiny and Hashem’s love.  We impress our charges with the fact that they are links in a shimmering ethereal chain stretching back to when our people was divinely redeemed from mundane slavery in Egypt and then entered a sublime servitude of a very different sort – to HaKadosh Boruch Hu – at Har Sinai.

Thus, the role we adults play on Pesach night, vis a vis the younger Jews with whom we share the experience, is a very precise one.  We are teachers, to be sure, but it is not information that we are communicating; it is identity.  Although the father of the home may be conducting the Seder, he is acting not in his normative role as teacher of Torah but rather in something more akin to a maternal role, as a nurturer of the neshamos of the children present, an imparter of identity.  And thus, in a sense, he is acting in a maternal role.

Mothers, of course, are the parents who most effectively mold their children, who most make them who they are.  That, interestingly, parallels the halachic determinant of Jewish identity, which is dependent on mothers.  While a Jew’s shevet follows the paternal line, whether one is a member of Klal Yisrael or not depends entirely on maternal status.

The Haggadah may itself contain the solution to the riddle of the fours. It’s only speculation, but it has long struck me as having the ring of emes.  The recurrent numerical theme in our exquisite Haggadah, employed each year to instill Jewish identity might be reflective of that halachic status-determinant, and, at the same time, reminding us of the inestimable importance of mothers.

Because the Haggadah, after all, has its own number-decoder built right in, toward its end, where most good books’ resolutions take place.  We’re a little hazy once it’s reached, after four kosos and all, but it’s unmistakably there, in “Echad Mi Yodea” – the Seder-song that provides Jewish associations with numbers.

“Who knows four?…”

© 2017 Hamodia




Liberation Theology

In the summer of 1776, Benjamin Franklin proposed that the Great Seal of the United States should depict Moshe Rabbeinu at the Yam Suf, his staff lifted high and the Mitzriyim drowning in the sea.  Jefferson urged a different design: Klal Yisrael marching through the Midbar, led by amud ha’eish and amud he’anan, the pillar of fire and the pillar of smoke.

American slaves in the 19th century famously adopted the imagery and language of Yetzias Mitzrayim to express the hopes they harbored to one day be free.  In one famous spiritual, they sang of “When Israel was in Egypt land… oppressed so hard they could not stand,” punctuating each phrase with the refrain “Let My people go.”

Similar references to our ancestors’ liberation from Mitzrayim informed the American labor and civil rights movements as well.  In his celebrated “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, Martin Luther King pined to “watch G-d’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt… on toward the promised land.”  And he sought to assure American blacks that “the Israelites” suffered much before gaining their freedom, and so neither should his listeners give up hope.

It says much that so many have modeled their aspirations on the Divine extraction of goy mikerev goy, “a nation from the midst of a nation” (Devarim 4:34).  To the Western world, the account of our ancestors’ release from slavery is the mother of all liberation movements.  And, at least in a way, one supposes, it is.

But the reading of freedom as mere release from repression is sorely incomplete.  Because after Shalach es ami, “Let my people go,” comes a most important additional word: viyaavduni – “so that they may serve Me” (Shmos 9:1).  Klal Yisrael wasn’t merely taken from slavery to “freedom,” in the word’s simplest sense.  We were taken from meaningless, onerous oppression to… a different servitude, the most meaningful kind imaginable: serving Hashem.

The Hebrew word for freedom, of course, is cheirus, evoking the word charus, “inscribed,” the word the Torah uses to describe the etching of the words on the Luchos, the “Tablets of the Law.”  Chazal see a profound truth in the two words’ similarity, and teach us: “The only free person is the one immersed in Torah.”

What in the world, others might ask us, does immersion in an intellectually taxing corpus of abstruse texts, subtle ideas and legal/ritual minutiae have to do with freedom?

They would claim to feel most free lying on beach chairs in their back yards on a day off from work, sunshine on their faces and cold beverages within reach, with nothing, absolutely nothing, to do.  And, to be sure, there are in fact times when we all need to relax, to recharge.  But that’s not the meaning of freedom, at least not in the Torah’s view.

In the words of Iyov, adam l’amal yulad, “Man is born to toil” (5:7).  What we simplemindedly think of as “freedom” is not true cherus.  We’re here to labor, to study, to control ourselves, to apply ourselves, to accomplish things. Our “freedom” is release from the meaningless servitude some pledge to a master like money, chemicals, or this or that transient pleasure; and entry into meaningful servitude to something transcendent.

Truth be told, the freedom touted by “the velt” doesn’t even yield the fulfillment it promises. Or even happiness.  Winning the lottery and moving to Monaco to indulge one’s whims may be a common daydream, but, as countless accounts have borne witness, release from economic straits and the embrace of hedonism have yielded more suicides than serenity.

True freedom, ironically, comes from hard work.  Applying ourselves to our Divine mandate liberates us from the limitations of our inner Egypts, and brings true fulfillment, true joy.

Yesh chachmah bagoyim, Chazal tell us.  Listen to the words of the Indian poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore:

“I have on my table a violin string. It is free to move in any direction I like. If I twist one end, it responds; it is free.

“But it is not free to sing. So I take it and fix it into my violin. I bind it, and when it is bound, it is free for the first time to sing.”

What a perceptive mashal, and how inadvertently apt.

Because when our forebears were released from Egyptian bondage, as they prepared to embark on their path to viyaavduni, they paused to sing a song, Shiras Hayam.

© 2016 Hamodia




Evtach V’lo Efchad

The “bedikas matzah” (the search for matzah crumbs in the couch and the carpet) is over.  Post-Pesach, the vacuum cleaners have been recalled into service, and the boxes of Pesach dishes and utensils have been marched back down to the cellar (or up to the attic), silently passing their chametz counterparts being marched in the opposite direction.

The Sedarim took place and their ethereal light shone.  Questions were asked and responses recounted.  Divrei Torah were delivered, and, for the fortunate among us, new insights were granted.

And the haftarah on Yom Tov’s final day (in chutz laAretz) was read.  Were we listening?

The excerpt from Yeshayahu (10:32-12:6) includes the Navi’s vision of the end of history, when the “wolf will dwell with the lamb” and perfect peace will reign among the world’s human inhabitants as well, for they will all recognize Hashem and His people.

The backdrop for the expression of that vision was the massing outside Yerushalayim of the army of Ashur, intoxicated with its successful conquest of much of Eretz Yisroel.  Its king Sancheriv and his henchman Ravshakeh mocked the Jews; brimming with self-confidence, they blustered and blasphemed. But the besieging forces were to meet a sudden downfall, as the Navi foretold, suddenly and miraculously smitten by Hashem’s malach, as recounted in Melachim II (18-19).

Yeshayahu then moves to his vision of a more distant future, when Moshiach will appear, Klal Yisroel will be rescued from all who wish them harm and “the land will be filled with knowledge of Hashem, like the waters cover the seabed.”

Yirmiyahu Hanavi also speaks of that era, giving voice to Hashem’s promise that one day “It will no longer be said, ‘Chai Hashem, Who brought the Bnei Yisrael up from the land of Mitzrayim,’ but rather ‘Chai Hashem Who brought the Bnei Yisrael up from the land of the north and from all the lands to which He cast them, and returned them onto their [own] land’.” (16:14)

In other words, despite the miracles and wonders of Yetzias Mitzrayim, the germinal event in Klal Yisroel’s formation, that geulah will pale beside the one yet to come.

Why, though? Didn’t our ancestors’ enslavement in Egypt seem a hopeless sentence, as we recalled on the Seder nights, and wouldn’t its continuation have spelled the very undermining of the Jewish nation?

The makkos and Krias Yam Suf , though, as powerful expressions of Hashem’s love of His people as they were, were but temporary interruptions of the natural course of things.  What the Neviim presage, though, is a permanent transformation of nature itself.

It has forever been the case that animals are both food and prey; it has always been so.  A world where the lamb will be able to invite the wolf for a visit is a world radically altered in its essence.  As is a world where Klal Yisrael has been gathered from the corners of the earth back to their promised home.  And a world where, instead of the “normative” hatred of Jews, all the nations will unite in humble servitude to Hashem and in reverence for His people.

There are already individuals among the umos haolam, in some very unlikely places, who have already embraced the truths of history, and who, from their distances, venerate Hashem and revere Klal Yisrael.  I personally have corresponded with one such a family, in a Muslim land, for more than a decade.  The day will come, the neviim assure us, that such recognition of truth will, as we might say today, “go viral,” and fill the world “with knowledge of Hashem, like the waters cover the seabed.” A striking simile in this, our world, enveloped as it is by an ocean of information.

The Navi’s vision of the future should intrude on our present.  All the threats against Klal Yisrael these days should remind us of Sancheriv and Ravshaka’s boastful rantings – and of their downfall.

And they should remind us, too, that it is Hashem alone, Who, as in Mitzrayim, will usher in the metamorphosis of the world the Neviim envisioned.  When we knit our brows and announce our confident convictions about whether this or that is the savviest geopolitical course; this or that a leader to be trusted; this or that a wise pundit or a fool, we are really just entertaining ourselves.

The only truth is, as Yeshayahu proclaims: “Behold, Hashem is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid… for great in your midst is the Holy One of Yisrael.”

 © 2015 Hamodia




The Seder Is A Mother

The Forward published an essay I wrote about the “maternal” essence of the Pesach Seder.  You can read it here.




Dear Alyssa

Dear Alyssa,

Congratulations on winning the Oratory Contest of the Jewish youth movement BBYO.  The topic was: “If you could modify any of the Ten Commandments, which would you choose and what would your modification be?”

You chose the fourth, the Sabbath, since “as a Reform Jew” you “do not observe the Sabbath in a traditional way.”  Your suggested replacement, in consonance with your belief that “Judaism means something different to everyone,” is: “Be the Jew You Want to Be.

You explained how “No one likes to be commanded to do anything, and especially not teens,” and that you therefore “practice Judaism in the way that works for” you.

“Judaism,” you wrote, “means something different to everyone. I believe that we should not let the kind of Jew we think we should be get in the way of the kind of Jew we want to be.”

What kind of Jews, though, should we want to be?

I don’t know if your family celebrates Passover.  But most affiliated Jewish families, including those belonging to Reform congregations, do mark the holiday, which, you likely know, will arrive in mere weeks.  If you have a Seder, it might have a contemporary theme, which is common in non-Orthodox circles.  You might be focusing on the economic enslavement of workers in many places today, or on human trafficking, or on the environment or on civil rights

All, of course, are worthy subjects for focus.  But Passover, or Pesach, has a history that goes back long before all those concerns.  Your great-grandparents, if not your grandparents, likely conducted a traditional Seder, as surely did their grandparents, and theirs before them, and theirs before them, all the way back to the event such a Seder commemorates: the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt.

It happened, Alyssa.  The Jewish people’s historical tradition has been meticulously transmitted from parents to children over thousands of years, and its most central events were the exodus from Egypt and the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai shortly thereafter

The exodus from Egypt was not, as some people think, a rejection of servitude and embrace of freedom.  It was, rather, the rejection of servitude to a mortal king and an embrace of servitude to the ultimate King.  If you read the Torah carefully, you’ll see that fact clearly.  “Send out My nation,” G-d commands, through Moses, “so that they may serve Me.”

And so, while you’re right that people, and especially teens, generally don’t like to be commanded, from the perspective of your religious heritage, being commanded by the Creator, and thus being a light unto the nations in that acceptance of His will, is the greatest privilege imaginable.

In fact, it is the essence of Jewish life.

The end of the exodus story is the revelation of G-d to our ancestors at Mt. Sinai.  There, in an unparalleled historical event, the Creator spoke directly to hundreds of thousands of people.  No one could fabricate such a claim – and no other religion or group ever has.

And at that singular happening, the Torah was entrusted to our ancestors, along with the rules for understanding it and developing the system of laws that we have come to call Halacha.

You are correct that the Reform movement decided at its inception, in nineteenth century Germany, to reject what Judaism stood for over the previous thousands of years.  But there are still Jews – very many of us – who strive to maintain the integrity of the “original” Judaism.

As a thinking, caring young person, you owe it to yourself (and to your people) to not be satisfied with the conclusion you have currently reached, but rather to continue to investigate Jewish history and Jewish texts, and to keep an open mind.  You may be surprised to discover not only the historical veracity of classical Judaism, but the richness of living a “commanded” Jewish life.

I wish you well in that most important quest.




Exodus Exegesis

Well known to every yeshiva child of even tender age are the four terms used in parshas Vo’eira to describe the redemption of our ancestors from Mitzrayim, and associated with the Seder’s four cups of wine.  Two other words, however, are used repeatedly by the Torah to refer to Yetzias Mitzrayim.  While they may come less readily to mind, they share something odd in common: both, along with “yetziah,” one of the leshonos of geulah, are terms for describing a marriage’s dissolution.

The Gemara’s term for divorce is geirushin, and its root is a word used repeatedly in Shmos (as in 6:1, 10:11, 11:1 and 12:39) to describe what Par’oh will be compelled to do to the Jewish people – “divorce” them from the land.  And the Torah’s other own word for divorce, shilu’ach – as in vishilchoh mibaiso (Devorim 24:3) – is also used, numerous times in Shmos (examples include 4:23, 5:2, 7:27, 8:25, 9:2, 10:4 and 13:17) to refer to the escape from Mitzrayim.

In fact, the word yetziah, one of the four well-known redemption words and the word employed in the standard phrase for the exodus, Yetzias Mitzrayim, also evokes divorce, as in the phrase “viyatz’a… vihay’sa li’ish acher (Devorim, 24).

More striking still is that the apparent “divorce” of Klal Yisroel from Egypt is followed by a metaphorical marriage.  For that is the pointed imagery of the event that followed Yetzias Mitzrayim by 50 days: ma’amad Har Sinai.

Not only does Rashi relate the Torah’s first description of a betrothal – Rivka’s – to ma’amad Har Sinai (Beraishis 24:22), associating the two bracelets given her by Eliezer on Yitzchok’s behalf as symbols of the two luchos, and their ten geras’ weight to the aseres hadibros.  And not only does the novi Hoshea (2:21) describe Mattan Torah in terms of betrothal (v’airastich li…, familiar to men as the p’sukim customarily recited when wrapping tefillin on our fingers – and to women from actually studying Nevi’im).

But our own chasunos themselves hearken back to Har Sinai:  The chuppah, say the seforim hakedoshim, recalls the mountain, which Chazal describe as being held over our ancestors’ heads; the candles traditionally borne by the parents of the chosson and kallah are to remind us of the lightning at the revelation; the breaking of the glass, of the breaking of the luchos.

In fact, the birchas eirusin itself, the essential blessing that accompanies a marriage, seems as well to refer almost explicitly to the revelation at Har Sinai.  It can, at least on one level, be read to be saying “Blessed are You, Hashem, … Who betrothed His nation Yisroel through chuppah and kiddushin” – “al yidei” meaning precisely what it always does (“through the means of”) and “mekadesh” meaning “betroth” rather than “made holy” as in, for instance, “mekadesh haShabbos”)

So what seems to emerge here is the idea that the Jewish people was somehow “divorced” from Egypt, to which, presumably, it had been “married,” a reflection of our descent there to the 49th level of spiritual squalor.  And that, after our “divorce,” we went on to “marry” the Creator Himself, kivayochol.

On further reflection, the metaphor is truly remarkable, because of the sole reference to divorce in the Torah.

It is in Devarim, 24, 2, and mentions divorce only in the context of the prohibition for a [female] divorcee, subsequently remarried, to return to her first husband.

The only other “prohibition of return” in the Torah, of course, is a national one, incumbent on all Jews – the prohibition to return to Mitzrayim (Shmos 14:13, Devorim, 17:16).  We cannot return, ever, to our first “husband.”

More striking still is the light thereby shed on the Gemara on the first daf of massechta Sotah.  Considering the marriage-symbolism of Mitzrayim and Mattan Torah in that well-known passage reveals a deeper layer than may be at first glance apparent.

The Gemara poses a contradiction. One citation has marriage-matches determined by divine decree, at the conception of each partner; another makes matches dependent on the choices made by the individual – “lifi ma’asov,” according to his merits.

The Gemara’s resolution is that the divine decree is what determined “first marriages” and the merit-based dynamic refers to “second marriages.”

The implications regarding individuals are unclear, to say the least.  But the import of the Gemara’s answer on the level of Klal Yisroel – at least in light of the Mitzrayim/Har Sinai marriage-metaphor – afford a startling possibility.

Because Klal Yisroel’s first “marriage”, to Egypt, was indeed divinely decreed.  It was foretold to Avrohom Avinu at the Bris Bein Habesorim (Bereishis 15:13): “For strangers will your children be in a land not theirs, and [its people] will work and afflict them for four hundred years.”

And Klal Yisroel’s “second marriage,” its true and final one, was the result of the choice Hashem made, and our ancestors made, by refusing to change their clothing, language and names even when still in the grasp of Egyptian society and culture.  When they took that merit to its fruition, by saying “Na’aseh vinishma,” they received their priceless wedding ring under the mountain-chuppah of Sinai.




The Second Son

A Pesach-themed essay I penned for the Forward appears here 

Chag kasher visame’ach!

AS




Deconstructing Dayeinu

Much of our Seder-night message to our children, mediated by the Haggadah, is forthright and clear.  Some of it, though, is subtle and stealthy.

Like Dayeinu.

On the surface, it is a simple song – a recitation of events of Divine kindness over the course of Jewish history, from the Egyptian exodus until the Jewish arrival in the Holy Land – with the refrain “Dayeinu”: “It would have been enough for us.”  It is a puzzling chorus, and everyone who has ever thought about Dayeinu has asked the obvious question.

Would it really have “been enough for us” had G-d not, say, split the Red Sea, trapping our ancestors between the water and the Egyptian army?  Some take the approach that another miracle could have taken place to save the Jews, but that seems to weaken the import of the refrain.  And then there are the other lines: “Had G-d not sustained us in the desert” – enough for us?  “Had He not given us the Torah.”  Enough?  What are we saying?

Contending that we don’t really mean “Dayeinu” when we say it, that we only intend to declare how undeserving of all G-d’s kindnesses we are, is the sort of answer children view with immediate suspicion and make faces at.

One path, though, toward understanding Dayeinu might lie in remembering that a proven method of engaging the attention of a child – or even an ex-child – is to hide one’s message, leaving hints for its discovery.  Could Dayeinu be hiding something significant –in fact, in plain sight?

Think of those images of objects or words that require time for the mind to comprehend, simply because the gestalt is not immediately absorbed; one aspect alone is perceived at first, although another element may be the key to the image’s meaning, and emerge only later.

Dayeinu may be precisely such a puzzle.  And its solution might lie in the realization that one of the song’s recountings is in fact not followed by the refrain at all.  Few people can immediately locate it, but it’s true: One of the events listed is pointedly not followed by the word “dayeinu.”

Can you find it?  Or have the years of singing Dayeinu after a cup of wine obscured the obvious?  You might want to ask a child, more able for the lack of experience.  I’ll wait…

…Welcome back.  You found it, of course: the very first phrase in the poem.

Dayeinu begins: “Had He taken us out of Egypt…”  That phrase – and it alone – is never qualified with a “dayeinu.”  It never says, “Had You not taken us out of Egypt it would have been enough for us.  For, simply put, there then wouldn’t have been an “us.”

The exodus is, so to speak, a “non-negotiable.”  It was the singular, crucial, transformative point in Jewish history, when we Jews became a people, with all the special interrelationship that peoplehood brings.  Had Jewish history ended with starvation in the desert, or even at battle at an undisturbed Red Sea, it would have been, without doubt, a terrible tragedy, the cutting down of a people just born – but still, the cutting down of a people, born. The Jewish nation, the very purpose of creation (“For the sake of Israel,” as the Midrash comments on the first word of the Torah, “did G-d create the heavens and the earth”), would still have existed, albeit briefly.

And our nationhood, of course, is precisely what we celebrate on Passover.  When the Torah recounts the wicked son’s question (Exodus12:26) it records that the Jews responded by bowing down in thanksgiving.  What were they thankful for?  The news that they would sire wicked descendants?

The Hassidic sage Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein (1856-1926), known as the “Shem MiShmuel,” explains that the very fact that the Torah considers the wicked son to be part of the Jewish People, someone who needs and merits a response, was the reason for the Jews’ joy.  When we were merely a family of individuals, each member stood or fell on his own merits.  Yishmael was Avraham’s son, and Esav was Yitzchak’s.  But neither they nor their descendents merited to become parts of the Jewish People.  That people was forged from Yaakov’s family, at the exodus from Egypt.

That now, after the exodus, even a “wicked son” would be considered a full member of the Jewish People indicated to our ancestors that something had radically changed since pre-Egyptian days.  The people had become a nation. And that well merited an expression of thanksgiving.

And so the subtle message of Dayeinu may be precisely that: The sheer indispensability of the Exodus – its importance beyond even the magnitude of all the miracles that came to follow.

If so, then for centuries upon centuries, that sublime thought might have subtly accompanied the strains of spirited “Da-Da-yeinu’s,” ever so delicately yet ever so ably entering new generations of Jewish minds and hearts, without their owners necessarily even realizing the message they absorbed.

© 2008 AM ECHAD RESOURCES




The Man on the Bima

He ascended the steps to the bimah, the platform where the Torah is read, with the strangely hurried movements of someone who would rather be traveling the other way.

This middle-aged fellow, apparently something of a stranger to a shul, had just been “called up” from his seat in the back of the small shul to make the blessing on the Torah.

They get so nervous, I thought to my cynical, teen-age self that day several decades ago; they should really come more than just a few times a year, if only to get the feel of things.  The blessings, after all, are not very long, the Hebrew not particularly tongue-twisting.

“Asher Bochar Banu Mikol Ho’amim (who has chosen us from among all nations)” – I prompted him in my mind – “V’nosan lonu es Toraso (and has given us His Torah).”

C’mon, man, you can do it.

His life was passing before his very eyes; you could tell. The occasion, for the man on the bima, was both momentous and terrifying.

Then he did something totally unexpected, something that made me smirk at first, but then made me think, – and made me realize something profound about our precious people.

He made a mistake.

Not entirely unexpected.  Many a shul-goer, especially the occasional one, leaves out words here and there, reverses the order, or draws a traumatic blank when faced with the sudden holiness of the Torah.  That would have been unremarkable.  But this congregant was different.

His mistake was fascinating.  “Asher bochar bonu”  he intoned, a bit unsure of himself, “mikol,” slight hesitation, “…haleylos shebechol haleylos anu ochlim.”

The poor fellow had jumped the track of the Torah blessing and was barreling along with the Four Questions a Jewish child asks at the Passover seder!  “Who has chosen us from…all other nights, for on all other nights we eat…”!!

For the first second or two it was humorous.  But then it struck me.

The hastily corrected and embarrassed man had just laid bare the scope of his Jewishness.  He had revealed all the associations Judaism still held for him – all that was left of a long, illustrious rabbinic line, for all I knew.

My first thoughts were sad… I imagined a shtetl in Eastern Europe, an old observant Jew living in physical poverty but spiritual wealth.  I saw him studying through the night, working all day to support his wife and children, one of whom later managed to survive Hitler’s Final Solution to make it to America and gratefully sire a single heir, the man on the bimah.

We have so much to set right, I mused, so many souls to reach, just to get to where we were a mere 70 years ago.

But then it dawned on me.  Here stood a man sadly inexperienced in things Jewish, virtually oblivious to rich experiences of his ancestral faith.

And yet, he knows the Four Questions.

By heart.

When he tries to recite the blessing over the Torah, the distance between him and his heritage cannot keep those Four Questions from tiptoeing in, unsummoned but determined.  The seder is a part of his essence.

I recall a conversation I once had with a secular Jewish gentleman married to a non-Jewish woman and not affiliated with any Jewish institution.  His en passant mention of Passover prompted me to ask him if he had any plans for the holiday.

He looked at me as if I were mad.

“Why, we’re planning an elaborate seder, as always.”

Astonished at the sudden revelation of a vestige of religious custom in his life, I told him as much.  He replied, matter of factly, he would never think of abolishing his Passover seder.  I didn’t challenge him.

When living in Northern California, I became acquainted with other Jewish families seemingly devoid of religious practice.  I always made a point of asking whether a seder of any sort was celebrated on Passover.  Almost invariably, the answer was… yes, of course.

It is striking.  There are more types of haggadahs than other volume in the immense literary repertoire of the Jewish people.  The Sixties saw a “civil-rights haggadah” and a “Soviet Jewry haggadah.”  Nuclear disarmament, vegetarian and feminist versions followed.  At the core of each was the age-old recounting of the ancient story of the Jews leaving Egypt and receiving the Torah.  It is as if Jews, wherever the circumstances may leave them, feel a strange compulsion to preserve the Passover seder and its lessons whatever the costs, and whatever the form most palatable to their momentary persuasions.

Events that took place millennia ago – pivotal events in the history of the Jewish nation – are regularly and openly commemorated by millions of Jews the world over, many of whom do so out of an inner motivation they themselves cannot explain.

They may not even realize what they are saying when they read their haggadahs, beyond the simplest of its ideas:  a Force saved their forefathers from terrible enemies and entered into a covenant with them and their descendants.

But that is apparently enough.

A spiritual need that spawns an almost hypnotic observance of the seder by Jews the world over is satisfied.  And even if, after the seder, mothers and fathers go back to decidedly less than Jewishly observant lives, their daughters and sons have received the message.

As did their parents when they were young, and their parents before them.

The seed is planted.

The seder is indisputably child-oriented.  Recitations that can only be described as children’s songs are part of the haggadah’s text, and various doings at the seder are explained by the Talmud as intended for the sole purpose of stimulating the curiosity of the young ones.

For the children are the next generation of the Jewish nation; and the seder is the crucial act of entrusting the most important part of their history to them, for re-entrustment to their own young in due time.

And so, in the spring of each year, like the birds compelled to begin their own season of rebirth with song, Jews feel the urge to sing as well.  They sing to their young ones, as their ancestors did on the banks of the Red Sea, and the song is a story.  It tells of their people and how the Creator of all adopted them.  And if, far along the line, a few – even many – of us fall from the nest, all is not lost. For we remember the song.

Just like the man on the bimah.

© 2007 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

 




Our Own Private Passover

One day during my teenage years I began to think about what my father, may he be well, had been doing at my age.  The thought occurred too late for me to compare his and his family’s flight by foot from the Nazis in Poland at the outbreak of World War II to my own 14th year of life – when my most daunting challenge had been, the year before, chanting my bar-mitzvah portion.

But I was still young enough to place the image of his subsequent years in Siberia – as a guest of the Soviet Union, which deported him and others from his yeshiva in Vilna – alongside my high school trials for comparison.  At the age when I was avoiding study, he was avoiding being made to work on the Sabbath; when my religious dedication consisted of getting out of bed early in the morning to attend services, his entailed finding opportunities to study Torah while working in the frozen taiga; where I struggled to survive the emotional strains of adolescence, he was struggling, well, to survive.  As years progressed, I continued to ponder our respective age-tagged challenges.  Doing so has lent me some perspective.

As has thinking about my father’s first Passover in Siberia, while I busy myself helping (a little) my wife shop for holiday needs and prepare the house for its annual leaven-less week.

In my father’s memoirs, which I have been privileged to help him record and which, G-d willing, we hope will be published later this year, there is a description of how Passover was on the minds of the young men and their teacher, exiled with them, as soon as they arrived in Siberia in the summer of 1941.  Over the months that followed, while laboring in the fields, they pocketed a few wheat kernels here and there, later placing them in a special bag, which they carefully hid.  This was, of course, against the rules and dangerous.  But the Communist credo, after all, was “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” and so they were really only being good Marxists.  They had spiritual needs, including kosher-for-Passover matzoh.

Toward the end of the punishing winter, they retrieved their stash and, using a small hand coffee grinder, ground the wheat into coarse, dark flour.

They then dismantled a clock and fitted its gears to a whittled piece of wood, fashioning an approximation of the cleated rolling pin traditionally used to perforate matzohs to ensure their quick and thorough baking.  In the middle of the night the exiles came together in a hut with an oven, which, as the outpost’s other residents slept, they fired up for two hours to make it kosher for Passover before baking their matzohs.

On Passover night they fulfilled the Torah’s commandment to eat unleavened bread “guarded” from exposure to water until before baking.

Perspective is provided me too by the wartime Passover experience of my wife’s father, I.I. Cohen, may he be well.  In his own memoir, “Destined to Survive” (ArtScroll/Mesorah, 2001), he describes how, in the Dachau satellite camp where he was interned, there was no way to procure matzoh.  All the same, he was determined to have the Passover he could.  In the dark of the barracks on Passover night, he turned to his friend and suggested they recite parts of the Haggadah they knew by heart.

As they quietly chanted the Four Questions other inmates protested.  “What are you crazy Chassidim doing saying the Haggadah?” they asked.  “Do you have matzohs, do you have wine and all the necessary food to make a seder?  Sheer stupidity!”

My father-in-law responded that he and his friend were fulfilling a Torah commandment – and no one could know if their “seder” is less meritorious in the eyes of Heaven than those of Jews in places of freedom and plenty.

Those of us indeed in such places can glean much from the Passovers of those two members – and so many other men and women – of the Jewish “greatest generation.”

A Chassidic master offers a novel commentary on a verse cited in the Haggadah.  The Torah commands Jews to eat matzoh on Passover, “so that you remember the day of your leaving Egypt all the days of your life.”

Rabbi Avrohom, the first Rebbe of Slonim, commented: “When recounting the Exodus, one should remember, too, ‘all the days’ of his life – the miracles and wonders that G-d performed for him throughout…”

I suspect that my father and father-in-law, both of whom, thank G-d, emerged from their captivities and have merited to see children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, naturally do that.  But all of us, no matter our problems, have experienced countless “miracles and wonders.”  We may not recognize all of the Divine guidance and benevolence with which we were blessed – or even the wonder of every beat of our hearts and breath we take.  But that reflects only our obliviousness.  At the seder, when we recount G-d’s kindnesses to our ancestors, it is a time, too, to look back at our own personal histories and appreciate the gifts we’ve been given.

Should that prove hard, we might begin by reflecting on what some Jews a bit older than we had to endure not so very long ago.

© 2009 AM ECHAD RESOURCES