Category Archives: PESACH

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The Four Answers

It is not only the Torah’s words that hold multiple layers of meaning.  So do those of the Talmudic and Midrashic Sages – even the words of the prayers and rituals they formulated.

Such passages have their p’shat, or straightforward intent.  But they also have less obvious layers, like that of remez – or “hinting” – unexpected subtexts that can be revealed by learned, insightful scholars.

One such meaning was mined from the Four Questions that are asked, usually by a child, at the Passover Seder service.  The famous questions are actually one, with four examples provided.  The overarching query is: Why is this night [of Passover] different from all the other nights [of the year]?

“Night,” however, can mean something deeper than the hours of darkness between afternoon and dawn.  In Talmudic literature it can be a metaphor for exile, specifically the periods of history when the Jewish People were, at least superficially, estranged from G-d.  The sojourn in Egypt is known as the “Egyptian Exile,” and the years between the destruction of the FirstHolyTemple in Jerusalem and its rebuilding is the “Babylonian Exile.”

“Why,” goes the “‘hinting’ approach” to the Four Questions, “is this night” – the current Jewish exile – “different” – so much longer – than previous ones?  Nearly 2000 years, after all, have passed since the SecondTemple’s destruction.

In this reading, the four examples of unusual Seder practices take on a new role; they are answers to that question.

“On all other nights,” goes the first, “we eat leavened and unleavened bread; but on this night… we eat only unleavened.”  The Hebrew word for unleavened bread, matza, can also mean “strife.”  And so, through the remez-lens, we perceive the first reason for the current extended Jewish exile: personal and pointless anger among Jews.  The thought should not puzzle.  The SecondTemple, the Talmud teaches, was destroyed over “causeless hatred.”  That it has not yet been rebuilt could well reflect an inadequate addressing of its destruction’s cause.

The second: “On all other nights we eat all sorts of vegetables; but on this night, bitter ones.”  In the Talmud, eating vegetation is a sign of simplicity and privation.  Amassing money, by contrast, is associated with worries and bitterness.  “One who has one hundred silver pieces,” the Talmudic rabbis said, “desires two hundred.”  So the hint in this declaration is that the exile continues in part because of misplaced focus on possessions, which brings only “bitterness” in the end.

“On all other nights,” goes the third example, “we need not dip vegetables [in relish or saltwater] even once; this night we do so twice.”  Dipped vegetables are intended as appetizers – means of stimulating one’s appetite to more heartily enjoy the forthcoming meal.  In the remez reading here, such “dipping” refers to the contemporary predilection to seek out new pleasures.  Hedonism, the very opposite of the Jewish ideal of “his’tapkut,” or “sufficing” with less, is thus another element extending our current exile.

And finally, “On all other nights, we sit [at meals] at times upright, at times reclining; this night we all recline.”  During other exiles, the “hint” approach has it, there were times when Jews felt downtrodden in relation to the surrounding society, and others when they felt exalted, respected, “arrived.”  In this exile, according to the remez approach, we have become too comfortable, constantly “reclining.”  We view ourselves at the top of the societal hill, and wax prideful over our achievements and status.

Thus, the Four Questions hint at four contemporary Jewish societal ills that prolong our exile: internal strife, obsession with possessions, hedonism and haughtiness.

However one may view that “hint” approach to the Seder’s Four Questions, looking around we certainly see that much of modern Jewish society indeed exhibits such spiritually debilitating symptoms.  Arguments, which should be principled, are all too often personal.  “Keeping up with the Cohens” has become a way of life for many.  Pleasure-seeking is often a consuming passion.  And pride is commonly taken in petty, temporal things instead of meaningful ones.

Most remarkable, though, is that the above remez approach to the Four Questions is that of Rabbi  Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, best known for his commentary on the Bible, the Kli Yakar.

He died in 1619.  Imagine what he would say today.

© 2008 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

The Silence of the Dogs

A curious Midrash holds an idea worth bringing to the Seder

“Midrash,” although redefined of late by some to mean a fanciful, personal take on a Biblical account, in truth refers to a body of ancient traditions that for generations was transmitted only orally but later put into writing.

One such tradition focuses on the verse recounting how the dogs in Egypt did not utter a sound as they watched the Jewish people leave the land (Exodus, 11:7).  The Talmud contends that, in keeping with the concept that “G-d does not withhold reward from any creature,” dogs are the animals to whom certain non-kosher meat should be cast.  The Midrash, however, notes another, more conceptual “reward” for the canine silence: The dung of dogs will be used to cure animal skins that will become tefillin, mezuzot and Torah scrolls.

It is certainly intriguing that the lowly refuse of a lowly creature – and dogs are viewed by many Middle-Eastern societies as particularly base – should play a part in the preparation of the most sublime and holy of objects.  And that, it seems, is what the Midrash wishes us to ponder – along with the puzzling idea that silence is somehow key to that ability to sublimate the earthy and physical into the rarified and hallowed.  The particular silence at issue may be canine, but its lesson is for us.

Providing even more support for that thought is a statement in the Mishna (the earliest part of the Talmud).  “I have found nothing better for the body,” Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel remarks in Pirkei Avot (1:17), “than silence.”  The phrase “for the body” (which can also be rendered “the physical”) seems jarring.  Unless it, too, hints at precisely what the Midrash seems to be saying – that in silence, somehow, lies the secret of how the physical can be transformed into the exalted.

But what provides for such transformation would seem to be speech.  Judaism teaches that the specialness of the human being – the hope for creating holiness here on earth – lies in our aptitude for language, our ability to clothe subtle and complex ideas in meaningful words.  That is why in Genesis, when life is breathed by G-d into the first man, the infusion is, in the words of the Targum Onkelos, a “speaking spirit.”  The highest expression of human speech, our tradition teaches, lies in our ability to recognize our Creator, and give voice to our gratitude (hakarat hatov).  The first vegetation, the Talmud informs us, would not sprout until Adam appeared to “recognize the blessing of the rain.”  Hakarat hatov is why many Jews punctuate their recounting of happy recollections or tidings with the phrase “baruch Hashem,” or “blessed is G-d” – and it is pivotal to elevating the mundane.  So it would seem that speech, not silence, is the path to holiness.

Unless, though, silence is the most salient demonstration of the consequence of words.

After all, aren’t the things we are careful not to waste the things we value most?.  We don’t hoard plastic shopping bags or old newspapers; but few – even few billionaires – would ever use a Renoir to wrap fish.

Words – along with our ability to use them meaningfully – are the most valuable things any of us possesses.  To be sure, one can (and most of us do) squander them, just as one can employ a Rembrandt as a doormat.  But someone who truly recognizes words’ worth will use them only sparingly.  The adage notwithstanding, talk isn’t cheap; it is, quite the contrary, a priceless resource, the means, used properly, of coaxing holiness from the physical world.

And so silence – choosing to not speak when there is nothing worthwhile to say – is perhaps the deepest sign of reverence for the potential holiness that is speech.

Which brings us back to Passover.  As noted, the highest expression of human speech is the articulation, like Adam’s, of the idea of hakarat hatov – literally, “recognition of the good” – with which we have been blessed.  The Kabbalistic texts refer to our ancestors’ sojourn in Egypt as “the Speech-Exile,” implying that in some sense the enslaved Jews had yet to gain full access to the power that provides human beings the potential of holiness.

With the Exodus, though, that exile ended and, at the far side of the sea that split to allow them but not their pursuers passage, our ancestors responded with an extraordinary vocal expression: the epic poem known in Jewish texts as “The Song” (Exodus, 15:1-18 ).  Written in a unique graphic formation in the Torah scroll, it is a paean to G-d for the goodness He bestowed on those who marched out of Egypt – who went from what the Talmudic rabbis characterized as the penultimate level of baseness to, fifty days later, the heights of holiness at Mt.Sinai.

And so it should not be surprising that, whereas Jews are cautioned to use words only with great care and parsimony, on the Seder night we are not only enjoined to speak at length and into the wee hours about the kindness G-d granted our people, but are informed by the rabbis of the Talmud, that “the more one recounts, the more praiseworthy it is.”

© 2006 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

Pesach Sheni, 1945

 [I.I. Cohen is a Polish-born survivor of three concentration camps living in Toronto, and my beloved father-in-law.  The below is adapted from his book “Destined to Survive” ArtScroll/Mesorah)]

 

On Wednesday, April 25, 1945, the SS guards in Kaufering’s watchtowers suddenly disappeared.

The block supervisors in our camp – a satellite of Dachau – stopped beating and cursing; they knew that the explosives that had grown louder each day signaled the death throes of the Third Reich.  Those of us whose legs could still carry them broke into the camp kitchen and hauled away potatoes, flour, cabbage and pieces of bread.  A day earlier we would have been shot on sight for lesser sins, but now, several days since we had been given any food, our hunger overpowered our fright. We stuffed both our bellies and our pockets.

Suddenly the silence was broken by the familiar murderous voices of our German captors.

“Everyone in a row! Roll call!” In a flash, the thugs were once again running about with clubs and revolvers in hand, mercilessly chasing and dragging everyone out of the barracks. , Having already experienced several years together in the ghetto, our small group of young Gerer Chasidim from Lodz tried to stick together. We discussed the situation. It was quite clear that the Allied forces were close by.  Rumor had it that the SS command had ordered camp commanders to exterminate all inmates, so that no living testimony would be available to the Allied armies. We found it hard to believe in such a diabolical scheme, but six years under Nazi rule had taught us that bleak prophecies had a tendency to materialize.

We debated our alternatives. Should we follow orders and evacuate the camp, or risk trying to stay behind and await the Allies? We decided to stay and, one by one, stole into the dysentery block, where only the hopelessly ill lay. We hoped that the guards would choose not to enter the contaminated area.

But our hopes were dashed soon enough when our block door crashed open and an SS officer, his machine gun crackling, shouted “Everyone out! The camp is to be blown up!”  Silence. We didn’t stir, the Nazi left and night fell.

Suddenly the air shook with the wailing of sirens. The Allies were bombing the German defenses! We prayed that the thunderous explosions would go on forever, and eventually fell asleep to the beautiful sound of the bombs.

The next morning we awoke to an ominous silence, broken only by the moans of the dying. We arose cautiously and went outside the block. There was desolation everywhere, and a gaping hole in the barbed wire.  Had it been torn open by the fleeing Germans?  Were we free?

We went to the other barracks, and shared our discover with their frightened inhabitants – mostly “musselmen”, or emaciated “skeletons”.  Soon enough we heard the unmistakable rumble of an approaching convoy.  We sat and waited, our fear leavened with excitement.

The fear proved more prescient, and soon enough melted into acute disappointment, when the all too familiar SS uniforms came once again into view. The Nazis had returned, bringing an entire detachment of prisoners from other camps with them to help them finish their work.  Amid the fiendish din of screams and obscenities, we hurriedly hid in one of the blocks, covered ourselves with straw and rags and lay still, our hearts pounding with terror. Soon we heard footsteps in the block and I felt a hand on my head.  We had been discovered, by non-Jewish inmates of other labor and POW camps.

We pleaded with them to ignore us, and offered them our potatoes but just as the invaders had agreed, an SS officer came stomping in, swinging his club, which he then efficiently and heartlessly used on our heads. A boot on the behind, and we were on our way to the trucks, accompanied by the commandos and the SS.

We were picked up by our arms and legs and thrown onto a wagon piled with barely human-looking bodies; the moaning of the sick was replaced by the silence of the dead.  By a stroke of luck, though, while the guards were busy with another wagon, my friend Yossel Carmel and I managed to roll out of the truck and found refuge in a nearby latrine.  Though our hearts had long since turned to stone, our stomachs were convulsing.

Eventually the wagons left, and we crept back into the very block we had occupied earlier. I tore down the light hanging from the ceiling, and we posed, not unconvincingly, as corpses.  Every so often the door would open, and we would hear a shout of “Everyone out!” but we just lay perfectly still.  Darkness fell, motors rumbled, and then there was quiet.

Friday, April 27, 1945, brought a cold morning.  White clouds chased each other across the bright blue sky as a frigid wind blew through the barracks, chilling our bones. Periodically, the earth trembled with an explosion; we sat quietly, each engrossed in his own thoughts. Suddenly, we heard motorcycles rumbling and dogs barking.  Our hearts fell.  Once again, the Germans were back.

We soon heard footsteps in the block, and then a frenzied voice, “Swine! You are waiting for the Americans? Come with me!” There followed a commotion, the sound of running, the shattering of glass, and then, a burst of machine gun fire. I peeked and saw that those who had been hiding near the window had tried to escape. Yossel and I had not been detected but were paralyzed with fright. Footsteps approached and then we heard the rustling of straw.  When we felt tapping on the piles in which we were hiding, our terrified souls almost departed us.

We held our breath in fear as the footsteps moved away.  Peeking through a hole in the straw that covered me, I felt smoke burning my eyes.  Frantically, we ripped off the straw and rags and saw flames all around us. Hand in hand, Yossel and I fumbled toward the door, suffocating from the smoke, our heads spinning.  In a moment that seemed an eternity, we found ourselves outside.  Just a few yards from us stood the German murderers, fortunately, with their backs to us.

The entire camp was ablaze. We threw ourselves on the first pile of corpses that we saw and lay still; we no doubt resembled our camouflage.  Around us we heard heavy footsteps, screams and the moaning of the fatally wounded.  And what we saw was blood, fire, and clouds of smoke – hell on earth, complete with demons.

When silence finally fell again, I mumbled to Yossel that we ought to say vidui, the confession of sins a Jew makes periodically but especially when facing death.  He chided me to remember what I had told him when we arrived in Auschwitz, our first concentration camp.  The Sages of the Talmud, he reminded me, had admonished that “Even if the sword is braced on your neck, never despair of Divine mercy.”   Yossel recalled, too, the Sages’ admonition that in times of danger Jews should renew their commitment to their faith.

We crawled to a nearby pit, shivering with cold. Through my smoke-filled eyes and fear-ridden senses, I thought I saw SS guards everywhere, with weapons poised.  Yossel, however, finally managed to convince me that there was no one in sight; for an hour or more we lay in that pit. Every few minutes bombs whistled overhead, followed by fearsome explosions nearby. The earth shook, but each blast pumped new hope into our hearts. Slowly, we crept out of the pit and made our way to the only building still standing – the camp kitchen.  There we found a few more frightened souls.

Together we discovered a sack of flour, mixed it with water, started the ovens and baked flat breads.  I noted the irony; it was Pesach Sheini – the biblical “Second Passover” a month after the first – and we were baking matzohs.

Suddenly, the door flew open and a Jewish inmate came running in breathlessly, crying out: “Yidden! Fellow Jews! The Americans are here!” We were free!

We wanted to cry, sing, dance, but our petrified hearts would not let us.  I wanted to rush outside, but my strength seemed to have left me.

When I finally did manage to move outside, I saw a long convoy of tanks and jeeps roaring through the camp. A handful of American soldiers approached the barracks.  One of them, an officer, looked around him, tears streaming down his face. Only then did I fully grasp the extent of the horror around us. The barracks were nearly completely incinerated.  In front of each block lay a pile of blackened, smoldering skeletons.

And we, the living, were a group of ghouls, walking corpses.  Along with the American soldiers, we wept.

Among the supplies the Americans had brought with them was a bottle of wine.  An inmate picked it up and announced: “For years I have not recited the Kiddush. Today, I feel that I must.” He then recited the words of the blessing on wine aloud.

And then he recited the “Shehecheyanu”, the blessing of gratitude to God for having “kept us alive until this time.”

© 2004 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

Holy Matrimony

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 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 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).

 

The Original Chuppah

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 studying Novi).  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”).

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.

 

You Can Never Go Home Again

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).

 

Decrees and Deserts

More striking still is the light shed thereby 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 each individual – with each person receiving his partner “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 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.

© 2004 Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Karpas Conundrum

Questions, questions everywhere.  At the Seder, that is.

There are the proverbial Four, of course, but they lead to a torrent of new queries.  Like why those questions are themselves never directly answered in the Haggadah.  And why they (and so much else in the Haggadah) are “four”?  And why they must be asked even of oneself, if no one else is present.  Not to mention scores of others on the oddities of the Haggadah’s text.  As the old jokes have it, we Jews seem to respond to questions with only more.

Why the Haggadah is so question-saturated is an easy one.  Because the Seder revolves around the next generation.  It is the communication of the saga of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt to our children, and thus cannot be undertaken in a merely recitative manner.  “Questions and Answers” is a most basic teaching tool, as are singing, number games, and alphabetical acrostics, all elements found in the ancient pedagogic perfection we call the Haggadah.  So none of those educational aids should surprise us.

Karpas, though, should.

For karpas, the vegetable dipped in saltwater at the start of the Seder, is truly baffling.  Although it is the subject of one of the Big Four questions, it not only does not have an answer; it seems that it cannot have one.

For the Talmud itself asks why we do it, and answers, “So that the children will notice and ask what it is for.”

At which point, presumably, we are to respond, “So that you will ask, dear children!”

To which they many be expected to respond, “All right, now we’re asking.”  And so forth.

Karpas seems to be the verbal equivalent of one of those Escher lithographs where figures march steadily but futilely up strange stairs only to again reach their starting point below.  Why we do it is an inherently unanswerable question.

Some insight, though, may be available by  considering yet another unanswerable question, perhaps the most fundamental one imaginable: Why we are here.

The Talmud recounts that the students of Shammai and of Hillel spent two and a half years arguing the question of whether “it would have been better for humankind not to have been created.”

And, intriguingly, they came to conclude that man would have been better off uncreated, and added only that now that we humans find ourselves here, we must strive to examine and improve our actions.

The famed 19th century Torah-giant Rabbi Yisroel Salanter addressed the meaning of the argument and its result.  Needless to say, he explained, the students of Shammai and Hillel were not sitting in judgment on their Creator.  What they were in truth arguing about was whether mankind, with its limited purview, can possibly hope to comprehend the fact that G-d deemed it worthwhile for humankind to exist.

And they concluded that we cannot.  We are unable to fathom what good the Creator saw in providing one of his creations free will.  It is surely better that mankind is here, but why cannot be known.

After all (they likely noted), free will makes sin inevitable.  And humans, in fact, seem entirely prone to bad behavior.

Past history and current events alike evidence man’s choosing evil over good at almost every turn.  We humans are eminently self-centered, and precious few of our thoughts concern how we might be better givers, not takers, better servants of the Divine.

What has this to do with karpas?

Perhaps nothing.  But perhaps much.

Because disobedience of G-d, the very definition of sin, has its roots in the first man and woman’s act of independence.  And one of the results of their choice was a change in the fundamental relationship they (and we) had (and have) with the earth on which we depend.

“Thorns and thistles [the earth] shall bring forth for you,” was the pronouncement, “and you shall eat the grasses of the field.”

In, of all places, the sole Talmudic chapter that deals with the Seder, we find the following passage:

Said Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi: “When G-d told Adam ‘and thorns and thistles…and you shall eat the grasses of the field,’ Adam’s eyes welled up with tears and he said, ‘Master of the Universe, am I and my donkey to eat from the same feed-bag?’  When G-d continued and said, ‘By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread’ [i.e. human food will be available for you, but only through hard work], Adam’s anguish was quieted.” (Pesachim 118a)

Could the meaning of Adam’s lament be that since humanity’s progenitor had proven through his insubordination the inevitability of humans choosing evil, man would seem to have been better off as merely another mindless, choiceless animal, a two-legged donkey?

Could that terrible thought be what brought tears to his eyes?

And, finally, could it be that the manifestation of the earth’s response to his sin, the lowly vegetation it will now naturally bear for him and which he is sentenced to eat – could that be… the karpas?  And the saltwater in which it is dipped, his tears and the sweat of the brow?

Could it be, in other words, that the question of why we dip karpas in saltwater is specifically constructed to be unanswerable precisely because it alludes to an unanswerable cosmic question?

There is more, though, and it unlocks a secret of Pesach and its culmination-holiday, seven weeks later, Shevuot.

The dipping of a vegetable into saltwater at the start of the Seder, seems eerily reminiscent of a conversation recounted in the Talmud between G-d and the first man.  When Adam hears G-d’s pronouncement that his sin has relegated him to eating “the grasses of the field” like animals, he cries, only to be reassured that he will still be able to eat bread, human food, albeit “by the sweat of your brow” – with hard work and effort.

What pertinence, though, does the recalling of that account have to the Seder’s karpas-ritual?  What are vegetables and tears and sweat – not to mention the memory of history’s first sin – doing at the very onset of a festive gathering?

The key to the mystery may lie in remembering that the Seder is not only the start of Passover but the beginning of a period that will culminate in the holiday of Shavuot.  The seven weeks between the first day of Passover and Shavuot are in fact counted down (or, actually, up) with the “counting of the Omer” on each night of those forty-nine.

Noteworthy is that on both holidays bread plays a prominent role.  On Passover, we eat unleavened bread; on Shavuot, the day’s special Temple offering consists of two loaves of bread,  which – in stark contrast to most flour-offerings – must be allowed to rise and become chametz.

Leaven is a symbol of the inclination to sin (“What keeps us [from You, G-d]?” goes the confession of one talmudic personage, “the leaven in the dough”).  Perhaps, then, the period between Passover and Shavuot, between the holiday of leaven-less bread and that of leavened bread, reflects our acclimation to the human propensity to sin.  It leads us to ponder that sin’s inevitability should not render us hopeless, but rather that our selfish desires are – somehow – a force that can be channeled for good, for service to G-d.

Shavuot, then, would be the celebration of our having accepted – even if not fully comprehended – the goodness inherent in our existence despite our inherent shortcomings.  It is the “answer” to the unanswerable question of why we are here.  And so our bread on that day is purposefully leavened; it has absorbed and incorporated sin’s symbol.

What allows for the “redemption” of our propensity to sin?  The Torah, whose acceptance at Sinai is celebrated on Shavuot.  For the Torah is that which “sweetens” the inclination to sin and makes it palatable.  As a famous Midrash renders G-d’s words: “I have created an inclination to sin, and I have created the Torah as its sweetening spice.”

Our base desires, the source of our sinning, are not denied by the Torah, but rather guided by it.  We are not barred from enjoying any area of life, but shown, rather, how to do so, how to utilize every human power and desire in a directed and holy way.

Passover, then, is the symbolic start of the process of growth.  It is the time to eat only pristine, unleavened food, to deny ourselves every sign of the inclination to sin, the better to be able, over the ensuing forty-nine days, to slowly absorb the powerful sin-inclination, to work on ourselves (by the sweat of our brows), and acclimate ourselves to what it represents … gradually, day by day, until Shavuot.  Only then, having labored to attain that growth, may we – by the sweat of our brows – eat true, fully developed, leavened bread.  For, if we have labored on ourselves honestly and hard, we have learned to temper and manage our inclinations to sin with the laws and guidance of the Torah.

Passover is thus a propitious time indeed for a hint to the great unanswerable question of how man’s existence can be justified despite his sinful nature.  For it is on Passover specifically that we begin to develop our ability to channel the human powers that, left unbridled, result in sin.

And so, at the Seder, as we dip the karpas in the saltwater, reenacting Adam’s sentence by eating a lowly vegetable, animal food, dampened with a reminder of his tears, his question should come to mind: “Am I and my donkey to eat from the same feed-bag?”

But so should something else.  Because the reminder of his tears – the saltwater – is a reminder no less of his hope, the sweat of his brow, the hard work that can lead us to become truly human, choosing, servants of G-d.  That hard labor is what justifies our existence; it is our astonishing privilege in this wondrous world.

© 2004 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

Blood

Reasonable minds might well wonder if there is a major blood-focus in Judaism.  In fact there is, and noting the fact is timely, for the bloodletting is on Passover, or Pesach.

I don’t mean the spilling this time of year of Jewish blood, of which there was indeed much over centuries in Christian Europe (another echo of Christian blood-fixation – Jews drinking Christian blood was a common slander in the Middle Ages, so much so that halachic sources actually suggest using white, not red, wine for the “four cups” in places where such libels are common).   No, not human blood but rather animal.

Specifically, the blood of the Pesach-sacrifice, which, in the times of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, was slaughtered the on afternoon before the onset of the holiday.  The meat of the lamb or goat comprised the final course of the Seder (the original “afikoman”), and some of its blood was placed on the Temple altar.

We don’t have a clear comprehension of the Jewish laws of sacrifices; somehow, the ritual dispatching of animals results in our own greater closeness to G-d (“korban,” the Hebrew word for sacrifice, means “that which makes close”).  But the spiritual mechanics, as is the case with so many of the Torah’s commandments, are ultimately beyond mortal minds.

The Pesach sacrifice, though, seems clearly to hearken back to the first Pesach, when the blood of the sheep or goat our ancestors were commanded to slaughter in Egypt, in preparation for their exodus from that land, was placed on “the doorposts and lintel” of each Jewish home.

In rabbinic literature, houses are symbols of the feminine, and so it has been suggested that the blood on the doors of the Jewish homes in ancient Egypt may represent the blood of birth.  From those homes in ancient Egypt, in other words, a new collective entity came forth into the world.  A Jewish nation was born.

As the Shem MiShmuel, a classic Chassidic text, explains, before the exodus the Jews were all related to one another (as descendants of Jacob) but they were not a nation.  Any individual was still able to reject his or her connection to the others and the rejection had an effect.  Indeed, our tradition teaches that many in fact did so, and did not merit to leave Egypt at all, dying instead during the plague of darkness.

Once the people were forged into a nation-entity, though, on their very last night in Egypt, things changed radically.  With blood on their doorways and satchels filled with matzoh, they readily followed Moses into the frightening desert on G-d’s orders, knowing not what awaited them.  As the prophet Jeremiah described it, in G-d’s words: “I remember for you the kindness of your youth… your following Me in the desert, a land where nothing is planted.”  And thus the Jews became a living nation, an entity whose members, and descendants throughout history, are part of an organic whole, no matter what any of them may choose to do.

Which is why, in the words of the Talmud, “A Jew who sins is still a Jew,” in every way.  There is no longer any option of “opting out.”

And so, blood in Judaism is a symbol not of suffering, not of torture, not even of death, but of its very opposites: birth, life, meaning.

The words of another Jewish prophet, Ezekiel – words recited in the Haggadah and traditionally understood as a reference to the Pesach sacrifice – well reflect that fact.

Referring to “the day you were born,” G-d tells His people: “And I passed by you wallowing in your blood, and I said to you, ‘in your blood, live.’  And I said to you, ‘in your blood, live’.”

© 2004 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

Getting In Touch With Our Inner Slaves

The word “slave” doesn’t generally inspire positive feelings.  For Jews, though, especially when Passover arrives, it should.

To be sure, the images evoked when we think of servitude tend to be of economically or racially oppressed classes, of men and women being treated as if they were something less than fully human.

There are other types of servitude as well that have little or nothing to do with class.  For example, whether we choose to confront it or not, we are all servants – indeed slaves – to a considerable host of masters.  Most of us are indentured to one or another degree to any of a number of physical and psychological desires.  Some are relatively innocuous, like the craving for a particular food – or for food in general – or the yearning to be entertained or pampered or allowed to sleep late.  Other desires are more sinister, like the compulsion to ingest some addictive chemical, or the lust to lord oneself over other people, or the coveting of property or persons.

In contemporary times, many of us are enslaved virtually without even knowing it – chained to our work, taking orders from advertisers, moving to the dictates of the arbiters of style, addicted to the media or to the Internet.  Oddly, every modern opportunity seems to morph into a new master; new options pull us even further from true freedom.

It seems almost as if it is a hard-wired part of human nature that we serve.  Indeed, Judaism maintains, it is, and for good reason: Because we are meant to be servants.

We just have to choose the right master.

Most people are aware that Passover is the Jewish holiday of freedom, commemorating how the distant ancestors of today’s Jews, embraced by God and led by Moses, threw off the yoke of Pharaoh’s enslavement.  But there is something very essential to the Passover account that many don’t realize: Though Egypt was rejected, servitude was not.

“Let My people go!” G-d ordered Pharaoh.  But the command doesn’t end there.  It continues: “… so that they may serve Me.”

The Jewish concept of freedom, or cherut, does not mean being unfettered, but rather fettered to what is meaningful; it does not mean independence but rather subservience – not to the mundane but to the divine.

Which is why Passover, in a sense, doesn’t end after its seven (or, outside of the Holy Land, eight) days.  On the second day of the holiday, following the Biblical command, observant Jews begin counting, marking each of the following forty-nine days by pronouncing a blessing and assigning the day a number.  The fiftieth day, the day after the counting, or Sefirat Ha’Omer, is completed, is the holiday of Shevuot (“Weeks”); it is in a very real sense the culmination of Passover.

For according to Jewish tradition, Shevuot is the anniversary of the revelation at Sinai, of the day the Torah was given to the Jewish people.  And therein lies the deep secret of Jewish freedom.

The life of a libertine is not freedom but quite its opposite, enslavement to transient pleasures, to substances and possessions, to the dictates of society.  Meaningful freedom, paradoxically, is being indentured – but to the ultimate master, the Master of all.  And so as we count the days – quite literally – from the holiday of freedom to the holiday of Torah, we express (and, hopefully impress on ourselves) just how inextricably the theme of Passover is linked to that of Shevuot, how the ultimate expression of true freedom is having the courage and mettle to throw off the yoke of temporal masters and commit ourselves to what is meaningful in an ultimate sense: the will and law of G-d.

The rabbis of the Talmud put it pithily, punning on the Hebrew word for “etched,” used about the words carved on the Tablets of the Law.  The word is “charut,” which the Rabbis compare to cherut, freedom.

“The only free person,” they inform us, “is the one immersed in Torah.”

© 2001 AM ECHAD RESOURCES