"Yetzias Mitzraim" by Mira Eisen. Oil on canvas. Instagram @mira_eisen. Reprinted with permission of the artist. 2 / G ett i n g R e a d y f o r the S e d er
GETTING READY FOR THE SEDER G ett i n g R e a d y f o r the S e d er \ 3
GUIDE TO A MEANINGFUL SEDER
RABBI CHAIM STEINMETZ
This year, the themes of the Seder speak directly to our day-to-day experience. The Seder teaches us timeless lessons about adversity, vulnerability, courage and redemption. The Seder encourages us to dream of a better future. It is for this reason that we have put together a Haggadah companion, to enhance your Pesach Seder this year. This companion begins with an introductory guide on how to run the Seder by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, and then it follows a three-part structure. There are sections on Seder customs, written by Rabbi Meyer Laniado, and sections on how to engage the children in the Seder discussion, written by Rachel and Rabbi Daniel Kraus. The primary section is a compilation of readings on the themes of the Seder. These readings are not intended as a commentary, but rather as a way to further explore questions that arise from the Seder, such as “What was so wrong with idolatry?” and “Where does anti-Semitism come from?” These readings are perfect for inspiring discussion, both at the Seder and afterwards. The final section includes essays from our rabbis on Pesach and the Seder. We hope this Haggadah companion will make your Pesach more meaningful. We miss seeing you in synagogue and look forward to seeing everyone in the near future. But if you cannot make it to KJ, KJ will come to you; and this companion is a way to bring a bit of KJ to your Seder table.
RABBI HASKEL LOOKSTEIN How Different this Seder Is From all Other Sedarim! Guidance for Running a Seder in this Unusual Year – Or Any Other There is a dispute as to whether the Mah Nishtanah heading of the four questions ends with a question mark or with an exclamation point. In other words: Why is this night different from all other nights? Or: How different this night is from all other nights! Perhaps it takes living through a pandemic to appreciate that, this year, the second view may actually be more relevant than the first. In any event, many of us will be at a Seder this year which is greatly reduced in size from that to which we are accustomed. Perhaps it will be a little larger than last year’s but, for most of us, it will not be like the ones we were used to having before Covid-19. I thought it might be helpful to offer some guidance on conducting a Seder, reduced in size, for a couple or a small or middle-sized family. This guidance is in addition to the instructions found in most Haggadot. So here goes.
READINGS, QUESTIONS & CUSTOMS
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Kiddush on Pesach night serves two functions. First, it serves as the celebration of Kedushat Ha-Yom – the sanctification of the day – as it does on any Shabbat or Yom Tov. Second, it is the beginning of Sippur Yetziyat Mitzrayim, the telling of the story of the exodus from Egypt, in that the cup that we drink at Kiddush is the first of the four cups which are an essential part of telling the story of the exodus. Suggestion: Since on Pesach night, each of us is a King/Queen, no one should pour the wine for himself/ herself, as befits royalty. Each participant should pour for another. It’s also more fun that way. I I. U’R E C H AT Z – WA S H I N G O F T H E HANDS WITHOUT A BERAKHAH One of the simple reasons for this strange custom - washing the hands without a brachah and without eating bread immediately thereafter – is that it prompts questions from
the young. I recall when my eldest daughter (whose milestone birthday this year falls on the first day of Pesach) was three years old, I watched her wash her hands (netilat yadayim) and start to say the brachah “Ba-“and immediately I said: “No, Mindy, no brachah!” Her eyes opened wide as if to say “Why is this night different from all other nights?!” Mission accomplished!
I I I. K A R PA S Any green vegetable – except lettuce which is reserved for maror – dipped in salt water. Some use a slice of potato. It serves as an hors d’oeuvre, something that royalty ate before a feast.
I V. YA C H A T Z
An explanation is in order: We fill the cup before the four questions because the Haggadah is not only an intellectual experience of telling the story; it is also celebrational. The whole story is told over a cup of wine – the second cup. It is a toast to God. In actuality, we should have had to raise the cup and hold it in our hand throughout the first part of the Haggadah, except that it is unreasonable to hold a cup for such a long story. Therefore, we fill the cup before the four questions and then we put it down and we raise it and lower it several times during the course of the telling of the story. This is to indicate that the whole story is not just an explanation of what happened but a toast to God that everything turned out alright. We drink the cup at the end of the first part of the Haggadah, right before we eat the meal.
We have three matzot on the table. We need two of them for lechem mishneh (like the two loaves that are on every table on Shabbat and Yom Tov) and an extra one for the Hillel sandwich (Korech). The proper way to perform yachatz is to break the middle matzah as evenly as possible. (I have a tradition from my father, of blessed memory, that enables me to break it exactly in half every single year at the Seder. It never fails – except when it does). One then takes one-half and puts it in the middle between the two matzot and covers them. The other half is put away for the afikoman at the end of the meal. How each family handles the protection of that afikoman, and then it’s repossession, is a matter of personal minhag and taste! Everybody thinks that the purpose of splitting the middle matzah is to have an afikoman at the end. That’s not really true. As long as one doesn’t tell the children this, one can use any shmurah matzah for the afikoman. It doesn’t have to be the one that we broke at the beginning of the Seder. Shhhh! The purpose of the breaking of the middle matzah is so that the half that remains on the table should reflect the principle of lechem oni – the bread of the poor or the afflicted. A poor person doesn’t have a whole matzah. An afflicted person is lucky to have half a matzah. The matzah on Pesach night is at once a symbol of our freedom, in that we rushed to leave Egypt and we had no time to allow the dough to rise, and the symbol of our poverty about which we will now say: “This is the bread of affliction which our forefathers ate in Egypt.” We hold up that half matzah as we say those words.
V. M A G G I D Having recited the paragraph about the bread of affliction, we turn to the major part of the Haggadah, the organized telling of the story of Yetziyat Mitzrayim. The second cup is filled for us (remember: each fills someone’s else’s cup) and the child (if there is one at the Seder) asks the four questions. G ett i n g R e a d y f o r the S e d er \ 5
i . AVA D I M H AY E E N U
“We were slaves to Pharaoh and God took us out.” This is the first of two answers to the question of “Why is this night different from all other nights.” The Mishnah in the Tractate of Pesachim says the story has a structure: questions and answers. The answers have a structure: “We begin with the bad ( g’nut) and we end with the good (shevach).” But the Mishnah does not explain what the bad and what the good are. That remains for the Gemara. In the Gemara, Rav and Shmuel have a dispute. Rav says that the process from bad to good was the odyssey of the Jewish people from our origins as idol worshippers – Terach and his son Abraham – to the worship of one God, which was confirmed at Mt. Sinai. Shmuel says the process is from slavery to freedom. Avadim Hayeenu is the first iteration of Shmuel’s story from bad to good. ii. THE FOUR SONS
I suggest that you ask four people around the table to each read one of those passages in Hebrew or English. Remember: this is a story and we are supposed to understand what the story is all about. It is acceptable, therefore, to read parts of the Haggadah in English. In general, from here on, it would be advisable for different people around the Seder table to read different passages so everybody is involved and gets a chance to tell part of the story. iii. MITECHILA
You will readily recognize that this is Rav’s version of the story of “from bad to good.”
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The reference is to how we began our national life as a family in an idolatrous culture, and how we ultimately came to the worship of the One God. i v . V ’ H I S H E ’ A M D A H
There are various melodies for this beautiful, short passage which focuses on the promise made in the previous paragraph and says that this promise is what has given us strength to face all of our enemies in every generation and land. We raise the cup, without drinking, as we say or sing this passage. Then we put the cup down again. v . T Z E H U ’ L’ M A D
This is a lengthy analysis of a series of verses from Deuteronomy in which a Jew, who brings his first fruits (Bikurim) to the Temple, recalls the long history of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt until the entrance to the Promised Land and thanks God for the privilege of bringing the first fruits of one’s labor to the Kohen in Jerusalem. The story proceeds from our difficult origins to a blessed conclusion. It is another iteration of Shmuel’s Haggadah (from slavery to freedom). Once we have detailed the glorious stories of our deliverance, we are moved to sing the beautiful song – Dayenu – a song of thanks to God culminating in the Ten Plagues. What this song says is that if only we had a little less than God gave us, it would have been enough (Dayenu!). Our normal tendency is to say, “If only I had a little more, it would be enough.” There is a huge difference in perspective between these two expressions.
The paragraph after Dayenu says how blessed we are that we had all of those things about which we spoke in Dayenu. My father, of blessed memory, used to ask someone around the table to try to say that paragraph in one breath. It is a lot of fun to try it. v i . R A B B A N G A M L I ’ E L
This is the second most important part of the Seder, after the major part of the Haggadah and the telling of the story intellectually. In this brief part, we analyze the roles that the Paschal Lamb (represented on the plate by a shank bone), the matzah, and the bitter herbs play in the story. Sippur Yetziyat Mitzrayim is fulfilled on two levels: one is intellectual, and we have already done that. The second is experiential, in that we re-experience slavery and the process to freedom as if we, personally, left Egypt. To help us relive that whole story, we use a symbol of the Passover Offering which was brought on the occasion of the Exodus from Egypt, the matzah which symbolizes the passion with which we left Egypt, not having time to allow the dough to rise, and the maror which symbolizes the bitterness of our life in Egypt. Rabban Gamli’el says that whoever doesn’t understand and explain these three symbols of the Seder, has not fulfilled the obligation of telling the story of the exodus because the story is not just in words; it is also in action. That’s why we drink four cups, because we are celebrating our emergence into freedom. That’s why we recline when we drink the wine and eat the matzah, because we are now free after two-hundred-and-ten years of bondage. That’s why we have the salt water, to remember the tears, the egg, to remember our mourning over the many lives lost, and the haroset, to remind us of the bricks that we had to create and set in place. We reexperience the slavery and the deliverance as if we ourselves were there. After explaining these three symbols, we proclaim: “In every generation each person must see himself/herself as if he/she experienced the exodus from Egypt…” The next paragraph follows logically: “Therefore, we are obligated to thank, to praise, to glorify…” and we burst forth into the first two paragraphs of Hallel. We follow that with a blessing of thanks to God for having redeemed us and our forefathers (because we were there, too) and expressing the hope that we will be able to celebrate other festivals together. We then lift up the cup for the last time as if we have been holding it throughout the reading of the Haggadah, we make the blessing over wine, and we drink the cup of wine reclining to the left.
V I . W E W A S H N E T I L A T YA D AY I M FOR THE MOTZI VII. MOTZI There are two blessings. The first is the normal blessing over enjoying bread – in this case, matzah. The second blessing is over the special mitzvah of eating matzah on the night of the Seder. Here is the way the Motzi should be done. After one has washed and said the brachah of Al Netilat Yadayim, the person at the head of the Seder uncovers and lifts up the two and-a-half matzot. He makes the brachah, Ha-motzei lechem min ha-aretz while holding the two and a half matzot. After making the motzi, he puts the bottom matzah down on the plate, reserving it for Korech and, holding the one and a-half matzot in his hand (reflecting that matzah is also the bread of poverty), he makes the brachah over the mitzvah of matzah. Everyone can make these two brachot together with the person at the head of the table. The person at the head of the table should ideally break off a piece from the whole matzah and another piece from the half matzah for each person around the table. The matzah is eaten while leaning to the left which is interesting in itself. As we have explained, the matzah is the bread of affliction which we ate in Egypt, but it is also the bread of freedom that we baked on our way out. The organization of the matzot at the Seder reflects both ideas. There is a whole matzah and a-half, representing the bread of poverty, but when we eat them, we recline, emphasizing the bread of freedom.
VIII. MAROR We take romaine lettuce, not horseradish. The Talmud is very clear that maror is lettuce. (Those of us who are older know that we were raised on horseradish as maror. This is probably because they had no lettuce in Eastern Europe). We make a brachah over the mitzvah of maror and we eat it. We do not recline when we eat maror. That is because maror is a symbol of slavery, not freedom.
IX. KORECH We then take the bottom matzah (one can actually use any matzah shmurah for this), break it into pieces and put romaine lettuce in between or around the two pieces (korech actually means “wrap around;” it refers to the soft matzah that Sephardim from different communities have, not the hard matzah that Ashkenazim use). Before eating the Hillel sandwich, we recite together the paragraph about Hillel and what he did. G ett i n g R e a d y f o r the S e d er \ 7
X. L E T’S E AT I have to add a story about the Rav. He was asked in shiur how big a quantity of matzah does one have to eat at the motzei, at Korech and at afikoman in order to fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzah on Pesach night. He answered that, in his opinion, each one of these three rituals requires the eating of one and-ahalf pieces of shmurah matzah, so that if there are three moments of eating (Motzi, Korech and Afikoman) one would be eating four and a half shmurah matzahs. The Rav was asked, “How did you have any room for eating the meal?” He smiled and he said, “To the best of my memory, we didn’t eat much at the Seder table.” That’s just a story about the Rav. I am not recommending it for general practice. X I. T Z A F U N – E AT I N G T H E AFIKOMAN Each family is going to have its own deal for the afikoman. I have already expressed myself at the beginning as to what the halakhah is. I do not mean to cramp the style of any child or parent with regard to repossessing a stolen afikoman. X I I . T H E T H I R D C U P The third cup, over which we will bench (the first cup was a kiddush toast; the second cup was a toast to God over the story of the Haggadah; the third cup is a toast to God for Birkat Hamazon). We bench, singing as much as is reasonable, and at the conclusion we make a blessing over wine and we drink the third cup. We then fill the fourth cup, which will be a toast over the completion of Hallel. First, however, we fill the cup of Elijah and we open the door. We speak a little bit about how blessed we are that we can open our doors without any fear. Throughout much of Jewish history, we had no such confidence. There could have been great physical threats just outside our doors. May we always experience our present security. It is a good idea to sing one or more melodies of Eliyahu Ha-Navi songs when the door is opened.
X I I I . W E S AY T H E H A L L E L In order to make it interesting, it might be a good idea to say the Hallel responsively. The leader says or sings one verse and the rest of the participants respond with the next verse until the completion of the chapter. Wherever one can sing songs in Hallel, one should sing them, time permitting. At this 8 / G ett i n g R e a d y f o r the S e d er
particular moment, time becomes a significant factor and one should bear that in mind. Nevertheless, the songs of Hallel are beautiful and worth singing. Hallel is followed by what is called Hallel Ha-gadol. A good way to sing this is that the leader says the opening part of each verse and the family or guests say Ki l’olam chasdo, from the beginning until the end. We continue with the prayers that are familiar to us from Shacharit on Shabbat, leading to the blessing over wine. We then drink the fourth cup, leaning to the left. We follow with the blessing after wine and we complete the Seder with a very short, but lovely, prayer. After this prayer, L’Shana Haba’a b’Yerushalayim is sung. At our group Seder in Jerusalem we all dance around the ballroom at that point. You might try it in your dining room. I can tell you that there is nothing like it. But you have to begin the Seder on time and move things along in order to be able to sing and dance at that moment. I recommend that the special piyutim Va-Yehi Bachatzi ha-Layla and Zevach Pesach (on the second night) be read by the leader reading the basic sentences and the family responding with “Ba-Layla or Ba-Pesach,” until the end. The last four songs should be sung in accordance with your custom. My father had a theory that these songs were supposed to be zemirot, sung during the meal. For good and sufficient reasons of time and convenience, we actually used to sing three out of the four during the course of the meal. That way, we saved a lot of time, and we were left with only one song at the end which we could sing with gusto.
X I V. H A T I K VA H I strongly recommend ending the Seder with Hatikvah. We are privileged to live in miraculous times for the Jewish people. With all of our tsoros, we have a thriving State of Israel, politics aside, of which we can be abundantly proud. Is there a better way in which to express our love of Israel and the Jewish people than to conclude the story of the Exodus from Egypt by singing Hatikvah? Have a great Seder!
Haskel Lookstein G ett i n g R e a d y f o r the S e d er \ 9
THE LINES BETWEEN SEPHARDIC & ASHKENAZIC TRADITIONS CROSS RABBI MEYER LANIADO On the Seder night, we rarely have the opportunity to see firsthand the customs of other communities, which may even be the customs our ancestors once followed. The minhagim (Global Customs) sections throughout this companion will bring you into the homes of Jews from various communities and place you at their Seder table. The following story is illustrative of this crossover. One ereb Pesah, in Zkhova Galizia, a young pauper, maybe eighteen years old at the time, who seemed to be a traveler from another town, approached the head rabbi of the community and begged him to allow him to join the rabbi for Pesah. The traveler told the rabbi that he specifically wanted to share the Seder with him because he knew the rabbi was scrupulous in his adherence to the law. The rabbi agreed and asked the traveler if he would like his own set table to follow his own traditions, to which the traveler happily agreed. When the traveler arrived at the rabbi’s home, he found his place. He began to rearrange the Seder items that were initially placed before him according to most communities’ customs. For example, he removed one of the massot, so now there were only two instead of three. They began the Seder, and although the rabbi was confused by this traveler’s actions, he decided to remain silent. Throughout the Seder, the traveler practiced differently from the rabbi, and the ‘standard’ practice. He said a blessing on the first washing and ate more than a kezayit of the karpas. The rabbi could not believe how this young man dared to decide on his own to change established customs. The rabbi decided to test his guest and so, he presented some intricate ideas on the Torah to evaluate the traveler’s capabilities. The traveler reviewed the rabbi’s lesson in a clear and concise form, eliminating extraneous points and repetition. He did not add anything to the lecture, nor did he comment, but the rabbi understood from the summary that he was standing before a great man. The traveler was the young Gaon of Vilna, who had put himself into exile. This story was told to me by my teacher Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Haim, in the context of understanding the laws and traditions of the Seder according to the Geonim, Rambam, and the early Spanish Haggadot pre-14th century. We often view how we practice as the way it was always done, but there has been some development and crossover between the communities. The early Sephardic tradition, aligning itself with Maimonides and the Geonim, had only two massot. A berakha, a blessing, was said on the first washing, and one was required to have at least a kezayit of the first vegetable, and a blessing was said on all four of the cups of wine. The Sephardic tradition of most communities now follows the Shulkhan Arukh and is no longer aligned with these earlier Sephardic Haggadot, Rambam, or the Geonim. So, it is fascinating to read this story of the Gaon of Vilna, a prominent Ashkenazi rabbi, who followed many of the Seder laws and traditions of the early Sepharadim who followed Maimonides and the Geonim. Throughout the Global Custom sections you will see some customs that were adopted by Askhenazim from Sepharadim and some Ashkenazi customs adopted by Sepharadim. This crossover speaks to the interconnectedness of our communities. My hope is that this small collection of global customs will bring more meaning and interest to your own minhagim, while also connecting, and uniting you with Jews all over the world. Especially now, on our holiday of geulah, national redemption. Moadim leSimha!
Meyer Laniado 1 0 / G ett i n g R e a d y f o r the S e d er
MAKING PESACH MEMORIES WITH OUR CHILDREN 5781 RABBI DANIEL AND RACHEL KRAUS Dear Parents! While the Seder experience this year might not be what we had originally planned, possibility is born from what IS available to us. We have the unique privilege to have Seder with our nuclear family, a wonderful chance to share with our children the importance of our heritage and traditions, to hear from them, to educate and impart to them the lessons of the Passover message. Just like in any other part of our life, what we put in we will get out of it. Prepare! The goal is to try and connect with our children, help them and us, understand the elements of the Seder! The design and goal of the Seder, and specifically Maggid, is to experientially engage all the senses, stimulate curiosity, questions, and discussion and delve into the art of storytelling about our personal and national history. Applying this concept filter, and to that end, the thought starters we have shared here are triggers to bring different sections to life with your unique family imprint. May the experiences we have this year help shape and solidify our family values and rich tradition. Chag Sameach,
Daniel & Rachel Kraus G ett i n g R e a d y f o r the S e d er \ 1 1
"Exodus" by Mira Eisen. Oil on canvas. Instagram @mira_eisen. Reprinted with permission of the artist.
READINGS, QUESTIONS & CUSTOMS
GLOBAL CUSTOMS PRIOR TO PESAH Prior to Pesah, from as early as Rosh Hodesh Nissan, Egyptian communities have a Tawahid. They bring musicians and hazzanim and sing bakkashot and pizmonim. They read the Torah portion of haHodesh haZeh laKhem Rosh Hodashim, as well as piyutim and poems, in praise of the Torah and those who study it (See Nehar Misrayim).
T H E S E D E R P L AT E The קערה, Seder plate arrangement my family uses, along with many Sephardic families throughout the world, originated with the 16th century Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria, the AR"I. The arrangement aligns with the kabbalistic concept of ten sefirot, the ten attributes of God's emanations. While the AR"I was a contemporary living in the same city as Rabbi Yoseph Karo, the author of the Shulkhan Arukh, Rabbi Yoseph Karo, makes no mention of the special arrangement of the Seder plate. He does mention a קערה, as does Rambam, although it seems for the Rambam there was a קערהfor each person prepared with all of the items
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for the Seder. Still, there is no mention of their arrangement in any sources before the AR"I (ו,ד:)תעג. Rabbi Shemtob Gaguine notes how influential the kabbalah was, and how accepted this special arrangement became, except amongst those who maintained the older traditions, like the anusim, the once crypto-Jews from Spain, who were, at his time, living in Amsterdam and London (Keter Shem Tob 3:52). The Rema suggests the foods should be arranged on the platter in the order of the Seder so that one would not reach over one misva to perform another. Jews of Libya place an egg for each person at the Seder on the קערה, and some families also include eggs for those who have passed away.
LOOKING INTO A MIRROR Jews from Kurd-Iran look into a mirror. This custom is seen in one of two ways: 1. They are taking the statement literally by the rabbis that a person should view themselves as if they personally left Egypt. 2. This is in recognition of the righteous women who used mirrors to beautify themselves for their husbands during the Egyptian oppression to ensure the continued growth of their family, even during those difficult times.
Four is the numbered pattern we would expect at the Seder, yet some families have a fifth cup. This originates from one of the early versions of the Talmud preserved by the Geonim, the Rif, Rosh, and Rambam. They articulate the beraita, early rabbinic source, with a statement by Ribi Tarfon differently than we have in our current Vilna edition of the Talmud, and they read it as follows: “On the fifth cup we recite Hallel (Talmud Bavli Pesahim 118).” While Maimonides (Mishneh Torah Unleavened and Leavened Bread 8:10) sees this as an additional optional cup as part of the Seder. This may be aligned with the fifth language of redemption, veHebeiti, our future redemption. Rabbi Yoseph Qafih, a prominent 20th-century rabbi of Yemenite descent, attests that amongst his family, as he remembers from his grandfather, they always had a fifth cup as a regular part of their Seder. Others, like Rabbi Joseph ben Samuel Bonfils quoted by the Rosh and brought to halakha by the Rema (S” A 481:1), views the fifth cup as only an allowance for an additional cup for those who are thirsty and need another cup to drink to quench their thirst. Many Ashkenaz families also have a fifth cup at their Seder, but for a different reason. For them, this cup is not for any of the Seder participants. Instead, it is left for Eliyahu, who we are told will arrive before our final redemption (Mishneh Torah Laws Kings and Wars 12:4). The Bukharian custom is to pour Elijah’s cup at the beginning of the Seder, at the same time as Kiddush. After they ‘greet Eliyahu’ by the fourth cup with Hallel, they allocate the wine to the participant’s cups (Edut beYoseph). The custom of opening the door when shefokh hamatekha is recited, and having the fifth cup, has only recently become a tradition in Sephardic homes (Sefer Derekh Eres Pesah 5). Rabbi Abraham Hamway records this custom being prevalent amongst Syrian Jews living in Syria by the 20th century (Siddur Beit haBehira Pesah). Egyptians open the door and leave it open to show that Pesah is leil shimurim, a night of guarding, and no harm will come to them (Shemot 12:42). After the door is open, they pour the cup of Eliyahu haNabi, and say that Eliyahu will come after the Seder and drink from it. During the night, one of the adults drinks from the cup, and so the next morning, the kids are in wonder and say to their friends: “Eliyahu haNabi came and drank the entire cup!” This was done to instill hope in the future redemption, that even now in exile, Eliyahu goes from house to house to drink from his cup. In Minhagei Hatam Sofer ch. 10 note 7 - it is noted that the cup of Eliyahu should be used for Kiddush the next morning.
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W H AT M A KE S A M E A L H O LY ? What is unique about the weekly ritual of Kiddush, and the entire Passover Seder, is that food and drink are used for an act of Divine worship. We might assume that a moment of holiness should be detached from everything physical; and that is actually how we serve God on Yom Kippur. But there is another way of serving God, right at our Seder table. In an essay comparing the very different experiences of Passover and Yom Kippur, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik explains how a meal can be a vehicle for holiness, as well.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Festival of Freedom At the root of the halakhic conception of the seudah lies a problem which assailed the minds of our sages. Man responds to the biological pressure to take nourishment;... So acts the brute, the beast in the field; so acts the insect, jumping from flower to flower on a bright summer morning or circling around the bulb in
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the summer twilight; so behaves even the plant. There is nothing human or meaningful about the act of consuming food. It is wholly instinctual, coerced, and mechanical. Many of the Greek philosophers of the schools of the Stoa and the Cynics actually reached the conclusion that eating is a disgraceful necessity. Eating gratifies... the beast in man. However, Judaism maintains... Man can liberate eating from its animality... And (be) converted into an institution which is uniquely human, freely-willed, and meaningful... Judaism developed a new institution, the seudah. It is neither an ordinary meal nor a feast; it is more than that. It is the crucible in which the bread of man is transposed into the bread of God; it expresses the fellowship between God and man and the participation of God in all human pursuits and activities. Rabbi Soloveitchik then lists multiple ways in which the seudah transforms an ordinary meal into a Divine one. First, the food must be obtained with integrity. It must also be eaten in a dignified manner, with self-discipline. The meal should bring connection between one person and another, through hospitality, generosity and charity. While eating, one must feel a sense of amazement and gratitude for the gift of life and the gift of food. And the meal should be a place of discussion and Torah study. P
This washing is one that, according to the Taz (S”A 473:6), should be done every time one immerses a food into one of the seven liquids that can become tameh, impure. While not the practice of those who follow Tosafot, Shulkhan Arukh requires netilat yadayim when immersing a food into one of these liquids, such as milk (S”A 158:4). Indeed, there are some who wash netilat yadayim, without a berakhah, when dipping their Entenmann’s doughnut into milk, all year round.
K A R PA S
SO THE CHILDREN SHOULD ASK Why do we dip a vegetable at the beginning of the Seder? To encourage people to ask that very question and begin a dialogue about the purpose of the Seder. Maimonides explains that is the reason for many of the Seder’s customs; we want to change the way we do things, so the children ask questions.
Maimonides, Laws of Chametz and Matzah, 7:3 On the first night of Pesah, one should introduce some change at the table, so that the children who will notice it may ask, saying: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” And he in turn will reply: “This is what happened.” In what manner, for example, should he introduce a change? He may distribute parched grain or nuts to the children; remove the table from its usual place; snatch the unleavened bread from hand to hand, and so on. (Explanatory note: These customs are a bit different than ours, but the removing of tables is the equivalent of our removing the ke’ara, and the snatching of Matzah is the equivalent of our afikoman hide and seek.)
Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, Sermons, Uplifted, 1961 (In 1961, Rabbi Lamm visited Fatehpur Sikri, an ancient, poverty-stricken community in India with a small Jewish community. Upon returning, he shared this remarkable anecdote:) “Never shall I forget the one outstanding incident of my recent visit. I had just come out of a lecture in a “prayer hall” in the poorest section of poor India, a number of young teenage boys crowded about me, and I was told that they wanted to ask me something. I tried to think, what is it they want? These were all barefoot children. Do they want shoes? They are hungry children. Do they desire food? Many of them sleep in the streets for they have no homes; do they want their rich American relatives to help them with a roof over their heads? The answer to all these was no. For they turned to me, and in broken English, said, “Rabbi, give us Hebrew books.” It is this kind of aspiration which leads to inspiration. It is the striving and love for learning that will make for true, lasting Jews.” A child who is hungrier for a book than a meal is a child one can be proud of. P
U R H AT Z
The purpose of these customs to pique our children’s curiosity and to get them engaged in learning about the Exodus. This is a concern not just on the night of Passover, but the entire year: How do we create a thirst for knowledge in our children? Are we placing too much emphasis on academic success rather than on the joy of learning? Read the following passage from one of Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm’s sermons:
The original practice was to specifically have at least a kezayit, as Rambam states: “and no less than a kezayit (Mishne Torah Laws of Unleavened and Leavened Bread 8:2).” This shifted when some became unsure if a berakha should be said afterwards. So, the practice evolved to have less than the amount of food that would require an afterblessing.
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YA H A T Z Afikoman, afikomun or afikomin? The pronunciation varies from community to community. Rabbi Shemtob Guiguine, a prominent Sephardic rabbi who records minhagim of various communities in his book Keter Shem Tob, writes that it is afikomin.
Hiding the afikomin is an Ashkenaz custom recently adopted by some Sephardic families. Iraqis and Egyptians give the afikomin wrapped in a cloth to a child at the table and ask him/her to guard it against theft, and if it gets stolen, they are responsible to pay 100 gold coins! Egyptians then say, but, if you guard it well, you will receive a prize! This is done to keep the child awake (Edut beYoseph). The Seder is an experiential educational experience that incorporates performances and acting. Many communities have incorporated practices and scripts that have spanned generations that reenact our Exodus from Egypt. One of the Massot is broken, and the play begins. The larger of the broken pieces is wrapped in a nice fabric (some communities place the smaller piece). This is then passed around the table, with each participant holding the bundle with their right hand over their left shoulder as if they are about to go on a trip. The custom as recorded describes that the person participating would walk a few steps or exit and enter the house or room, but from experience, I have seen almost everyone, except for those few who want to participate further, with some dressing up, holding a staff, donning a turban and sandals, choose to remain in their seats. In some communities, it is but one participant, such as a child or the leader of the Seder, and in others, each member plays the role of the one leaving Egypt. The other participants ask the following questions one after the next: “Where are you coming from?” “What are you bringing with you?” and “Where are you going?” The person responds: “Egypt,” “Massa and Maror,” and “Jerusalem!” Jews from Arab lands continue to ask and reply in Arabic, while some do translate as well. Families from Libya and Tunisia and Morocco have the Seder plate waved over their heads by the Seder’s leader during the recitation of Mah Nishtanah.
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Sephardic communities, until recently, recited the Haggadah in both Hebrew and the Arabic translation. The ketab, Jewish after-school learning programs in the Syrian community of Brooklyn, continued to teach this Arabic translation of the Haggadah until their closing with the Jewish day school system’s growth.
The Arabic translation includes some additional comments, some of which are still recited even by those who no longer recite the Arabic translation. For example, some say: “Hada Il Jawad’’ after reciting the Mah Nishtanah section, but before starting Abadim hayinu. Hada Il Jawad means: Here is the answer. It indicates that what we are about to read is the answer to the Mah Nishtanah question. Certain parts of the Haggadah are chanted together as a group, such as barukh haMaqom barukh hu, and barukh shomer habtahato, and others are rotated amongst participants. In some communities, for example, as recorded by Nehar Misrayim in Egypt, women participated in the reading as well (Edut beYoseph).
F A M I LY P A S S O V E R A C T I V I T Y
H A L A C H M A ANYA ָהא ַל ְח ָמ א ַענְ יָ א
Reflections on themes of kindness. Ask each participant to share a story when they acted with kindness or were the recipient of kindness.
H A L AC H M A A N YA / T H I S I S THE POOR MAN’S BREAD
THE TRUE MEANING OF H O S P I TA L I T Y Hospitality is a foundation of Judaism, and it is no coincidence that the Seder begins with an invitation to guests. The following sources explore two questions: 1. Why are charity and hospitality so much a part of Jewish culture? 2. What is the difference between hospitality and ordinary charity?
Maimonides, Laws of Mourning, 14:2 The reward for escorting a stranger is greater than any reward. It is a practice introduced by our father Abraham, a way of kindness which was habitual with him. He served food and drink to wayfarers and escorted them. Hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence...
Maimonides, Laws of the Gifts to the Poor, 10:2 All Israel and all who are associated with them are like brothers, as it is said, (Deut. 14:1) You are children of the LORD your God. And if a brother does not show compassion for another brother, then who will have compassion for him? And to whom can the poor of Israel look? To the idolatrous nations that hate them and pursue them? They can only look to rely upon their brothers.
Pirkei Avot 1:5 Yose ben Yochanan (a man) of Jerusalem used to say: Let thy house be wide open, and let the poor be members of thy household...
Commentary of Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona ... (one should make it so) that the poor will be accustomed to his house and stay there without embarrassment, as a result of his showing them a happy face and giving them permission to everything that is his, like a man would give to his children and to the members of his household. P R e a d i n g , Q u est i o n s & C u st o ms \ 1 9
T H E I M P O R TA N C E O F Q U E S T I O N S The Sarajevo Haggadah, a famous illuminated manuscript, circa 1350 ce. Svjetlost edition, Ljubljana. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
The Seder is meant to be done in a question and answer format, which is why it begins with Mah Nishtanah. Questions are critical to facilitating learning, and at the same time they can be uncomfortable and disquieting when they don’t have answers. The following is an anecdote about questions from a Nobel laureate, and a thought about unanswered questions from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.
New York Times, Letters to the Editor, Jan. 12, 1988 To the Editor: Isidor I. Rabi, the Nobel laureate in physics who died Jan. 11, was once asked, ''Why did you become a scientist, rather than a doctor or lawyer or businessman, like the other immigrant kids in your neighborhood?'' His answer has served as an inspiration for me as an educator … Dr. Rabi's answer... was profound: ''My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: 'So? Did you learn anything today?' But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. 'Izzy,' she would say, 'did you ask a good question today?' That difference - asking good questions - made me become a scientist!'' DONALD SHEFF
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, cited by Rabbi Aharon Ziegler, Halakhic Positions of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik We must accustom ourselves to the idea that not all questions have answers. This is a general rule in Talmudic study; that the scholar who feels he must resolve all difficulties –is in fact not a scholar at all...When a difficult question is raised in the Gemara, the response sometimes is “teiku,” (meaning that) the answer is unknown. Yet, if God gave us the Torah, shouldn’t it encompass all answers? Rav Soloveitchik remembered that his own father asked this question, and he answered that the Gemara’s “teiku” must reflect the unresolved questions within each individual. If a Jew never has to say “teiku,” and all his life’s questions are answered, he is nothing more than a fool. At the same time, the ability to say “teiku” should not change one’s guiding principles or hinder further study. One must take note of the difficulty and then move on. P
F A M I LY P A S S O V E R A C T I V I T Y
M A H NI S H T ANA H / ַמה ִּנ ׁ ְש ַּת ָּנה Questions are the basis of curiosity and growth. Encourage each participant, regardless of age, to ask their own original Mah Nishtanah. Each child is assigned a family member who could not be present at the Seder and answers the Mah Nishtanah with their voice and mannerisms.
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AVA D I M H AY I N U / W E W E R E S L AV E S
TELLING THE JEWISH STORY
developed a measure called the “Do You Know?” scale that asked children to answer 20 questions. Examples included: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?
Why do we tell stories about our past? The Seder is based on the assumption that the stories we tell shape who we are. And one of the most important themes in the Torah is: You need to know your history and become a part of a larger story. The following article is fascinating because it discusses the psychological effects of family storytelling; and family storytelling is exactly what the Seder is about.
Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush asked those questions of four dozen families in the summer of 2001, ...and reached an overwhelming conclusion. The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.
Bruce Feiler, The Stories That Bind Us, New York Times, March 15, 2013
“We were blown away,” Dr. Duke said.
The last few years have seen stunning breakthroughs in knowledge about how to make families, along with other groups, work more effectively. After a while, a surprising theme emerged. The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative. I first heard this idea from Marshall Duke, a colorful psychologist at Emory University. ... Dr. Duke’s wife, Sara, a psychologist who works with children with learning disabilities, noticed something about her students. “The ones who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges,” she said. Her husband was intrigued, and along with a colleague, Robyn Fivush, set out to test her hypothesis. They
….. Why does knowing where your grandmother went to school help a child overcome something as minor as a skinned knee or as major as a terrorist attack? “The answers have to do with a child’s sense of being part of a larger family,” Dr. Duke said….Dr. Duke said that children who have the most self-confidence have what he and Dr. Fivush call a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves. This is a powerful insight into the power of stories; and the Seder asks us to connect to our communal story. But what is the Jewish narrative? How do you think this narrative has helped the Jews survive? How does it connect to Jews in 2021? P
F A M I LY P A S S O V E R A C T I V I T Y
A V ADI M H AYINU / ֲע ָב ִד ים ָהיִ ינו What is slavery? Introduce the topic of defining slavery. How does slavery exist in the world today? What is one thing to which you feel you feel “enslaved”?
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F A M I LY P A S S O V E R A C T I V I T Y
MA’ASEH BIRABI ELIEZER
שה ְּב ַר ִּבי ֱאלִ ֶיעזֶ ר ׂ ֶ ַמ ֲע Seder memories! The introduction of the Rabbinic passages at this point in the Seder develop the themes of storytelling from the perspectives of the generations who never experienced the original event. Make it personal! What was the longest Seder you ever had? Invite each participant to share one funny Seder memory.
THE STORY OF THE FIVE RABBIS
DIALOGUE & LEARNING Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon stayed up all night telling the story of Egypt. They certainly didn’t agree; the Mishnah and Talmud are filled with their disagreements on multiple subjects. But these Rabbis didn’t only tolerate disagreement; they sought out dialogue and cherished debate. This passage in the Haggadah forces us to reflect on our own attitudes towards dialogue. What are the right conditions for dialogue? When does dialogue disappear? In the Talmud, dialogue is critical to learning. To this day, Yeshivah students study in pairs, to discuss their understanding of the text. Below is a powerful passage that emphasizes this point. It takes place after Rabbi Yochanan’s debating partner and brother-in-law, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, died. Rabbi Yochanan is extremely disappointed in his new study partner, who always agrees with him. 2 2 / R e a d i n g , Q u est i o n s & C u st o ms
Talmud, Baba Metziah 84a Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, (Reish Lakish), died. Rabbi Yohanan was sorely pained over losing him. The Rabbis said: Who will go to calm Rabbi Yohanan’s mind? They said: Let Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat go, as his statements are sharp, (i.e., he is clever and will be able to serve as a substitute for Reish Lakish). Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat went and sat before Rabbi Yohanan. With regard to every matter that Rabbi Yohanan would say, Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat would say to him: There is a ruling which is taught in a baraita that supports your opinion. Rabbi Yohanan said to him: Are you comparable to the son of Lakish? In my discussions with the son of Lakish, when I would state a matter, he would raise twenty-four difficulties against me in an attempt to disprove my claim, and I would answer him with twentyfour answers, and the halakhah by itself would become broadened and clarified. And yet you say to me: There is a ruling which is taught in a baraita that supports your opinion. Do I not know that what I say is good? Rabbi Yohanan went around, rending his clothing, weeping and saying: Where are you, son of Lakish? Where are you, son of Lakish? To love to learn means to love dialogue and disagreement. P
RABBI ELIEZER BEN AZARIAH
A PA S S I O N F O R TORAH LEARNING Rabbi Eliezer is looking for an explanation for why the Exodus is mentioned in the Shema every evening. Finally, he finds an answer, and is overjoyed. This passage highlights Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah’s passion for Torah. The study of Torah is meant to be a joy, not a duty. Torah study was once universal, and synagogues were filled with every strata of society, chasing the answers to their own questions. The following passage offers a glimpse into a world where learning is cherished by both the scholar and the everyman.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Earth Is the Lord's: The Inner World of the Jew in Eastern Europe “Once I noticed,” writes a Christian scholar, who visited the city of Warsaw during the First World War, “a great many coaches on a parking-place but with no drivers in sight. In my own country I would have known where to look for them. A young Jewish boy showed me the way: in a courtyard, on the second floor, was the shtibl of the Jewish drivers. It consisted of two rooms: one filled with Talmud-volumes, the other a room for prayer. All the drivers were engaged in fervent study and religious discussion ... It was then that I found out … that all professions, the bakers, the butchers, the shoemakers, etc., have their own shtibl in the Jewish district; and every free moment which can be taken off from their work is given to the study of the Torah. And when they get together in intimate groups, one urges the other: ‘Sog mir a shtick Torah - Tell me a little Torah.’” “Tell me a little Torah.” This is the motto of people with a true passion for Torah learning. P
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THE FOUR SONS
H OW TO E D U C AT E EVERY CHILD Why Four Sons? There are so many different lessons to learn tonight, so why this one, about education? Because the Seder is about transmitting a tradition from generation to generation. You cannot do that unless you can educate each child according to his nature and abilities. Of all of the four sons, the one that causes the most debate is the wicked son. Is this the right response? Which child do we consider wicked? The following reading offers the fascinating insight that sometimes it is the community that has failed the wicked son.
Samson Raphael Hirsch, “Lessons from Jacob and Esau” We see, then, how our Sages ... tell us that Jacob and Esau alike could have been preserved for their Divinelyordained destiny as descendants of Abraham if their parents would have noticed the difference between them at an early age. They could then have reared and educated both lads for the same goal by following a different approach in each case, taking into account the fact that these two brothers were basically different from one
F A M I LY P A S S O V E R A C T I V I T Y
B A R U C H H A M A KO M קום ֹ ָּברו ְּך ַה ָּמ
Four sons, four children, four prototypes, four personalities. Assign parts to be acted. Act out the characters, read in typecast voices. How do each of these four personalities manifest in each of us at different points? Does time of day, age or life experience elicit different parts of these prototypes?
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another. Because, unfortunately, an identical approach was followed in the rearing and education of these two boys, even though they were two totally different personalities ... Had a different approach been adopted, with due consideration for the differences between them, the two contrasting personalities could both have been trained to develop the same loyalty to one and the same goal. But this is not what happened. As long as Jacob and Esau were lads, they were treated as twins. It did not occur to anyone that, even though they were twins, Jacob and Esau might be completely different from one another in their inborn character traits. Both were sent to the same school, both received the same instruction, both were given the same course of studies to pursue. They were educated as if both of them possessed the same abilities and personalities. When Jacob was still a lad, there was already latent within him .... the man who would strive after spiritual and moral perfection... By contrast, Esau, already in early boyhood, was ... the future hunter who delighted in challenging the forces of nature, in confronting the perils and hazards of life, and in using his physical and mental skills to overcome anything or anyone that stood in his way … Unfortunately, the manner in which he was educated could only fill him with loathing for the Abrahamite tradition. He grew up under the impression that the acceptance and practical observance of the Abrahamite way of life required a completely one-sided existence centered around study and the duties of domestic life – all things that were completely foreign to his personality. Such a one-sided view, which made the lad Esau believe that the Abrahamite tradition could be carried on only within the narrow confines of the intellect, the spirit and the home, could only make Esau decide, when he was still a boy, that he was not suited for the Abrahamite heritage. ... The type of education he received could have only one effect: to make him yearn for the moment when he would be free to escape from the confines of the Abrahamite house of study... A more thoughtful approach by parents of an Esau might have pondered ….what tasks the covenant of Abraham might have in store for men of such talents and tendencies as his own, and how such traits as physical and mental agility could be employed in the service of that covenant. Had this been done, even an Esau type could have come to understand that his particular skills and talents could play an important role in the attainment of the goals set by the covenant of Abraham. P
MITCHIL AH / OUR ANCESTORS WERE IDOL WORSHIPPERS
W H AT’S W R O N G W I T H I D O L AT R Y? The Jewish story is also about monotheism. Abraham destroys idols, and from that point on, Judaism despises idolatry; the prohibition against idolatry is the second of the Ten Commandments. But what is wrong with idolatry? And why should we care about idolatry today? Below is a series of readings on how idolatry shapes the moral and political lives of its adherents, and some thoughts on why this Seder topic has a great deal of contemporary relevance.
Samson Raphael Hirsch, Horeb Nor is this idolatry merely an error, a mistaking of falsehood for truth. In that case, it would be simply an intellectual mistake, a delusion, deplorable indeed, but, even at the worst, not the worst that might happen….But this is not the case. As soon as you set anything else beside God as God, and still more as your God, forthwith human dignity, purity and uprightness fall to the ground, the fabric of your life goes to pieces.
Scott Shay, In Good Faith Idolatry has always been, and today continues to be, the most divisive and dangerous ideology in the world. It promotes lies about power and relationships in society. It deifies – that is, falsely attributes superior and inexplicable powers to – finite natural processes, animals, and people. It also bestows the authority – that is, falsely attributes the right – to these finite beings to use those powers as they choose, simply because they have them.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: Without God We Tend To Start Worshipping Ourselves ...Our era has discovered even more impressive religion substitutes. For transcendence and a feeling of being part of something bigger than yourself, there are football matches and rock concerts. By way of pilgrimage there are the Boxing Day sales with their crowds, queues and fervent expectancy. In short, we seem to have a natural disposition to worship, perform rituals, sing and celebrate together, feeling our separateness dissolve into the experience of community. The trouble is it depends on what we worship. Absent God, and we tend to end up worshipping ourselves.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: Challenging The Idols Of The Secular Age Idol worship and magical thinking happen when we believe some institution or person will bend the world to our desires, making problems vanish without effort on our part. The idol can be liberal democracy, the consumer society, science, medicine or genetic engineering. Religious faith says all these things can be a blessing or a curse, depending on whether they are used with humility, restraint, concern for the common good and care for long-term consequences. Humility involves the recognition that there is something greater than us to whom we are accountable. Restraint means that not everything we can do we should do. Concern for the common good means recognising that others, not just us, are in the image and likeness of God. Care for long-term consequences means believing in something that will last longer than we will. Religion is not myth or magic. It is the recognition of how small we are in the scheme of things, and how great is our responsibility to others. It is the still, small voice reminding us that there is no achievement without sacrifice, no freedom without self-restraint. Those who worship the idols of the age perish with the age, while the worship of eternity lives on. P
F A M I LY P A S S O V E R A C T I V I T Y
M I T C H I L A H / ִמ ְּת ִח ָ ּלה Once upon a time: Share a story about an ancestor who inspired you. Make it personal. Each family member can share a story or a memory that has left an impact and impression on them. For younger children, they can sing a song or share something they love about a sibling/parent/ grandparent. Ask children facts about each grandparent, their birthplace, life story, fun facts, etc. How much do we know about our past?
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F A M I LY P A S S O V E R A C T I V I T Y
V ’ H E S H E ’ A M DA H וְ ִהיא ׁ ֶש ָע ְמ ָדה There is a national burden we carry of battles that have been fought, and that we will continue to fight. What is the secret to Jewish survival? What gives you hope? Discuss specific challenges you have overcome in your life. Who supported you? Who have you supported?
A N T I-S E M I T I S M AND JEWISH HISTORY Why the Jews? This question has long puzzled scholars; it is hatred that has jumped from century to century and region to region. Each anti-Semite invents a new reason why the Jews should be hated, and often the reasons themselves contradict each other. The following two passages look at this mystery, with limited results.
Robert Wistrich, Anti-Semitism: The Longest Hatred In the light of these momentous transformations and the continuing threat of antisemitism, the historian might well be tempted to question the value of rational analysis and the applicability of the normal tools of his trade. Is this phenomenon really susceptible to the rules of logic and historical evidence? Is antisemitism ultimately explicable any more than we can explain the mystery of 2 6 / R e a d i n g , Q u est i o n s & C u st o ms
Jewish survival and the tenacious clinging to a vocation and an identity that has exacted so high a price in trials and tribulations over the centuries? Is there really anything new in the endless accusations that have echoed across the centuries from Haman to Hitler? Is there any meaning to be extracted from the myths, the stereotypes, the fantasies and obsessions that have characterized the antisemitic discourse for more than two millennia? Is there any answer to the agonizing question of why this people has been subjected to such a seemingly unending catalogue of persecution and discrimination? The historian cannot in my view give any definitive reply to these questions...
Yossi Klein Halevi, Defining the Root of Anti-Semitism My understanding of anti-Semitism is the following: Anti-Semitism is not simply hating the other — the Jew as other. Anti-Semitism works a little bit differently. What anti-Semitism does is turn the Jews — “the Jew” — into the symbol of whatever it is that a given civilization defines as its most loathsome qualities. And so, under Christianity — before the Holocaust and Vatican II — the Jew was the Christ-killer (“His blood be upon our heads and upon our children” [Matthew 27:25]). That’s forever. Under Communism, the Jew was the capitalist. Under Nazism, the Jew was the race polluter, the ultimate race polluter. Now we live in a different civilization, where the most loathsome qualities are racism, colonialism, apartheid. And lo and behold, the greatest offender in the world today, with all the beautiful countries of the world, is the Jewish state. The Jewish state is the symbol of the genocidal, racist, apartheid state. That’s Israel. That’s the Jewish state. An Israeli political philosopher named Yakov Talmon once put it this way: “The state of the Jews has become the Jew of the states.” What that means to me is, criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitism. Criticism of Israel’s existence — denying Israel the right to exist, calling Israel the Zionist entity — that is anti-Semitism. That is a classical continuity of thousands of years of symbolizing the Jew. So, using that kind of language places you in very uncomfortable company. That kind of language can come today from the far left. It can come from white supremacists. It can come from Islamist extremists. It can come from many sources, but all of those groups converge on one idea: The Jew remains humanity’s great problem. P
19th century painting of Sphinx of Giza, partly under sand, with two pyramids in the background. David Roberts, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
THE HORRORS O F S L AV E R Y Slavery is an indescribable horror. One of the goals of the slavemaster is to dehumanize the slave and break their spirit. Elie Wiesel writes in Night that when he arrived at Auschwitz, “We were told to roll up our sleeves and file past the table. The three ‘veteran’ prisoners, needles in hand, tattooed numbers on our left arms. I became A-7713. From then on, I had no other name.” Wiesel’s very identity was stripped from him at that moment. There are similar descriptions of slavery in Egyptian found in the Talmud and Midrashim. We are told that the Egyptians forced the Jewish slaves to do ruthless work. What does that mean? The Talmud in Sotah (11a) writes: Rabbi Yonatan says: The meaning of ruthless work is that the Egyptians would exchange the responsibilities of men and women, giving men’s work to women and women’s work to men (requiring everyone to do work to which they were unaccustomed, and to puncture their own self image).
In another context, Maimonides offers this definition of ruthless work: “What is meant by ruthless work? It is work that has no definite time or limit, or needless work designed only to keep the slave working and occupied.” The slave-masters work their slaves in a manner that dehumanizes them and gives the slaves no sense of accomplishment or satisfaction. Even more horrific is the willingness to kill the Jewish children, to treat the slaves as subhumans worthy of slaughter, and at the same time make the Jewish slaves feel as if there is no hope and no future. The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 1:34) tells this horrific tale: “And the Jews cried out.” Why did they cry out? Because the magicians of Egypt told Pharaoh that he could only be healed from his leprosy if he slaughtered 150 Jewish children in the morning and 150 Jewish children in the evening and bathed in their blood. Once the Jews heard this awful decree, they began to cry and wail..” This purpose of this section of the Haggadah is to portray slavery in all of its brutality and show how it undermines the slave’s identity and self-image. P R e a d i n g , Q u est i o n s & C u st o ms \ 2 7
BECHOL DOR V’DOR
THE POWER OF HOPE Written in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple, this paragraph offers a powerful lesson: In every generation you must see yourself as free, and know that one day you will leave your own exile. After the Exodus, even in the worst of times, Jews had inner freedom. The following passage from Natan Sharansky’s recent book, Never Alone, reflects this idea, and tells how the blessing of inner freedom gave Natan the strength to endure his interrogations while in a Soviet prison.
Natan Sharansky, Never Alone While studying game theory, I learned that there always exists an optimal strategy to minimize losses. Proof of its existence is based on the fact that, when you move from one system of coordinates to the other on the globe, there will always be one fixed point. The KGB specialized in shifting coordinates, trying to demoralize you by changing perspectives and contexts, making you feel powerless, and sowing doubt. Until my release, my one fixed point was Avital. She kept me centered, sane, and focused on the community that was behind me, not the unknown looming ahead. To stay anchored, I composed a prayer in my primitive Hebrew. Before and after each interrogation, I said, “Blessed are You, Adonai, Ruler of the Universe. Grant me the good fortune to live with my wife, my beloved Avital, in the Land of Israel. Grant my parents, my wife, and my whole family the strength to endure all hardships until we meet. Grant me the strength, the power, the intelligence, the good fortune, and the patience to leave this jail and to reach the Land of Israel in an honest and worthy way.” That’s how I tried to reestablish myself as a free person in prison: as a participant in the imagined struggle of an imagined global Jewish community. It restored my self-confidence and my optimism. P
F A M I LY P A S S O V E R A C T I V I T Y
F A M I LY P A S S O V E R A C T I V I T Y
B E C H O L DO R V ’ DO R
T Z E H U ’ L M AD
דור ֹ ְָּב ָכל־דּ ֹור ו
Go get ‘em! Give each child a section to lead (in Hebrew or English).
Freedom, Oh Freedom. What does freedom mean? Is school freedom or getting out of school freedom? Is freedom sleeping late or getting up early? Have an impromptu dance party! The language of movement is liberating.
Take a prepared grab bag / box with a collection of materials included inside: Sneaker (leaving Egypt in the middle of the night), fruit, toy sheep, gold/silver/jewelry, red item, band-aid, plastic cows.
ֵצ א וּלְ ַמ ד
Each family member picks an item and has to creatively link it to a part of the story of the Exodus.
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D AY E N U
W H AT I S G R AT I T U D E? Most people love this song and love its one word chorus saying Dayenu! It would have been enough! Dayenu is a great little song about gratitude; but do we actually offer gratitude readily? There are complex emotions connected to gratitude. Does offering gratitude make us feel weak or does it make us feel stronger? Below are two fascinating selections from a pair of the 20th century’s most profound rabbinic thinkers. Each has a very different understanding of the psychology of gratitude.
Rav Yitzchak Hutner, Pachad Yitzchak, Chanukah 19 In the structure of the Hebrew language, two concepts dwell in the same lodging: the expression of thanks, and conceding to the other person’s view. For these two concepts, the same (Hebrew) word is used: hodaah. An admission of responsibility made in court is essentially a concession to the other person’s claims, and offering thanks is essentially repaying a debt of gratitude for an act of kindness. The explanation for this shared terminology is that within the human heart there is an aspiration to be independent and not to need the help of others. When a person expresses his gratitude to his friend and offers him thanks, at that time he is also offering an admission that he couldn’t do it himself and that he needed the help of others.
Rav Eliyahu Dessler, Michtav M’Eliyahu What is gratitude and appreciation? Where is their foundation in our soul?... A giving personality feels in his heart that he never wants to accept free gifts, because his entire aspiration in life is exclusively to give... and therefore when he does receive something from another there awakens within him a desire to pay for it, and if that is impossible, there remains in his heart a sense of obligation, and that is the foundation of gratitude. P
F A M I LY P A S S O V E R A C T I V I T Y
F A M I LY P A S S O V E R A C T I V I T Y
D A Y E N U / ַ ּד ֵ ּינ ּו
U’VMORAH G ADO L
IT’S ENOUGH! SING SING SING! What are things God does for us? Why is gratitude important? Each family member takes a turn to express specific gratitude for either those present or not present at the Seder. Verbalize a list of all the things you’re grateful for in your life. Use the liturgy to list them out: Since I have ____, Dayenu.
מו ָר א ָ ּגדֹל ֹ ו ְּב 10 Makot, Makot 10! Play some games! Use puppets, songs and props to bring this to life. Say the makot out of order so kids can catch mistakes.
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THE DRAMA OF A N I N S TA N T REDEMPTION Why do we eat matzah? Because the redemption came so quickly, people had no time to bake their bread. The Exodus happened in the blink of an eye, a redemption so remarkable it would seem to belong to the Biblical era alone. Except that a dramatic overnight redemption happened thirty years ago. Below is a newspaper report of Operation Solomon, the Israeli mission to save the Ethiopian Jews in 1991. In the middle of a civil war, Israel evacuated thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel before rebel troops took over the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. This, too, was an overnight redemption, a modern Exodus bringing thousands from danger to safety.
Airlift of Ethiopia Jews Ends in Joy by Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times May 26, 1991 JERUSALEM — More than 15 years ago, a group of Israeli and American men went to the small village of Quara in Ethiopia, spoke to the elders and asked for the names of all the Jews. Men, women and children—the men carefully wrote down their names and then drove away as suddenly as they had come, leaving behind a promise that, one day, they would be back to take them to Israel. “They told us it is written in the Torah that the people of Israel will come in the end of days to Jerusalem,” said Alana Zouda Yitzhak, a village councilor in Quara. On Saturday, Israel completed one of the fastest human airlifts in history, transporting more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews from Addis Ababa to Tel Aviv in just over 33 hours and completing a migration that spans 2,000 years of history and a decade and a half of negotiations between the two governments.
Ethiopian Olim stepping out of the IAF’s Hercules, May 25, 1991. Photo credit: Government Press Office (Israel), CC BY-SA 3.0, creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Modification to photo - changed to black and white.
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“Because I am Jewish, I have dreamed all of my life of coming here,” said Yitzhak, who sat, exhausted but jubilant, in a Jerusalem hotel room Saturday morning with his wife and nine children. “It wasn’t just yesterday that I started dreaming of this, and it wasn’t last year. All my life I’ve dreamed of this.”
...The final details of the secret evacuation plan were drawn up six weeks ago as what (was) called a “doomsday scenario,” envisioning the potential need to immediately evacuate the estimated 15,000-plus Jews then remaining in Ethiopia, many gathered in temporary housing and camps around the capital at Addis Ababa over the past year in the hope of emigrating to Israel. As the rebels closed in on the capital late Wednesday, Jews were gathered at the Israeli Embassy compound, many on the pretext of receiving immunizations. During the predawn hours of Friday, the first 14,000 were taken by bus to the airport, which rebels had agreed to refrain from shelling during the operation. Aircraft from Israel’s national carrier, El Al, military transports, charter organizations and Ethiopian Airlines were mobilized for the airlift that concluded at 4:30 p.m. Saturday. The pilots included a former Air Force officer who served on the famous Israeli raid at Entebbe, Uganda, and the Chief of Operations for El Al, who piloted a teeming Boeing 747 stuffed with 1,087 passengers into Ben Gurion Airport. Seven babies were born during the course of the airlift.
F A M I LY P A S S O V E R A C T I V I T Y
R A B B AN G A M L I E L יאל ֵ ִַר ָּבן ַ ּג ְמל
Symbols and Signals: Pesach – matzah – maror.
Pre-prep for kids to “own’’ one of these three categories. Why are these things important? Play the ‘Who am I’ game (pesach, matzah, maror, pyramid, slave, tambourine) by asking up to 20 yes/no questions.
Greeted by (Prime Minister Yitzchak) Shamir and other top government officials, the immigrants, some stunned into blinking silence, some cheering, some trilling with joy, stepped down from the aircraft and were ushered onto waiting buses for transport to medical checkups and temporary housing. For many, it was their first trip on a plane, and they made their way haltingly down the aircraft steps. “We didn’t think of this, it just happened, like a miracle, today,” said David Aellow, a 30-year-old elementary school teacher who arrived with his wife and two preschool children … In two adjoining rooms upstairs, Mr. Yitzhak and his family were jubilant. His 3-year-old, dressed in a long, red T-shirt suspended over spindly legs, leaped around the room shrieking, “Shalom!” His wife and oldest daughter sat crouching on the floor, hiding their smiles shyly behind a single shared green scarf. “I don’t care what I do here,” Yitzhak said, admitting, as he casts a glance out the window, that he is not even quite sure where he is—except that it is Jerusalem. “We can’t go downstairs, because we won’t find the room again,” he admitted with a grin. “But I don’t care what I will do here. I can say that I arrived here, and every hour I say, blessed be the name of God.” P
Photo credit: Reuven Zaltz, CC BY 3.0, creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Modification to photo - changed to black and white.
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Wash netilat yadayim for hamotzi.
M OT Z I M AT Z A H
RECLINING AT T H E S E D E R One of the unusual rituals at the Seder is that we are supposed to eat the meal while reclining on our left side. Historically, this is related to a practice in the ancient world to eat festive meals while reclining on couches. Indeed, some medieval rabbis were of the opinion that reclining is no longer necessary at the Seder, because it is no longer the general custom to eat festive meals while reclining on couches (see Shulchan Aruch 472:7, in the comments of the Rama). However, the Halakhic consensus is to require this practice. In the following passage, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik explains why reclining, even today, is a powerful symbol of complete freedom:
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Festival of Freedom “This is the reason, in my opinion, why the Sages introduced haseivah, leaning on one’s left side, as the symbol of freedom. Haseivah symbolizes, first, complete relaxation, which in turn manifests relief from or abatement of tension and anxiety. Second, haseivah symbolizes the throwing off of the mental shackles depriving man of freedom of movement. Haseivah is the reverse of erect posture, which demonstrates obedience and submissiveness. Soldiers standing erect symbolize the readiness to obey. Haseivah is indicative of disobedience, of a courageous stand, of refusing to take orders, of rejecting the authority of man. On Pesach night, the Halakhah requires us to recite the Haggadah and to drink the four cups while we are relaxed. Our posture is disrespectful of the people who share the meal with us, demonstrating that we are independent and completely free. Haseivah means defiance. That is why Hazal said that if one’s teacher is present, the student is relieved—indeed, enjoined— from haseivah (Pesahim 108a) (i.e., he is forbidden to recline before his teacher, even on the night of Passover-c.s.). This is quite indicative of the purpose of haseivah, namely, to manifest disrespect!” P 3 2 / R e a d i n g , Q u est i o n s & C u st o ms
Eat the bitter herbs.
A TESTIMONY TO G R E AT WO M E N Charoset is a specific reminder of the heroism of women, and their contribution to the redemption from Egypt. First it should be noted that each ingredient in charoset reminds us of slavery and redemption. The Talmud says: “Why is it a religious requirement? R. Levi said: In memory of the apple-tree; R. Johanan said: In memory of the clay (used by slaves)… It was taught in accordance with R. Johanan: The spices (e.g. cinnamon, which comes in stick form and is mixed into charoset) are in memory of the straw (used in making bricks); (and) the haroseth (itself) is a reminder of the day…” There are even more ingredients. Tosafot, the medieval commentary to the Talmud adds: According to one opinion in the Yerushalmi, the charoset is in memory of blood…and so it is the custom, to make it thick initially, and then to dilute it with wine and vinegar at the time of eating. The Gaonim write that one should make charoset with fruits that are used in the Song of Songs as metaphors for Israel like… apple...pomegranate… fig…date…nut…almond.” We now have an entire list of ingredients: cinnamon to remember the straw used in bricks, a thick fruit, perhaps dates, to imitate mortar, red wine to remember the blood, and nuts and fruits to remember some of the phrases in the Song of Songs. But what is the meaning of the apple tree? The Talmud and Midrash elaborate on that story:
GLOBAL CUSTOMS Algerians throw the maror on the floor, while Tunisians throw it out the window, demonstrating that they do not want bitterness in their lives (Keter Shem Tob).
“Pharaoh, at first, made a decree commanding the taskmasters to insist upon their making the prescribed number of bricks. Then he commanded that they should not be allowed to sleep in their homes, intending this to limit their population, and reasoning to himself: ‘If they are not allowed to sleep in their homes, they will not be able to give birth to children.’ Thereupon the taskmasters said to them: ‘If you go home to sleep, you will lose a few hours each morning from your work, when we send for you, and you will never complete the allotted number,’… So they would sleep in the fields… R. Akiba said in a discourse: Israel was redeemed from Egypt on account of the righteous women of that generation. What did they do? When they went to draw water, God deposited small fishes in their pitchers, with the result that they found them half filled with water and half with fishes. These they brought to their husbands (in the fields), and then put on two pots, one for hot water and one for fish and they used to feed them, wash them, anoint them and give them to drink, and cohabited with them in the sheepfolds… And as soon as they became pregnant, they went back to their homes: and when the time of their giving birth was due, they went into the field and gave birth under the apple tree…” While this Midrash may seem detached from the Biblical text, it does underline the exceptional sacrifice women must have made to continue to have children while enduring slavery and repression. In the Bible, we see that the courage of women plays a critical role in the Exodus story. The Hebrew midwives courageously refused Pharaoh’s orders to kill Jewish boys. Three women, Moses’ mother, Yocheved, his sister Miriam, and Pharaoh’s daughter, worked to save the life of the future redeemer. Charoset reminds us that even in the darkness of slavery, one must never give up on life. These heroic women, who remained committed to ensuring a Jewish future when it seemed ridiculous, are the very reason we are here today. P R e a d i n g , Q u est i o n s & C u st o ms \ 3 3
KOREKH Make a sandwich using matzah, maror, and charoset.
TZAFUN Some communities (Bukharian, Afghani, Egyptian) keep a piece of the afikomin as a ‘segulah’ for protection and childbearing for the entire year.
Some Egyptians place a piece of the afikomin in their pockets or purses as a segulah for sustenance and protection. The belief is that with it, one will always have what to eat and if one is in danger from an enemy they can throw the afikomin towards them, and the enemy will run away.
BAREKH Say birkat hamazon.
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S H E F O C H C H A M ATC H A H / P O U R O U T T H Y W R AT H
A CRY FOR JUSTICE
Decorated initial-word panel from 'the Sister Haggadah,' 14th century. British Library; public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
This passage is jarring, with a tone of anger and fury. But what must be considered is that morality demands that we never overlook the cry for justice. Below is a statement from the Allied prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials about the Allies motives in putting the Nazi war criminals on trial, and a passage from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik on how retribution is critical in deterring future attacks, and defending sovereignty.
Justice Robert H. Jackson’s Opening Statement, Nuremberg Trials, November 21, 1945 May it Please Your Honors: The privilege of opening the first trial in history for crimes against the peace of the world imposes a grave responsibility. The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated…What makes this inquest significant is that these prisoners represent sinister influences that will lurk in the world long after their bodies have returned to dust. We will show them to be living symbols of racial hatreds, of terrorism and violence, and of the arrogance and cruelty of power. They are symbols of fierce nationalisms and of militarism, of intrigue and war-making which have embroiled Europe generation after generation, crushing its manhood, destroying its homes, and impoverishing its life. They have so identified themselves with the philosophies they conceived and with the forces they directed that any tenderness to them is a victory and an encouragement to all the evils which are attached to their names. Civilization can afford no compromise with the social forces which would gain renewed strength if we deal ambiguously or indecisively with the men in whom those forces now precariously survive.
Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, Fate and Destiny ...The fifth knock of the Beloved is perhaps the most important of all. For the first time in the history of our exile, Divine Providence has surprised our enemies with the sensational discovery that Jewish blood is not free for the taking, is not hefker! If anti-Semites wish to describe this phenomenon as “an eye for an eye,” so be it; we will agree with them. If we wish to heroically defend our national-historical existence, we must, at times, interpret the verse “an eye for an eye” (Exodus 21:24) literally. How many eyes did we lose during the course of our bitter exile because we did not return blow for blow? … with regard to Nasser or the Mufti I would demand that we interpret the phrase “an eye for an eye” in a strictly literal sense – as referring to the removal of the concrete, actual eye. Pay no attention to the fine phrases ….(of those)... who publicly declaim that it is forbidden for Jews to take revenge at any time, any place, and under all circumstances. Vanity of vanities! Revenge is forbidden when it serves no purpose. However, if by taking revenge we raise ourselves up to the plane of self-defense, then it becomes the elementary right of man qua man to avenge the wrongs inflicted upon him. The Torah has always taught us that a person is permitted, indeed, that it is his sacred obligation, to defend himself. ...The honor of every community, like the honor of every individual, resides in the ability to defend its existence and honor. A people that cannot ensure its own freedom and security is not truly independent. P R e a d i n g , Q u est i o n s & C u st o ms \ 3 5
alive and well. Rabbi Lau is that very same Lulek, the boy from Buchenwald.
C E L E B R AT I N G A MIRACLE
Now I declare this to all of you. I, David Anilevitch, was saved from that horror, fought in the Palmach (the military force of the British Mandate of Palestine), and today serve as deputy mayor of an Israeli city. If I have the merit of seeing this child, whom I protected with my body, become my spiritual leader, then I say to you (and here he pounded on the table so the water glasses shook) that there is a God.”
The Hallel at the Seder is meant to feel spontaneous: a moment when we burst into song, overwhelmed by the miracle of redemption. Below is a story which speaks to this very feeling.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, Out of the Depths: The Story of a Child of Buchenwald Who Returned Home at Last In 1978, when I was forty-one years old, leaders of this seaside Israeli town asked me to respond to the call for candidates in the election for chief rabbi of the city. I was quite young for such a heavy responsibility; still, people said, my chances of winning were good. I attended a meeting with then-mayor Reuben Kliegler, city administrators, and local Labor party leaders. I told the mayor that if I were elected, I would be following in the footsteps of the dynasty of rabbis from which I was descended.
The listeners were shocked into silence, myself included, as I had never before heard this story. David Anilevitch embraced me vigorously, and we parted wordlessly. For the next nine years, I served as chief rabbi of Netanya. It is for moments like this that we recite Hallel. P
I met with the mayor and his staff for four hours. The whole time, a man with white curly hair sat with us, but he did not open his mouth. Only when I rose to shake hands and take my leave did he address me and the others: “Friends, honored rabbi, before we disperse, please allow me to say my piece. In a minute you will understand why I held my tongue this whole time. In these hours sitting before Rabbi Lau, I have been reliving the eleventh of April 1945. I was deported from my hometown of Zarka, Poland, to the infamous camp of Buchenwald. On April 11, American airplanes circled in the skies above the camp. The prisoners, myself among them, burst out of the barracks. Spontaneously, we ran toward the gate, anticipating our liberation after six years of hell. As we ran, a hail of lead shot past us. We had no idea who was shooting, from where, why, or what was happening. We only knew that our lives were in danger. Among those running toward the gate was a little boy. Later, I learned that his name was Lulek, and that he was just under eight years old. I realized that any child at Buchenwald had to be Jewish. I jumped on top of him, threw him to the ground, and lay over him to protect him from the bullets. And today I see him before me, 3 6 / R e a d i n g , Q u est i o n s & C u st o ms
"Colorful Jerusalem" by Mira Eisen. Instagram @mira_eisen. Reprinted with permission of the artist.
L’ S H A N A H H A B A A H B ’ Y E R U S H A L AY I M / N E X T Y E A R I N J E R U S A L E M
T H E G R E AT H O P E This song has been a source of strength in the most difficult of times. Natan Sharansky, who spent nine years in a Soviet prison, shouted these words in his final statement in the Soviet “court”; and then, nearly 30 years later, at his daughter’s wedding in Jerusalem, he referred to these words again. The quotes below remind us of a 2,000 year old hope that was much more than a dream; as Theodor Herzl explained, “If you will it, it is no dream.”
Anatoly Sharansky’s Final Statement in the Soviet Court presented before being sentenced on trumped-up charges for treason and espionage, July 14, 1978 Five years ago, I submitted my application for exit to Israel. Now I am further than ever from my dream. It would seem to be cause for regret. But
it is absolutely the other way around. I am happy. I am happy that I lived honorably, at peace with my conscience. I never compromised my soul, even under the threat of death... For more than two thousand years the Jewish people, my people, have been dispersed. But wherever they are, wherever Jews are found, every year they have repeated ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ Now, when I am further than ever from my people, from Avital, facing many arduous years of imprisonment, I say, turning to my people, my Avital, ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’
Natan Sharansky’s Remarks at the Wedding of his Daughter Rachel, January 2008 … When it was time for the groom to break the glass, Natan took the microphone to say a few words … “I’d like to say something about why we are breaking this glass,” he said, alternating seamlessly between English and Hebrew. “Thirty-four years ago, in a Moscow apartment, Avital and I stood under a sheet held up by four boys, for our own Chuppah. There were barely enough people to make up a minyan. We had never been to a Jewish wedding before, and we had no understanding of what to do. We mouthed the words that the rabbi told us to say, without knowing their meaning. But the breaking of the glass, this we understood very well. We had one challenge, and the challenge was very clear to us. We knew that we had to get to Jerusalem. No matter what it would take, no matter how many years, we had to get to Jerusalem and build a home there. And this is what we did. Next year in Jerusalem!! P R e a d i n g , Q u est i o n s & C u st o ms \ 3 7
THE FINAL SONGS After an evening of song, we need to reflect on why we sing. What is the place of song in Judaism? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reflects on this question.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Music, Language of the Soul, Beshalach (5772) What is the place of song in Judaism? There is an inner connection between music and the spirit. When language aspires to the transcendent and the soul longs to break free of the gravitational pull of the earth, it modulates into song. Music, said Arnold Bennett, is “a language which the soul alone understands but which the soul can never translate.” It is, in Richter’s words “the poetry of the air.” Tolstoy called it “the shorthand of emotion.” Goethe said, “Religious worship cannot do without music. It is one of the foremost means to work upon man with an effect of marvel.” Words are the language of the mind. Music is the language of the soul.
... So, when we pray, we do not read: we sing. When we engage with sacred texts, we do not recite: we chant. Every text and every time has, in Judaism, its own specific melody. There are different tunes for shacharit, mincha and maariv, the morning, afternoon and evening prayers. There are different melodies and moods for the prayers for a weekday, Shabbat, the three pilgrimage festivals, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot (which have much musically in common but also tunes distinctive to each), and for the Yamim Noraim, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. There are different tunes for different texts. There is one kind of cantillation for Torah, another for the haftarah from the prophetic books, and yet another for Ketuvim, the Writings, especially the five Megillot. There is a particular chant for studying the texts of the written Torah, for studying Mishnah and Gemara. So by music alone we can tell what kind of day it is and what kind of text is being used. There is a map of holy words and it is written in melodies and songs. … The history of the Jewish spirit is written in its songs. The words do not change, but each generation needs its own melodies. Our generation needs new songs so that we, too, can sing joyously to God as our ancestors did at that moment of transfiguration when they crossed the Red Sea and emerged on the other side, free at last. When the soul sings, the spirit soars.
Anna Zarnitsky. Reprinted with permission of Leviim Art Gallery, leviimart.com.
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Tonight is a night for the spirit to soar. Even if you are off key, even if you are shy, even if you don’t really know the tune, join in anyway, and let your soul sing. P
Yoel Glick. Reprinted with permission of Leviim Art Gallery, leviimart.com.
C H A D G A D YA We sing children’s songs at the end, and consider them lighthearted fun. But even a children’s song can have enormous meaning and be profoundly moving. One such story concerns the singing of Chad Gadya in Auschwitz.
Yosef Weiss, cited in Ani Ma’amim (Mossad Harav Kook) “In general, we didn’t cry in Auschwitz. Our hearts became hard as stone and our tear ducts dried up. Most of those who had feeling hearts didn’t survive. The heart burst inside and life was gone, except for those who had a fervent faith in their heart. They were able to withstand all of the persecution because they were stronger than the Angel of Death and more powerful than Hell. Such a person was Itzi Motel. He brought us to tears, not tears of fear, God forbid, but tears of song and ecstasy.
“From among all of the songs that we sang on Pesach, the one that was most exhilarating was Chad Gadya. In singing that song we all felt that we were overcoming and defeating the kapos and their overlords and the destructive Satan himself. Itzi Motel sang Chad Gadya in a sweet soft voice so that we could understand the parable that was contained in every word, from the goat which was bought by father, and what happened to that little goat. And when he reached the end of the song he raised his voice powerfully and we all shook as he sang: ‘And the Holy One Blessed Be He came and slaughtered the slaughterer.’ And he repeated the words with emphasis: ‘And the Holy One Blessed Be He came and slaughtered the slaughterer.’ We all shook and were aroused because each one of us understood precisely who the slaughterer was and that the end of this shochet would be bitter and would come soon from the hands of the Holy One Blessed Be He in person…” P R e a d i n g , Q u est i o n s & C u st o ms \ 3 9
"Splitting of the Sea" by Naftali. Oil on canvas. Reprinted with permission of Leviim Art Gallery, leviimart.com. 4 0 / S erm o n s
SERMONS S erm o n s \ 4 1
PESACH JOY IN THE T I M E O F C O V I D-19 RABBI CHAIM STEINMETZ (Note: I wrote this last year before Pesach. Looking at it now, it reminds me how the thought of Dayenu is even more important in good times than in bad. It is so easy to forget our blessings. I added it here to reflect on how much we have to be thankful for, and to recognize how far we have come in a year.)
This jarring change of mood is familiar to anyone who observes shiva during Shabbat or before a holiday. The Talmud explains that we cancel the traditional mourning period of shiva in the face of a holiday, because one must push aside personal grief to make room for the communal celebration of the holiday; the mourner needs to celebrate as well. The mourners are expected to make the emotional shift from grief to joy in the course of an afternoon. This is not always possible. Indeed, Rabbi Moshe Isserles allows one to cry on Shabbat if it offers the person emotional relief; this helps the grief stricken to better enjoy Shabbat. But the ideal remains complete emotional control. In his Halakhic Man, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik relates an anecdote about the Gaon of Vilna, who was informed about the passing of his brother on Shabbat. The Gaon continued the rest of the day without any show of emotion, but at the conclusion of Shabbat immediately burst into tears. He was simply holding his emotions in check. This type of emotional self-control seems out of place in a culture which values self-expression, and sees emotional expressions as cathartic. But that is what halakhah expects of us as the holiday of Pesach arrives. The commandment to rejoice on the holiday remains the same this year, whatever our own emotional state might be. In many ways, joy is actually more important this year. In good times, we get on a hedonic treadmill, and pursue big dreams while ignoring smaller blessings. But in times of crisis, you appreciate all the things without which you couldn’t live. Each year we sing the Dayenu song, saying that each step in the Exodus was worthy on its own to be the cause of celebration; each step was Dayenu, enough of a blessing. But this is the year to embrace the idea of dayenu in our own lives. 4 2 / S erm o n s
AT T I M E S OF CRISIS, WE MUST FIND A W AY T O C E L E B R AT E , AND INSPIRE O U R S E LV E S T O HOLD ON TO OUR LOVE FOR LIFE
This is a terrible time to celebrate Pesach. A holiday when we tell the joyous story of liberation at intergenerational gatherings has arrived at a time when we hide from each other and listen to news accounts of grief, suffering and economic devastation. Under ordinary circumstances, this would not be a time for laughter and joy, but the calendar says Wednesday night is the 15th of Nissan, and it is time to celebrate.
Dayenu to have friends, even if we can only reach them by phone. Dayenu to have food, even if there is a long wait to enter a supermarket. Dayenu to be blessed to have a healthcare system with incredible heroes on the front lines. Dayenu to be blessed with a community with multiple volunteers rushing to help others. There is so much we take for granted in other years; this year is the time to appreciate overlooked blessings. Joy is particularly important in times of crisis. In one of his books, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote a comment critical of the Roberto Benigni film Life is Beautiful. While he said that he appreciated how important humor is to keeping one’s sanity, he disagreed with the film’s thesis that humor can keep you
alive. A survivor spoke to Sacks to correct him on this point. Sacks writes:
“You are wrong,” … (he) said to me, and then, he told me his story. He and another prisoner in Auschwitz had become friends. They reached the conclusion that unless they were able to laugh, they would eventually lose the will to live. So they made an agreement. Each of them would look out, every day, for something about which they could laugh. Each night they would share their findings and laugh together. “A sense of humor,” said the survivor, looking me in the eyes, “kept me alive.” Sacks concludes by writing: “I cannot say I understand such courage, but I found it awe-inspiring.” Sometimes joy is the foundation of courage. At times of crisis, we must find a way to celebrate, and inspire ourselves to hold on to our love for life; we must continue to sing, so we can reconnect to passions we have forgotten behind a mountain of worries. That is why this year rejoicing on Pesach is critical in the battle against the coronavirus. Yes, joy does seem out of place right now, but Pesach was Pesach even in the worst of times. We need to celebrate, we need to sing, even if we are singing alone, because an inspiring Pesach is exactly what we need today. P
REMEMBERING, FORGETTING, & TRANSCENDING S L AV E R Y RABBI CHAIM STEINMETZ Are nightmares worth remembering? Should we block out traumatic events? This question was a constant debate among Holocaust survivors. In my own family, my aunt talked extensively about her experiences during the Holocaust, while my mother rarely spoke about those events. When I got older I asked my mother why, and she explained that she wanted to protect us from the horrors that had ravaged her young life. This debate is a very old one. The rabbis of the Talmud already wondered if we should try to supress anguished thoughts, or speak about them with others. 1 Some philosophers have felt that suppressing negative memories is the path to happiness. Nietzsche, in Genealogy of Morals, writes that: “... we can immediately see how there could
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be no happiness, cheerfulness, hope, pride, immediacy, without forgetfulness. The person in whom this apparatus of suppression is damaged, so that it stops working, can be compared (and not just compared –) to a dyspeptic; he cannot ‘cope’ with anything…” 2 In Psychology, a very different view of trauma took hold. Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud treated their patients by making them recall repressed memories of traumatic events. As they put it: “The repressed idea takes its revenge, however, by becoming pathogenic.” 3 We might intuitively think that forgetting trauma is helpful, but Freud takes the view that repressed memories can cause more pain while forgotten than when remembered. Remembering and forgetting is not just an issue for philosophers and psychologists; it is a political issue. Revolutionaries would rather forget the past. One example is the Cultural Revolution in China during the 1960s. In 1966, a concerted campaign was made against “The Four Olds:” Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas. Objects of veneration, traditional literature, and ancient cultural artifacts were all eliminated. In Mao Zedong’s view, you need to forget the past in order to embrace the future. The same revolutionary spirit can be found among many early Zionists. They wanted to “negate the exile,” and begin a new society with a new identity, because the past was a weight holding Jews back from sovereignty. Ze’ev Jabotinsky wrote in his Eulogy for Herzl that “our starting point is to take the typical Yid of today and to imagine his diametrical opposite ... because the Yid is ugly, sickly, and lacks decorum, we shall endow the ideal image of the Hebrew with masculine beauty. The Yid is trodden upon and easily frightened and, therefore, the Hebrew ought to be proud and independent…..The Yid wants to conceal his identity from strangers and, therefore, the Hebrew should look the world straight in the eye and declare: ‘I am a Hebrew’” Revolution occurs by turning your back on the past. The Zionist ideal of “negating exile” made it imperative for many to forget the Holocaust. In general, there was a feeling in the air that people wanted to move on. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg describes the experience of being a young American attending an early Holocaust memorial service as similar to “crashing a funeral,” because these events were then only attended by survivors. Native North Americans often made survivors uncomfortable. A friend of mine - who is a survivor - told me that when she emigrated to Canada after the war, she found that if she tried to talk about her experiences, people would say to her “Well, in Canada, we also had butter rationing.” She quickly learned to keep her 4 4 / S erm o n s
mouth shut. In Israel, there was an even harsher attitude. There are multiple anecdotes about young Israelis demonizing the survivors themselves, as if they were responsible for being victims. Aharon Appelfeld, in his autobiography, tells of survivors visiting Israeli schools and being questioned accusingly about why they didn’t resist and were led like sheep to the slaughter. But this attitude changed in the 1960s. The Eichmann trial in 1961 reopened conversations that had been pushed aside. The Six Day War in 1967, when so many were worried about Israel’s annihilation, enabled many in the “new generation” to recognize that they had more in common with the old generation than they had previously realized. By the late 1960s, the Jewish community understood that it could no longer cut itself off from the traumas of the Holocaust. This change in attitude is welcome. Yes, focusing on past tragedies can reinforce a negative self image as a victim and increase pessimism, but it also can teach critical lessons on the road to freedom.
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WE REC ALL THE TR AUM A S OF EXILE TO TE ACH AN I M P O R TA N T L E S S O N TO O U R C H I L D R E N : I F W E H AV E T R A N S C E N D E D S L AV E R Y I N T H E PA S T, W E C A N D O S O AG AIN IN THE FUTURE .
The Talmud tells us that the format of the Haggadah is that one “begins with (the Jewish people’s) disgrace (slavery) and concludes with their glory (freedom).” 4 One might think that the importance of mentioning the disgrace of slavery is merely a narrative device, the background to the triumph of redemption. But actually, the Talmud elsewhere remarks that the narrative of disgrace needs to spoken in a loud voice, 5 to ensure that slavery is remembered, as well. What is the point to revisiting the trauma of slavery? Because it can strengthen our sense of freedom. Nicolas Taleb in his book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, notes that the opposite of being fragile is not being durable; it is being able to adapt to every threat and to overcome them. He uses the example of hormesis, which is the ability of organisms to become stronger when exposed to low-dose stress. In humans, exposure to small doses of a
poison increases the body’s ability to cope with larger doses of poison in the future; similarly, vaccines expose people to a weakened or dead form of a virus that triggers the immune system, and readies it to fight off future threats.
tear; Gutman told him that his mother had passed away the day before and that he had just come from the funeral. (One of the customs of mourning is the tearing of one’s garment.)
On a psychological level, the same thing occurs when retelling one’s family history. Marshall Duke, a psychologist at Emory University and his colleague, Robyn Fivush, director of Emory’s Family Narratives Lab, have found that the most resilient children are deeply familiar with own their family’s history, and are taught an “oscillating narrative”: that the family has had challenges, but then overcome challenges. Knowing how their own family overcame adversity in the past made children psychologically stronger. This is psychological hormesis, where children learn how to transcend their own challenges by remembering past challenges.
General Mofaz immediately ordered him to leave the command post and return home to sit shiva for his mother. Avraham refused his Commander in Chief, and told Mofaz the following story. He had volunteered to join his unit when he heard that they had been called up for Operation Defensive Shield. Within days his unit began preparations around the terrorist enclave in Jenin. It was not too long before he and his unit began the painstaking mopping up operation in the city. In the midst of the second day of battle, as he was speaking to the Regional Commander, Eyal Shlein, his cell phone rang. He saw that the caller was his 92-yearold mother. All of his family knew not to call him while he was in the army, so the call itself was a mystery. His commander said to him, “Your Imma (mother) is more important than anything else... answer the call.”
Psychological hormesis is why we recite the full Exodus story from the beginnings of slavery at the Seder. We recall the traumas of exile to teach an important lesson to our children: If we have transcended slavery in the past, we can do so again in the future. As Michael Walzer puts it: “Wherever people know the Bible and experience oppression, the Exodus has sustained their spirits and inspired their resistance.” 6 We retell the story of slavery because it strengthens us and helps us transcend future challenges. Each year, I feel like I need to explain anew the importance of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, which follows Pesach by just a few days. People wonder why we would want to remember such horror, and there is a yearly flurry of op-eds about why there is so much emphasis on the greatest tragedy in Jewish history. 7 But in actuality, the question isn’t much of a question. The Holocaust is part of an oscillating story of exile and redemption; retelling it, along with the heroic stories of survival, actually build resilience. In 2002, I read an article that encapsulated the importance of always telling our moments of slavery in a loud voice. After 30 people were killed in a suicide bombing at a Passover Seder in a hotel in Netanya, Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield. During the campaign, in May 2002, the following newspaper account was written about one of the Israeli Generals: 8 During the fierce fighting in Jenin, Israel’s Commander in Chief, General Shaul Mofaz, came to inspect the fighting forces in the area. He gathered the commanders and officers for a briefing. He suddenly noticed that one of his Major Generals, Avraham Gutman, had a long rip on his army shirt. He immediately asked him about the
His mother said, “I have two things to tell you. The first is that as a commander in the field you have a responsibility to bring your soldiers back home, safe and sound.” Then she said: “Remember Avraham, you are my revenge against the Nazis.” With that she hung up. Several hours later Avraham Guttman’s mother passed away, and he went to her funeral. So why did he return to his troops? Guttman explained to Mofaz: “I have no choice. I am returning to battle. This was my mother’s last request!” Avraham Guttman’s story is our story. From our very beginnings in Egypt, the Jews have never forgotten past traumas, but we haven’t been defeated by them either. Instead, we have used memories of slavery to transcend slavery, because the lesson we have learned is that if a people can be redeemed from exile once, they can be redeemed from any exile. And by remembering slavery this way, we have found a way to turn tragedy into strength. Just ask Avraham Guttman. P
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Yoma 75a Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, Essay two, Section one On Hysteria, by Josef Breuer & Sigmund Freud, The Case of Miss Lucy R. Pesachim 116a Sotah 32b
6 Exodus and Revolution, page 4 7 I have offered other responses in “Why Visiting Auschwitz Still Matters,” Jewish Week, February 27, 2018 8 Avraham Guttman: A Soldier of the Jewish People, Hatsofeh, May 3, 2002
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THE HAGGADAH ORDER AS U N D E R S T O O D B Y T H E R AV IN WORDS AND IN MUSIC BY RABBI HASKEL LOOKSTEIN The Mishna in Pesachim (116A) describes the story of the Haggadah as follows:
מזגו לו כוס שני וכאן הבן שואל “They pour for him (the leader of the Seder) a second cup and the child then asks his father:” The Mishnah then presents the four questions and continues:
ולפי דעתו של בן אביו מלמדו And according to the understanding of the child, the father answers him:”
מתחיל בגנות ומסיים בשבח “He starts with degradation and ends with glorification.” The Mishnah does not explain what the father is talking about, namely, what is the degradation and what is the glorification? The Gemara asks that question and gives two answers.
רב אמר מתחלה עובדי עבודת גלולים היו אבותינו [ושמואל] אמר עבדים היינו Rav says: “In the beginning, our forefathers were idol worshippers and now God has brought us to His worship.” In other words, the degradation was our beginnings as an idolatrous people because Abraham came from the home of an idol manufacturer, and the glorification is that God brought us to Mt. Sinai where he gave us the Torah and we began to worship one God. “And Shmuel said: “We were slaves to Pharaoh.” In other words, the dynamic of moving from degradation to glorification is the story of moving from slavery to the liberation of freedom. Our Haggadah contains both stories. The first, Shmuel’s view, seems to be avadim hayinu – from slavery to freedom - while the second comes shortly thereafter, following the section on the four children, when the Haggadah quotes the Book of Joshua (24:2): “In the beginning our fathers served 4 6 / S erm o n s
idols, but now God has brought us to worship Him,” which is a direct quote of Rav’s words in the Gemara. Rav Soloveitchik asks two questions about this order in the Haggadah. First, the Haggadah does not follow the order of the Gemara. The Gemara has Rav’s story first (from idolatry to the worship of God) and only then quotes Shmuel (from slavery to freedom), while the Haggadah has Shmuel’s story first and Rav’s second. The second question is that there is actually another iteration of Shmuel’s story in the Haggadah, when the Haggadah quotes all of the verses from Deuteronomy which are a synopsis of the Exodus story (Arami oveid avi ); in other words, Shmuel’s version of the story. If Shmuel’s story is cited twice by the Haggadah, Rav’s story must also be cited twice. If so, where is the second citation of Rav’s story and does it solve the problem of having the Haggadah’s order coincide with that of the Talmud? The Rav’s answer comes from the Rambam in Chapter 7 of the Laws of chametz and matzah.
: כיצד. ולסיים בשבח,וצריך להתחיל בגנות מתחיל ומספר שבתחילה היו אבותינו בימי תרח כופרים וטועין אחרי ההבל ורודפין אחר,ומלפניו שקירבנו,עבודת אלילים; ומסיים בדת האמת וכן. וקירבנו לייחודו, והבדילנו מהאומות,המקום לו וכל,מתחיל ומודיע שעבדים היינו לפרעה במצריים ,הרעה שגמלונו; ומסיים בניסים ונפלאות שנעשו לנו והוא שידרוש מ"ארמי אובד אבי עד.ובחירותנו שיגמור כל הפרשה The Rambam presents the father’s response to the child, paralleling the Talmud, as follows: “One has to start with degradation and end with glorification. How so? He begins and tells the story that in the beginning our forefathers, during the time of Terach and previously, were heathens who mistakenly followed nothingness and pursued the worship of idols, and he ends with the true religion: that God brought us close to him and separated us from the nations and brought us to His oneness. And then he begins and explains that we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt – and all the evil things that Pharaoh brought upon us – and he
GOD BROUGHT US CLOSE TO HIM A N D S E PA R A T E D US FROM THE N AT I O N S A N D BROUGHT US TO HIS ONENESS
ends with the miracles which were performed for us, and our freedom, and he explains the passage: Arami oveid avi (my father was a wandering Aramian; the passage from Deuteronomy referred to above). In other words, Maimonides clearly follows the order in the Talmud: first the spiritual redemption (from idol worship to the worship of one God) and second, the physical redemption (from slavery to freedom). It is Rav before Shmuel. Maimonides also indicates that the Shmuel story has two iterations: the first is Avadim hayinu and the second is the passage from Deuteronomy. In our Haggadah, between these two iterations is the Rav story of spiritual redemption, mentioned by the Rambam (“In the beginning our forefathers in the days of Terach…”). Inasmuch as Maimonides follows the order in the Talmud, there must, says Rav Soloveitchik, be some mention earlier in the Haggadah, of Rav’s story (the spiritual redemption) before Shmuel’s story (the physical redemption). The Rav finds that mention in the Kiddush which begins the Haggadah and which is recited over the first cup.
אשר בחר בנו מכל עם ורממנו מכל לשון וקדשנו במצוותיו “God chose us from among all nations, raised us from among all peoples and sanctified us with his commandments.” And the Rav finds the reference to the Kiddush in Maimonides’ statement above (see the underlined sections in Hebrew and English). If you read the underlined Hebrew words you will notice that they use the same meter as the words in Kiddush. As a matter of fact, if you sing Maimonides’ words in the melody which we use for Kiddush, the Kiddush melody fits Maimonides’ words The Rav, besides having a clear perception of how Maimonides read the Talmud and how the author of the Haggadah incorporated the Talmud into the order of the Haggadah, also had a great sense of the meter of the language which Maimonides was using. The meter is so similar to the Kiddush that the nusach of the Kiddush actually fits the words of Maimonides. I suspect that the Rav understood that too, because he had a great sense of nusach. After all, the name “Soloveitchik” means “little nightingale.” P S erm o n s \ 4 7
HOW TO ACHIEVE TRUE FREEDOM RABBI MEYER LANIADO Aung San Suu Kyi, State Counsellor of Myanmar and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, fought for democracy and liberty against her country’s oppressive military regime and won. Once she came to power, she followed the same repression tactics and subjugation, slaughtering tens of thousands without trial and suppressing freedom of speech and democracy. As Bill Richardson, a US diplomat, said: “Her government has been as enthusiastic about jailing journalists and government critics as the military government that preceded hers.” This cycle has been repeated time and time again the world over in Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Namibia. Once freed, the oppressed become the new oppressors. As Paulo Freire stated in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, that is the natural course: “But almost always…the oppressed…tend themselves to become oppressors…” Since “the very structure of their thought has been conditioned…” and “their ideal is to be men; but for them, to be men is to be oppressors. This is their model of humanity.” That is why he concludes that “it is a rare peasant who, once ‘promoted’ to overseer, does not become more of a tyrant towards his former comrades than the owner himself.” They do not know a more profitable management style. On the other hand, Elias Canetti explains the transformation from oppressed to oppressor as a way to free oneself of ‘the sting.’ The sting is the pain one feels, whether consciously or subconsciously, from the subjugation, threat, or violence from another. One of the ways of ridding oneself of the sting is to pass it on to another. As he explains: “He retains it in its original form until an opportunity arises to get rid of it by passing it on to someone else” (Crowds and Power 330). The cycle of oppression continues, and, regardless of the freedoms that were fought for, the newly freed will find themselves subjugating others using the same tactics used against them. Our Torah is aware of this cycle of oppression, and it offers humanity an antidote to break the cycle of the oppressed becoming the oppressor. It is a revolutionary model and one of the most powerful messages contained in our Passover holiday. We are told to remember the bitterness of our own enslavement, and instead of becoming the new oppressors, we are to become agents of emancipation. The Jewish mission is to restructure society from a hierarchy of the powerful dominating the weak to a society that uplifts those on the bottom rung. The memory of our pain, the sting, should cause us to turn the poison that is slavery into medicine for others. The Torah reminds us of this message thirty-six times (Bavli Bava Mesia 59b). One of the examples is Exodus 23:9, “And you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger since you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And so, the experience of Egyptian slavery serves the role of creating empathy in us towards the stranger, the weak, and those in need. In that way, we create a horizontal society with freedom for all, simultaneously liberating ourselves and our once masters. Without this model, 4 8 / S erm o n s
the freed become enslaved to their oppressor’s ideology. Their oppressor will always live inside of them. The Torah teaches us how to dislodge and purge the painful experience of slavery by transforming it into empathy. It is what Rabbi Akiva was referring to when he said his famous phrase: “Love your fellow as yourself, that is the major principle in the Torah” (Sifra Kedoshim 2:4). His statement continues in Midrash Rabba (Beresheit 24) and says: “Don’t say that since I was embarrassed, I will embarrass another.” In other words: ‘Do not pass the sting.’ Transform your experience into empathy. Rabbi Akiva’s predecessor, Hillel, explained to a prospective convert that the central message of the entire Torah is: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to another” (Bavli Shabbat 31a). When mistreated, we learn about what not to do, empowering us to treat others better. It is a reversal of the cycle of the oppressed becoming the next oppressor. In turn, our Egyptian slavery becomes the basis of our care for the foreigner, the downtrodden, and the weak. As the Torah references our experience: “…because you know the spirit of the foreigner” (Exodus 23:9). While we are sovereign in the land of Israel, enjoying the fruits of our labor, we bring our first fruits to the Temple. There we recite what is now the base of our Haggadah, arami oved avi, the section about which we are told that the more we elaborate, the more praiseworthy it is, hare ze meshubah. There we remind ourselves that we were once the wanderers, the strangers, and the oppressed. Now that we are ‘the haves,’ we should treat the ‘have nots’ with empathy. That is the culmination of the arami oved avi paragraph:
This learning from our difficulties empowers us to improve ourselves and, ultimately, the world. As Rabbi Steinmetz expressed in his letter to the community after recovering from his fractured femur in 2019: During my first few days in the hospital, what shocked me is how ignorant I had been all my life. I had visited hospitals hundreds of times and listened to people describe their pain. But I never understood what they were going through until I myself experienced the extreme agony of being absorbed in my own pain to the exclusion of everything else. Rabbi Steinmetz internalized the feeling of vulnerability and created meaning from his struggle. This is what the arami oved avi paragraph is all about: never forget our vulnerability, especially when we are celebrating. That is how we improve ourselves and serve as role models for the world. It is how we break the cycle of the oppressed becoming the next oppressor because it is easy to forget when everything is rosy.
Then, you shall rejoice with all the good that the Lord, your God, has granted you and your household you, the Levite, and the stranger who is among you. When you have finished tithing all the tithes of your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give [them] to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, so that they can eat to satiety in your cities (Deuteronomy 26:11-13).
THE EXPERIENCE OF EGYPTIAN S L AV E R Y S E R V E S T H E RO L E O F CR E AT I N G E M PAT H Y I N U S TOWARDS THE STRANGER, THE WEAK, AND THOSE IN NEED. "
This is a core message of the Torah, which is why it reminds us of this over thirty-six times: “Do not oppress the stranger.” Why? “Because you were foreigners in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). We need to remember that we were once in their shoes. We need to feel empathy. We need to help break the cycle of the oppressed becoming the oppressor. We need to reach out to the person who is where we once were, trying to find a job, working through a challenging relationship, ill, or struggling with a loss. We need to raise them up to be the person we wish we had been during our time of difficulty since “you know the spirit of the stranger.” You know what it was like, so do not ‘pass the sting,’ but transform it into the cure, veAhavtem et haGer, “and love the stranger” (Deuteronomy 10:19). In this way, we will serve as a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6, 49:6, 60:3), offering a new model of real freedom and liberty for all. P S erm o n s \ 4 9
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS Mira Eisen. Oil on canvas. Instagram @mira_eisen. Reprinted with permission of the artist. 5 0 / Ack n o w le d geme n ts
THANK YOU TO ALL THOSE WHO CONTRIBUTED TO & MADE THIS COMPANION POSSIBLE! EDITOR
C R E AT I V E D I R E C TO R
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein
Talia Laniado talialan.com
Rabbi Meyer Laniado Rabbi Daniel Kraus Rachel Kraus
COPY EDITING Riva Alper Dina Farhi
PRINTING The Print House
ARTWORK Leviim Art Gallery leviimart.com @leviim_judaica_art_gallery
Mira Eisen @mira_eisen email@example.com Yoel Glick Naftali Anna Zarnitsky ahavart.com
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