Rabbanit Shira SmilesShira Smiles is a sought-after international lecturer, popular seminary teacher and experienced curriculum developer. A well-respected former Los Angeles teacher, she now lives in Israel, where she teaches at Darchei Bina Seminary and leads a number of women's study groups. Shira also trains Torah teachers in special workshops all over the world.
The main symbol of Pesach is matzo, the “bread” of flour and water and nothing else. From the first step in the process, from mixing these ingredients together to the final finished baked product no more than eighteen minutes may elapse. Any additional moments will render the matzo unacceptable and not kosher for Passover. And so we are warned, “Guard the matzoth” lest they become chametz, fermented and leavened.
But our sages like to add an additional level of meaning to this verse. They like to vary the reading to, “And you will guard the mitzvoth,” do them with alacrity so they do not become stale and unpleasant. Just as there is but a miniscule change in time from a kosher matzo to one that is not kosher, so too can a delay in performance render a mitzvah less acceptable or invalid. Further, even in writing, only a tiny dot changes the Hebrew letters of matzo to chametz. These are such seemingly minor differences, yet they are worlds apart.
To emphasize this point, Rav Reiss notes that the questions of the wise son and the wicked son are also almost identical, yet the minor differences between their wordings renders one son wise and the other evil. It’s all in the details. What is even more interesting, why does the evil son pose his question about the relevance of the mitzvoth only about Pesach?
The Sifsei Chaim points out that the miracles of Pesach provided the foundation for the faith of an entire generation, and it must continue to be the bedrock of our faith in every generation. The purpose of the redemption, as Hashem told Moshe at the burning bush, was that Bnei Yisroel would serve Hashem at this mountain. It is a faith that has sustained us throughout the generations. When we read the Haggadah at the Seder each year, we reinforce this faith. We finish the story, and we start singing the refrains, “God is One in the heavens and the earth,” and, there is only “one kid”, but Hakodosh Boruch Hu takes care of all our enemies.
Therefore, says Rav Dessler, each year at Pesach we are not so much commemorating a historical event as we are turning the yom tov into an ongoing reality that should alert us to fight for our spiritual freedom. This freedom, says Rav Dessler, can only be achieved by ridding ourselves of our yetzer horo (evil impulses, ed.) and accepting the yoke of Heaven. As the verse in Shemot says, “The Tablets were the work of God, the writing was the writing of God engraved, chorut,on the tablets,” and our Sages say, read it cherut, freedom, is on the Tablets. When we rid ourselves of the shackles of the yetzer horo, we can achieve true freedom.
The Sifsei Chaim expands on this idea. The purpose of life, he explains, is to fight this righteous battle, not to live happily ever after. This world is a world of constant struggle and challenge to serve God not in the ways that are easy for us, that do not hamper our easy life, but to rise above and serve God out of our comfort zones. To be true servants of Hashem is to serve Him on His terms, not on ours. The Pesach preparations, writes Rabbi Pincus, serve as the paradigm to achieve this goal, for here we focus on the details and we work hard, beyond our comfort and natural inclinations, to fulfill Hashem’s commands.
The Haggadah gives us some models to emulate, teaches the Tiv Hatehillim. It starts by recounting the struggles of our forefathers and continues through the Sages who compiled the Talmud. These Sages were up all night recounting the story of the exodus, yet they stopped when their disciples told them the time to recite kriyat shema had arrived. What was harder for them, staying up all night to glorify Hashem and the miracles He performed to redeem us, or to stop immediately to observe the mitzvah of kriyat shema at its appropriate time?
Only at the end of the Haggadah, after reading about all these great men, do we begin reciting Hallel. And how does the Hallel, praise of Hashem begin, asks Rav Reiss? Hallelu avdei Hashem, praise, you servants of Hashem. The only time Moshe’s name is mentioned in the entire Haggadah is to say that Bnei Yisroel believed in Hashem and in Moshe avdo, Moshe, His servant. Just as Moshe’s entire life and mindset were devoted to Hashem, so too must we devote our lives to Hashem and strive to achieve the mindset of eved, of a true servant whose only will is to do the will of his master, to pay attention to every detail.
Perhaps we can better understand the importance of every detail by observing the world of technology, continues Rabbi Reiss. If we send an email, for example, and omit that one dot in the email address, the message will be marked undeliverable and returned to us. That is the attention to detail we observe on Pesach, and that is the attention to detail which should infuse our entire lives in our service to Hakodosh Boruch Hu.
And so we eat matzo, the food of slaves, says Rabbi Gamliel in Tiv Hamoadim, to remind us that we are still “slaves”, that we are still doing the work of our Master irrespective of our own feelings. We are humble and we own nothing. But as servants of God we understand that Hashem has given us the opportunity to do these mitzvoth. If I affix a mezuzah to my doorpost, it is because Hashem has given me a home. If I have learned something new, it is because Hashem has gifted me with a brain. When we understand this reality, we also understand that our lives must revolve around halakha, the observance of mitzvoth, and not around our lives into which we try to fit mitzvoth in at our convenience.
The goal of the Seder, then, is to transform us each year to a new resolve to be free from slavery to Pharaoh and the material world and become true servants of Hashem. When we clean our homes in preparation for Pesach, we are symbolically also cleaning ourselves from those things that would puff up our egos and make them chametz so that we can become humble in the service to our Redeemer, writes Rabbi Pincus. When we check every corner of the house, we must also check every detail of our service to Hashem.
But that doesn’t mean we serve Hashem out of a sense of coercion, teaches Rabbi Koffman in Mishchat Shemen. Do not become an automaton who observes mitzvoth thoughtlessly, by rote. If we consider our service a privilege and a joy, we will invest our entire being in that service and we will be moved to sing praises, Hallel, for the privilege of being avdei Hashem. While our service may begin with accepting the “yoke of Heaven”, it should end in joy. Once I accept doing something because it is God’s will, says the Netivot Shalom, I can also accept being joyous in the performance of His will.
Rabbi Roberts in Timeless Seasons discusses an idea from Rabbi Zev Ferber. Rabbi Ferber interprets that all the people saw the sounds at Sinai to mean that the people saw the precepts of Sinai put into practice in their homes. Rabbi Roberts expands on this idea. Not only must our children see us observing the mitzvoth, but they must see how much attention to detail we impart to the observance, so that they will realize the importance of the mitzvoth. And while we work so hard at all the details, we must infuse the work with a sense of joy, or our children will begin formulating the question of the wicked son, “What do you need all this for.” If we do the work joyously, our children will be infected with the joy of service to Hashem.
Pesach is considered the head of all the holidays, explains the Netivot Shalom. Pesach constitutes our symbolic engagement with Hakodosh Boruch Hu, Shavuot represents the marriage ceremony, Succoth moving into His house, and Shemini Atzeret is yichud, sequestration with our Beloved. This relationship points out the contrast between being a servant to Pharaoh in Egypt, a relationship based on exploitation, and being servant to Hakodosh Boruch Hu, a relationship based on caring and love.
On that first Pesach in Egypt Hashem came down personally, so to speak, to redeem us, Rabbi Pincus reminds us. We merited this privilege because of our faith. During the Pesach Seder, we must rekindle that faith. Our observance of the rituals of the Seder in every detail with love and faith and joy is transformative. It has the ability to bring Hashem down again to redeem me and cleanse my soul and to effect permanent change in myself, in the world, and in Hashem’s relationship to the world, unlike the forced slavery in Egypt where the cities of Pithom and Ramses were built on quicksand and had no permanence.
Pesach preparations and the Pesach Seder must not be felt as drudgery but as an opportunity to bring joy to our service to Hashem and to our Torah observance with every detail to which we pay attention. It is an opportunity to transform ourselves to be true servants of Hashem and feel the freedom with which this relationship empowers us.