Returning to roots at the Pesach Seder

Rabbi Twersky: “God created man and dictates how man should behave. In idolatry, man creates his own gods and dictates to them to tell him what he wishes to hear.” This includes all the isms we use to excuse our improper behavior.

Rabbanit Shira Smiles,

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The Mishnah notes that we begin recounting the events of the evening with words describing our disgrace, and we culminate with words of praise.  Rav and Shemuel dispute whether these refer to our physical disgrace, and hence begin with “we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, or our spiritual disgrace, with “our forefathers were idolaters,”. 

We follow both opinions, and include both in our recounting.    The commentators are troubled why we focus on our negative beginnings on this night of celebration of our redemption.   The words of praise are formulated as “and now Hashem has brought us close to His service.” When is the “now”?

The Seder if full of contrasting and contradictory symbols to help us in the retelling of the exodus narrative. Within each symbol itself we have an allusion to both servitude and freedom, notes Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon.

  • The word karpas, for example, the vegetable, can be read backwards as s porak – 60(x100,000) = 600,000 who did backbreaking work. Yet we take that symbol of slavery and dip it, a custom associated with freedom and wealth, (albeit we dip it in salt water, also a symbol of tears). 
  • We drink four cups of wine, perhaps the ultimate symbol of freedom, yet our rabbis urge us to drink red wine to remind us of the Jewish blood Pharaoh bathed in when he was stricken with leprosy.
  • Certainly, the ultimate symbol of Pesach, the matzoh, is quintessentially a symbol of both slavery and freedom; it is both the poor man’s bread and the quick bread that had no time to rise as we were rushed out of Egypt into freedom. We remember both the pain and the salvation, continues Rabbi Salomon, so that we will increase our gratitude and praise of Hakodosh Boruch Hu.  And both the pain and the salvation include both physical and spiritual elements, hence the twofold beginnings of our story.

Nevertheless, it would seem embarrassing to bring up our disgrace. Why do we do it? Our practices and Torah are valid not only in the distant past, but are relevant to the present and future as well. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein gives us a psychological insight into this question. While many people who reform themselves try to forget their past completely, we understand that there will be times when we may falter in our resolve. It is during those times that we can look back at our inglorious past, note how far we’ve come in spite of our current failure, and gain encouragement for continuing to improve.

It is along these lines that the Talelei Chaim the Chalban writes that it is precisely because we came from such dark places, spiritually and physically, and that we are now in the light that we can appreciate this constant theme in our personal and national history. It is with this understanding that we realize that we could not do this alone, that now as then, it is Hashem Who brings us close to Him out of the darkness into the light to His service. While it was our free will that chose to come into Hashem’s service, writes the Vilna Gaon, we would not have been able to achieve this without Hashem’s help and the resources He has given us.

If Hashem wanted to bring us close to Him, why take us down to Egypt and the persecution that  our sojourn there entailed? In Darkness to Destiny Rabbi Imanuel Bernstein presents an interesting case that ties directly to our discussion. We were not a nation born in purity. We had within us the DNA of Terach, Avraham’s father, a preeminent idol worshiper of his day. Although our forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, founded monotheism and instilled those beliefs within their progeny, it is likely that over the course of generations, we could have reverted back to those practices. To prevent that problem, Hashem had to excise the cancer of the allure of those ideas from our psyche. By taking us down to Egypt and allowing us to experience the decadence and ugliness of that society, we would not be tempted to fall back into its clutches for any length of time, even if we were to falter on occasion. In this context, being slaves in Egypt was the cure for our ancestor being an idol worshiper and was the beginning of Hashem bringing us close to Him. Therefore it is appropriate that of the three symbols necessary for the fulfillment of Pesach – Pesach (sacrificial lamb), matzah and marror (bitter herbs) – marror comes last, for it is only after the events of Pesach and matzoh that we can appreciate the value of the bitter herbs representing our enslavement, writs Rabbi Gedalyah Schorr.

Hashem needed to purify us not only of the genetic DNA of Terach, but also of the DNA of Lavan, the father of all of Yaakov’s wives and mothers of all the twelve tribes. The smelting pot that removes the impurities from precious metals, the kur habarzel to which Egypt is compared, removed the impurities that Bilhah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Leah brought with them from their fathers’ house. It was this purification process that enabled my ancestors to be redeemed, and therefore the process itself, painful as it was, needs to be celebrated.

It is this elevation in our status as Hashem brought us closer to Hashem that Rav Dovid Hofstedter uses to explain why we eat only matzah with the korban Pesach, and not both bread and matzah as with other thanksgiving offerings,  Rabbi Hofstedter quoting the Chasam Sofer, notes that his offering is more closely akin to the offering a priest brings upon his elevation from being an ordinary priest to becoming the High Priest. As the newly appointed High Priest brings a thanksgiving offering accompanied only with matzah, so do we eat only matzah on this night in commemoration of our newly elevated status from the worship of strange gods to a relationship with Hakodosh Boruch Hu. On this night, we celebrate not only our liberation from physical slavery, but also our liberation from spiritual slavery and reliance on false gods. We must see ourselves as leaving our own constraints and growing.

Now we can understand that there are two kinds of enslavement, writes the GR”A, the Vilna Gaon. Along with physical slavery, one can also by subjected to spiritual slavery. While “We were slaves unto Pharaoh in Egypt” refers to our physical enslavement, “Our ancestors were idol worshipers, Terach ...” refers to our spiritual enslavement. Pesach commemorates our redemption from both, and we need to discuss both of these aspects of our liberation during the Seder, writes Rabbi Twersky. The goal is for our entire soul and the souls of all living things to sing praises to the Creator.

Rabbi Twersky offers an incisive explanation of exactly what idolatry is. He explains that man was not so foolish as to believe in the powers of metal or wood. Rather, he sought to find a way to indulge his passions and desires. What better way than to create a god who condones or even prefers such otherwise taboo behavior. It is worthwhile here to quote Rabbi Twersky directly: “According to Torah, God created man and dictates how man should behave. In idolatry, man creates his own gods and dictates to them to tell him what he wishes to hear.” This would also refer to all the philosophies, isms, and politically correct behaviors we use to convince ourselves that our behavior is correct when it obviously is not so.

“And now...” Hashem does not look at our past, writes Rabbi Spero citing the Chasan Sofer. He brings us closer to Him now, at this moment, irrespective of our past. This is a night of transformation. As Rabbi Biderman notes in Be’er Chaim, constantly dwelling on the past is its own form worshiping strange gods. This is a time to move forward and cherish the moment to come closer to Hashem.

Perhaps by discussing Rabbi Eliyahu Roth’s essay in Sichot Eliyahu we can better understand exactly what happens when one is enslaved. Man was destined to be king on earth as God is in heaven. Hashem created Man with unlimited potential, who could see from one end of the earth to the other. True, after Adam’s sin, Hashem set some limits upon him, but Man still was fashioned in God’s image with the ability to create. Slavery takes that potential, that form, and sets constraints upon it. It takes boundless man and confines it. It takes the boundless yam/sea and puts a meitzar/constraint around it so that it no longer has an independent form of its own. This is what Mitzrayim/Egypt,/meitzar yam signifies. Man becomes no better than a chamor, a donkey, a beast with no identity of his own, consisting only of lowly earth, nothing more than a beast to serve others. (Anyone interested can read The Man with the Hoe, a remarkable poem by Edwin Markham that powerfully coveys this idea. C.K.S.)

When you constantly “go with the flow”, you are no more than water without form, constantly being drawn to the fashion, technology, and mores of the times. You have no independent sense of self. I must first realize that I can have a form of my own, and not just remain raw material. I can break away from the constraints of “everybody” and come closer to Hashem.

But water is an integral part not only of life but of the very process of baking matzah. However, we do not use water directly from the tap to bake our matzah The water is required to rest overnight, for twelve hours, before it can be mixed with the flour. Rabbi Eisenberger, in Mesilot Bilvovom gives us some insight into why this may be so.

When Hashem created the waters, the upper waters were closer to Hashem and were therefore very spiritual. The lower waters originally complained, but soon became content with their lower identity and mission. While the lower waters were involved in so much good, they didn’t allow these deeds to affect them, much like our souls that are often involved in so many mitzvoth but still remain distant from Hakodosh Boruch Hu.

What do we do to the water for the matzah? We separate it from its source and make it stay overnight. It becomes water of reflection as it now has the time to contemplate its mission. When we ingest the matzah kneaded with this water, we too can contemplate our souls and yearn again to come closer to Hashem. We too can make eating the matzah a spiritual experience. We can transform every mitzvah from rote performance to a path of closeness to the Creator. The night of the Seder is a night of redemption, but you need to see where you’re at and what needs improvement. We need to break out of our limitations and develop our potential. The time is now.

Our Seder ends with the chad gadya/one goat. Rav Leibel Eiger asks why we focus on a goat instead of on a sheep? A sheep is passive, just chomer, material without form or actions of its own. A goat, on the other hand, leaps and moves forward. This is our opportunity to leap forward. If you believe that Hashem is our Lord in the heavens and on the earth, and we believe that He leaps over mountains to bring us closer to Him, then the water of the matzah is calling to you.

The night of the Seder is a night of opportunity and growth. Hashem is knocking on our door, asking us to open it for Him. How are we responding?

Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein





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