Watching our words in this time of crisis - a lesson from the Haggadah

Even today, when the world is in social lock-down, we can still “reach out and touch someone,” give someone a virtual smile and positive words. Learn some Torah with someone over the phone. (Comprehending Charoset lecture added to this one at end).

Rabbanit Shira Smiles

Judaism Learning in Neve
Learning in Neve
Flash 90

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

The adaptation of this shiur was written l’iluy nishmat Chaya Sarah bas Mattisyahu Halevi/Sandra Koplowitz

The essence of the enslavement experience culminating in our redemption can be encapsulated in the verse we cite near the beginning of the Seder: “An Aramean attempted to destroy my father. Then he descended to Egypt and sojourned there...” The standard interpretation from Rashi is that Yaakov was forced to descend to Egyptal pi hadibur/ by (because of/through) the word. First, how do we derive that Yaakov was forced to descend from “he descended?” Further, whose word was it, and what word forced Yaakov’s descent to Egypt?

The Mesivta Haggadah offers two explanations. Ordinarily, when one goes from one place to another, the Torah would write, “Vayelech/ he went.” Here the Torah uses the unusual word “descended,” implying that he did not go of his own free will. Further, before Yaakov went to Mitzrayim, Hashem reassured Yaakov, telling him not to be afraid, and that He would be with Yaakov throughout his sojourn there, and He would go up with Yaakov when Yaakov would return. If Yaakov then went down to Mitzrayim, it was not of his own choosing but because of Hashem’s word reassuring him. Even so, Yaakov’s initial plan was to go down to Mitzrayim, see Yosef, and then return to Canaan. But Hashem further told Yaakov that He would make Yaakov a great nation in Mitzrayim, telling Yaakov that he was not meant to return to Canaan immediately.

What was Yaakov afraid of? He was certainly not afraid that his physical necessities would not be met. After all, Yosef was the Viceroy of Egypt. Yaakov was, however, afraid that he would not be able to maintain and grow spiritually outside the sanctity of Eretz Yisroel. Even though he left because of the famine, and even though Hashem reassured him that He would be with him here, Yaakov still was unhappy to leave the sanctity of Eretz Yisroel, writes Rabbi Ezrachi in Birkat Mordechai. Further, Yaakov was concerned for his family’s spiritual integrity in Egypt in the future, add the students of the Slabodka Yeshiva in Chevron. Therefore, Hashem spoke to Yaakov at night, symbolic of the impending darkness of exile, to reassure Yaakov that although his descendents will be oppressed, the oppression would strengthen their inner spiritual identity.

Finally, writes Hashir Vehashevach, Hashem reassured Yaakov that he should not blame himself for having caused the suffering of his descendents by leaving Eretz Yisroel, as, generations later, Avimelech and his two sons died when they left Eretz Yisroel for Moav during a famine. [This too would be part of God’s plan/word, to bring Ruth into Bnei Yisroel and initiate the final redemption through her descendent, Moshiach ben Dovid. CKS] This descent was preordained from the time of Hashem’s covenant with Avraham Avinu, telling Avraham of the enslavement and redemption of his descendants.

Because Rashi does not specifically identify the speaker or the word, other commentators follow a completely different perspective. From Rav Pinchas of Plotzk, a disciple of the Vilna Gaon, we are offered the idea that the descent to Egypt was a punishment for dibur/speech, referring to the lashon horo/negative speech that Yosef related to his father concerning his brothers. Yosef was guilty of speaking it and Yaakov was guilty of listening to it, and so Yosef, Yaakov and their descendents were punished by exile in Egypt. [One who contracts tzoraat/”leprosy” for speaking lashon horois “exiled” outside the camp as well. CKS]

Halekach Vehalebuv points to one time Yaakov Avinu spoke uncharacteristically, seemingly laying blame on his sons for [further] embittering his life by telling the Egyptian viceroy that there is another brother. This slip of tongue opened the door for the descent into Egypt and the ability of the Egyptians to enslave Bnei Yisroel.

Everything that happens in the world, good or bad, personal and universal, can be traced back to man’s words, notes the Chofetz Chaim. When did Hashem reveal the prophecy of the enslavement to Avraham Avinu? After Avraham’s war that freed his nephew Lot, Hashem promised Avraham a great reward. Avraham then asked Hashem, “What can You give me seeing that I am childless?” The dialogue continues, Hashem promises Avraham biological children as numerous as the stars, and Avraham asks, “...whereby shall I know that I will inherit it.” It is after this question [This shiur will not discuss the varying nuances of Avraham’s words] that Hashem reveals to Avraham the terrifying future his descendents will experience.

But harmful speech does not end with Avraham Avinu. [Because of the unbelievably high moral standard our forefathers set for themselves, these verbal slips carry much more weight than they would for the average person.] When Rachel Imenu was childless and she pleaded with Yaakov to “give her children,” Yaakov answered truthfully, but perhaps with a tinge of harshness, “Am I in instead of God Who has kept children from you?” Years later, after Yaakov’s death, Yaakov’s other sons fear retribution from Yosef for having sold him. Yosef responds to their pleas with the same words their father had used toward his mother before his birth, “Am I instead of God? This was God’s plan.”The descent to Egypt rectified the words spoken earlier.

Speech created the reality of our world and continues to create the reality of worlds, notes Rabbi Gamliel Rabinowitz in Tiv Hahaggadah. Our words create our own situations. Yaakov was forced to go down to Egypt through his own speech.

Rabbi Mattisyahu Solomon discusses the power of our speech more fully, basing his discussion on the writings of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin. On the one hand, “Your voice is sweet,” (Shir Hashirim). On the other hand, “She raised her voice against Me, therefore I hated her.” ( Jeremiah 12:8) And we are told that, “Life and death are in the control of the tongue, and those that love it shall eat its fruit.” (Proverbs 18:21)

Hashem created Man in His image, an image Onkelos translates as “a spirit that speaks.”  Just as Hashem used speech to create, so can we create as well with speech. Will our speech create beautiful edifices here and in heaven, or will they create destruction. We should use the power in positive ways, to study Torah, to uplift others. Eat the fruit of speech so that it is sweet and constructive. Our speech has an impact both in this world and in the heavenly spheres. We should fear the damage we can do in heaven even if we do not see that damage now.

The Torah commands that the matzot/korbanot be eaten in a holy place. (Vayikra6:9) When we had our Beit Hamikdosh, this certainly meant that the sacrifices should be eaten in that holy place. Since we no longer have a Beit Hamikdosh, Halekach Vehalebuv  puts a different interpretation onto this mitzvah. Rabbi Schorr reads the matzot as the mitzvoth, and the holy place in which we eat is not only our homes but also our mouths. Be careful, he warns, that our mouths reflect the sanctity of the matzot and the mitzvoth, be careful that our mouths aren’t contaminated with the impurities of “chametz.” In fact, in our search for chametz, we should check our mouths first, that no improper speech be found there. This is especially true because the mitzvoth of the Seder all involve the mouth, “Tell it to your children,” “You shall eat matzoh.” The mouth must be pure. Therefore, continues Rabbi Schorr, we left Mitzrayim on Peh Sach, the power of positive, pure speech and are commanded to transform the Peh Ra/Paroh/negative, evil speech to the positive speech.

Continuing the analysis of names and words associated with the Pesach experience, Rabbi Schorr dissects the name of Mitzrayim. It begins with a lower case, open letter memand ends with a final, closed mem. Between them is the yetzer. Similarly, the Talmud begins with an open mem/meiaymasi and ends with a closed memin shalom. Everything included between the two are words of Torah. Similarly, our mouths should open with words of Torah and close when we no longer have words of Torah or positive speech to communicate. We should not be distracted by our yetzer/inclination. As the Prophet Isaiah says (57:19), referring to the contrite who return to Hashem, “Shalom, shalom/Peace, Peace for the far and the near, said Hashem, and I will heal him.” When we create words of peace to those far and near, Hashem will also be near. If we use our words for the negative, we are distancing ourselves from Hashem. Be careful to say Shalom, shalom to everyone. Be careful to speak positively and refrain from spreading the negative. Our tongue is guarded by a set of teeth and two lips to keep it from “running off at the mouth.”

Certainly in this crisis, Rebbetzin Smiles reminds us, we should be using all our communication tools to spread opportunities for chesed and report on them, to raise each others’ spirits rather than dwell on the gloom and doom.

Bnei Yisroel had indeed fallen into the trap of negative speech, writes the Be’er Chaim citing the Imrei Emes. Moshe wondered why Bnei Yisroel kept suffering through this enslavement. He got his answer when he tried to separate to Jewish men fighting, and one asked him. “Do you mean to kill me (Do you mean to speak my death) as you killed the Egyptian?” Now Moshe understood not only that his killing the Egyptian was known and he had to flee for his life, but also that Bnei Yisroel were now speaking evil against each other, thereby deserving their terrible situation. But we each have the power to comfort and uplift others with our words. When we refrain from using speech to help our neighbors, we are committing sins of omission. That’s why the leper, when he was healed, brought two sacrifices, one for having spoken lashon horoand the other for having neglected to speak lashon hatov/positive speech.

Citing the Chazon Ish, the Be’er Chaim notes that the entire purpose of Torah, lilmod al menas la’asot, is that we never hurt another person with our words. Words have the power to invigorate, to give life, as the end of the Shabbat prayer states, “Mechayeh meisim bema’amaro/ Who resuscitates the dead with His utterance.” Apparently, even hearing words can affect outcomes. When Reuven heard the brothers wanting to kill Yosef, he intervened and offered a counter action, hoping to return and save him later.

Even today, when the world is in social lock-down, we can still “reach out and touch someone,” give someone a virtual smile and positive words. Learn some Torah with someone over the phone. By using the power of speech for the positive, for reciting Tehillim, prayer, Torah, encouraging and validating others, we may equally merit the end of our current exile.

Sam Derech explains the depth of Hashem’s plan. Just as in the Purim narrative, every detail preceding our descent to Egypt appears to be completely natural, occurring over an extended period of time with all the players acting according to their own free will, it was still Hashem Who was coordinating all these events that eventually led us down to Egypt. It is on the night of Pesach, in hindsight, that we see Hashem’s omnipotent hand orchestrating the events of history, adds Tiv Hatorah. What Hashem wants to happen will happen. When people make mistakes, when they act out of character, Hashem is preparing the way for the result He desires, writes Rabbi Solomon.

The ultimate purpose of the world, writes Rabbi Feldman in The Juggler and the King, is for all to coronate Hashem as King. To this end, there are two parallel forces of Divine Providence at play, individual free will and compelled by His word. All the circumstances one finds himself in are part of Hashem’s script. Man acts freely within that preordained script, and his reward and punishment may be delayed until his soul reaches its final destination in the afterlife. Yaakov and Bnei Yisroel played out their parts, and Hashem manipulated the events to fulfill His purpose in creating the nation that would be a light unto the world.

The lock-down initiated by the Corona virus is undoubtedly part of God’s plan. Perhaps He doesn’t want us “trampling His courtyards” with improper speech in shuls designated to His service. Perhaps we can pray with even greater fervor in solo intimacy with Hashem within our personal four walls. Perhaps we have the extra moments to consider our speech before we phone our friends or reach out to a lonely neighbor. We have the ability and the free will to use these challenging times to strengthen our connection to Hashem and to His children in this world. We have the ability to begin the coronation process of crowning Hashem as King that the corona virus has afforded us. May Hashem keep us all healthy, and may we see opportunity in the challenge Hashem has given us.

Sandra Koplowitz always spoke calmly and pleasantly to everyone. She found the good in others and in difficult situations, and always tried to make things better. May her memory be for a blessing.

One of the symbolic foods on the Seder plate is charoset, generally comprised of apples, nuts, wine, cinnamon and perhaps some other spices and dates and figs. Unlike the other symbolic foods, the charoset seems to have little innate significance on its own. We dip the marror/bitter herbs into it, much as we dip the vegetable into salt water. Yet it is not simply on the side, but an integral part of the Seder plate. The Gemarra  asks what is the basis for this mitzvah. The charoset, according to differing opinions, is symbolic of both the clay and mortar used to make the bricks, in color and consistency,  and of the apple tree, as one of its major ingredients. How do we reconcile these two remembrances for the sweetness of redemption, represented by the apple, and the bitterness of servitude, represented by the marror, within the charoset? Since there is no specific action other than intellectual remembrance associated with the mitzvah of charoset, we make no brachah over it, explains the Torah Vodaath Haggadah in spite of its appearance on the Seder plate.

Rabbi Pincus explains the symbolism of the ingredients, symbolism mostly associated with verses from Shir Hashirim/Song of Songs: Apples - “...under the apple [tree] I aroused you.” Nuts - “… I descended to the nut orchard...” and other nuts to which Bnei Yisroel is compared, and other fruits associated with Eretz Yisroel, like dates and figs. This is all combined with wine, symbolic of our blood. 

What does the apple tree have to do with Pesach through the charoset? The Medrash fills in the gaps in Jewish survival and the role of women. When the men would be slaving, the women would go to the river to draw water to bring to their husbands. Hashem miraculously filled their pails with both water and fish which they could then boil and bring to their husbands. The women would then entice their husbands, for they wanted more children. When the women went into labor, they went to the orchard where they gave birth “under the apple trees.” Then Hashem miraculously sent angels to care for the babies until they grew up and went home. The bitterness of the enslavement was tempered with the sweetness of Hashem’s caring for these children. The women, who had already witnessed Hashem’s chesed, were the first to recognize Hashem’s hand at the splitting of the sea and declare,  “This is my God and I will glorify Him.” The apples represent the miracles Hashem did for Bnei Yisroel when the babies were born.

The Haggadah Ma’ayan Lamoed makes a simple, ironic follow up point. Although the babies were saved, when they grew up, they were enslaved. In the charoset, we have both the sweetness and the bitterness represented. It represents both the overt miracles and the hidden miracles, Hashem’s interaction with us on both a personal and national level. Hashem works on all these levels simultaneously, and we must recognize Him in all.

Homiletically, and Kabbalistically everything on the Seder plate is symbolic not only of our Egypt experience, but also of the ways Hashem and the world interact with each other, writes Rabbi Pincus. The three upper symbols, the zeroa/[arm] bone, beitza/egg, and marror represents the characteristic traits Hakodosh Boruch Hu uses to interact with us; the lower three, charoset, karpas/vegetable and chazeret/another form of marror represent how we interact with Hashem and mirror the above three traits. The right side represent the spiritual aspects, the left ones represent the natural methods of interaction, and the central ones represent the challenges. They all rest on the plate representing the of the sovereignty of our Creator.

While the “bitters” come from Hashem, its purpose is not to inflict suffering upon us, but for us down below to find the benefit Hashem wants us to derive from this suffering. Therefore we dip the marror into the sweet charoset.

Rabbi Schorr in Halekach Vehalebuv explains our dipping the marror into the charoset in a very esoteric way. He begins by citing the Chasam Sofer. One must dip the marror into the charoset to kill the “kapa” within the marror, the kapa being the snakelike poison of Egypt.  The antidote for this poison was an anagram of charoset, cherut s(amech)/freedom [of the] 60[x10,000]. What was this poison and shell that we are getting rid of? It was the aim of the Egyptians to separate us from the Aleph, to sever our connection to Hakodosh Boruch Hu. Continuing in this manner, Halekach Vehalebuv explains that ale”ph is an acronym for the three areas of our spiritual being that the Egyptians sought to enslave. Our (a)ozen/ear would not be able to hear spiritual words of Torah, our lev/hearts were enslaved, and our peh/mouth could not speak freely. These three body parts, when added together, equal 381, the same as kapa.

These are also the three body parts, aside from the male organ, that we are told to circumcise, to remove their hard shell that separates us from Hashem, and let Him in. Therefore we are commanded to, “Tell it (with our mouths) into the ears of your son,” that “wine will gladden man’s heart,” by drinking the four cups of wine as we re-experience Pesach.

Halekach Vehalebuv continues by saying that when Pharaoh “made houses” for the Jews, not only for the midwives, his purpose was to surround Bnei Yisroel with Egyptian culture so they would forget Hashem, erase Him from their hearts and begin speaking and listening only Egyptianese.  Our job is to keep the ale”ph free and remain receptive to Hashem, to always remember the apple tree. The Egyptians hoped that we would be so involved with forming the bricks of our livelihood, that we would forget about Hashem.

In Lilah Kayom Yair, Rabbi Baum likens the ingredients in charoset to the Klal Yisroel experience. The wine represents our blood and the spices represent bricks. The entire mixture is cheres/dried out and compressed, like the clay to form pottery. It represents the oppression of Bnei Yisroel. Yet people like it because of its sweetness. Somehow, when you put two bitter things together, sweetness emerges, like throwing a bitter tree into the bitter waters at Marah. It is through the bitterness and the challenges that we grow and come closer to Hashem.

Even when we cry in pain, we can still see Hashem’s hand and our salvation, reminds us the Alshich zt”l. He notes that when Yaakov and Esau met upon Yaakov’s return, they fell on each other’s neck and both cried. The medrash says that Esau cried because he had tried to bite Yaakov while pretending to kiss him, but Hashem had turned Yaakov’s neck to a slab of marble. Yaakov cried because his neck nevertheless hurt. Even in the cries of pain, Yaakov could still recognize his salvation.

  The word charoset itself seems to allude to both bitterness and sweetness. The first and last letters spell chas/mercy, while the middle letters spell out the name of Ruth, writes Rabbi Spero in Touched by a Story. Ruth’s life was indeed hard and bitter, Having converted to Judaism and married, she became a young widow, remarried in a quasi levirate marriage, was widowed again only to become a single mother. But she lived to see her great grandson ascend the throne as King David, known as the one who composed the sweet songs of Yisroel, the Tehillim/Psalms. We must anticipate our impending salvation even as we face our challenges. Her suffering refined her so that she had the qualities to become the Mother of Royalty while Orpah, her sister in law, turned her back on the suffering and returned to her father’s home and remains an anagram for Paroh, writes Rabbi Kluger.

Rabbi Reiss in Meirosh Tzurim makes an interesting point that supports our overall theme. After Bnei Yisroel built the Mishkan, every time they traveled, the Mishkan would be disassembled and the Leviim would transport the parts to the new camping ground. The wagons to carry the Mishkan parts and vessels were not distributed evenly. The family of Merori was given more wagons because the load they carried was heavier than the loads of the other Levite families. [Yet I would venture they considered their load “sweet” rather than bitter, as the name Merori suggests. CKS] If Hashem gives us challenges, He always gives us the tools to carry the load.

These conflicting emotions are reflected in the positions we take while we perform the rituals of the Seder, writes Rabbi Biederman. When we eat the marror itself, we do not lean. After all, we are re-experiencing the full bitterness of the enslavement, although minimally tempered with a dip in the charoset. However, this is followed by eating the sandwich of marror within the matzoh. The matzoh symbolizes our faith, and with this comfort, we can lean more comfortably and accept the bitterness.

Until now, we have discussed the apple as symbolic of love and sweetness. But Rabbi Baum takes a different approach. The apple is associated with the sense of smell, as Yaakov smelled the scent of Gan Eden in the clothes that Yaakov wore. But we smell through our af/nose. Throughout Tanach, the term charon af is translated as extreme anger. [Picture the nostrils flaring in anger. CKS] The nose, and smell, are therefore associated with the attribute of judgment. But the entire universe was created with the attribute of judgment. In truth, nothing new is formed without forcefully breaking that which contains it. But the aroma that enters through the nose can also be the source of blessing,

When Bnei Yisroel complained about the deaths of the rebellious Korach and his gang, Hashem brought a plague to destroy the people. But an angel had taught Moshe the antidote to Hashem’s anger, the ketoret/incense offering. Moshe instructed Aharon to take from the incense offering and run between the living and the dead, and the plague stopped.

So although the sense of smell and apples in particular can be associated with judgment and anger, it also carries within it the seeds of salvation. When the women gave birth beneath the apple tree, they were under the cruel judgment of Pharaoh, And because of this cruel judgment, Hashem increased the fertility of the women so that the nation’s population would grow exponentially, leading to their eventual salvation.

The oppression and challenges of Mitzrayim represented the purification process Bnei Yisroel needed in order to become appropriate vessels for God’s presence, writes Rabbi Kluger in Bni Bechori Yisroel. The negative characteristics had to be refined out to leave the pure souls of the nation. This refinement process began long before our descent to Egypt and continued after, and much of it is recorded in the piyut/holy song we read at the Seder, Va’amartem Zevach Pesach/And You Shall Say: This is the Feast of Pesach. Among the steps recorded is Avraham being told of both the enslavement and the redemption of his descendents on the night of Pesach, the angels prophesying Yiztchak’s birth and the salvation of Lot from Sodom, both on the night of Pesach. Yaakov received his father’s blessing on Pesach, and we hope for the future redemption every Pesach, may it be this year.

Rabbi Baum continues interpreting the symbolic foods on the Seder plate. The egg, eaten at the beginning of a mourning period, reminds us of the death of Avraham Avinu on erev Pesach. It is also a reminder that the more we are challenged and put into “boiling water,” the harder we get. The charoset reminds us that all the bricks and hard labor were necessary in the refinement process, just as labor must precede a birth. The Egyptian experience is the ultimate birth of redemption.

Dovid Hamelech will be the ancestor of Moshiach. Dovid’s life was full of hardship and challenge from which he grew. Not only did he sing beautiful songs, but he played the harp. The harp too, writes Rabbi Feuer in Tehillim Treasury, also plays more strongly the tighter you pull the strings.

The challenges enable us to become who we are meant to be. We are living in challenging, charoset times. May we overcome the challenges of the coronavirus and grow to coronate Hashem, our King, and recognize His sovereignty over all.                  

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