Performing a Mitzvah must capture the emotion of the associated historic event in order for it to have an impact on us and our persona. We attempt to put ourselves in the place of those Jews who first experienced the event being commemorated, in the hope that we feel the same degree of inspiration and awe that they did. Being able to emote, to gain mastery, to feel the moment makes the ritual meaningful and positive.
What were the Jews feeling when they were protected by Succos in the desert? What must have been the awesome, inspiring emotion they had at Har Sinai? What was the powerful emotion they felt when bringing a Korban? The full impact comes if we re-live, if we make the conscious effort to think about what it is we are doing. By emoting we become inspired and can have our persona changed for the better. As the artist Pablo Picasso has observed, creation first starts by contemplation.
This idea is best captured in the words of the Haggadah: “bcal dor vador… “In every generation each one of us has to imagine what it must have been like to be redeemed from Egypt”. This requirement entails action and activity and re-enactment. Some observe the custom of marching around with matzos in a bag over their shoulder, re-enacting the Exodus.
We pray daily for the speedy restoration of the Temple’s sacrificial service and note the service’s connection to Jewish nationalism and independence. Even Rambam the rationalist rules l’halach that in the days of Moshiach, “all Korbanot will again be offered.”
The reason for this may be that the most profound aspect of Korbanot is the never-ending effort to build and re-build relationships between Man and G-d and ultimately create a bonding and sense of unity between Man and Man. Also, I think that we are expressing our desire to experience the powerful emotions that accompanied and inspired the people bringing Korbanot.
The pasuk “Ooneshalma Parim Sefsaynu” is cited as the source for prayer (using our lips in prayer) as a substitute for bringing Kornabot. Perhaps the pasuk can be interpreted to mean that today, in lieu of actually being able to bring a Korban, we have Sfasanu, our lips, to discuss, to debate and to learn about the meaning of the Korbanot in an effort to re-live and re-experience.
On Chametz and Matzo
The Torah commands us to remove Chametz (leavened grain products) from our midst for the seven days of Pesach before we eat matzos. Chametz = Egypt with its fancy well-known breads and its societal arrogance (inflated self view). It is this representation of Egyptian culture and behavior that we reject by not owning and not eating. Others see in Chametz the evil inclinations in us all that we take this opportunity to remove (from within us).
In Hebrew, both words contain the letters Mem and Tzadi. But Chametz begins with a Chet and Matzo ends with a Hey. Hey is G-d and His Ethics. If a person decides to add even a little of his own to God’s law he adds to the Hey’s “leg” and makes it a Chet. By giving his new additions prominence and by moving the Chet to the beginning of the word, he has converted matzo to chametz. He has changed internally from the simplicity and “goodness” of a matzo-like personality into an inflated, egotistical Chametz personality.
In the frenetic cleaning of our homes of even the tiniest traces of chametz, it is easy to lose sight of the purpose of our efforts. We need to stop and think about and then eradicate the chametz/evil inclination/negativity/foreign culture that we have absorbed from our surroundings.
The Seder Meal
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag likens the Passover Seder to a formal meal celebrating our miraculous emergence from slavery that is held in an upscale restaurant that specializes in well-prepared fine, tasty “anti-Egyptian culture” foods. The focus is to remember our salvation and our rejection of Egyptian (and other pagan) culture.
Reservations are needed (s’ae l’bayis). It is a family affair that includes invited friends, family and neighbors in the community who do not have enough people to bring their own Pesach offering. We need to be dressed in our finest clothing (“shoes on your feet”) and behave like free men using a “walking stick (a sign of importance) in your hand”. The main course consists of the best cut of meat: well roasted (not boiled and not raw) lamb…the Egyptian deity. We eat until we are full and are prohibited from leaving leftovers—trying to shake the slave mentality of squirreling away food for the next day. We eat with enthusiasm, excitement and zest but not with haste lest the animal bones be broken.
Green salad is served, not with a sweet dressing but with bitter herbs to remind us of the bitterness of our Egyptian experience. We eat only simple unleavened matzos with our meal— displaying our disdain for the fancy breads for which Egypt was famous. Like nobility, we lean on our sides and relax and we make use of finger bowls to clean our hands.
Understanding the Haggadah
Rabbi Avrohom Dov Kahn in his The Chosen Nation Haggada proposes an intriguing way of approaching the Haggadah. At the Covenant between the halves (Bris Bein Habsorim) G-d promised Avraham Avinu that his offspring would become a nation with their own land, but they would first require an “iron crucible” Egyptian servitude experience.
The key message of the Haggadah that we need to recognize and declare and describe and re-tell and re-enact and transmit to our children is that G-d chose us, the Jewish people, from all the nations of the world. During the Seder, as we identify with the Jews redeemed from Egypt, we communicate to our children this inheritance and the responsibility it carries. Teaching by example and using the question and answer method is the best way of perpetuating the Jewish nation. Despite its overtones of universal freedom, the Seder is a uniquely Jewish experience.
With this unifying approach we are better able to understand the wording of the text and answer some troubling questions. Moshe Rabbenu is not mentioned in the text because it was God and not Moshe who chose, redeemed, and created a nation of Jews. The holiday of Pesach is referred to as Passover, instead of, for example, the Torah’s name “Festival of matzos” because it was G-d passing over the Jewish homes that most clearly expresses our having been chosen by Him. Rav Kahn quotes the Sh’La HaKodesh who notes that the word Pesach consists of Pe (mouth) and Sach (speech). We are commanded to use our mouth and our speech to verbalize the idea that G-d selected us to be His chosen nation.
The heart of the telling of the Exodus story is the prayer that the farmer in Israel recites when he brings his first fruit offering to the Temple, Arami Ovayd Avi. With these words the farmer declares how fortunate he is to have been saved from Egypt (even though he was not there physically) and to be able to bring the first fruit of the land. Although “the Exodus initiated the choosing of Israel, the process was not completed until the Jews settled in the Promised Land”.
The Seder of the Seder
The order (Seder) of the Seder is attributed to Rashi who, we may assume, created this listing for both ease of recollection as well as for halachic considerations.
KADESH-recitation of Kiddush (sanctification over wine) with its blessings for sanctification of the holiday and, according to some Scholars, also being the blessing for the Mitzvah of Maggid—retelling the Exodus story.
U’RECHATZ—washing the hands without a blessing. The halacha of foods dipped in water requiring washing of the hands generally is not applicable in our times except for Pesach night when we attempt to maintain a higher level of spiritual purity—just as the Jews did when leaving Egypt. Because we strive to re-live that experience, we do the same.
KARPAS—eating a vegetable dipped in salt water, reliving the way the Jews ate in Egypt with salty tears of servitude, hopelessness and sadness running down their faces into their food.
YACHATZ—breaking the Matzo in half and hiding one part, communicates poverty (“poor man’s bread”) in preparation for the immediately following MAGID section. Matzo conveys oppression and enslavement and then later represents redemption (because the speed of the redemption prevented the dough that the Jews were carrying from rising).
MAGID—re-telling of the Exodus story. Rabbi Menachem Leibtag provides the following outline.
I. Introduction and/or invitation (Ha’lachma anya). Setting the stage with words said at the first Seder in Egypt or words of sharing said to one another at our Seder…connecting with the first Seder during the Exodus … sharing and providing historical content…unity and solidarity give meaning to the Seder (Rav J.B. Soloveitchik)
II. Getting children’s attention (Ma Nishtana).Using questions to ensure participation and communication.
III. Explaining the obligation to tell the story
a. WHY (Avadim Hayinu)
b. WHO (even if we know it all already)
c. HOW (Four Sons or four stages of a person’s emotional development)
d. WHEN (this evening only or from Rosh Chodesh when Jews were commanded to ready the sacrificial lamb for the Pesach offering)
IV. The actual MAGID story begins: Arami Ovayd Avi
a. Danger of assimilation
b. Drasha on phrases in Devarim 26:5-8
c. Draha to arrive at Ten Plagues
d. Drasha re: number of plagues at Yam Suf
a. Understanding, appreciating and praising God for each step of the redemption process
b. Enumeration of each event in the process in which G-d publicized our special status as a chosen people having a special relationship (Rav Kahn)
VI. Raban Gamliel connects the story with the related Mitzva about to be performed.
VII. Our need to re-enact the Passover story—B’chol dor v’dor—AS IF WE WERE THERE (NOW).
VIII. Hallel--Praise-- usually recited as one unit but split into two parts in the Haggadah.
a. Two paragraphs here relate to the Exodus and our being chosen as God’s nation. The rest of Hallel relating to future events is recited later (Rav Kahn)
b. A blessing is a consciousness- raising statement as we prepare to perform a mitzvah. No blessing is recited here on Hallel because it would interfere with the joy we feel and the spontaneous praise we utter as we re-live the Egyptian experience(Rabbi T. Sabolofsky)
RACHTZA—The sages established restrictions to guard against the possibility that the Cohanim(Priests) would inadvertently make the tithes given to them “impure”. To insure that the Cohanim would remember to wash their hands before eating the tithes, the Sages declared that any Jew eating bread must wash his hands.
MOTZI MATZOH—Eating matzoh twice. First to fulfill the requirement to eat bread or bread-like grain every Shabbat and Yom Tov. Then to fulfill the specific commandment to eat matzo on Peasch night.
MARROR—Eating bitter herbs to feel the bitterness experienced by the Jews in Egypt.
SHULCHAN OREICH—eating the holiday meal in preparation for the eating of the Pascal lamb (or, in our times, the Afikoman).
TZAFON—Eating the “hidden” piece of matzo. According to some commentaries, the Afikoman symbolizes the Korban Pesach. Others maintain that the matzo eaten now is the fulfillment of our obligation to eat matzo on Pesach night.
BAREICH—Grace after meal that provides historical prospective. The first three blessings are derived from the Torah: thanking G-d for providing food; appreciation of the land of Israel and its bounty; thanks for Jerusalem and the Temple. The fourth blessing, Who Is Good and Does Good, was instituted to commemorate the destruction of the city of Betar in 70CE at the hands of Hadrian and his Roman legions. At that time, corpses were left in the street to rot but miraculously did not decompose and were ultimately buried some three years later, after Hadrian’s death.Rav Kahn views this as a pivotal point in the Seder when we turn from thanking God for choosing us (at the Exodus and in the Land of Israel) to thanking Him for his ongoing involvement with us throughout Jewish history.
HALLEL—The first part of Hallel was already said earlier when we re-lived the experience of newly-freed slaves. This part focuses on our historic ongoing relationship and “chosenness” that assures us of His constant vigilance over us.
NIRTZAH—Songs and praise to God and expression of the hope for ultimate redemption.
Beginning with disgrace…and finishing with praise
The Mishna teaches us that fulfillment of the commandment to tell the Exodus story requires a format that begins with derogatory comments and concludes with praise(matchilim bi-gnus u-mesayamim be-shevach). Rav and Shmuel debate what the opening statement should be. Rav’s view is that it is “at first our ancestors were idol worshipers”, the message being about spiritual freedom. Shmuel, who focuses on the physical release from slavery, is of the opinion that the beginning is “We were once slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt”. Some speculate that it was during the Gaonic period that both approaches were incorporated to form our modern Haggadah.
Rabbi T.H. Weinreb, in a lecture at the Young Israel of Oceanside last year, explored the meaning of this idea by relating it to Rav A.Y. Kook’s concept that in life there is both Hachana (preparation) and Tachlit (achievement). Using this construct, gnus is the preparation stage and shevach is achievement. One cannot achieve true freedom/tachlit unless he has first experienced slavery/g’nus. Freedom must contain within it elements of slavery, because it is only when one struggles and is conflicted that he can emerge truly free. The Haggadah describes a continuum starting with slavery and building to freedom. Every step of exploring alternatives, making mistakes and experiencing frustration is part of the learning and maturing process in both Man and Society.
Avadem hayenu vs. M’shubadim hayenu
The Haggadah describes how we were slaves (avadem) to Pharaoh in Egypt and had God not rescued us we still would be enslaved (m’shubadim) to Pharaoh, Why, asks Rabbi Weinreb, the variation in terminology?
Avdus is a role played by a person, even if he does not feel it whereas m’shubad refers to the essence of a person, his persona. Had God not rescued us from our role as slaves in Egypt, the servant mentality would have become ingrained in us and our persona.
Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi maintains that eved refers to the physical and m’shubad refers to mental enslavement. Had others redeemed us, and not G-d, we would be forever enslaved emotionally and feel obligated to them.
Rav J.B. Soloveitchik draws our attention to use of the phrasing that “we were slaves to Pharaoh…” rather than “we were Pharaoh’s slaves…” The former conveys a sense of distance between slave and master whereas the latter suggests a deep bonding in which the master is part of the servant’s identity. The Rav concludes that though we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt he never owned us. The Jews remained avadei hashem , guarding our loyalty to and identification with God.