Americans have their Thanksgiving, and us Jews have our Passover. Pesach is a holiday of extreme importance where we make it our business to get together with family or be part and parcel with our fellow brethren. The Seder nights are designed to seek that togetherness so that by the end of the 15th step of the Seder (starting with kadesh, urchatz), we accomplished completeness within ourselves and as a nation and are ready for the redemption.
Why do Jews put such importance on this holiday? Even the most secular Jew wants to connect to the Seder table. In popularity, Pesach is head to head with Yom Kippur. Rabbi Akiva Tatz, quoting the mystics, made an interesting observation. The most intense part of anything; the most concentrated, powerful, the most strongest, is the inception, the root is where everything sprouts from. A person’s childhood is crucial for his development. Any action and reaction to an accordance would most likely be magnified and indebted in his psyche and influence his adult decisions.
Pesach was the inception of us being a nation; it’s the root of camaraderie; it’s our birth as a people. The root is intense and the feeling of togetherness we experienced then for the first time is brought back every year. In the heavens, the concept of time is different;years are not a factor. If one experiences Pesach or Purim, it’s as if he’s experiencing it when it actually happened for the first time. G-d showered us with kindness and mercy when we left Egypt, even though we didn’t deserve it. In order to receive that Pesach experience with the same warm feeling that G-d bestowed on us, and perhaps ask Him for our wanting needs, then one has to accomplish certain steps on the Seder night. We have to reach a perfect, complete, heavenly state of Shalem in order for our requests to be granted. On this night, that reach is a lot easier because of the power of the moment in which G-d was kind to us then, or I should say then is now. The number 15 is a significant number which represents completeness. Although we try to reach that throughout the year in our prayers (15 steps in yishtabach, 15 emet veyatziv, king davids 15 shir hama’alot), the path is a lot easier on Pesach; perhaps we should take advantage of the opportunity.
Let us explore the 15 steps:
In every happy joyous occasion, we make kiddush. Kadesh means to sanctify and here we sanctify time. Kadesh also means to separate; we are separating time. Perhaps this is where we get the expression “make something out of nothing.” We elevate the time because of the beautiful occasions. Why is wine the preference for the Kiddush? Rabbi Akiva Tatz reminds us of the famous phrase that we say for wine, “nichnass yayin yatza sod” – wine goes in, the secret comes out. The most popular explanation is we can determine by one’s drinking his true nature because wine takes away the mask, the barrier. However, R’ Tatz says the secret here is something deeper. There is a very fine line in drinking in the early stage. If one drinks slightly more than he should, he makes a fool of himself. At a certain point however, the person drinking has a vision well beyond the usual state of mind, he has the ability to think clear and to develop ideas and formulate concepts; he has the ability to use creativity to the highest caliber. Perhaps the fact that wine decreases the paranoia and sadness in one’s heart, gives way for opportunity to develop and to boldly go where one could not reach before. A Jew has the ability to sanctify time through his vision and bring down happiness at kiddush time.
This washing is in preparation for eating the karpas dipped in salt water. In the times of the temple when people were able to observe the laws of ritual purity in full, they were required to wash their hands before any produce that has been dipped in water or certain other liquids. So why do we wash our hands today? There is no temple; we don’t do it throughout the year. Why all of a sudden do we wake up now and say hey let’s wash our hands, and not throughout the year? Again, one of the themes of the Seder is to pursue the goal and increase, rekindle the hope of the final redemption where we will have a temple and we will be required to do the command that’s not required today.
No double dipping please, with the exception of George. The custom of karpas is to dip a vegetable into salt water. This apparently was a sign of freedom, comfort, and indulgence. Yet we dip it into the salt water to remind us of the bitterness of the bondage. Those who are meticulous and detail-oriented should be asking a fairly obvious question. If the Seder (which means order) is in its proper order, then why is karpas here and not in the section of magid telling of the story of the exile? It appears out of sequence. In order to get a clearer understanding of this, we must examine the word karpas.
The word karpas is also associated with clothing. Rashi, one of the main commentaries on the Chumash, associates it with one of the threads of the coat that Yaacov, our forefather, gave as a present to Yosef. One of the main ingredients of the galut (diaspora) is disunity, separation, and strife. This is the reason why throughout history, when the Jews were united, we flirted with having the Messianic time at our doorstep. It seems like the order of the haggadah is actually quite precise. You see the galut didn’t start when the Jews were in Egypt; it started way before that. When Yaacov gave only one of his sons a coat made out of karpas/wool for a present, all the other brothers got jealous and the harmony and unity among the brothers was shattered. The coronation of the disunity between the brothers was when Yehuda, the brother they looked up to, brought Yosef’s karpas coat, after selling him to the Arabs, to Yaacov, asking him if he recognizes this, referring to the ripped coat in which they dipped in animal blood.
The antithesis of the dipping of Yosef’s coat is the dipping of the vegetable in the salt water. We regret the sin of our ancestors and the disunity it caused. That incident was the beginning of the exile.
We are now preparing ourselves to start the telling of the story of Pesach by laying the matzoh in front of us. We take the middle of the three matzot and break it in half leaving the smaller half in between the two, and the larger is put away for the afikoman. The patriarch of the family usually does this task. There is a mystic source that when the patriarch is breaking the matzoh, he should concentrate on many brachot for his family and for Klal Yisrael. There are different opinions as to what the three matzot represent; Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaacov (our patriarchs) or Kohen, Levi and Yisrael (the three status levels of the Israelites), are two opinions of what these matzos represent. The middle of both Yitzchak and Levi represent din – harsh judgment. Symbolically, we nullify the harsh judgment on us by breaking the middle matzoh. Matzoh is called lechem oni – bread of affliction; the phrase can also be interpreted by our sages as lechem she’onim bo – bread that you answer to it. Therefore, it’s always present when we discuss the story of the redemption from Egypt. Rabbi Naftali Landau says matza represents freedom and freedom is the everyday man. A wealthy man has to many commitments and obligations. The everyday Joe has the true taste of freedom.
The whole Seder is orchestrated to be a kid-friendly atmosphere. The goal is to keep the children interested. We play hide and seek with the afikoman. In some communities, the participants of the Seder playfully hit each other with scallions when the prayer dayenu is recited to keep the children awake. The reason of the strong emphasis on the children is pretty obvious – they are our future. The second half of the haggadah’s primary focus is the future. Our children will carry the baton to the messianic time, although we might see him in our time period. Dealing with children is the primary agenda. There is such delicacy when dealing with the four sons. The Torah hints that every son should be approached differently. One must realize education cannot be taught the same to everyone. I excelled in the class in third grade but didn’t learn a thing in the fourth. The Rabbis’ styles of teaching were different; their personalities were different. Naturally, I gravitated to the one I was most comfortable with. The sages don’t suggest a different teacher for every student. Economically, it’s not possible; however it’s making one aware that there is a difference.
The importance of passing down the tradition is quite important. In the temple, in the Holy of Holies, the keruvim, which stood on top of the aron, had the image of a father and son. This relationship, if healthy, is the essence of Judaism.
We always wash our hands before bread. Although the health conscience advocates applaud the act because it promotes better hygiene, its main purpose, though, is to wash away spiritual impurities. The act and its blessing is associated with eating bread. The Torah says bread is the most satisfying food, more than meat, cheese and sushi, and therefore it is considered very important. By removing any spiritual impurities through washing of the hands, one can elevate an ordinary meal with bread to a highly energized spiritual experience. We are considered physical human beings with the purpose to use the physicality tools that G-d has given us to promote excellence in all worldly areas.
The question is asked, if chametz is so evil that one can’t even possess it during the holiday of Pesach and matzoh has such tremendous spiritual qualities, why eat chametz altogether? Perhaps one should eat the spiritual matzoh all year long. We’ll definitely score brownie points in the great adding machine in the heavens. In fact, the sages do agree it would be ideal, but find it impossible to deprive one of bread. There is a concept in the Torah involving the number seven which is defined by the Sages as being complete. There are seven days to a week; harvest occurs on the seventh year, etc. The Torah teaches us if one keeps Pesach with the utmost intensity and meticulousness during the complete seven days (8 days outside of Israel), he will fulfill his requirement of going full circle of not consuming chametz and eating matzoh.
Although some of our brothers, the Ashkenazim have a tougher time with maror then the Sefaradim, one has to taste some level of bitterness in the maror. One does not fulfill his requirement if he swallows the maror without chewing. In fact, the Gemarah says he has to bite it into pieces with 22 teeth corresponding to the 22 letters of the alef bet, which is found in the Torah. Life is bittersweet. One can find the Torah very useful and helpful in dealing with the difficulties one receives in his lifetime.
We can look at the ma nishtana as one question instead of four – why are we mixing the bitterness of matzoh and maror with the majestic royalty of dipping and leaning at the Seder night? The same paradox can be found with Hillel who combines the matzoh (freedom) with the maror (servitude).
This is the taste Hillel is left with at the end of the night. Taste is one of the senses we are given and tonight it’s a tool to connect to the feeling our ancestors had. When Adam sinned by eating from the tree, one of his punishments was that goodness which he will now experience, will be always be mixed with a degree of bad. If one notices any happy occasion in the history of the world, was interrupted by some negativity. This is the true feeling of life and is one that our ancestors realistically experienced on their way out to freedom. One should not be disillusioned and get depressed that life has turned out the way it has.
Enjoy the meal!! After Pesach, G-d willing, we will occasionally feature recipes of various cuisines.
One opinion of why we eat the afikoman is in memory of the Pesach offering. The definition of afikoman means dessert. The matzoh of the afikoman was eaten at the end of the meal replacing the desert. As mentioned earlier, it represents the redemption as well as servitude .The taste of the matzoh is the last taste in out mouths before going to bed. One should have the taste of the servitude matzoh humbling him and he should also have the taste of the redemption. We play hide and seek with our kids as we try to find the afikoman. What are we trying to find? When our forefather, Yaacov, was on his deathbed, he called all his sons and apparently was ready to reveal the secret when the Moshiach will come. However, apparently G-d hid the thought and Yaacov forgot. It’s symbolic – the kids and the grown-ups trying to find afikoman and reveal the coming of the redemption. This is why we open the door of our home to usher in Eliyahu, the prophet, who will take the role of the Moshiach.
We say the grace after meal (birkat hamazon – bentching). In the last paragraph of birkat hamazon, we read “oseh shalom bim’romav” – G-d makes peace in the heavens between fire and water then He shall surely make peace among us and He’ll make peace on all of Israel and they would say amen. If we believe in G-d the way we’re supposed to, then G-d will inject in us a portion of unity that will lead to the redemption. Just like fire and water are opposites and they are able to co-exist in the heavens; so too, no matter how different people are from one another, we’ll co-exist as well. There are many couples that are opposites (fire and water), however they get along because there is a certain commitment to the one above. It’s interesting that this passage is in the benching, where one says after being satiated. My father always said, “son, never come home after a day’s work hungry.” Always put something in your mouth before walking in the door. A hungry person gets agitated quickly and a fight is imminent. After one eats and benches, then he’s able to accomplish the goal of unity.
We’re close to the end or perhaps shaping up the future. One has to be at an advanced state at this juncture of the night where showing praise and appreciation to G-d comes natural. The focus is clearly the future; however to get there, one has to realize the goodness that G-d has bestowed upon us. One of the passages we say in the Hagaddah is an important praise we sing early Shabbat morning called ‘nishmat kol chai.’ In most communities, it’s the main focal of their cantorial singing. What makes it unique in its praise and appreciation is that its composer was a Jew in the highest caliber named Shimon Khafa. About 2000 years ago, an offshoot religion started called Christianity. The great Sanhedrin (71 judges great court of Israel) was concerned that Jews will abandon Judaism for this new belief. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, the president of the Sanhedrin, who is quoted earlier in the Haggadah, approached Shimon Khafa to perform a difficult but important task; they wanted him to infiltrate the hierarchy of this new religion and alter, make a clear distinction between Judaism and Christianity; this way Jews won’t mistaken it as part of their own and won’t be lured in off guard. Shimon accepted and became one of the most important spies we’ve had. He successfully altered their day of rest from Saturday to Sunday, as well as, dehumanized their savior. Eventually many years later Khafa was exposed and was executed. Some say he was none other than Peter. As one can imagine, a spy cannot express his feelings outwardly. In fact, a spy has to take on a different identity; play the part. What often happens in the spy world is they play their role too well where there is confusion of who is the real person inside of you. We often have an identity crisis as is could one imagine what spies go through. However, Shimon had so much love for Hakadosh Baruch Hu (G-d), His nation, and Judaism, he composed a long and eloquent praise affirming his belief and great appreciation to life and to his master. It’s a tremendously moving piece and deeply inspiring whether it be Shabbat morning or at the Seder.
We conclude the Seder by asking G-d to accept our prayers and for our enthusiastic loving participation in this beautiful night. Many years ago, G-d showed us tremendous kindness and took us out even though we didn’t deserve it. It’s obviously a special night of tremendous potential kindness in which G-d can continue the flow of this good. We have to take advantage of this night. On any other night to get to a spiritual height, we have to work very hard to accomplish that task. However, tonight, the connection to the heavens is strong. (4g)
G-d willing, our prayers will be accepted and next year we will sit in Yerushalayim in happiness with spiritual abundance and the Moshiach. Amen.