by Rabbi Dovid Green
We thank Rabbi Shraga Simmons and Rabbi Yosey Goldstein for contributing to
this Pesach Dvar Torah.
On the first nights of Pesach we have a commandment to retell the story of
our exodus from Egypt. The Hagada is made in a special order to facilitate
all the the observances of the night. One thing which becomes clear from
the outset is that we praise and thank G-d many times during the seder. It
is an underlying theme throughout the seder to show our thanks to G-d for
freeing us from the bondage of Egypt. Thankfulness is one of the goals of
observing the seder.
The book Duties of the Heart (Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pekuda) discusses at length
all of the wonderful things which G-d bestows to the human race. He follows
that chapter with the discussion of serving G-d. His reasoning for
juxtaposing those two chapters is that when someone contemplates the good
which he receives, it behooves him to react with recognition and
appreciation to the giver. When we realize the extent of what we receive
from G-d in its full depth, logic dictates that we serve Him.
The term "bread of shame" is used in the Talmud, and has become a well
known term. As we know it is used to depict the feeling one has when
receiving something he has not earned. A healthy person wishes to return in
some measure the favor he has received. It is human nature. This is why G-d
created good and evil in the world, and gave us the opportunity to choose
between the two -- so we could earn the good which we receive in this world
and the next. Interestingly, we can conclude that G-d puts up with all of
the things in this world which occur against His will, just so we can work
at doing right, and not receive bread of shame.
A student of Torah approaches the Pesach seder with this attitude. We
recount the story of our exodus from Egypt and our birth as a nation of
servants of G-d. We internalize the teachings of the seder, and we come to
a greater clarity and commitment to show G-d our recognition and
appreciation in a tangible, ongoing fashion.
15 Steps To Freedom
by Rabbi Shraga Simmons
A Jewish man is waiting in line to be knighted by the Queen of England. He is
supposed to kneel and recite a sentence in Latin. When it comes his turn, the
Queen taps him on the shoulders with the sword -- and in the panic of
excitement he forgets the Latin line. Thinking quickly, he recites the only
other line he knows in a foreign language which he remembers from the
Passover Seder: "Mah nishtana ha-lailah ha-zeh mi-kol ha-leilot." The
puzzled Queen turns to her advisor and asks, "Why is this knight different
from all other knights?"
Passover is the time when each Jew embarks on a personal journey from slavery
to freedom. In order to guide us in our quest, the Sages carefully wrote a
book outlining 15 steps to freedom. It's called the hagada. The Sages say
that Passover occurs on the 15th of Nissan (the Jewish month), to teach us
that just as the moon waxes for 15 days, so too our growth must be in 15
gradual steps. Think of these as 15 pieces of the Passover puzzle. Assemble
them all and you've got freedom!
To begin the Seder, we make kiddush and sanctify the day. The word "kiddush"
means special and unique. The first step to personal freedom is to recognize
that you are special. You have a distinct combination of talents, skills and
experiences that qualifies you to make a unique contribution to the world. In
Egypt, the Jews were forced to build the store-cities of Pithom and Ramses.
Why was this tortuous labor? Because these cities rested on swamp-land, and
every time the Jews built one level, it sunk into the ground. Slavery is a
life with no accomplishment, no achievement, and no meaning. On Passover, we
begin our journey toward personal freedom by asking: What is humanity's
biggest need? What can I contribute most profoundly to nurture and protect
the world? And... what am I going to do about it?
"Why do we wash our hands at this point in this Seder?" the Talmud asks.
"Because it is an unusual activity which prompts the children to ask
questions." The very name hagada means "telling," for the goal of the Seder
is to arouse curious questions, and satisfying answers. We've all felt the
sense of awe upon meeting a fascinating person, or reading an enlightening
new book. But as adults we may become enslaved by the idea that it's more
sophisticated to "know it all." Passover teaches that to be truly free we
must approach life with child-like wonderment. "Who is the wise person?" asks
the Talmud. "The one who learns from everyone." Passover is the holiday of
springtime, joy and renewal. That's why the Seder is filled with unusual
activities. Be curious. Be a student of life. Be free.
We take a green vegetable and bless G-d for creating fruits from the ground.
Gratitude is liberating. "Who is the rich person?" asks the Talmud. "The one
who's satisfied with what he's got." This appreciation comes through focusing
on details. For example, to get this green vegetable to our table, it had to
be planted, harvested, packed, shipped, unloaded, unpacked, displayed, and
rung up by a cashier - before we even bring it home! If we truly appreciate
all we have, we'll be constantly proclaiming: "Life is a wonderful gift!" (On
a deeper level, we dip the vegetable in salt water to let us know that even
those things which appear bitter -- a lost job or a broken relationship --
are ultimately for the best.) Gratitude is an attitude. It requires constant
effort and attention. A Jew strives to say 100 blessings every day. The
reward is emancipation.
We break the middle matza, and put it aside to serve later as the Afikomen.
Why do we break the matza now if we don't need it until later? Because a key
to freedom is to anticipate the future and make it real. The definition of
maturity is the ability to trade a lower pleasure now for a higher pleasure
later. Children lack this perspective and demand instant gratification. (Why
not eat 10 candies now? Because you'll get a stomache-ache later!) The
challenge of adulthood is training ourselves to look at the long-term
consequences. "Who is the wise man?" asks the Talmud. "The one who sees the
future." We break the middle matza, not for now, but for later. Because true
freedom is a long-term proposition.
The Sages tell us that the unique ability given to humanity is the power of
speech. Speech is the tool of building and construction. G-d used it to
create the world ("And G-d said: Let there be light."). On Seder night, we
use our gift of speech for the central part of the hagada: telling the
Passover story. The very word "Pesach" is a contraction of the words "Peh
Sach," meaning "the mouth speaks." The Hebrew name for Pharaoh, on the other
hand, is a combination of "Peh Rah," meaning "the bad mouth." For just as
speech has the power tobuild, it also has the power to destroy. Gossip and
slander drive apart families and communities. On Passover, we use speech to "build" humanity - by
communicating, connecting, and encouraging each other. We stay up long into
the night, relating the story of our exodus, tasting and sharing the joy of
One aspect of freedom is the ability to elevate ourselves above the lowest
common denominator on the street. We've all felt the sensory assault of
billboards, gratuitous talk-radio, immodest fashions, and violence on TV. At
the Seder we wash our hands as a preparatory step before the matza, in order
to carefully consider what it is we're about to eat. One who is concerned
with spiritual and physical health is discriminating about all forms of
consumption: which movies to watch, which friends to spend time with, and
what standards of business ethics to uphold. The streets are filled with a
multitude of options. But we must not consume indiscriminately. We "wash our
hands" to cleanse and distance ourselves from unhealthy influences. Freedom
is the ability to say: "I choose not to partake."
We make the "hamotzi" blessing to thank G-d for "bringing forth bread from
the ground." Which is odd because G-d bring wheat from the ground - and man
turns it into bread! In truth, G-d gives us two gifts:
Today, technology has pulled us away from seeing the beauty of G-d's creation. We fine-tune our
environment with air-conditioning, synthetic foods, cosmetic surgery, and
genetic engineering. Mankind is perilously close to "playing G-d." But in
truth, man cannot create anything perfect; man can only tune into G-d's
ultimate perfection. Which is more awesome to behold - the world's biggest
super-computer, or the human brain? Between your two ears are 10 billion
nerve cells -- a communication system 100 times larger than the entire
communications system on Earth. When we make "hamotzi," we hold the matza
with all our 10 fingers - reminding us that while human hands produced this
food, it is yet another gift from the Creator and Sustainer of all life.
- 1) the raw materials, and
- 2) the tools for transforming it into life.
Both bread and matza are flour mixed with water, then kneaded into a dough
and baked. What is the difference between them? The difference is that dough
has sat unattended for 18 minutes and becomes leavened (bread). The matza
which we eat on Passover has been baked quickly. The spelling of "matza" is
similar to "mitzvah:" Just as we shouldn't delay in the making of matza, so
too we shouldn't procrastinate in performing a mitzvah. The lesson of matza
is to seize the moment. Delaying even one second can mean the difference
between an opportunity gained or lost. Why 18 minutes? Because the number 18
is the numerical value of "Chai," meaning "life." They say that "baseball in
a game of inches." In reality, life itself is a game of seconds. The Talmud
tells of people who had sunk to the depths of humanity, and then in one
moment of insight reversed their lives for all eternity. More than just the
difference between matza and bread, the Seder teaches us the difference
between life and death.
At the Seder we say: "In every generation they rise against us to annihilate
us." The Egyptians broke our backs and our spirits. The Romans destroyed the
Second Temple and rivers of Jewish blood flowed. And so it was in every
generation: Crusades, Inquisitions, Pogroms, Holocaust, Arab terrorism.
Intense and irrational violence has stalked our people to every corner of the
globe. Why the hatred? The Talmud says the Hebrew word for "hatred" (sinah)
is related to the word "Sinai." At Mount Sinai, the Jewish People acquired
the legacy of morality and justice - a message that evil cannot tolerate. We
taught the world "to beat their swords into plowshares." We taught the world
"to love your neighbor as yourself." We taught the world equality before
justice, and that admiration belongs not to the rich and powerful - but to
the good, the wise, and the kind. Hitler said: "The Jews have inflicted two
wounds on mankind - circumcision on the body, and conscience on the soul."
How right he was and how much more work we have to do.
Throughout the generations, the forces of darkness have sought to extinguish
our flame. But the Jews have somehow prevailed. We have G-d's promise that we
will be the eternal nation. For without our message, the world would revert
to utter chaos. At the Seder, we eat the bitter herbs - in combination with
matza - to underscore that G-d is present not only during our periods of
freedom (symbolized by the matza), but during our bitter periods of exile as
well. He will never forsake us.
The Hillel Sandwich is "bricks-and-mortar:" broken matza held together by
bitter herbs and charoset. The matza was once whole. So too, the Jewish
people can become crushed and divisive. But we are held together by our
common links to Torah and our shared historical experiences. The Talmud says
that as Jews in Egypt, we were redeemed only because of our unity. We were
unified in our commitment to each other and to the future of our people.
Weeks later at Mount Sinai, we stood together and accepted the Torah with one
heart and one mind. Today, we are fighting amongst ourselves under the
watchful eye of the world media. It is both embarrassing and discouraging.
The biggest threat to Jewish survival may be from within. Our only response
is to stand loudly and proclaim: Every Jew is a Jew. Period. The inclusion of
the "wicked son" in the Seder expresses our conviction that no Jew is ever
irretrievably lost. We are all one family, responsible to love and care for
one another. The matza may be broken, but it can be restored. It is this
"Hillel Sandwich" which has traditionally symbolized our commitment to glue
the Jewish nation back together. On the merit of unity we were redeemed from
Egypt, and it is on that merit that we shall be redeemed once again.
11. Shulchan Orech
When we think of attaining levels of holiness, it seems strange that one of
the mitzvahs of Seder night should be eating a festive meal. That is because
the Jewish attitude toward our physical drives and material needs is quite
different from that of other religions. Our religious leaders are neither
celibate nor do they meditate all day on a mountaintop. Rather than negating
or denying the physical, Judaism stresses the importance of feasting and
marital relations. G-d wants it that way. The proof is that instead of
creating all foods bland (or in the form of "protein-pills"), G-d concocted a
variety of flavors and textures - orange, strawberry, chocolate, banana and
mango. Why? Because G-d wants His people to have pleasure! Adam and Eve were
put into the Garden of Eden - the Garden of Pleasure. The Talmud says that
one of the first questions a person is asked when they get up to Heaven is:
"Did you enjoy all the fruits of the world?" On Seder night, we eat the
festive meal to teach us that true freedom is the ability to sanctify life,
not flee from it.
The last thing we eat all night is the Afikomen. (Matzah for dessert?! And I
thought we were having macaroons!) We eat this final piece of Matzah -- not
because we are hungry -- but because we are commanded. Physical pleasure,
though an integral part of our lives, sometimes gives way to a higher value.
To illustrate this concept, the Talmud compares a person to a "horse and
rider." The purpose of a horse is to take you where you want to go; but left
to its own devices, the horse will get lazy and may even throw off the rider.
That's why the rider has to be in control and making all the decisions. So
too, our bodies are the vehicles for moving us through life; they require
care and attention -- but not to the extent of assuming a pre-eminent
position. There is a difference between eating healthy, and flying to Europe
in order to dine on authentic Italian food. A person dominated by material
strivings is anything but free. Judaism says: control the physical so it does
not control you. Become a master of yourself.
It is this ability to rise above our physical selves that demarcates the
difference between humans and animals. The story is told of the Baal Shem Tov
looking at his neighbor eating dinner - and instead of a person, seeing the
form of an ox. The man was solely in pursuit of physical pleasure, no
different than an animal. Freedom is the ability to put our soul in control.
"Who is the strong person?" asks the Talmud. "The one who can subdue his
personal inclination." At the Seder, we hide the Afikomen, search, find it -
and win a prize! The same is true with our spiritual yearning to do the right
thing. Although it might be buried inside, we can search for it find it - and
the prize is pure freedom.
Social pressure is one thing that holds us back from taking charge and doing
the right thing. Barech, the "Grace After Meals" was instituted by Abraham
4000 years ago. Abraham would invite idolatrous wayfarers into his tent for a
hearty meal, and then tell them the price of admission is to bless G-d. They
thought he was crazy! Nobody believed in G-d! Abraham was called "Ha'Ivri"
(the Hebrew), meaning "the one who stands on the other side." He was a social
outcast and a lone voice in the wilderness. Would we have have been able to
stand up to that kind of social pressure? Do we speak out today against the
proliferation of media sex and violence? Against drugs and crime in our
streets? Slavery is a preoccupation with self-image and social status.
("What will they think of me if I voice my objection? How will I bear the
pain of isolation and rejection?") The Hebrew word for Egypt is "Mitzrayim" -
from the root "metzar," which means narrow and constricted. When we left
Egypt, we became free of the societal forces which restrict us to a narrow
path of fashion, image and ideas. Freedom means doing the right thing even
when it may not be socially popular. I have to live with my own conscience.
The reality is liberating.
As the feeling of freedom inebriates our souls (helped along by the four cups
of wine!), we sing aloud in joy. When the Jews came out of Egypt and crossed
the Red Sea they broke out in song (Exodus chapter 15). When we see the
upending of evil, the Egyptians drowning at the Sea, we are instinctively
grateful to the One who orchestrated the turnaround! G-d delivers us from
slavery unto freedom -- and we are amazed at the beauty and swiftness of it
all. The Jews in Egypt had sunk to the 49th level of spiritual impurity, and
only when they hit rock-bottom did they turn to G-d and cry out. It was at
that moment that they were redeemed. Redemption can be as quick as the blink
of an eye. Our Egyptian experience began with Joseph sitting in the dungeon
prison - and rising to the position of Prime Minister in the span of one day!
The Seder is the only one of the 613 mitzvahs that is performed specifically
at night, for on Passover, we turn the darkness into light. With "Hallel," we
abandon all intellectual posits, and experience the emotional joy of freedom.
Song is the expression of an excited soul. It is the way to break out of
oneself and reach for freedom.
We conclude our Seder with the prayer, "Next Year in Jerusalem." Every
synagogue in the world faces Jerusalem. It is the focus of our hopes and
aspirations - not merely in a geographic sense, but in a conceptual sense as
well. The Talmud says creation began in Jerusalem, and the world radiated
outward from this spot. Medieval maps show Jerusalem at the epicenter of
Asia, Europe, and Africa. The world flows into this place, and all life's
forces resonate here. From here, the whole world is cast into perspective.
The name Jerusalem means "city of peace." Peace, "shalom," is more than the
absence of conflict; it is the seamless harmony of humanity genuinely
embracing a common vision. Jerusalem is a vision of G-d in our lives, a
metaphor of a perfected world. Jerusalem gives us hope to achieve what we as
a people must do, to sanctify this world. In Egypt, we hadn't yet absorbed
this lesson: we were too burnt out from hard work (Exodus 6:9) and had become
immersed in the spiritual abyss of Egyptian society. When we finally were
redeemed, it happened so quickly and hastily that even then we were unable to
grasp its full significance. What this means is that year after year, each
successful Seder adds meaning to the original events, and brings us closer to
the final redemption. As the Seder draws to a close, we sense the process of
redemption is under way. We shout aloud: "Next Year in Jerusalem!" We're on
our way back home.
Rabbi Shraga Simmons puts out a weekly dear Torah. Those who wish to know more
should Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
During the Seder we sing the Dayenu. In the Dayenu we thank G-D for all
he did for us and we say If he only would have ..... (And stopped there,
and done nothing else for us) Dayenu, It would have sufficed and we would
have great gratitude for what he gave us.
One of the stanzas reads, "If he would have brought us close to Mount
Sinai and not have given us the Torah, Dayenu! (It would have been
The question here is obvious, what is the purpose of the Jewish nation
standing at Mount Sinai other than to receive the Torah?
There are many answers to this question. I will share two answers that I
have heard from to great Sages I have been privileged to know.
My Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman ZT"L of Ner Yisroel, used
to give the following answer. We all know that our forefathers kept all
of G-d's commandments even before G-D revealed himself on Mount Sinai and
gave the Jews the Torah. The way they were able to keep all of G-D's
commandments was through the great spiritual levels they were able to
attain. They attained such a great level of spirituality that they were
able to understand exactly what G-d demands from mankind in the form of
all of his Mitzvos/commandments.
Rav Ruderman used to explain that when the Jews stood at Mount Sinai and
G-D revealed himself to the Jews they also attained the same spiritual
level that our forefathers worked so hard, over many years, to attain and
they also understood what G-D demands from every person. Therefore, even
if we would not have been given the Torah we would have understood all of
the laws in the Torah and we would have adhered to them. (He then went on
to explain what the great advantage of actually receiving the Torah was.
In short it was a new special relationship between G-D and the Jews in
the form of his requiring them to keep his laws. A special bond of love
and commitment was created by the giving of the Torah and the Jew's
acceptance of it.)
Another answer I heard was from Rabbi Eliezer Kirzner ZT"L who was a Rov
in Brooklyn, N.Y. for about 50 years. The Posuk tells us that "The Jews rested under the mountain" The Torah uses the verb vayichan which is a singular form of the verb. Rashi asks
why does it not say vayachanu And they rested, using a plural form of the
verb? Rashi explains that they rested: "As one man, with one heart." i.e.
They was a such unity among Klall Yisroel, the Jews that they were as one
single entity. With this introduction Rabbi Kirzner used to explain this
stanza in the Dayenu. True there was a very high and lofty purpose in
coming to Mount Sinai, the giving of the Torah by G-D himself. But, if
all the Jews would have merited at Mount Sinai was that unity, That
brotherly love that united all the Jews into one nation than that surely
would have been sufficient!
Once the questions of the MAh Nishtanah (Why is this night different?)
are asked the Haggada begins the answer with the "Avodim Hoyinu" We were
slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and if the Holy one blessed be he had not
taken us out of Egypt then we and our children and grandchildren would
still be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt. (Note: The hebrew text says "
Meshubodim Le paroh... All the English Haggadot that I saw translate this
as enslaved. In truth the word meshubod, has the same root as slave eved
but it doesn't mean enslaved but subject, or responsible to.)
Many commentators ask: What does the hagada mean if G-d would
not have taken us out of Egypt we would still be "enslaved" in Egypt?
Over the past 3,000 years isn't it logical to say that the Jews would
have revolted and escaped? Or, as had occurred in many countries, a
benevolent leader would have freed the slaves. In either scenario we
would not still be slaves!
There are two possible answers I would like to propose. The first
I have heard many times from my brother, Although I forget the originator
of the thought. It is true that physically we would have been freed from
the heavy service in Egypt. However no matter how we became free we would
owe some debt of gratitude to our benefactors, who in all probability
would have been Egyptians, then we would still be meshubod to them. In
truth in fifty separate places in the Torah G-D reminds us to keep his
Mitzvos, his commandments, because he took us out of Egypt! That is what
the author of the hagada alluded to when he said if G-D had not freed
us then we would owe a debt of gratitude to some flesh and blood creature
and we would still be "Enslaved" by that debt. But now that G-D himself
has freed us we are lucky to have been chosen by him to serve him and be
his chosen nation.
Reb Aharon Kotler, Rosh Yeshiva and founder of the Yeshivah in
Lakewood, give a different answer. He also points out the change in the
wording of the hagada from We were Slaves, "Avodim Hoyinu" to
"Meshubodim Hoyinu". He explains that there were two different and unique
forms of enslavement in Egypt. The first one was purely physical. The
egyptians forced us to build storage houses in Pisom and Ramses. The
second for of enslavement was our spiritual enslavement. The
Gemmorah/Talmud tells us the Jews sunk into the depths of "Tumah", The
depth of sin and impurity until they were almost at the fiftieth level of
impurity from which no human can elevate himself and return to the levels
of holiness that a person should and must strive to attain.
Therefore, Reb Aharon explains, although it is possible that if Heaven
forbid, G-d would not have taken the Jews out of Egypt The Jews still
would have gotten free one way or another. However, since they would have
been in Egypt and they would have continued that free fall, then they never
would have been able to recover from that fall. That is what the hagada
means by the term "We and our children and grandchildren would still be
'enslaved' to Pharaoh." Our spiritual exile never would have ended had G-D
not extricated us at that exact moment.
These divrei Torah are in the merit of Yosef Yehuda Ben Baila Rus. May he
have a complete and speedy recovery.
Text Copyright © 1997 Rabbi Dovid Green and
Project Genesis, Inc.