Compendium of Pesach Articles
1. Article published in the Jerusalem Post
SEEING FROM ONE SIDE OF THE WORLD TO THE OTHER
We live in a world of much information but little perspective; news cycles seem to be getting shorter and shorter, and the explosion of electronic communication and social media has further fragmented our understanding of the world around us – making it all the more difficult to gain the proper perspective necessary to understand life.
The Gemara describes a foetus in the womb for the purpose of teaching us important ideas about life. It describes how the foetus can “see from one side of the world to the other”. What does this mean? It cannot mean that the foetus has unlimited physical vision, but rather, that a human being, in order to achieve greatness, needs to have vision; to see things in greater perspective; that that when we look at things, it should not be in a fragmented or one-dimensional way, but rather we should see the full and broad perspective.
We can apply this idea to Israel today, for example. We need to step back and look at the state of Israel in terms of the enormous miracle that it is, from the broader perspective of the sweep of Jewish history. We so often get quagmired in the latest political wrangle around the negotiations, or with the unjustifiable hate and criticism levelled at the Jewish state, or the internal culture wars over the draft and Israeli identity, that we forget how unusual and miraculous it is to have Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel – something that for almost two thousand years, Jews were not blessed with. Let us step back and appreciate and thank G-d for all the miracles of Israel’s breath-taking successes in virtually every field of human endeavour to create a sparkling energetic society as it develops from strength to strength. Perspective in life is everything.
Also consider South Africa this year on the occasion of its twentieth anniversary of freedom and democracy. So often we get caught up in the latest headlines and crisis and scandal, and yet this milestone is an opportunity to step back from the fray of day-to-day politics and governance, and to appreciate the twenty-year journey of South Africa; to appreciate that the country has embarked on a journey from the tyranny of apartheid where human rights were routinely abused, to a new dispensation where institutions of freedom and democracy are well established in South Africa. That is not to gloss over the problems, but it is to say: let us have a look at things from a broader perspective.
This idea is also crucial to understanding our own lives and appreciating the blessings that we have. As the Gemara says, a person should give thanks to G-d for every breath of air. Perspective is to look at the broader picture of our lives, and in spite of whatever problems and challenges we may be facing, to see our G-d-given lives in their fullest sense, and not to allow ourselves to get pulled into one specific problem that dominates everything else and causes us to lose sight of the big picture.
It is also about finding our sense of purpose and meaning in life. The Torah is G-d’s system of wisdom and action that gives us a full perspective on our lives – to understand who we are and where we come from, and what our purpose is on this earth.
Pesach, in particular, is a time of perspective – when we go back to the beginning, to our formative moments as a people, and in so doing, gain an understanding of the full sweep of Jewish history, right up until the present day. On Seder night, we are commanded by G-d to speak about the Exodus from Egypt. We don’t just recount the historical facts, but tell the story in the manner in which G-d has shown us. The Pesach Hagadah is composed in such a way that in retelling the events and re-experiencing the great miracles which G-d performed for our ancestors in Egypt, we are actually putting the various fragments together to form a large, integrated whole. For example, we do not look at the ten plagues as isolated occurrences but see the pattern within them. As we go through the Hagadah we realise that the Exodus from Egypt was not an isolated event but an event which occurred in the context of our people’s history, going all the way back to our Forefathers and Matriarchs, Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah. On Seder night we do not just tell of the Exodus experience, but about how we got to Egypt in the first place, the destiny of our people and the events subsequent to our liberation – the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, entering the land of Israel, the final redemption. We look at the full sweep of history, not just at the isolated events being recounted at that moment.
Through this, G-d teaches us an important lesson – that we need to look at the broader perspective and to contextualise the events of history in order to make sense of them. Often we get pulled into the vortex of a particular event’s intensity, to the point where we are not able to see the larger picture. But one of the great teachings of the Torah is that nothing in this world is random; no event is an isolated occurrence and everything is part of the Divine sweep of history. We need to piece together the fragments so that they cohere in a meaningful way which reflects G-d’s master plan.
The mitzvah of retelling the story of the Exodus from Egypt enables us to glean, and impart to the next generation, a coherent, comprehensive picture of our people’s history and destiny. It is not just about relating the individual incidents and miracles, but about seeing things from a broader perspective. From the Hagadah we learn to see ourselves as central characters in the unfolding story of Jewish destiny, as guided by G-d; we learn to see events not as random, fragmented headlines but as part of the meaningful story of who we are and what our mission is in this world, to find our clarity of purpose and sense of Divine mission, as we learn to “see from one side of the world to the other”.
2. Article published in the Jewish Tradition
Imagine for a moment how daunting it must have been for the Jewish People, newly liberated from Egyptian slavery, to suddenly find themselves responsible for great and ambitious undertakings. Indeed, as one of their first responsibilities, they were given the daunting task of building a complex and magnificent structure called the “mishkan” – the holy tabernacle.
Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (1194-1270), otherwise known as the Ramban, asks how they were able to build the mishkan. Where did they learn the skills to craft things from gold and silver? They were a slave nation. Their only work experience to date had been menial labour involving bricks and mortar – very coarse work which did not require much skill. By contrast, the mishkan was ornate and intricate; carefully designed and requiring considerable skill and special talent to construct it. How did they do it?
The Torah states that every person “whose heart was lifted up” (Shmot 35:21) came forward to volunteer their services. The Ramban explains that this means that they had the boldness to come forward, in spite of the fact that they did not know how they were going to do the work. They had the courage and faith in Hashem that if they would only begin the work, they would somehow find a way to complete it. They had no one to teach them these specialised skills, yet were bold enough to come forward and try.
Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz (1902-1979) says that what gave the people strength was their belief in their own potential – potential rooted in a neshama created in the image of G-d, and which therefore transcends all finite limitations.
People sometimes underestimate themselves. The lesson of these heroes in the desert is that they just came and did it. They didn’t know how to fashion gold and the silver, they didn’t have any special skill; but they were determined to try. When we throw ourselves into something, we can be amazed at the results. This applies to many spheres of life – making a living and supporting a family with dignity, raising children, keeping mitzvos. We feel others might be capable of such endeavours, but not us; that it’s too difficult. People sometimes say some mitzvos seem beyond them. But if we really believe in ourselves, we will be amazed at the inner strength we have, and what, with Hashem’s blessings, we can achieve when we just throw ourselves into something. For when we do, we discover the most remarkable resources buried deep within our neshama, which, without our having tried, would never have been brought to the fore.
We South African Jews have displayed remarkable tenacity and greatness of spirit to overcome serious challenges and to thrive as a proud and vibrant Jewish community connected to Torah values. The key to our continued success is live like people “whose heart is lifted up”, with a sense of the awesome possibilities of what we can still achieve.
The human capacity for greatness is unlimited. We are created in Hashem’s image and our neshama has awesome potential which we cannot even begin to fathom Life is about bringing that potential, with Hashem’s help, into the world through action. On Pesach we remember the tenacity of the generation who left Egypt, and we dedicate ourselves to follow in their heroic footsteps.
Gina and I would like to take this opportunity of wishing the entire community a joyous and kosher Pesach.
3. Rebbetzin Gina Goldstein’s article published in the Jewish Tradition
THE PESACH SEDER
A few years ago I bought an interesting book ‘How to have intelligent and creative conversations with your kids’, the title captured my attention immediately, but I never got around to reading it.
Everyday conversations in my home (and I’m sure we aren’t so unusual) often sound like this:
“Have you done your homework?” – “Yes.”,
“What time must I fetch you today?” – “Three.”
Or the classic,
“How was school?” – “Fine”.
“What did you do?” – “Nothing”. “Who did you play with?”
– “No-one” (that one is my personal favourite).
In this book, the author, Jane M. Healy, advises that having intelligent and creative interactions with your children is easier than most adults believe it to be, and even more importantly, it is a powerful brain builder. Sounds great, but what exactly is an intelligent conversation?
While preparing to write this article, I finally read the book and found it to offer very relevant ways to guide us in running an exciting Seder. The main mitzvah of the Seder night is “and you shall tell your children on that day” (Shmot, chapter 13). The Seder night is the specific time that parents pass on their historical roots of slavery and redemption, and the miracles which G-d performed when He singled us out as a nation and chose us to receive His word, on to the next generation. The structure of the Haggadah of Pesach and the customs of the Seder night are designed in a way to encourage parents to pass these specific lessons on to their children. Here lies the dilemma. Realistically speaking, the children may be tired. The telling of the story is both intellectual and academic, we have been practicing these laws and customs for years, the children have been learning about this story in school for weeks, and as a result, they often lose concentration. Yet the mitzvah of the night is to tell them the story. The more discussion about it, the more you have achieved. So how do we go about creating a Seder which excites the children?
I want to propose a different way of viewing the Seder. Instead of viewing it as a narrative we have to read, rather view it as a dynamic interaction – a dialogue. The Seder is not a ceremony, it is not a lesson, it is not a family ritual, but rather, a family chavrusa!
The traditional way of learning Torah is in active lively debates. The Jewish focus on the learning of Torah is to teach us how to think, using the most supreme logic. That is not only to give us the knowledge of halacha or chumash itself, but to teach us how to reason, rationalise, solve problems and express ourselves. Learning Torah has potential to instil in us and our children cognitive training at the highest level. Learning Torah involves thinking actively and independently. Teaching Torah in a repetitive way (having memorised old information like they often do at school) is mentally passive. The culture of people and families who learn Torah focuses on thinking up a brilliant question. Torah is traditionally learned in chavrusa – two learners who debate, argue, teach and convince each other. Neither are the teacher or pupil, both are integral parts in the discussion. Through this method, clarity evolves in a dynamic interaction.
So in this light, we want to now create an exciting and interesting Seder. In general, we want to infuse a culture of questions, and conversation – not only halachic but also about life, the world, interesting events and issues, to our family. This type of culture facilitates a quality family Seder, which encourages intelligent conversation to take place.
We’re not hoping to merely “conduct” a Seder but to facilitate a richly experiential thought-provoking Seder experience. We are trying to ignite our children’s personal interest and involvement and engage their curiosity.
Psychologists alike, talk about the value of implicit learning and teaching. What is implicit learning? It is learning without the awareness of having been taught – it refers to learning through our own personal experiences and learning through observing the experiences of others. Implicit memories are hardly ever lost, even in people with clinical amnesia (they may forget actual events or experiences but they don’t forget information and lessons learned from those experiences). Implicit memories are the things we know for sure, the things we learned just because we have lived life. This is relevant because children learn from their most memorable life lessons in our home, simply by observing their parents. Therefore, obviously the culture and atmosphere created in our homes is powerfully influential. And, as Jane Healy puts it, we want to “loosen the laces and tickle the toes of the creative imagination, we want to be intellectual playmates for our children, to expand their minds and encourage them to be productive thinkers.” Since human beings are the only creations of G-d’s who can think, talk and express themselves, we want to encourage these abilities within our children.
In this way, we want to listen to them more than we want to talk or teach them. We want to understand their questions, their difficulties and their thinking. We want to hear their reasoning, their logic, and their personal experiences and ideas. Our children, like all of us, want to be heard a lot more than they want to hear from us. And likewise, as parents, we want to hear from our children. We want them to communicate with us, and to share their thoughts and ideas. This gives us so much nachas and joy, something which we can never get enough of.
1. Keep it simple in terms of visitors and menu – make delicious simple food. Pesach is not a competitive sport! Have quieter Seders with your family : Keep your children near you at the table. Only invite those in need, if possible. telling the story of the Haggadah to our children is the mitzvah. Don’t get distracted by the kneidelach! Don’t have friends over at the expense of your children learning.
2. Feed younger children under bar/bat mitzvah early. Give them coke to help them stay awake. If you have very young children who need to go to sleep early, create an early Seder for them, so that they can partake in the mitzvah too.
3. Get the children to prepare the Seder plate, lay table and decorate it. The Seder plate is big part of the Seder. Setting the table with all the necessary books, pillows, food items and glasses is an education in itself! This way, children feel involved, and excited when it comes time to begin the Seder which they helped prepare for.
4. Stick closely to the Haggadah – it contains a lot. It was written by our great Sages, and it includes extracts from the midrash and Mishnayos at the highest level. The Haggadah provides us with the most important content and Divrei Torah. Don’t do intellectual acrobatics: don’t add too much, and don’t take too long. Kids (and even adults) get bored!
5. Tell jokes, read stories and play games. Play charades, use cartoons, blindfolds, create skits, and photocopy money as prizes. Have a competition, and give out prizes to the children who ask the most questions, and to the children who know the answers.
6. Try something new when it comes to the Afikomen. Let the children hide it from the parents! We can’t finish the Seder without it!
7. Reward their questions and not just their answers.
8. Trust your own personal style, make it authentic. We are not all actors. Find your own way to make the Seder personalised and fun.
9. Discussions: the story of the Exodus raises many great issues of belief, exile, redemption, reward, punishment, freedom, free will of Pharoah, with a special emphasis on miracles, kindness and cruelty, the Sinai experience, the idea of being chosen, death sentence for our enemies, gratitude. There are lots of topics to discuss!
10. Think of open-ended, thought provoking questions for the family to debate. For example : What would you pack if we were in a rush? If you wanted your family to remember something forever, what could you do to ensure this?
11. Rabbi Dov Brezak says …if all else fails, if everyone’s exhausted, tired, and moody. If the food tastes bad and the salt water has spilled. If the in-laws criticise and the children fight…. Then Just Be Nice!
4. Article published in The Cape Times
Government is about serving the people – not self-enrichment. This is one of the lessons of the Holy Days of Passover, which are celebrated at this time of year by Jews around the world, to remember the greatest political liberation in history, where G-d intervened directly in the course of human affairs to free an oppressed people. Amongst these momentous events, Moses, the great leader of that time, did something that may have seemed insignificant, but has within it profound life lessons for us all.
Picture the scene of ancient Egypt 3326 years ago, in the streets near Pharoah’s palace. In their final moments before leaving Egypt, the Jewish slaves, free for the first time in their lives, were given gold and silver, and other possessions by their Egyptian taskmasters as reparations for the years of unpaid slave labour and the hardship and suffering endured by them. Everybody was enriched – except Moses. The Talmud relates that while all of the ordinary men, women and children were gathering the gold, silver and other objects as they were leaving Egypt, Moses did not do so. He was busy doing something else. Moses went to find and take Joseph’s body for removal with the fleeing slaves, as that generation was obliged to do in terms of the promise made to Joseph by the children of Israel that they would one day take his body with them when they left Egypt. That responsibility was left to Moses. The Talmud says that while the people were attending to their material concerns, Moses was fulfilling his responsibilities. He was concerned with his responsibility of leading the people and doing his duty.
Leadership is not about how one can enrich oneself. The Talmud says that leadership is “not power and glory, but service”. Moses exemplified this teaching. He took nothing for himself. Moses once said, “I have not taken even one donkey from them” (Numbers 16:15). He only made sacrifices for the nation. The key to a successful and bright future for all South Africa is leadership based on service, not enrichment. There has to be a clear separation between government and business. Leadership of service is about hard work. It is about dedicating your full time, energy, and passion to serve the millions of people whose welfare is so dependant on government doing its job properly.
Moses’ actions have a lesson for us all, not just those entrusted with positions of leadership. It is the lesson of priorities. In life we must give attention, time and effort to doing the right thing, from a moral point of view. Wealth and physical pleasure are not the ultimate purpose of life. They are only valuable when dedicated to a higher moral calling. When Moses went running through the streets of ancient Egypt to fulfil the sacred task of honouring the promise to Joseph, he showed us through his actions that we should always put duty, care for others and the greater good before self-gratification and self-enrichment.
Ironically, living with faith, generosity and dedication to a higher cause brings the only real and lasting joy in life. The more a person takes, the more empty they feel, and that is especially so when a person blindly pursues materialism. Materialism brings with it jealousy and competition, which often fill people with anxiety and cause much suffering, even sometimes financial, as people buy things they cannot afford so as to keep up with others. Taking selfishly paradoxically leaves us in an emotional and spiritual vacuum. We all need physical things to live in the world, but they should be there for a higher purpose and the loftier goal of living a good, moral and spiritual life. Physical things alone can never fill a person’s soul. One great Talmudic philosopher compares this quest for materialism to drinking salt water: the more you drink, the more thirsty you become. The thirst for self-gratification, for self-fulfilment, for physical pleasure is unquenchable and leaves us more unsatisfied than when we began it. Only when we devote our lives to the greater good can we properly enjoy the physical pleasures of life. G-d provides all of the physical pleasures for human benefit, but only in the context of service and decency, of generosity and kindness, and of morality, do the pleasures of life sustain and not deplete us. To build a great South Africa, we must all, leaders and citizens, rededicate ourselves to a life of service and morality.
5. Preparing for Pesach Inspiration (Podcast and article published on Friday, 4 April 2014)
We have just started the month of Nissan, a very special time of year. It is the month of Pesach, obviously, but the month of Nissan is of particular significance in the Jewish calendar. This significance relates to Pesach and to many other issues that we face in life.
Nissan is the first of the months of the year
One of the very first mitzvot given to the Jewish People as a nation was while we were still in Egypt, as recorded in Exodus, chapter 12. G-d said to Moses and Aaron Hachodesh hazeh lachem rosh chodashim, “this month will be for you the head of all the months.” What does it mean, “this month will be for you the head of all the months”?
One interpretation which is brought in the Talmud is that “this month” is referring to the new month, namely, the mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh; each time the new moon appears, the new month is declared. But there is another explanation for this verse and that is that “this month” is referring to the month of Nissan, “which will be for you the head of all the months.” The instruction was that Nissan be the first of the months. In essence, then, Moses and Aaron were given the mitzvah of establishing the Jewish calendar.
We know that Rosh Hashanah, which we celebrate on the first of the month of Tishrei, is the head of the year. But the months, we actually count from Nissan. What this means is that when the Chumash talks about an event that takes place in the third month, we calculate the third month from Nissan. Thus, when the Chumash says that the Torah was given in the third month it means the third month counting from Nissan – Nissan, Iyar, Sivan. The months are counted from Nissan even though the year starts at Tishrei. Tishrei itself is referred to as hachodesh hashvi’i, “the seventh month” counting from Nissan.
Counting up to Shabbos
The Ramban, Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman, one of our great commentators on the Chumash, points out the significance of Nissan being the first month of the Jewish calendar. There is a seemingly small difference between Hebrew and English in terms of the days of the week, but this difference highlights our value system and worldview. In English we refer to the days of the week by names – Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc. In Hebrew, however, we do not have names for the days of the week. The only day of the week that has a name is Shabbos, and the rest of the days of the week are called by their ordinal numbers, not names: yom rishon, “the first day”; yom sheini, “the second day”; yom shlishi, “the third day” etc. Why do we give the days of the week numbers and not names?
Quoting from the Talmud to support his interpretation, the Ramban says that our naming-by-number system is there to give central importance to Shabbos. Shabbos is the culmination of the week, and therefore we count from Shabbos to Shabbos: yom rishon, “the first day” from Shabbos; yom sheini, “the second day” from Shabbos, and so on. Shabbos is the focus and by calling the days of the week by their ordinal numbers, we think about Shabbos on any given day. Shabbos is at the front and center because it really goes to the heart of what Judaism is all about. It represents our affirmation that G-d created the world and symbolises our faith in Him. By numbering the days of the week in relation to Shabbos we fulfil the fourth Commandment, Zachor et yom haShabbat lekadsho, “remember the day of Shabbos to keep it holy.”
The Ten Commandments are written twice in the Chumash, once in Exodus and once in Deuteronomy. In Exodus the commandments say Zachor et yom haShabbat lekadsho, “remember Shabbos to keep it holy.” In Deuteronomy it says Shamor et yom haShabbat lekadsho, “observe the Shabbos to keep it holy.” These two terms, zachor and shamor, refer to the two aspects of Shabbat: remembering and observing. The remembering is the positive commandment, while the observing is the negative commandment to refrain from doing any melacha, the halachic definition of work, of which the Torah lists 39 specific categories.
Zachor, to remember Shabbos to keep it holy, is fulfilled in a number of ways. One of the ways is by saying Kiddush. When we say Kiddush on Friday night and Havdalah on Saturday night, we are sanctifying Shabbos and acknowledging that its level of holiness is different than that of the rest of the week.
But another way of remembering Shabbos and keeping it holy is actually during the week. The Talmud discusses how we can actually think about the holiness of Shabbos and even prepare for it during the week. The Ramban says that by naming the days of the week in accordance with their order in relation to Shabbos, it actually reminds us all the time of the importance of Shabbos.
Zachor in Hebrew means to remember but it also means to mention. The Ramban explains that this is the same with the months. The reason why they have numbers – rishon, sheini, shlishi, first, second, third – is because they remind us of the great miracle of going out of Egypt by listing Nissan as the first month of the year. This is the month that we went out of Egypt. The next month is counted from the time we went out of Egypt, and so the third. It links each month to the Exodus from Egypt, by mentioning each month in relation to Nissan.
The names of the months commemorate the great miracles of returning from exile
The Ramban mentions another interesting point and that is that nowadays – and this dates back to the time of the rebuilding of the Second Temple – we have names for the months. This month, as said earlier, is Nissan, though that name – and the names of all the other months – are not mentioned in the Chumash. The names of the months are actually Persian; they are not even Hebrew in origin. They come from the time of the rebuilding of the Second Temple when the Jews returned. The First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonian Empire. We went into exile in Babylon and then the Babylonian Empire was taken over by the Persians and the Medians. The whole story of Purim occurred under the control of the Persian Empire, which overtook the Babylonian Empire. King Achashveirosh whom we read about in the Megilla on Purim was married to Vashti, who was a direct descendant of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. There was a merging of these empires after the Persians and Medians took over. The Jews only came out of that exile and rebuilt the Second Temple after the events of Purim. In order to remember the great miracles, the redemption from the Babylonian-Persian exile, their return to Israel and the rebuilding of the Second Temple, says the Ramban, the Jews renamed the months based on these Persian names. This, he says, fulfils the verse that says that one day we will also remember not only the going out of Egypt but the going out of the Babylonian-Persian Empire.
This is why the names of the months were changed from numbers to names – Persian names. But the concept is the same. We are trying to remember all the miracles that G-d did for us, acknowledge them, give thanks for them, and keep these ideas at the forefront of our mind.
The spiritual energy of time
The Netziv, Rav Moshe Feinstein, and others ask why specifically this month was chosen as the first of the months. True, it commemorates our Exodus from Egypt, but why not choose the month of Sivan, the month we received the Torah? Is that not more important than the Exodus from Egypt? After all, the Exodus from Egypt was only for the purpose of getting the Torah at Mount Sinai. Or why not Tishrei, the month the world was created? The creation of the world is the foundation of everything. Why was Nissan chosen to be the head of the months? What about the giving of the Torah, or the creation of the world?
The Netziv of Volozhin, one of our great 19th-century commentators, explains a very interesting and important concept in relation to the Jewish calendar, which is really about the concept of time in general, from a Torah perspective: when we remember a particular event, we are not just remembering something that happened in history. When something happens for the first time, there is a spiritual energy that is released into the world and that spiritual energy is present in the world on every anniversary of that occasion. For example, why are we judged on Rosh Hashanah? Because on Rosh Hashanah there is a spiritual energy of judgment in the world because that was the day that Adam and Eve were judged. They were created on the sixth day of Creation, and on that same day they sinned, were judged, and were subsequently driven out of the Garden of Eden before Shabbos. We say in the Rosh Hashanah davening, hayom harat olam, “today the world was created,” referring to the culmination of the world with the creation of Adam and Eve. As a result, there is a spirit of judgment in the world on that day, and that is why the world is judged at that time. This is also why the month of Tishrei is the beginning of the year. Since the physical world came into being, the whole energy of the physical world is present in the month of Tishrei so we mark that as the beginning of the year.
The Netziv explains that making Nissan the first of the months is about re-experiencing the spiritual energy that was brought into the world with the birth of the Jewish People. We were born as a people on Pesach when G-d took us out of Egypt. We still had seven weeks to wait till we received the Torah and the redemption process would be complete, but we were really born as a nation, as a people, when the Exodus from Egypt took place. This spiritual energy of our birth was brought into the world in Nissan and this why Nissan is the first of the months. The birth of the Jewish People, the birth of our special relationship with G-d and our faith that He intervenes in human affairs, was brought into the world in Nissan. Therefore, every Nissan that energy comes into the world again and we feel it on Pesach. On Pesach we do not just remember what happened in the past. There is actually a spiritual energy of rebirth that comes into the world at this time and this is why it is the first of all the months.
Preparing to receive the Torah
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of our great Rabbinic leaders of the 20th century, has another approach. He says the first of the months should have been the month of Sivan, the month in which the Torah was given. This is the most important event. The Talmud states that G-d created the world solely in order that His Torah should come into the world, and that had we not accepted His Torah at Mount Sinai, He would have turned the world back into chaos and void. This was the only purpose for the world. Surely Sivan should have been the first of the months, no? Rabbi Feinstein explains that the month of Nissan is important because it actually lays the groundwork and prepares us for receiving the Torah. In order to receive the Torah one needs to prepare first. How do we prepare to receive the Torah?
The experience in Egypt – the suffering, pain, prayers, and redemption – were all part of preparing us, from a spiritual, moral and psychological point of view, to receive the Torah. It built character, made us humble, and deepened our faith in Hashem, all of which was necessary in preparation to receive the Torah.
Torah is not like flicking on a switch and then suddenly all the wisdom of Hashem pours into the world and transforms us. It is not just a book of wisdom that you open and read; rather, it is a process. This wisdom of Hashem will only have an impact if we are willing to prepare ourselves to receive it. Human beings need processes of preparation; we cannot just rush into anything.
There is a natural human course of preparing for change. Concerning the upheavals taking place in the Arab world on their way to democracy, Nathan Sharansky – one the great defenders of freedom in our generation – has said that the process must be one where the people are adequately prepared for democracy. A nation cannot rush into democracy if they have not experienced it before. People have to prepare, the institutions of democracy have to be established, civil society has to be set up, and the political infrastructure needs to be in place. A society that rushes into democracy without these preparations can have catastrophic consequences. So, too, any human endeavour needs a process of preparation.
We have to prepare ourselves and the more that we prepare, the more profound will be the experience. That is why the human being is compared to the earth. Human beings are called adam, from the same root as adama, the ground. The earth is pure potential; it all depends what you do with it. Likewise human beings are pure potential, and hence the comparison. What are we going to make of our lives? It depends on what we do with it. One cannot just plant a seed. The earth has to be ploughed, fertilized and watered. All of that prepares the soil to receive the seed and only then it will flourish. So, too, when we approach the wisdom of the Torah, we cannot just flick on the switch; we need to prepare ourselves. It does not mean that we spend our lives preparing, because we do have to do the mitzvot as we go along. That process of preparing and doing the mitzvot and learning Torah – all of that has to happen concurrently. But we should not think this is an automatic thing. It is not automatic; we need to work on our faith. We need to work on our mentschlichkeit, on our good character, all the time and be in a constant process of preparing to feel the Divine wisdom. Learning Torah changes a person; doing the mitzvot changes a person. But we have to prepare ourselves and think all the time how can we enhance our lives. This is why, says Rav Moshe Feinstein, Nissan was chosen to head the months: to teach us that Torah has to be prepared for.
Preparing for Pesach
In conclusion, we are now getting closer and closer to Pesach and part of the preparation is, obviously, getting the house clean and ready. But we must also get ourselves ready for Pesach. We cannot walk into Seder Night unprepared. We need to go through the Haggadah, share it with our children, study it and understand more about the festival; to look up the relevant parts in the Chumash, attend shiurim, download shiurim, go to hear the rabbi speak, or however else we may acquire more knowledge. Our experience on the nights of the Seder and our experience throughout Pesach is going to be meaningful and inspiring in direct proportion to the effort and preparation we put in. We must ensure that the preparation for Yom Tov is not just the physical preparation, but a spiritual, intellectual and emotional preparation as well.
Anything in life which is going to make an impact needs a process of preparation. This applies not only to Pesach, but to all of our festivals: we have to prepare. The more effort we put in, the more we will reap those rewards and be inspired.
6. Bridge To A New World (Podcast and article published on Thursday, 10 April 2014)
There is a mitzvah to remember the Exodus from Egypt every single day, not just on Pesach. But on Pesach – and particularly on the Seder night – this mitzvah has a number of defining features. Whereas during the year the mitzvah to remember the Exodus from Egypt is fulfilled by just mentioning it in passing, on the night of the Seder we have to discuss the Exodus in great depth. The discussion has to take the format of question and answer, to allow for real dialogue to take place. This discussion revolves around the very important mitzvot of the Seder night – the matzo and the maror; we do not just mention the Exodus but are really involved with it at every level, with the sensory activities of eating the matzo and the maror.
The question-and-answer format of the Seder
I would like to focus on one dimension of the Seder which makes it particularly special and that is that its structure is in the form of questions and answers. A Seder should not be a presentation; it is not a shiur or a lecture, but should really be a dialogue, a discussion. We all know that the highlight of the Seder is the MaNishtanah, the asking of “in what way is this night different from all other nights?” We encourage the children to ask questions, as well as the adults. The question-and-answer format is used in telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt; it is not just a monologue. As we learn in the Haggadah, even if a person knows many of the answers he or she must still engage in a dialogue. It is not just about imparting information but about being engaged in discussion. The question-and-answer format promotes discussion and this is the art of a good Seder – finding a way of drawing the participants into a discussion so that it becomes real and relevant to everyone at the Seder.
On a psychological level, this question-and-answer format draws people in and they gain a sense of ownership. Having a sense of ownership is a very important concept in general when it comes to Torah. Learning Torah is not just about leaning information or a set of instructions, but necessitates a dialogue and interaction. This is why Torah study is such an important part of Judaism. In learning Torah we discuss, probe, debate, ask, think things through and own the knowledge. People tend to take on things which they feel are a part of who they are. These things can only become part of who we are if we have ownership of them, and we can only have ownership if we actually get involved.
There is great wisdom in the Torah instructing us to do this mitzvah of recounting the Exodus in a question-and-answer format – as the Chumash itself says, that on that day when your child will ask you, what is this? You will say this is what happened when we were taken out of Egypt. The whole discussion about the Exodus – in the Torah and in the Haggadah – is a question-and-answer format. The psychological benefit of this discussion format is that it makes us all part of the process.
But there is a philosophical rationale as well for why the discussion of the Exodus is in a question-and-answer format. There is a fundamental principle underlying the question-and-answer format of the Seder. In his book on Pesach, Rav Yitzchak Hutner, one of the great rabbinic scholars of the 20th century, offers a novel approach to Pesach and to the importance of the question-and-answer format.
The Three Important Tens
There are three events which are very important to us, which are expressed with the number ten. We have discussed in the past how the number ten is significant and how, according to the Maharal, ten is not a new number like the previous ones but is the number that brings together all the apparently disparate parts into one unit and represents a unified whole.
The Mishnah says that G-d created the world with ten utterances or, in Hebrew, asara ma’amarot. This is the first set of tens. The second is the ten plagues in Egypt. The third is the Ten Commandments. The term “Ten Commandments” is a loose translation of the Hebrew term Aseret HaDibrot, which correctly translates as “the ten statements.” Although the Ten Commandments are commandments, if you tally up the number of detailed commandments that emerge from them you will see that there are actually more than ten, as many halachic authorities point out. Thus, the “Ten Commandments” is not an accurate translation – they’re not called Aseret HaMitzvot in Hebrew, but Aseret HaDibrot, the ten statements.
Rav Hutner points out the pattern here, ten, ten, and ten: ten utterances with which the world was created; ten plagues that broke the resolve of Pharaoh and the Egyptians and freed the Jews from slavery; and then the ten statements, Aseret HaDibrot, or as we know them the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. Rav Hutner asks, what is the link between these three big tens?
Two forms of communication
Rav Hutner asks another fascinating question. When describing how G-d created the world with ten statements, the Mishnah uses the term Ma’amarot, from the Hebrew word ma’amar, from the root aleph, mem, reish, whereas the Ten Commandments are called Dibrot, from the Hebrew word ledaber, with the root dalet, bet, reish. In Hebrew, we have two options for the verb “to speak”: lomar and ledaber. Asks Rav Hutner, why is it that when we talk about the ten statements with which the world was created the Sages of the Talmud use the word Ma’amarot and when we talk about the Ten Commandments they call them Dibrot? What is the difference between ma’amar and dibur?
Communication can take a soft form or a harsher form. In Hebrew the aleph-mem-reish root is the softer form of communication, amira. The dalet-bet-reish root, is the tougher, more demanding form of communication, dibur. Rav Hutner explains that the softer language, amira, is a one-way statement. Sometimes in a conversation you make a statement which does not require a response and is not demanding anything from the listener; it merely relays information. The term ma’amar conveys a particular position but does not require anything of the listener, whereas the term dibrot coveys a statement which does requires a response.
Rav Hutner explains the difference between the ten utterances with which the world was created and the ten statements of the Ten Commandments as follows: when G-d created the world- -and indeed, when he re-creates the world daily – He revealed Himself with great miracles and showed us His mastery of nature. These are his statements; the world is an expression of His creativity, an expression of His will in the world. Before the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, G-d’s communication with the world was in that paradigm – the paradigm of revealing information, revealing His genius, revealing His creativity and His greatness without asking us to do anything in response.
The paradigm shift at Mount Sinai
With the giving of the Ten Commandments, says Rav Hutner, there was a paradigm shift. The world shifted into a different state of being where G-d was now speaking to human beings. He spoke to us at Mount Sinai and gave us the Torah and that is where a new kind of conversation between G-d and human beings began. From that point on G-d’s statements were not just statements of fact, not just statements revealing G-d’s genius but were now statements which came with certain demands of us.
The root of the word ledaber is related to the Aramaic word dabar which means to lead. Similarly, in Psalms we have the word yadber, from the same root, which means to push and to guide, to demand of people that they move in a certain direction. The term ledaber conveys a much stronger interaction, where G-d is expecting something in return. Hence the Ten Commandments are Aseret HaDibrot. Remember the Shabbos day to keep it holy; honour your father and mother; do not use G-d’s name in vain; do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not covet – these are statements which require us to act in response to them.
This was a paradigm shift. Until the giving of the Torah, G-d’s interaction with the world was limited to His revealing Himself, His genius and His ideas, but He did not make any demands. At Mount Sinai the nature of this interaction shifted.
Rav Hutner explains that the paradigm shift that took place was actually an expression of G-d’s kindness. In the book of Psalms – and we say this in the Haggadah as well – there is a chapter that starts with hodu laHashem ki tov, ki le’olam chasdo “give thanks to Hashem, for His chesed, His kindness, is forever.” The chapter is a long list of G-d’s kindnesses, and if you add up the number of times ki le’olam chasdo, “His kindness is forever,” is repeated, you will find that there are 26. The Talmud says that the 26 times it says ki le’olam chasdo, in this chapter refers to the 26 generations from the creation of the world till the giving of the Torah. The Torah had not yet been given and yet He put up with the world for 26 generations. The list of 26 kindnesses refers to the 26 generations of His unrequited chesed, of kindness.
A deeper form of kindness
This does not mean to say that G-d’s kindness ceased with the giving of the Torah; in fact, G-d’s kindness deepened with the giving of the Torah. Rav Hutner gives the following analogy by way of explanation: when we want to help somebody, we can help them by giving them something for nothing – and there certainly is a chesed in that. Giving them charity, helping them with food, with clothing – whatever it may be – is kindness. But giving a person a job, a way of earning that money, is a much deeper level of kindness. On the surface one might think that this is a lesser level of kindness, that it is much better to give without making them work for it. But in truth we know that human beings are such that their dignity and self-esteem are so important that it is a much greater level of kindness to give a person a job so they can earn the kindness rather than just giving it for free.
This, says Rav Hutner, was the paradigm shift. With the Ten Commandments comes a new vocabulary. G-d is no longer just saying to us, well, here I am, and here’s what I think. He is actually saying these are My instructions for what you must do and how you must lead your lives and this deepens the chesed. The first 26 generations was one level of chesed, where G-d gave unconditionally, no matter what people did. Once the Torah came into the world, things chanced; we now have to earn His kindness by doing the right thing and this actually deepens His kindness. It is a kindness that comes to us with justice, not a “freebie,” and because we have earned it, it can never be taken away from us.
The ten plagues as the bridge in the paradigm shift
In any paradigm shift, people need to go through a process; it does not happen overnight. How can it be that the world operated in one paradigm, the paradigm ofamira, the ten utterances which did not place any demands on us, and then at Mount Sinai it shifted to the other paradigm, the dibur paradigm, where G-d’s statements require a response from us? How did this paradigm shift occur? It could not just happen in one moment. There had to be a bridge between the two paradigms.
The ten plagues in Egypt are the bridge between the ten statements of Creation and the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. Rav Hutner gives a number of reasons why the ten plagues in Egypt serve as the bridge in this paradigm shift, one of which is that for the first time in history we as a nation started engaging with G-d. Prior to the giving of the Torah, when the communication paradigm was one-way, G-d spoke to us without making any demands of us as the recipients of His words. We were totally passive. Our identity meant nothing, just like when someone offers you kindness that you haven’t earned. It is almost as if the recipient need not be there; the kindness just pours out, regardless of who is receiving it, and the recipients are totally passive in that relationship.
But when we shift into a paradigm of two-way communication, where G-d says I need you to do such and such, these obligations, duties and responsibilities meant that we became part of the conversation. We were no longer passive recipients; our actions now became important. Even though G-d is the King of all Kings and immortal and we are just flesh and blood, we stood up, so to speak, and became partners in a conversation with G-d. With the Ten Commandments G-d raised us from anonymity and passivity to the level of a mentsch, to being someone important and directly engaged with G-d.
The importance of dialogue versus monologue
This is how Pesach becomes the bridge. And this is why, says Rav Hutner, the concept of dialogue and the question-and-answer format is so important on the night of the Seder. We recount how during the whole Exodus experience we were not just passive recipients of G-d’s kindness. G-d said, I am going to give you the kindness on Pesach but you are going to have to do something. You are going to have to put the blood on the doorposts, you are going to have to bring the paschal lamb, you are going to have to join Me on this journey and you are going to have to teach your children about it. You are not just going to passively receive the kindness of Hashem. G-d says, you must be involved in it; you are not just passive passengers. Get involved, engage with what is going on and take responsibility for it. We are called upon to join Hashem in this process.
This is why dialogue is so important. The difference between monologue – Hashem broadcasting His statements in the world – versus dialogue as we engaged in with the Ten Commandments is that in dialogue we are active participants. Up until the giving of the Torah, Hashem’s interaction with the world was limited to a one-way kindness. It did not matter who the recipients were or what they did. With the Ten Commandments, however, G-d created a dialogue with us, making demands to which we have to respond. Thus, we became proper partners in this dialogue with G-d, where we have to respond to His requests and demands and get involved.
The ten plagues of Egypt are the bridge between the ten statements with which the world was created and the Ten Commandments, because it was in Egypt that we became active participants in history, and where G-d called upon us to debate and discuss. This is why dialogue is so important; when we debate and discuss the Exodus at the Seder, this serves as the bridge between the two paradigms. We are not yet at the level where we are engaging with a request and demand from G-d and have to actually do things – that comes with the giving of the Torah – but we are already moving from just being passive participants in a monologue to active participants involved in a dialogue.
This is why the active involvement, the debate, discussion and dialogue at the Seder is so important: it paves the way for us to stand on our own two feet and accept the mitzvot of Hashem, to do the right thing and make a difference in the world – not as passive passengers but as active participants in G-d’s plan. The Seder then becomes the bridge, the link to going to Mount Sinai.
Please G-d we should all have a good Yom Tov. I would like to take this opportunity to wish our entire community a Chag Kasher veSameach, a joyous and a kosher Pesach. May we all have wonderful Seders together which are meaningful and inspiring. A good Shabbos and a good Yom Tov to you all.