At the Seder we joyfully express our profound and heartfelt gratitude for all of the good G-d does for us. Lest there be any doubt, we sing Dayenu, which makes it clear that it would have been sufficient even if G-d had merely taken us out of Egypt, let alone all the miracles that occurred, granting us the Torah, bringing us to Israel and building the Beit HaMikdash
We are obligated, in every generation, to visualize ourselves as if we too were there exiting Egypt, as a part of the miraculous redemption, for the purpose of bringing us to and vesting us in the Promised Land of Israel. This is even more meaningful in our times, as we are ever so thankful for the miraculous re-establishment of the modern State of Israel, a critical step in the prophesized ultimate redemption[i].
The Haggadah continues with our reciting how we, therefore, have the sacred duty exceedingly to thank and praise G-d, for all these miracles that benefited our ancestors and us, including bringing us from slavery to freedom, from despair to joy, from mourning to a festival day[ii], from darkness to light and from servitude to redemption. This affirmation is made just before we begin chanting the Hallel (praises of G-d).
The format for reciting Hallel at the Seder is unique. Instead of the usual recitation as one continuous and complete prayer, it is broken into two parts[iii]; separated by the rituals attendant to the eating of Matzo and Maror, as well as the meal. We also do not invoke the usual blessings at its beginning and conclusion[iv].
The underlying basis for this custom is not explicitly reported in the Haggadah. However, a closer analysis of the introductory text, noted above, may provide some clues. In the string of antithetical couplets alluding to fundamental aspects of the story of Passover is the contrast between mourning (Evel) and a festival day (Yom Tov). However, a festival day is not precisely the opposite of mourning. A more fitting expression of the antithesis of mourning is consolation (Nechama). Feeling grief may be inconsistent with a festival day; but one is not the antonym of the other. There is also no obvious need for another generic reference to the overwhelmingly painful nature of slavery in Egypt[v]. The plethora of other striking comparisons of untoward to favorable conditions or emotions, noted above, already does this most effectively.
It is, therefore, submitted that the Haggadah has something specific in mind in using the Hebrew terms for mourning (Evel) and a festive day (Yom Tov). It is suggested that they, respectively, refer to an actual event of collective mourning, which ended with the observance of the original Seder, the fateful first night of the Festival of Passover (a Yom Tov).
One possibility is alluded to in the Midrash[vi]. It reports, only approximately twenty percent of the Jewish people left Egypt, as a part of the Exodus. The rest died in the Plague of Darkness and their fate was figuratively shrouded in darkness. It’s likely that few families were unaffected given the apparent scale of the tragedy. It would appear that any mourning rituals they may have observed were also shrouded in mystery.
Rabbeinu Bachya[vii] notes the Plague of Darkness began on the first day of Nisan and the Plague lasted for seven days[viii]. If the surviving Jews began to sit Shiva immediately thereafter, then that would mean they got up from Shiva just in time to observe the Passover Festival, on the fourteenth of Nisan, and hold the Seder that evening. It couldn’t have been easy to transition from a period of acute mourning to celebrating a holiday festival day. Many must have been torn and broken hearted. On the one hand, they survived and were poised to leave Egypt, having finally and miraculously obtained their freedom. Who couldn’t feel some joy about the prospect; even as they felt grief for the relatives they were leaving behind?
To put this in perspective, consider the trepidation the Jewish people must have felt at that first Passover Seder more than 3,400 years ago[ix]. As they sat closeted in their homes, observing the Seder rituals with family and friends, a maelstrom surrounded them. It was at this time that G-d visited the final climactic Tenth Plague on their Egyptian oppressors.
They might also have felt apprehensive given the very public nature of the rituals attendant to the sacrificial offering of the Paschal lamb[x]. After all, sheep were revered and worshiped as idols by the ancient Egyptians[xi]. Yet, here were Jewish slaves corralling venerated sheep, slaughtering them for personal consumption and using the blood to mark the lintel and doorposts of each of their homes. It created an inviting target, especially given the real fear[xii] of a pogrom breaking out[xiii], had the Exodus not timely occurred. Nevertheless, as G-d commanded, they took the risk and, in this provocative fashion, set themselves apart from prevailing idolatrous practices; trusting in G-d to deliver them[xiv].
However, not every Jew had been willing to throw in their lot with their brethren[xv]. Many were fully acculturated and integrated into the fabric of Egyptian society. Life in ancient Egypt presented some of the same challenges we face today, as well as, seductive charms. It was a superpower, which attracted many talented people from around the world. It boasted a cosmopolitan, permissive society, steeped in art, science and the pursuit of pleasure. Not everyone was a slave[xvi]. Indeed, the Midrash[xvii] records that some Jews benefited from Egyptian patronage and rose to prominence. These individuals were wealthy and well respected.
Assimilation was rampant and the statistics cited in the Midrash[xviii] are not much different from those reported in a recent Pew study[xix] of Jewish life in America. Indeed, it appears that other than Joseph[xx] and some other limited exceptions[xxi], the Jews in Egypt, unlike the Patriarchs, did not perform the Mitzvot. The Midrash[xxii] reports that, after Joseph passed away, most Jews in Egypt even ceased performing the rite of circumcision, in order more fully to assimilate into Egyptian society and culture. Ezekiel[xxiii] also castigates the generations in exile in Egypt for their pursuit of idolatry. Imagine, it was only a few generations after Abraham and his own descendants had reverted to idol worship and abandoned the covenant of circumcision[xxiv].
Yet, despite this ideologically antagonistic environment, a hardy and resilient group of former slaves, under the inspired leadership of Moses, persevered. They displayed their determination and faith in G-d, by submitting to the rite of circumcision and bringing the Pascal offering, come what may. According to the Midrash[xxv], performing these two meaningful acts, as G-d commanded, merited their being miraculously saved; while those who didn’t were lost and all but forgotten by history.
These extreme and conflicting circumstances surrounding that first Passover may also help explain the enigmatic tradition about how Hallel is recited at the Seder. The Midrash[xxvi] offers a compelling reason for this practice. It reflects on how at a time when the Egyptian firstborns were dying in the Plague of the Firstborns that very night, it was inappropriate to be wholeheartedly happy and recite the entire Hallel at once with a blessing. I would humbly suggest, in addition to that sensitivity, there was also the grief they likely felt over the recent and untimely death of so many of their brethren, as noted above.
Breaking up the chanting of the Hallel into two parts is a potent metaphor for the dichotomy of heartfelt emotions those pure souls must have felt. How fitting that we memorialize their empathetic recitation of the Hallel, by continuing this custom at the Seder, more than three millennia later.
In this regard, it is important to note another extraordinary and profoundly meaningful act of kindness the surviving Jews managed to perform despite the trying conditions. Remember, they had only just recently been oppressed slaves barely surviving under horrendous conditions. Those who had died in the Plague of Darkness had not suffered the misery of slavery nor apparently done anything to ease the suffering of their enslaved brethren. However, they did have many surviving children, who were suddenly orphaned. Instead of nursing grievances against the once privileged parents and ignoring the plight of their children, the former Jewish slaves embraced and adopted them[xxvii]. Thus, as the Targum[xxviii] notes, each family left Egypt with five sets of children. One set was comprised of their own children. The other four sets were adopted; comprised of the orphaned children of the four-fifths of their brethren who had not survived, because they chose not to be a part of the miraculous redemption. This level of compassion and humanity is virtually unparalleled. It is a striking example of the good deeds we can do for each other, even in dire circumstances.
Life is not simple and sometimes we are presented with situations that may generate all sorts of mixed emotions. I remember all too well when my father Z”L passed away on Purim day. We arranged for the funeral and burial that morning and performed the mourner’s ritual of ripping clothes, as an overt sign of our grief and status as mourners. We then returned home and had to change our clothes and have a regular Purim Seudah. We were not allowed to sit Shiva nor exhibit outward signs of mourning for the rest of the Festival day. The whole experience was surreal. Inside, we were still in shock and outside we had to act correctly, as required in observance of the holiday of Purim. After Purim, we resumed the more natural posture of mourning and the observance of Shiva. I can’t help but wonder, was this the kind of emotional rollercoaster embodied in the phrase from Evel to Yom Tov, noted above?
One of the other themes of the Haggadah is that in every generation we are confronted with existential threats and somehow Divine Providence intervenes to save the Jewish people. At our family Seder, we continue the custom established by my father Z”L and father-in-law Z”L, both Holocaust survivors of Auschwitz, of telling their personal stories of survival, which resonate with this theme. I can’t help but marvel at the extraordinary resilience and determination they had to carry on, despite all the suffering they had endured.
After the War, my dad, of blessed memory, immigrated to the United States, married, built a family and business and established a traditional Jewish household. He was so happy at the Seder, reciting the Kiddush, reading the Haggadah out loud, singing the melodies he had heard at home and introducing us to all the Jewish rituals and traditions he remembered from his own childhood. He had a strong and beautiful voice. When he sang, I remember my mom, aunts and uncles tearing up, as they too remembered how life had been in the old country, before their childhoods had been ripped away by the Nazis and their cohorts and so many of their relatives had been murdered in the Holocaust. Each had a miraculous tale of survival. My father hardly spoke about the horrors he had endured. However, as he read about the plight of Jews as slaves in Egypt, he sometimes recounted something about his own experiences. In that intimate moment, we all felt so grateful to be together, enveloped by the warm embrace of family and celebrating the Holiday of Passover at the Seder. It is a memory I will always treasure.
My father-in-law, of blessed memory, immigrated to Israel after the War, after first being interned in Cyprus. He arrived just in time to fight in the War of Independence of 1948. He married, raised a family and worked as a policeman in Haifa. He fought in the 1956 War with Egypt and then eventually immigrated to the US with his wife and children. He would often regale us with stories from his youth, but Passover was particularly auspicious time. There was a certain solemnity that marked his speech when he spoke of the Passover of his youth. Missing was the usual jocularity that characterized his interactions with the grandchildren and then great-grandchildren.
It was also a time when he became extremely emotional in retelling his own personal story of miraculous deliverance in the Holocaust. We felt his trepidation as he recounted how he became separated from his mother on line and found himself near a woman from his hometown of Orshava, in pre-war Czechoslovakia, holding a child in each arm. He asked her to take him with her. She responded she had her own two kids to care for and couldn’t take responsibility for him too. But for her refusal, he would have been on the wrong line; the one leading to the gas chambers and certain death. Instead he continued to wander back and forth searching for his mother. A Polish Jew assigned to gather up the clothing and property left behind at the train station at Auschwitz saw him wandering. He told him to put on some more clothes, puff himself up to look older and stronger and say he was at least 16 years of age. He then directed him to the right line, for labor and hence, life. He did as he was advised. He was on that line when he encountered the Angel of Death, Josef Mengele, who examined his face and striking blue eyes and asked him whether he was indeed Jewish.
He met his uncle on this line. When the gathered souls were asked whether there was a cook among them, only my father-in-law and his uncle refrained from raising their hands. The German Sergeant concluded the two of them must be the actual cooks and they were drafted into kitchen duty. This access to a little extra food saved him from starvation in the slave labor camp at Auschwitz. However, he was not content to eat his meager bit of extra ration alone. He shared it with others in the bunk; who were thereby enabled to survive as well.
These wholly altruistic gestures of profound goodness were characteristic of many who miraculously survived the Holocaust, including my Dad. He was a gifted and talented worker and when he did an outstanding job, a German soldier guarding the slave laborers in the machine shop would sometimes give him a treat to eat. He saved it and shared it later with others in his bunk. These little bits of extra nutrition were the difference between life and death in the netherworld of Auschwitz.
The words of the Haggadah meant so much to my father and father-in-law. It is now our sacred duty, at the Seder, to retell and figuratively relive their experiences of miraculous deliverance too. Those who still have the opportunity to have Holocaust survivors at the Seder embrace and treasure them. Their message is priceless. They are a living testament, in our time, to the original miraculous deliverance in the Exodus from Egypt and in every generation since, throughout history.
With the passing of my dad and father-in-law, two heroic and pure souls, an era has passed in our family. The gap is impossible to fill. Nevertheless, we are charged with transmitting to the new generations their message of Jewish survival in the face of unbearable suffering and despite super-human challenges. It was a miracle they survived and even more so that they went on to build generations of Jewish families and progeny devoted to preserving our traditions. We are bound together by shared experiences and values with our brethren. This includes belief in the original miraculous Exodus and faith in the ultimate redemption, as well. Joining in the preparations for and the celebration of the Passover Seder, as they traditional did, serves to reinforce these bonds. So too does performing acts of kindness and other good deeds that were so much a part of their lives. Indeed, there is no better testament to them than emulating their wonderful example of genuine kindness and heartfelt involvement in Gemilat Chesed[xxix].
The theme of performing acts of kindness and other good deeds is woven into the fabric of Passover from its very inception. The Mitzvah of hospitality[xxx], which is intimately linked to the traditional observance of the Seder, also takes on a special meaning in this context. As Avot D’Rabbi Natan[xxxi] reports Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai said to Rabbi Yehoshua, in a world where we no longer have the Temple and sacrifices to offer for atonement, Gemilat Chesed serves this same important function. The Talmud[xxxii] expresses a similar concept, by noting so long as the Temple stood, the sacrificial Altar facilitated atonement for the Jewish people. Now, a person’s dining table has taken the place of the altar in the Temple and it provides atonement through the Mitzvah of feeding the poor[xxxiii] or guests[xxxiv]. What better place to offer genuine hospitality than at the Seder table?
Sharing the Seder with family and friends creates a whole other dimension of experience than just sitting alone. This is particularly poignant because loneliness has been recognized as a genuine problem of epidemic proportions, with profoundly negative consequences[xxxv]. The Covid-19 pandemic has only amplified the problem. Unlike last year, this year we received the blessing of vaccination and eagerly look forward to joining with a small group of family for the Seder. I hope everyone will be similarly privileged.
In any event, in preparing for Passover and the Seder, make sure to reach out and help others do so, as well. It is a time-honored and fundamental tradition to assure everyone, especially those in need, are well provisioned to enjoy a proper and joyful Passover and Seder. These kinds of acts of kindness and other good deeds make our own observance even more meaningful and sweet.
Wishing everyone a safe Chag Kasher V’Sameach and Zissen Pesach.
[i] See Kol Dodi Dofek, by Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik Z”L.
[ii] See Mishna Pesachim 10:5.
[iii] Tur, Orach Chaim 473. See also Mishna Pesachim 10:6 and BT Pesachim 116b-117a.
[iv] C.f. Tractate Soferim, as emended by the Gra. However, see Ra’avyah Section 525. See also BT Arachin 10b.
[v] C.f. Gevurot Hashem 61:4. The Maharal provides a different explanation for the use of this term than the one proposed in this article. He notes that the Egyptians embittered the lives of the Jews, which he equates to mourning. The Maharal then posits that Yom Tov is the opposite of mourning. However, it should be noted that the antithetical couplet contrasting despair with joy expresses a somewhat similar concept.
[vi] Ibid note 8.
[vii] Rabbeinu Bachya commentary on Exodus 10:5.
[viii] Rashi (on Exodus 10:22) notes the Jews who died in the Plague of Darkness did so during the first 3 days, so that they could be quietly buried during the next part of the 7-day period of the Plague, when the Egyptians experienced paralysis. Shiva begins with the day of burial and, thus, it’s conceivable that some might have ended their Shiva as early as on or about the 10th of Nisan, when the Pascal lamb was to be set aside, and others thereafter and as late as the day of Passover eve.
[ix] See Exodus 12:33-43 and 13:3-10.
[x] See Exodus, 12:2 and Rashi commentary thereon, as well as, the description of the observance in Exodus 12:3-51.
[xi] See Exodus 8:22 and Rashi, as well as, Ibn Ezra commentary thereon. See also Genesis 43:32 and Rashi commentary thereon.
[xii] This feeling of dread may be the basis for another possible explanation of the usage of the phrase M’Eval L’Yom Tov. Megillat Esther (9:22) uses this same terminology. Rav Yosef Kara, in his commentary on the verse, notes that, as a result of Achasverosh’s initial decree authored by Haman, the Jews were in mortal danger. When they saw the Purim decree authored by Mordechai they were relieved. Thus, as Rav Kara explains their situation changed from despair to joy and from mourning (M’Eval) to a festival day (L’Yom Tov).
[xiii] See Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 16:3.
[xiv] Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed 3:46.
[xv] See Rashi commentary on Exodus 10:22. See also Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 11:11, as well as Shir Hashirim Rabbah 2:13.
[xvi] See Meshech Chochma, Parshat Vayera 8 and Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashana 3:5, at page 17a.
[xvii] Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 14:3.
[xviii] See Rashi commentary on Exodus 13:18 and 10:22, as well as, Mechilta d’Rabbi Yishmael on Exodus 13:18, Mechilta d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai 13:17, Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 11:10 and Midrash Tanchuma, Beshalach 1:4. See also Ezekiel 20:8-9 and Radak commentary thereon.
[xix] Pew Research Center-A Portrait of Jewish Americans, dated October 1, 2013.
[xx] JT Brachot 21a in Artscroll edition.
[xxi] Numbers Rabbah 15:12. See also Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Forbidden Intercourse 13:2.
[xxii] Ibid and see also Exodus Rabbah 1:11.
[xxiii] Ezekiel, Chapter 20.
[xxiv] Numbers Rabbah 15:12.
[xxv] Ruth Rabbah 6:1.
[xxvi] Yalkut Shimoni on the Torah, Remez 654.
[xxvii] Be’er Yosef, by Rav Yosef Zvi Salant, on Parshat Beshalach, Exodus 13:18.
[xxviii] Ibid and See Targum Yerushalmi and Targum Yonatan on Exodus 13:18, as interpreted by Rav Yosef Salant.
[xxix] The Hebrew terms for acts of kindness and other good deeds.
[xxx] BT Shabbos 127a.
[xxxi] Avot D’Rabbi Natan 4:5.
[xxxii] See BT Brachot 55a; Chagigah 27a; and Menachot 97a.
[xxxiii] See Maharsha commentary on BT Brachot 55a.
[xxxiv] See Rashi and Tosafot commentary on BT Menachot 97a.
[xxxv] See The Loneliest Generation: Americans, More Than Ever, Are Aging Alone, by Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg, in the Wall Street Journal, dated 12/11/18; Loneliness: An Epidemic?, by Hannah Schultze, in Science and the News, Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, dated 4/16/18; Loneliness Might Be A Bigger Health Risk Than Smoking Or Obesity, in Forbes, dated 1/18/17; and Loneliness Rivals Obesity, Smoking as Heath Risk, on WebMD, dated 5/4/18.