Like many families, our family has specific and beloved Passover seder traditions. One of ours is that before reciting ha lachma anya (“This is the bread of affliction…”), everyone takes a piece of matzah, puts it on their shoulder, and moves as quickly as possible around the table, back to their seats. The intention is to recall the verse “for seven days eat unleavened bread, the bread of affliction, because you left Egypt in haste—so that all the days of your life you may remember the time of your departure from Egypt.”
As in past years, this Kozberg family tradition was also a part of this year’s second seder at the synagogue where I serve as rabbi. At the appropriate time, I gave the direction that everyone should put the matzah on their shoulder, stand up from their chairs, and run around the tables back to their chairs, as quickly as they could. Everyone stood up and at the signal did exactly as I had requested. What resulted was a moment of utter chaos!
Since I had neglected to give a specific direction about which way to go—to the left or the right—every person chose his/her own direction. Some folks bumped into one another (or almost!), while one or two folks responded to the chaos by just momentarily freezing.
Everyone finally made it back to their spots, but it was definitely “my bad”.
As we resumed, I mentioned that perhaps such chaos resembled a similar chaos on that very first erev Pesach. Because the people had to leave so quickly without time to prepare properly (the reason we eat matzah), I wondered out loud if Moses might have felt that he was experiencing what we now refer to as “herding cats”.
As we approach the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, commemorating G-d’s giving the Torah to us, I’ve been reflecting on that moment at our seder. I’ve been wondering if our ancestors initially believed that their newly-acquired freedom would allow them to live as cats do—ignoring directives, with everyone now “doing what is right in his/her own eyes”.
After all, isn’t that how many people do indeed understand the concept of freedom? (“You can’t tell me what to do!) That may be the understanding of many, but it most assuredly is not Judaism’s. Ask the question “what message from G-d did Moses relate to Pharaoh?” and even those who know the story will answer: “Let My people go!”
But that wasn’t the complete message. The complete message was “Let My people go, that they may serve Me.” Our ancestors were not just being freed from slavery; they were being freed to serve G-d. In other words, liberation from slavery was not the final objective. Rather, it was a means to a more noble purpose. That noble purpose, of course, was to receive G-d’s Torah. The lesson here is clear: true freedom is inextricably bound to living within a society that sets boundaries governing human behavior. Those boundaries only have ultimate authority when set forth by a Source to whom society is accountable.
Regrettably, in our culture of “hyper-individualism” in which the desires of the individual often eclipse the needs of the many, and individual rights are promoted over responsibilities to the community, it is axiomatic to many people that “freedom” means having practically no rules or boundaries and no accountability– except to one’s own self. Such a sentiment is poignantly expressed in the film The Ten Commandments: when Moses comes down the mountain with the two tablets and begins to scold the people for worshipping the Golden Calf, Dathan replies: We will not live by your commandments. We’re free!
Regrettably, this notion has infected not only laity, but also the contemporary rabbinate: this rabbi has written on his congregation’s website (https://nrck.org/RabbiLetter):
“Our members and their children are encouraged to aspire to fulfill their potential for goodness and kindness, as well as for autonomy and justice as taught by Judaism. We do not approach religion as having authority over us but as a treasured resource for our personal growth.”. (Emphases and italics mine)
As we approach Shavuot, commemorating our receiving the Torah from its Authoritative Source, one must ask: what authentic Jewish source declares that the Torah has no authority over our lives, but is merely a “treasured resource for our personal growth”? And how does a rabbi declare such a notion? Rabbis, of all people, are supposed to promote Torah’s authority over Jewish lives, and affirm what Moses’ reply to Dathan: There is no freedom without the Law.
But in truth, giving us the Torah was also merely a means to an end. It is the vehicle by which G-d’s end purpose for the Jewish people will be actualized: to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy people”. (Exodus 19: 6)
The word for “priest” in Hebrew is kohane: just as the kohane was the connector between G-d and the people of Israel, the purpose of the people of Israel is to be the connector between G-d and humanity: to be “a light to the nations” by living G-dly lives through ethical and moral behavior, and thereby creating a sacred society.
In Jewish tradition, a priest is sometimes referred to as a Kohain Tzedek, a “righteous priest” –a phrase which was shortened into the acronym: K”TZ, pronounced “KATZ”.
Of course, KATZ is a familiar Jewish surname, apparently originating as such in the 17th century. Although it originally designated those Jews who were descendants of their priestly ancestor Aaron, it is no longer the case that individuals with this last name necessarily claim ancestry from Aaron.
However, if the person is a Jew, he/she is automatically a member of G-d’s “kingdom of priests,”—a status which conferred at Sinai with the intention that every member of this kingdom aspire to live as a katz—a righteous priest.
Lesson: G-d intended that the “herd of cats” He took out of Egypt—each doing his/her own thing—transform itself into a “herd of katz”, a community with a unified vision and a sacred purpose.
As Shavuot approaches, we chosen ones must choose which herd we wish to be a part of: Cats or “katz”?