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Passover: Three Things to Consider this Year to ‘Fulfill our Obligation’

(Image courtesy Pixabay)

When surveys are taken of Jews, consistently the most observed Jewish ritual is the Passover Seder. Bringing people and families together, telling the story of our beginnings, is a powerful way to connect- to generations living and passed, to our people, and to our God. Besides the Bible, the Haggadah is the most published classic Jewish work, and every year there are hundreds of new haggadot in all languages published from all sectors of the Jewish people. Yet not all Seder’s are created alike. It takes preparation to transform the seder into a night of transformation. Rabbi Gamliel in the Haggadah tells us that if one does not talk about the Passover offering, the matzah, or the bitter herbs they have not fulfilled their religious obligation on the Seder night. If we were to compose the Haggadah this year, what might be the three religious obligations? (It is a good question to ask to those with whom you will dine.)

Allow me to offer three; the latter two are specifically relevant for our time, as we emerge from COVID-19 and face the biggest military challenge since the second world war.

  1. Questions as Acts of Discovery
  2. Battling Despair
  3. Chametz- Fostering Spiritual Awareness of Time
  1. Questions as Acts of Discovery

In the cult classic comedy/drama When do we Eat, your typical (and by typical, I mean dysfunctional) Jewish family comes together for a Passover. Ira, the bellicose father of this unruly clan, rushes through the Seder steps like he is a worker on a conveyer belt. “Now we crack a matzah. See? Good. Next!” His thirty something ‘wicked’ daughter Jennifer exclaims, “Why do we do this every year?” “Because that’s what Jews do!” he responds abrasively. One ‘simple’ child is too stoned to know what is going on, and another pretends to be autistic, so he doesn’t need to deal with the crazy family dynamics. Ira’s son, who has transformed in the past year from a slick businessperson to a ‘wise’ holy-than-thou Lubavitcher, is determined to savor every spiritual moment of the evening by quoting ‘the rebbe,’ despite the fact that no one seems interested at all.

Honestly, the Seder portrayed seems more like slavery than freedom. Lingering family tensions surface throughout the evening, and only through the words of one of Ira’s daughter’s girlfriend/partner, who happens also to be Protestant and African American, does the family realize this is a sacred night. “Look at what you have!” With the voice of a preacher, she begins the paragraph of the Seder which calls the people present to engage in praise. (In fact, the rabbis of the Mishna explicitly instruct that the story we tell should begin with degradation and end with elation and praise! –matchil b’gnut u’mesyaem ba’shevach). Backed by a soundtrack of a church organ, she reads a section at the end of Maggid/retelling, a section many Jews might skip over. “Thus, it is our duty to thank, to laud, to praise, to glorify, to exalt, to adore, to bless, to elevate and to honor the One who did all these miracles for our fathers and for us. He took us from slavery to freedom, from sorrow to joy, and from mourning to festivity, and from deep darkness to great light and from bondage to redemption. Let us therefore recite before Him Halleluiah, Praise God!” For a moment, the entire motley crew comes together and realizes the gift and opportunity that they have.

…Sometimes it takes an outsider to remind us of what we have.

The Seder is indeed an opportunity to learn about ourselves, our history, our responsibilities, and our spiritual life. It happens once a year, so let us try to make it special. Just like we don’t just show up at a special program we are running, but put thought into it, each of us needs to prepare for this special night.

Interestingly, when describing how we tell the story of the Exodus, the rabbis teach us it cannot be done in a straightforward manner. We cannot just relate a wealth of information, or just read words. It needs to be done in a question-and-answer format, like the Mah Nishtanah.

Look at the words of Maimonides.

When a person does not have a son, his wife should ask him. If he does not have a wife, [he and a colleague] should ask each other: “Why is this night different?” This applies even if they are all wise. A person who is alone should ask himself: “Why is this night different?” (MT, Hilkhot Chametz U’Matzah 7:3)[1]

If no one is there, why the need to question? Why not just state the facts and move on?

Unlike declarative statements, questions open the doors for further explanations and deeper analysis. They reflect personal curiosity and investment. The writers of the Haggadah know there are distinct types of questioners with different life experiences and different stories. They therefore introduce us to four ‘types’ of ‘children’ who will be at the Seder. All will ask questions based upon their dispositions and life experiences.

There is no question that is a bad question on the seder night; the only bad question is the question left unasked. This child is ‘the child who does not know how to ask.” In popular images in published Haggadot, this is often portrayed as a young child. However, the Haggadah is not only referring to young children. Many Jews at the seder table do not always know how to ask. They may be at a Seder, but not really understand why they are at a Seder. It is at this point the Haggadah turns to the leader of the Seder and states, “At Petach Lo,” you open the door for him/her. For so many Jews, lacking in the basic requisite background and skills, this can be a challenge.

It is much easier to engage in a conversation with a budding scholar, a skeptic, or a ‘simple’ or faithful person than it is with someone who does not have a frame of reference and few formative Jewish experiences. Some of us may feel we ourselves are ‘the child that does not know how to ask.’ Let us be kind and open to others and ourselves and approach this evening from a place of welcoming and non-judgementalism.

At Petach Lo– we open the door to the child who does not know how to ask and invite them on a journey of discovery. Let us be extra sensitive, because an asking child is a vested child who seeks for answers, and good questions will engage our children (and ourselves) for a lifetime.

2. Battling Despair

The main body of the actual telling of the Exodus from Egypt is an ancient homiletic expansion of four verses in the 26th chapter of Deuteronomy. As it would take a rather long time to read almost twenty chapters in the Book of Exodus, these four verses encapsulate the highlights of the story. The third verse we explicate talks about the physical and emotional toll of the slavery in Egypt.

And we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice, and He saw our affliction, and our toil and our duress. (Deuteronomy 26:7)

The structure of the homilies here are rather basic and straightforward. Each of the claims in the verse in Deuteronomy are then ‘proven’ using a cross-referenced verse mostly from the book of Exodus. Thus, for example, ‘the duress’ (lachatzeinu) expressed above, is a direct allusion to the back-breaking labor alluded to in Exodus, “And I also saw the duress that the Egyptians are applying to them.” (Ex. 3:9)

However, when it comes to the notion that God heard ‘our toil,’ the Haggadah says something strange.

And our toil (amaleinu) – this [refers to the killing of the] sons, as it is stated (Ex 1:22) “Every boy that is born, throw him into the Nile and every girl you shall keep alive.”

How exactly is ‘our toil’ refer to the killing of the first-born sons? Furthermore, the text referenced does not even mention the word ‘toil’ (amal)!

Let us consider what it means to have a child in this world. A child ultimately represents the hope in our lives, the hope that what we do and what we work for in this world will endure long after our own demise. While very often this is a physical descendent, to be sure, ‘offspring’ in its most general sense is the impact we have on the world that endures and has meaning. In other words, a child represents the fruits of all our demanding work in life that make a life worth living. In a way, a child is an investment, and it is in this sense the Haggadah asserts that ‘our toil’ is an allusion to children, specifically child rearing.

However, the word used is not avodateinu- our work, but amaleinu, our toil- not a neutral word in the Bible. Like in English there is a negative connotation. Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein notes the word very often occurs with the word aven, which has various translations but includes the idea of ‘sorrow’ or ‘nothingness. For example, the Psalmist in a dark moment muses on the feelings of futility we may have at certain points in our lives, using the words amal and aven.

The span of our life is seventy years,
or, given the strength, eighty years;
but the Meaning of Heb. uncertain.best of them are trouble (amal) and sorrow (aven).
They pass by speedily, and we [then] Or “fly away.” are in darkness (Ps. 90:10)

Thus, amal is backbreaking labor that really is fruitless and meaningless. Parenting a child, caring for them, investing one’s hopes and dreams for their future, only to see them drowned in the Nile is the ultimate form of toilsome labor without purpose.  There is a particular cruelty in not merely breaking my own back, ‘the affliction’ alluded to in the verse above, but destroying any sense of hope in a future, transforming my entire life’s labor into meaningless toil. Many who went through the hell of the Holocaust may have themselves survived, but their hopes and dreams died in the death of their children. Thus, the Egyptians not only broke their backs, but they broke their spirits as well.

Even more dangerous than the backbreaking labor was the spirit-breaking toil, because the latter leads to hopelessness, and this hopelessness is alluded to in the words ‘God heard our affliction’, the third description in the verse above.

“And He saw our affliction” – this [refers to] the separation from the way of the world [e.g. an allusion to sexuality]

Without going into the actual mechanics of this phrase[2], the rabbis are alluding to a well-known midrash, that hopelessness became so extreme that it impacted the regular functioning of the family unit. The leader of the tribe of Levi, upon hearing that every first-born child would be cast into the Nile, decreed that men should separate from their wives. Why should someone labor to build a family, only to see them thrown into the Nile. He then divorced his wife. His daughter, upon hearing this, exclaimed to her father, “You are worse than Pharoah. Pharaoh only made a decree on the males. Your decree includes the females as well! Furthermore, Pharaoh was only destroying the children in this world. You on the other hand, deprive children of this world and the world to come! Finally, who knows if the decrees of Pharaoh will ultimately materialize, but in your actions his decree will definitely be fulfilled!”[3]  Immediately, upon hearing the words of his daughter, he reversed his decision, as the Torah tells us “There was a man of the house of Levi who went and took a daughter of the house of Levi [to be his wife]” (Ex. 2:1). The rabbis teach, ‘he went from the advice of his daughter and took back (e.g.remarried) his wife.

The man was Amram. The woman was Yocheved. The daughter was Miriam, and the child born to them was Moses, the future redeemer of Israel.  While Amram gave into the hopelessness, it was Miriam who amid challenge held onto the vision of a better tomorrow. She not only held onto it but effectuated it through her actions.  The domestic intervention of Miriam led to the liberation of the Jewish people, and the destruction of a corrupt order.

Following the pandemic, and now with the invasion of Ukraine, there is a danger that our own futures are really not in our own hands, and that we are subjects of forces larger than ourselves. In the extreme, this realization can lead to a sense of resignation, or hopelessness. Yet, if recent events in Ukraine prove anything, it is that the hopes and dreams of people like you and me who desire to be free can effect change on the most global of levels.  Like Miriam who did not know the end of the story, we also do not know the end of the story. Yet like her, we cannot turn inward in resignation, but act with faith and hope. That is when the miracle begins!

Putin’s weapons are stronger than any weapon of Ukraine, but a ‘common man’ like Zelensky has become the leader of the free world, embodying the values of his people. Similarly, Pharaoh was the most powerful leader of the world, who oppressed the Jewish people to the extent that they broke the will to continue at all.  It began with one girl, Miriam, to stand up in the name of hope. She planted the seed that decades later would be materialized in the figure of Moses.

The seeds of hope we plant also should come to fruition this year, and may we never succumb to the ravages of hopelessness.

3. Chametz- Fostering Spiritual Awareness of Time

Have you ever considered the difference between chametz and matzah? While in other areas of Jewish law, if a forbidden substance is mixed in with a permitted substance, the forbidden substance is nullified if there is a certain amount of permitted food in the mixture, generally but not always sixty times. Thus, for example, if milk accidentally fell into a chicken soup, if there are sixty times more soup than milk the mixture is permitted. It is as if the forbidden substance is not there at all. (Batel b’shishim) Yet when it comes to a little chametz that falls into a mixture of kosher for Passover items, we rule afilu b’elef lo batel, even if the mixture has 1/1000th of chametz, it is forbidden for use on Passover.

Yet when we consider this, it is rather strange, for what is chametz and what is matzah? Both consist of only two ingredients- flour and water. For most of the year matzah is just a form of bread (lechem), but suddenly Passover comes around and this same object becomes so forbidden that it can never be nullified.

What makes chametz unique is not the contents, but the actual preparation itself. If the bread is baked within eighteen minutes, it is permitted and is matzah; if not it is chametz and must be destroyed. Anyone who has been to a matzah factory can see this process in action, as the kitchens are thoroughly scrubbed down to ensure no pieces of dough stick on the tables or on the machines after eighteen minutes.  Failure to do this appropriately creates not a matzah factory, but a chametz factory!

The Torah points us to the importance of time itself, and that the time we have here cannot be taken for granted, much less abused.  The Haggadah is very clear that at the moment of redemption, a night in which the people were explicitly told to be ready, was a night in which they were not ready. They left with bowls of dough and had not prepared for the journey. On the night of redemption, they were tarrying, and it took the forceful hand of the Egyptians to get them to move![4] In other words, the Jewish people were late for their own redemption!

The entire process of matzah preparation focuses us on the importance of realizing the passage of time as a metaphor for our lives. Matzah is a teaching about mindfulness, and that if we are not aware of the passage of time, we will inevitably miss opportunities that can change the course of our personal and national history.  On a national level, consider the declaration of Ben Gurion, that Friday afternoon at the Tel Aviv Museum on the 14th of May at 3:30 PM. There was pressure to delay the declaration, considering an impending war and British opposition, and yet Ben Gurion saw the moment and claimed it. Jewish history has never been the same.

“Teach us to count our days, so we shall be given a heart of understanding” (Psalm 90:2).

When God liberated the people in Egypt the first commandment given to them is to establish a calendar and sanctify the new moon. “And God said to Moses: This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you” (Exodus 12:1-2). In other words, with freedom, the Jewish people took ownership of time.

Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik, the great 20th century Jewish thinker, expresses this idea beautifully:

Time is of critical importance- not years or months- but seconds and split seconds. This time-awareness and appreciation is the singular gift given to free man, because time belongs to him: it is his time, and he can utilize it to the utmost or waste it. A free man does not want time to pass; he wants time to slow down, because to him time is a treasure. To the slave, however, time is a curse; he waits for the day to pass… The slave personality lacks the great excitement of opportunities knocking at the door, of challenges summoning him to action, of tense expectations and fears of failure… The Judaic philosophy of time comes to expression in the text of kiddush. In physics, time is measured by the clock. But pure time- real time, cannot be quantified; it is pure quality. With kiddush, we sanctify time and endow it with creativity and meaning. It is the first thing we do as a free people at the Seder. (From Rabbi Joseph B Soloveichik, Festival of Freedom: Essays on Pesach and the Haggadah, Ktav, 2006, pp 41-42.)

The Gaon of Vilna, one of the great Torah scholars of the 18th century, was said to have had a list in which he confessed on Yom Kippur every moment he believed he was given to him and wasted. Benjamin Franklin similarly created a journal he used to keep track of his use of time. He stated “Do you love life? Then do not squander time, for that’s the stuff life is made of.”

The pandemic from which we pray we are emerging has forced us to consider in sometimes existential ways the real notion that time is limited. One of our volunteers taught me this in a very tangible way. She considered all her involvements in life and decided to commit to only those which reflect her ultimate goals. The rest she dropped. The pandemic clearly was traumatic and difficult, but in one sense it was liberating. It taught many that they do not have the time to be unhappy and unfulfilled, do not have the time to engage with meaningless activities or toxic people, and do not have the time to wait for their dreams to come to them.

Before the pandemic perhaps we claimed we did not have the time to do things we wanted. Following the pandemic, perhaps we feel that we don’t have the time not to do them.

The commandment of chametz and matzah points us to the importance of time, to be cognizant of its passage. Yes. Every second counts.

May all of us be blessed to see miracles and wonders in the coming year- for ourselves, our families, and our world.

[1] To be accurate to the Hebrew I have retained the gendered language, but to be sure the concept applies to men and women

[2] The word ‘our affliction’ (Anyeinu) is like the Hebrew word Inui which indicated sexual violence of some sort (e.g., Gen. 39:49)

[3] Paraphrase of B.T. Sota 12a

[4] The same image is used with Lot, who tarries in Sodom and the angels need to forcefully extract him from the home.  The rabbis say that night was also “Passover.”  The anachronism and the meaning of that statement is a subject for a different reflection.

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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