Dov Lerea

Pesach and the Fragility of Human Life

Preparing for Pesach is always intense in school. Students have prepared Haggadot and companions to Haggadot, Divre Torah (Torah teachings) and artwork to enhance their seder tables. The artworks are visual commentaries, demonstrating how students understand the mythic events of our past. 

This has been a particularly trying year to prepare for Pesach. We have lived together through the pall of October 7th, and then, recently, through the Iranian attack. The 8th graders ask about traveling to Israel every day, their voices expressing hope, worry and hesitation all at once. And of course, our students are honest. When 8th graders learned about and discussed present-day slavery on chocolate cacao plantations in the form of child labor in parts of Africa, some students said, “We should stop eating chocolate, but that would be so hard.” Others thought that the actions of one person would be insignificant, while others reflected on the profound differences one person can make in the world.

Tomorrow we will read Parashat Metzora in the Torah. The Torah describes the skin disease called Tzara’at. The condition was not considered fatal but had a profound impact upon the individual and everyone around them. The skin became covered in white, scaly lesions. The person so afflicted had to sit at home, refrain from cutting their hair, tear their clothing, and declare, Tameh, Tameh, usually translated as “Impure! Impure!” The impression the text conveys is that a person afflicted by tara’at is “sitting shiva,” mourning their own death. The translation, “impure” for the word, “tameh” is misleading. Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman of 19th century Berlin explained that, in this context, the word “tameh” should be understood as “alienated” or “distanced.” This word is also used to describe a woman who just gave birth to a child. She is also called Tameh (t’me’ah in the feminine grammatical form). The term implies that the human being has lived through a transformative experience that requires turning inward and which then requires a ritual to bridge the person’s re-entry into a normative life-rhythm.  So, too, a person suffering from an illness feels their own mortality, their own fragility, their own vulnerability. Such a person, afflicted with tara’at, has had all of their protective layers peeled away and comes up against the fragility of human life. 

We are about to celebrate this very message about the fragility of human life, our vulnerability, and the need to constantly reintegrate ourselves into life-affirming rhythms at the seder. In addition to eating matzah, the only other Torah-mandated (d’oraitha) mitzvah of the evening is the commandment to engage, with depth and passion, the story of Yitziat Mitzrayim, the journey from slavery to freedom. That journey also tells a tale of human vulnerability, the fragility of human life, and the need to affirm human dignity with the blessing and gift of freedom. To this end, it is fascinating that the ancient rabbis did not compose a blessing to recite before engaging the story and reliving our journey from slavery to freedom. There is no blessing, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, who has sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us to recite the story of our exodus from Egypt.” This is because this commandment is about building a relationship between people, as opposed to nourishing our relationship with the Creator of the world. We know this based upon the following verse in the Torah which is the source of this mitzvah: וְהִגַּדְתָּ֣ לְבִנְךָ֔ בַּיּ֥וֹם הַה֖וּא לֵאמֹ֑ר בַּעֲב֣וּר זֶ֗ה עָשָׂ֤ה ה׳ לִ֔י בְּצֵאתִ֖י מִמִּצְרָֽיִם

And you shall explain to your child on that day, “It is because of what God did for me when I went free from Egypt.” (Shemot/Exodus 13:8). The rabbis interpret the phrase, “and you shall explain it to your child” as the mitzvah to retell the story at the seder in engaging, age-appropriate ways. 

In general, mitzvot between people and God (like waving a lulav and putting on tefillin) require a mindful focus in the form of reciting a blessing. But in the case of sanctifying relationships between people,  the rabbis believed deeply that all we need to do is to dignify each other, to humanize each other, is to behave as humane human beings. That should be self-evident, should it not? It should be self-evident that humanity should not expend resources and creative energy figuring out how to kill each other, oppress each other, abuse and torture each other. The rabbis were optimistic; they did not compose a blessing telling us how to behave. The Torah, however, in its sacred wisdom, teaches us to retell and re-engage our own history annually, sensitizing us to the fragility and vulnerability of all human beings. This year we have experienced directly since October 7th, and continue to see what happens when hatred overtakes this sensibility. God made humanity with the capacity to be vulnerable, in the hope that the nations will ensure that the world remains a safe habitat. May this trying year, filled with so much violence and suffering, bring a redemption to our people and to all humanity.

Chag Sameach.

Dov Lerea


About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.