The Alligators of Passover

One beautiful Florida spring morning, when I was around 12 years of age, my father of blessed memory took me fishing. University of North Florida had recently stocked their artificial lake with various fish including freshwater bass and bluegill (which we called brim — or bream if you are a stickler for that kind of thing.) But as in other murky Florida waters, the UNF lake was home to a more illustrious predator as well — more on that later.

Now as far as anglers go, I was pretty clueless and to be honest, my father wasn’t much better. I was using something like 15lb test line to catch fish with a maximum potential weight of about half a pound and who pull a whole lot less. My older brother who is quite accomplished at this sport once, sarcastically, suggested I move on to 50lb steel cable or something, but who likes fishing snobs anyway? I just thought the point was to catch the fish and bring them home not watch them snap your line (on the off chance that you actually hook one).

In any event, there I was hoping to catch the leviathan-like bass of legends when the only fish biting my hook were 1.5 oz bite-size little shiny things. You could probably fry twenty of those in a pan at once and still have room for hash browns. Now, please, PETA types don’t get too upset, but, resourceful child that I was, I decided to take one of those McNugget fish and turn it into live bait for bass. (I know there are some laws about this type of thing, but remember I was only a 12-year-old fishing prodigy). No sooner had I lowered my mini-live-lure into the still waters of that man made lake than out of the depths arose a multi-toothed monster. A gator shot like a shell from an NRA members recreational AK-47 and shut his steel jaws upon my hapless lure.

Lest you get the wrong impression, I was fishing off a bridge which hovered around 4 feet or so off the water. Watching those jaws that bite and claws that catch fighting my line might have sent shivers off my young spine. Not wanting to turn into a youthful Captain Hook, I glanced towards my father. expecting to see fear in his eyes. Indeed, he was bent over not in fear, but laughing his head off yelling something about me getting him arrested. You see, while my father did have a license from the Florida Wildlife and Game Commission for freshwater fishing, a $25 racket if ever there was one, hunting or trapping alligators was strictly against the law in those days. The State of Florida felt it important to protect man-eating beasts that would just as soon chomp your leg off when you put your big toe in their pond as look at you (in recent years they have relaxed gator hunting regulations just as the Burmese pythons started taking over the state).

Back to my story. Lacking any other recourse, I started to reel the sea serpent in hoping that either he would let go or that my fishing line would break. Remember how I told you that I was using 15lb test line? Well, maybe my brother was closer to right and my line was actually 50lb deep sea fishing line. Just suggesting the possibility. Still, no one likes a know it all and I still believe the goal of fishing is to actually bring the fish home after all is said and done. In any event, the line didn’t break and the gator was not letting go of his mid-morning snack. Now, I was starting to get worried that I would have to let go of my favorite (and only) fishing rod. I had this huge, 3 and ½ (maybe even four) foot Florida, protected, mean ole alligator half way out of the water and dear old dad was still laughing his head off. As the top half of its body bounced in and out of the water and the creature swished its dangerous tail menacingly, the line finally broke. As the reptile slowly swam back to its lair triumphant, I felt like Captain Ahab watching his sea creature escape into the depths (or reeds) from which it came.

But what does my alligator have to do with Passover you say?

Yesterday, we celebrated both Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh Nissan, the beginning of the month counting down to the 15th which is Seder night. We know that on the 15th Jews everywhere will read the text of the Haggadah recounting the story of the Exodus from Egypt some 3,500 years ago. The author of the Haddadah quotes a surprising Midrash. The Midrash suggests that we might have thought that we should begin telling the story on Rosh Chodesh — yesterday — and not on Passover itself. If not for a verse specifying that we must tell the story on the actual day of the Exodus, we would begin two weeks earlier. Why would the rabbis suggest such an odd notion?

Perhaps, the answer to this question lies in another Halacha. Based on the Haggadah, Talmud, and other rabbinic sources, Rambam explains the mitzvah of the telling the story in the following manner:

It is a positive commandment of the Torah to relate the miracles and wonders wrought for our ancestors in Egypt on the night of the fifteenth of Nisan, as [Exodus 13:3] states: “Remember this day, on which you left Egypt,” just as [Exodus 20:8] states: “Remember the Sabbath day.”

From where [is it derived that this mitzvah is to be fulfilled on] the night of the fifteenth? The Torah teaches [Exodus 13:8]: “And you shall tell your son on that day, saying: ‘It is because of this. [implying that the mitzvah is to be fulfilled] when matzah and maror are placed before you.

[The mitzvah applies] even though one does not have a son. Even great Sages are obligated to tell about the Exodus from Egypt. Whoever elaborates concerning the events which occurred and took place is worthy of praise.

In most mitzvot, the command is clearly delineated and specified. In the telling of the story, however, elaboration is unbounded. Why? There are two separate commandments regarding remembering the Exodus from Egypt. One is a daily mitzvah to remember the Exodus which is fulfilled in the recitation of the Shema prayer. In our quote above, Rambam is explaining the second and unique mitzvah of Passover night. The second mitzvah consists of telling the story (Sippur Yetziyat Mitzrayim.) A story is different than simply remembering. In the telling we not on recount the events but relive them. Stories are told to others, are animated, and elaborated (and sometimes woven into tall fishing tales). Remembering is something one does in one’s mind. Story telling, like we are commanded to do on Passover, is a grander process. Here, Rambam explains, there is a special element of elaborating the mitzvah. Telling the story, therefore, is an unbounded mitzvah.

The excitement of telling the unbounded story overflows naturally. The notion that the story is to be unbounded may lead to a wrong conclusion. We may think that we should start as soon as possible and that by beginning early, a day, two days, even from the beginning of the month, we have fulfilled the mitzvah. Therefore, disabusing us, the Torah tells us that the mitzvah is uniquely situated on the night of the 15th of Nissan – Seder Night.

My alligator story has become legend in my family. I have recounted it many times to both thrilled and a sometimes bored and often laughing children. It is one of the most powerful memories of have of my dear father and I only hope that I bequeath the same exciting and special moments to my children — perhaps without the life threatening animal at the end of the line. It has become a celebrated story. Once, on my birthday, my wife made an alligator cake with white chip teeth and all. We celebrate our stories, which in the end are really more about family than it is about reptiles.

Passover is the Jewish peoples collective story. One full of thrills, and lessons, and meaning. The story of God redeeming the Jewish people from slavery has impacted the entire course of western civilization and human thought. But before the philosophy and deeper perhaps than the historical repercussions, the story is at its heart one of the love of God for his people passed down from generation to generation. In the end, we are the product of the stories we tell. We can pass on the love and feeling of what it means to be part of the Jewish family and the Jewish people by recalling the magical event of the Exodus which symbolizes the Jewish people’s relation to God. I remember years of beautiful, loud, crowded, family Seders. May we all bequeath exciting, special, and meaningful seders to our children.

Chag Sameach.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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