Joshua Gerstein

The Journey of Spiritual Growth -Thoughts on the Pesach Seder 5774

The Pesach Seder is among the most memorable events in the Jewish calendar. It is a night when families gather together to recount the great miracle of the Exodus of the Jewish people from the Land of Egypt, retelling and experiencing year after year the first seeds of Jewish freedom and redemption. In the collection of essays compiled in the work Festival of Freedom, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik points out that upon closer look, the Haggadah of the Seder night is meant to be much more than just a narration of the history of the Exodus– it is meant to be a significant religious and educational experience. He writes: “The form the Halacha prescribes for the narration of the events of the exodus is that of inquiry and information, question and answer, amazement, wondering and explanation. It is more a study than a tale, more a discourse about mitzvoth than a narrative. Had Chazal (The Sages) simply wanted the story to be told, the events to be recounted in detail, they would have introduced as mandatory the recitation of the sections of Exodus dealing with the saga of slavery and freedom. As a matter of fact, the continuity of the Haggadah can be understood not in terms of a story, but in terms of a discourse… of analysis of Jewish destiny, of Talmud Torah, Torah study.”(Festival of Freedom pg 26) Therefore, in its most authentic form, the narration of the Exodus from Egypt is not meant to be a historical retelling of the events that unfolded, but instead an interactive dialogue and engaging educational experience. The messages learned on Seder night are not only unique to the night itself, but also are intended to impart key lessons in the lifelong journey towards achieving religious and spiritual growth.

Maimonides understanding that these educational messages are of upmost importance explains that parents should institute changes in the Seder experience, in order to coax the children to ask question and thereby completely engage them in the events of the night. He writes, “He should make changes on this night so that the children will see and will [be motivated to] ask: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” until he replies to them: “This and this occurred; this and this took place.”(Hilchot Chametz U’Matzah 7:3)

In following with Maimonides’ instruction to implement changes in order to pique the curiosity of the children, we need look no further than the dipping of the Karpas vegetable into salt water. In his work “Light of Redemption,” Rabbi Gideon Weitzman cites a fascinating and inspiring explanation from the writings of Rav Avraham Isaac Kook which sheds light onto the educational lesson of dipping the Karpas into salt water. He writes:“Here we dip a vegetable in salt water. The vegetable is food, whereas the salt water is fluid. A significant difference between food and fluid is that food supplies us with nutrients, whereas the fluid enables those same nutrients to be transported within our bodies to all of the organs that need them. In this case the food itself is important, but the fluid is a medium for something else. The fluid is a means to an end, whereas the food is an end in and of itself. We tend to separate means and ends: we are delighted to finish first, but less enamoured simply to take part ; we like to arrive, but see the journey as an inevitable evil and bother ; achieving becomes essential, while preparing and toiling causes distress and affliction. This is not the way it should be. Rather we need to sanctify and revel in the getting there as much as in the being there. There is often as much merit in the journey as there is in the arrival, and so we must learn not to overlook the way. This is the message of Karpas, we fuse the food with the liquid, the end with the means, and consume them together…..” (Light of Redemption – A Passover Haggadah, pg.13)

This lesson of appreciating the means –the journey –as well as the end result is one which is much needed for our times. Our children are growing up in what can be coined a “now society,” a world of fast paced technology and instant gratification. There seems to be very little regard for what can be gained from the effort of a journey, rather the end goal is exclusively important. This mind-set and outlook of life is a strong impediment towards fully grasping and appreciating the nature of religious and spiritual growth.

To counter this, The Haggadah and Seder experience are meant to impart one single, all important concept to our children and to ourselves: Spiritual growth is not an instantaneous experience, rather it is the culmination of a lifelong journey of seeking the Divine. As Rav Soloveitchik writes: “The form of narration in the Haggadah avails itself to dialogue: one person asks and another answers. It is necessary to dramatize this narration because God reveals Himself to man if and when the latter searches for Him. If one does not inquire, if one expects God to reveal Himself without making an all-out effort to find Him, one will never meet God. “But from there you shall seek the Lord and you shall find Him, if you search after Him with all your heart and all your soul” (Devarim 4:29)… On the first night of Pesach, we tell the story of a long search by man for God, of God responding to the inquisitive search, of God taking man, who longs for Him, into His embrace.” (Festival of Freedom, pg. 53-54). I believe that this is the reason why the Rabbis who codified the order and text of the Haggadah and Pesach Seder placed this section of Karpas, and the lesson it imparts, at the very beginning of the Seder experience. The Karpas sets the tone for the Seder night— the Exodus was a journey, the arc of Jewish history is a journey, and religious growth through seeking out the Divine is no exception.

Chag Kasher V’Sameach!

About the Author
The Author is a Jerusalem based Rabbi and Jewish Educator, and is the author of the Two Volume book "A People, A Country, A Heritage-Torah Inspiration from the Land of Israel."
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