Yosef Merves
Forging New Perspectives on Jewish Identity

Why These Nights Are Different Than All Other Nights

My great great grandparents Yudel David and Esther Merves with their son Zelig, c. 1920 in Lithuania
My great great grandparents Yudel David and Esther Merves with their son Zelig, c. 1920 in Lithuania

As a child, I was always excited for Passover because I would get to see my family together.  I lived 15-20 minutes away from my maternal grandparents and they were always thrilled to host the Seders and have all their children with them for two days.  I remember the anticipation in the weeks leading up to the Seder as well.  Taking the fancy china dishes and silverware place settings out of the breakfront, cleaning off the dining room table and adding the extra leaves.  Cleaning and vacuuming and scrubbing the rooms of the house.  Shopping for all the ingredients as my mother made charoset and my grandmother made chicken soup. The Seder was much more meaningful because I was privy to the process leading up to it. These memories are mostly relegated to my childhood since I didn’t go home for Pesach most years of college and I only had one Seder with my grandparents after I moved to NYC.

This year, I was privileged to have my mother visit me in New Jersey for the Seders and the first days of Chol HaMoed, which was special, and long overdue, because I hadn’t spent Pesach with her since 2011 before my grandfather died.   Pesach really is a family holiday, and it was very meaningful to celebrate together because the main mitzvah of Pesach, besides getting rid of chametz and eating matzah, is passing down the story of the Exodus from generation to generation and finding new layers of meanings in the text through new conversations, experiences, and insights. Coming back to look at the Haggadah with fresh eyes a year later. I even got to say the Four Questions for the first time in many years.

On Tuesday we went to Lakewood and visited my grandfather’s cousin who I had never met before and hear stories about the previous generations, the ones who came to the United States from Lithuania and the first generation of citizens. My grandfather’s cousin has four grandchildren living in Lakewood, so I got to meet one of them and her husband and children.  It was amazing getting to meet these new family members who were also religious and build new connections with them through our shared link to the same ancestors, my great great grandfather Yudel David Merves.  Showing that what he taught his children and grandchildren has been carried down to their grandchildren too, the links attached together into a chain.

I am lucky that this cousin was 10 years younger than my grandfather and still very lucid and able to converse.  She had a lot of memories and told some stories about family members of the earlier days. I really appreciate these stories because they talk about the family connection to Judaism and having to reconcile their beliefs with the changing world around them and a different set of values.  While Judaism is an organized religion with many rules governing lifestyle and observance, you really have to make it personalized and special to you and your unique traits and qualities. Finding which aspects are attractive and meaningful for you in your acquisition of knowledge from the past to implement in the future.

Pesach tells the origin story of the Jewish people when they went from being a family and a loose tribal configuration into becoming a nation who will stand at Mt Sinai with one heart.  On the last days of Pesach, we relive and recount the splitting of the Red Sea. This was the culmination of the Exodus after the Ten Plagues and the act which built our Emunah in Hashem and Moshe and propelled us to Mount Sinai and receiving the Torah.  With each of the Ten Plagues, Moshe was peeling back layers of Creation, showing that Hashem was in control of everything happening in the physical world.  The splitting of the Red Sea represents a metaphysical tear in the fabric of the world, implanting the Jews into the center of Creation as the spiritual world intersects with the physical world and the Jewish people experience mass prophecy and contemplation of Hashem, and are not scared to confront Him because they realize that everything Hashem has done from Egypt was really for their salvation and to bring them to this moment.

The essence of being Jewish is clinging to Hashem with a deep spiritual connection. Passover, like many religious rituals, involves exercising caution and restraint. Restraining ourselves goes against our nature, but in order to grow, we have to overcome our natural inclinations and access parts of ourselves that aren’t there.  Talking to my relatives, I can see how Judaism provides light in the darkness.  Rabbi Yisrael Salanter explains that when it’s pitch dark, we see nothing and then lightning strikes and we see everything, but only for a second.  When we return into the darkness afterward, we now have an idea of where we are supposed to be going so we can grope around in the darkness in order to find our way, a little less blind than before.  Being free means the freedom to make choices and decisions, having control of your mind and your willpower to chart the life you want for yourself and then overcoming the obstacles and challenges to get there.  Hashem puts us into every circumstance that we encounter and He will bring us out of them as well.  Chag Sameach!

My great great grandparents Yudel David and Esther Merves with their son Zelig, c. 1920 in Lithuania
About the Author
Born and raised in a Modern Orthodox/Conservadox home in Miami, FL, Yosef first started to increase his Jewish knowledge while learning at Boston University. Afterward, he lived on Manhattan's Upper West Side for several years and was an active member of several shuls, including Manhattan Jewish Experience where he completed the Fellowship program. He spent the last two years studying full-time at Machon Shlomo in Har Nof, Jerusalem and now resides in New Jersey. He always had a strong Jewish identity and wants to encourage others to build and strengthen theirs as well.
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