Roundup of Seder Insights 2012

With tremendous thanks to all who honored us with your presence, I wanted to share with the general public some of what was developed at our Pesach table this year.

1) The Surprising Emergence of Yosef at the Pesach Seder

Although Pesach may not seem to be a holiday with much connection to Yosef, this may not be the case. The following two ideas illustrate this point.

a) The Future as Past Experience

ספר בראשית פרק מ
(ט) וַיְסַפֵּר שַׂר הַמַּשְׁקִים אֶת חֲלֹמוֹ לְיוֹסֵף וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ בַּחֲלוֹמִי וְהִנֵּה גֶפֶן לְפָנָי: (י) וּבַגֶּפֶן שְׁלֹשָׁה שָׂרִיגִם וְהִוא כְפֹרַחַת עָלְתָה נִצָּהּ הִבְשִׁילוּ אַשְׁכְּלֹתֶיהָ עֲנָבִים: (יא) וְכוֹס פַּרְעֹה בְּיָדִי וָאֶקַּח אֶת הָעֲנָבִים וָאֶשְׂחַט אֹתָם אֶל כּוֹס פַּרְעֹה וָאֶתֵּן אֶת הַכּוֹס עַל כַּף פַּרְעֹה: (יב) וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ יוֹסֵף זֶה פִּתְרֹנוֹ שְׁלֹשֶׁת הַשָּׂרִגִים שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים הֵם: (יג) בְּעוֹד שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים יִשָּׂא פַרְעֹה אֶת רֹאשֶׁךָ וַהֲשִׁיבְךָ עַל כַּנֶּךָ וְנָתַתָּ כוֹס פַּרְעֹה בְּיָדוֹ כַּמִּשְׁפָּט הָרִאשׁוֹן אֲשֶׁר הָיִיתָ מַשְׁקֵהוּ:

Here we have an imprisoned wine-steward telling his dream to a lowly cellmate, Yosef, who proceeds to interpret it as a positive message about the steward’s coming reinstatement. The Talmud Yerushalmi picks up on the repeated use of the term “כוס,” cup, as an allusion to the four cups of wine that we drink the on Seder nights:

תלמוד ירושלמי מסכת פסחים פרק י הלכה א
מניין לארבעה כוסות
… רבי יהושע בן לוי אמר – כנגד ארבעה כוסות של פרעה (ברשאית פרק מ): “וכוס פרעה בידי, ואשחט אותם אל כוס פרעה, ואתן את הכוס על כף פרעה,” “ונתת כוס פרעה בידו.”

Among many other interpretations (including the more famous והוצאתי והצלתי וגאלתי ולקחתי argument), the Yerushalami uses the four cups of Pharaoh as an implicit harbinger of our own four Seder cups. This connection is not coincidental, for it is the very four cups which represent slavery, persecution, and pain which are hijacked and used as representative of freedom and joy. Prisoner Yosef, interpreting the dream of another prisoner as it relates to Pharaoh, sees our own four cups of joy hidden within four cups of misery.

The Midrash makes this point even more starkly:

ספר בראשית פרק מ
(ט) וַיְסַפֵּר שַׂר הַמַּשְׁקִים אֶת חֲלֹמוֹ לְיוֹסֵף וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ בַּחֲלוֹמִי וְהִנֵּה גֶפֶן לְפָנָי: (י) וּבַגֶּפֶן שְׁלֹשָׁה שָׂרִיגִם וְהִוא כְפֹרַחַת עָלְתָה נִצָּהּ הִבְשִׁילוּ אַשְׁכְּלֹתֶיהָ עֲנָבִים: (יא) וְכוֹס פַּרְעֹה בְּיָדִי וָאֶקַּח אֶת הָעֲנָבִים וָאֶשְׂחַט אֹתָם אֶל כּוֹס פַּרְעֹה וָאֶתֵּן אֶת הַכּוֹס עַל כַּף פַּרְעֹה:

בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשה פח, ה
וַיְסַפֵּר שַׂר הַמַּשְׁקִיםוְהִנֵּה גֶפֶן לְפָנָי” – אלו ישראל, שנאמר (תהלים פרק פ), “גפן ממצרים תסיע.”
וּבַגֶּפֶן שְׁלֹשָׁה שָׂרִיגִם” – משה אהרן ומרים.
הִוא כְפֹרַחַת” – הפריחה גאולתן של ישראל.
עָלְתָה נִצָּהּ” – הֵנִצָה גאולתן של ישראל.
הִבְשִׁילוּ אַשְׁכְּלֹתֶיהָ עֲנָבִים” – גפן שהפריחה, מיד הֵנִצָה; ענבים שֶׁהֵנִצוּ, מיד בִּשְׁלוּ.
וְכוֹס פַּרְעֹה בְּיָדִי” – מכאן קבעו חכמים ד’ כוסות של לילי פסח.

The Midrash takes every element of a dream describing the interaction between Pharaoh and the wine-steward as an implicit indication of the eventual salvation of the Jews. Here in a tiny prison cell with the Jews’ enslavement yet to begin, we see their salvation already hatched. הקדים רפואה למכה, perhaps, or maybe something bigger.

Perhaps the Seder night is not about slavery or freedom – perhaps it is about the inexorable freedom within slavery; about recognizing and appreciating the extent to which one is already free even while he is as yet enslaved. Think back to being a child and waiting for your mother to pick you up from soccer practice. The time is 3:55 pm. If your mother was the type to pick you up at 4:00 religiously, you feel “redeemed” even before she arrives. If she is the type to be late, sometimes very late, your lack of confidence in her prevents you from feeling “free” until she actually arrives. If you are a latchkey kid who has never seen your parents, you might feel free already, but as a result more of not actually having been redeemed than of actually having been so.

The same three possibilities exist as well in relation to the Jews’ redemption from Mitzrayim. Sitting in a secluded prison cell, Yosef already felt redeemed; he so acutely felt the gentle tug of Hashem on his arm that he could already describe visually what it would be like to be redeemed. He so believed in the reliability of his parent to “pick him up” on time that he could already picture the Jews on the road to redemption.

Rabbi Aryeh Lightstone spoke in my Shul last night and made a similar point in a different way. When, Rabbi Lightstone asked, did the first Pesach Seder take place? We tend to forget this, but it was the night before the Jews left Mitzrayim. So what exactly were the Jews celebrating? They were not discussing the past, as we do, or even the present, or even exactly the future. They were discussing the future as past. They so believed that they would be freed the next day that they could literally sit with their families and close friends and discuss the redemption as if it had already happened! Like the little boy who feels as if he is already in his mother’s car even as he waits for her by the curb, like Yosef in his prison cell describing a redemption still hundreds of years off in the future, these Jews on the eve of freedom were so strong in their faith that they felt the redemption as clearly as if it had already happened.

The challenge that the Seder offers us that חייב אדם ל(ה)ראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים is not really as difficult as it sounds when our situation is compared to that of Yosef in his cell or the Jews on the dawn of redemption. Our challenge, perhaps, is not to picture ourselves leaving, but to picture ourselves being so confident in the guarantee of Hashem’s redemption that we, like the Jews the night before their own redemption, can experience freedom while still wallowing in exile.

And in fact, this would be perhaps a more instructive and useful spiritual challenge as posed to us by the Haggadah. As we find ourselves, each in our own way, ensconced in physical, psychological, or spiritual acrimony, waiting each of us for our proverbial Mother to drive up and collect us, we have the choice to imagine that Parent as distant and unlikely to ever redeem us; as likely to redeem us but not for a long while; or as so likely to pick us up at the right time that we feel the closeness to our Parent before that redemption has even taken place. Our ultimate celebration is the penultimate one, the celebration of faith and tangible confidence in a redemption still to come.

Incidentally, the extent to which the wine represents freedom as felt within slavery can be seen in the interesting Halacha that the wine at the Seder should preferably be red. Although the verse in Mishlei/Proverbs used as a support for this ruling – אל תרא יין כי יתאדם; do not glance at wine as it reddens – could presumably be used to prove that Shabbat or Purim wine should be red, we never find the Gemara or Midrash make that point. The Seder wine is different, we are taught, because it also represents the blood that we shed in Egypt. That’s strange – the wine is generally assumed to be a symbol of freedom, not slavery! We pour wine for each other as a show of royal camaraderie; we lift the glasses in song throughout Maggid! Who toasts blood? What demented kings pour blood for each other? Yet that is exactly the point. As the cup of Pharaoh becomes the cup of redemption, we feel and experience the joy of freedom despite our seeing nothing but blood. It is interesting that wine is the only constant of the Seder – we lead off the Seder with wine, and we close it off with wine. Marror makes its appearance, even Sipur Yitziat Mitzrayim comes and goes, but wine is always there. Because wine does not represent either slavery or freedom, but the feeling of freedom that one experiences when he is enslaved but believes truly and deeply that the end will come. That is why the wine is always there – we lift it when we say “Baruch Hamakom” at the beginning of Maggid, and it is still raised much later during Hallel. (The debate about Rav Nachman’s opinion concerning leaning while drinking wine in Gemara Pesachim 102a, if understood properly, brings this point to life as well.)

b) Yosef, Lost and Found
Rabbi Marc Gitler
spoke to my students last week and made another interesting Yosef-Seder connection. Perhaps Karpas, he posited, is actually an acronym for כתונת רבוי פסים, a coat of many colors. (Anyone wondering why we don’t simply form the acronym from the first letter of each of those three words has obviously never been a teenage boy. But I digress …) The Karpas is dipped in saltwater, although it should probably really be dipped into something redder, more blood-like – see Mishna Pesachim 10:2 carefully. Anyway, the Karpas is Yosef’s coat. Then a Matzah is broken in half, as Yaakov’s family is torn apart; and the larger half (i.e., Yosef) is hidden away by a group of conniving, unruly children – representing Yosef’s brothers who sold Yosef down the river. “Yosef” remains in exile for most of the Seder, until, when it finally seems like all hope is lost, those very children (Yosef’s brothers) find Yosef Tzafun, hidden, in exile (Tzafun = Tzafnat Paneach, Yosef’s Egyptian name) and restore him to his rightful place at the Seder as we all open the door and shout “Shefoch Chamatcha …”

The message in this early-medieval (intentional?) misunderstanding of the Gemara’s dictum that we חוטפין את המצות (read: Mitzvot) in order that the children not fall asleep may be understood in several ways. On the one hand, it is a message that a redemption for us will yet come, even if, as it may have for Yosef, that redemption seems too long delayed to still hope. Second, that it is the children who will bring about the redemption – or perhaps that it is the very people who caused the destruction who will “right the ship” and bring about its end. And then there is the message about our relationship with Galut, exile – that Galut is a temporary condition meant to be tolerated but not celebrated.

2) Why Don’t You “Tzei” Just a Little Big Longer?

משנה: … מתחיל בגנות, ומסיים בשבח, ודורש (דברים כו) מ”ארמי אובד אבי” עד שיגמור כל הפרשה כולה.
גמרא: … “מתחיל בגנות, ומסיים בשבח.” מאי “בגנות?” רב אמר: “מתחלה עובדי עבודת גלולים היו אבותינו.” ושמואל אמר: “עבדים היינו.”

The Haggadah’s use of the phrase “Tzei U’lemad” before leading us to embark upon our mandate to fulfill Shmuel’s requirement as described above is rather interesting. Why the use of the word “Tzei,” go out? Why do I need to go somewhere before I can learn about Lavan and eventually Pharaoh? And where is it that I should go? (Of course the phrase cannot be taken literally, because it was forbidden for one to leave his Pesach Chabura anyway.)

Upon reflection, we might realize that it is always after either a physical יציאה, a mental one, or both that one finds success. Avraham is perhaps the prime example of needing to leave both his physical environs as well as his familial attachments in order to commune with Hashem (see Rashi to the beginning of Parshat Lech Lecha). Yaakov could not “find himself” until he moved, and even Yosef would never have been able to define for us what a life in Galut should be without having had his own “Tzei” forced upon him by his brothers. Maybe it is the choice itself to leave, or maybe it is the ability to make any hard and fast decision, which often causes one to only be able to “Lemad” in a “Tzei” environment. Exiting his cave, Rabbi Akiva finds that remaining cloistered in one’s one daled amot and unaware of what is going on in the world around him causes stagnation of learning. Rava’s declaration of או חברותא או מיתותא – give me dependence or give me death (Taanit 23a) – is a call to consider something larger than oneself in learning, a reminder that only shared experience can elicit Truth. In contrast, Nathan Hale’s own battle cry is symptomatic of what is wrong with the Lone Ranger society that he helped to create.

Reading a brief biography of the recently departed Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, I noticed that he, too, experienced a “Tzei” moment before he emerged as the giant of Torah learning that he would become:

With the encouragement of his father-in-law, Scheinberg and his new wife spent their first five years of marriage in the town of Mir, Belarus (then Poland). They lived next-door to the yeshiva, where Scheinberg immersed himself in learning while his wife coped with the impoverished lifestyle. There was no running water, the only source of heat was an oven in the center of their apartment, and the unpaved streets were always muddy. Bessie, however, encouraged her husband to grow in learning, and he developed a reputation as one of the yeshiva’s most diligent students.

Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, as well, while no doubt heavily influenced by the robust Modern Orthodox education he received through high school, would not fully emerge into the Torah giant that he became without “Tzeing” to his cousin’s Mir Yeshiva in  Israel:

Nosson Tzvi grew up as a “typical American Jewish boy” known as Natty who enjoyed playing baseball. He took his secondary education at the co-ed, Modern Orthodox Ida Crown Jewish Academy, where he was a starting centerfielder for the baseball team and president of the student council. During a visit to Israel at the age of 15, his cousin, Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Finkel (“Reb Leizer Yudel”), the Mir rosh yeshiva, recognized his ability to think clearly and have patience for studying, and invited him to stay in Jerusalem to pursue advanced Talmudic studies at the Mir. But Nosson Tzvi’s mother wanted him to return to Chicago to finish high school. At the age of 18, Finkel returned to Jerusalem to learn at the Mir and Reb Leizer Yudel provided him with top-notch chavrutas (study partners) to develop his skills. He learned diligently for the next six years. With one of his chavrutas, Rabbi Zundel Kroizer, he completed the entire Talmud each year.

It seems anecdotally that similar paragraphs can be found in the biography of almost any Torah leader. In order to “Lamad,” it seems, one must first “Tzei.” I heard recently that Google requires all of its employees to devote a few hours each week, on company time, to developing their own projects, a concept which has yielded GMail and other important innovations. By “Tzeing” from their normal routine, by straying from their usual constraints, they are able to produce something they otherwise would not have been able to create. That’s the power of Tzei.

3) Inspiration at Sunset

יכול מראש חודש; תלמוד לומר, “ביום ההוא.” אי “ביום ההוא,” יכול מבעוד יום. תלמוד לומר, “בעבור זה.” “בעבור זה” לא אמרתי אלא בשעה שיש מצה ומרור מונחים לפניך.

Perhaps [one might have thought that the obligation to discuss the Exodus from Egypt can be fulfilled anytime] from Rosh Chodesh Nissan, [when Pesach preparations typically begin, and would continue until the 15th of Nissan] – that’s why it says [in the Torah that the Exodus should be discussed] “on that day.” If [the obligation exists] on that day, perhaps [one might have thought that the obligation applies] in the afternoon [of the 14th of Nissan, when the Korban Pesach was slaughtered]. That’s why it also says “because of this” – “because of this” only applies when Matzah and Marror are actually placed before you [and eaten together with the Korban Pesach, on the night of the 15th].

As someone at my Pesach table observed, the Haggadah makes an excellent point that the Torah obligation to discuss the Exodus seems to be one that applies during the day – the verse quoted here (“והגדת לבנך ביום ההוא לאמר …”) does in fact seem to indicate that, like virtually every other Mitzvah in the Torah, this one as well applies singularly during the day. Against that backdrop, why does the Haggadah go so far out of its way to ensure that one not think that the obligation existed at the time that the Korban Pesach was slaughtered, on the afternoon of the 14th, but rather when it is eaten, on the night of the 15th? What would be so wrong with discussing the Exodus on the afternoon of the 14th, as the Korban Pesach is being slaughtered, that the Haggadah needs to make so clear that that would be an inappropriate way to fulfill the Mitzvah?

Perhaps closer reflection upon a typical Erev Yom Tov in any Jewish home gives us two clues. At the time that Yom Tov preparations are actively underway, everyone is independently completing their assigned tasks en route to taking in the holiday on time. As the Gemara describes, Erev Pesach in Temple-era Yerushalayim was no different – the frantic and frenetic pace of pre-Pesach preparations created a feverish frenzy perhaps most closely seen on Erev Shabbat in Meah Shearim today. Two elements lacking from this scene would be needed to create an element conducive to passing on lessons to perpetuity: serenity and community. In fact, nothing on Erev Yom Tov is really “placed before” (מונחים לפני) anybody – everybody is shuffling around their items as needed before the final siren rings. It is very important to the Haggadah that this critical Mitzvah of furthering a perpetual legacy be performed only at a time of serenity and one at which a sense of community overtakes the Jewish People.

4) The $10,000 Answer
Many people are bothered by the apparent non-answer to the children’s “Mah Nishtanah” questions, with the father simply moving on to “Avadim Hayinu” as if he had not just been asked direct questions by his children. I would like to offer an approach to this problem which will redefine the nature of the children’s questions and make the father’s answer more tolerable.

The word “Mah” (as in “Mah” Nishtanah) can be translated in many ways, among them “is it really?” or a sarcastic “how?!” Mah Nishtanah can be translated “How different is tonight, really, from all other nights?” The child’s questions proceed to accentuate the problem that, in essence, nothing is really all that different. We always eat either Chometz or Matzah, and tonight we eat one of those, Matzah. We always eat some sort of vegetable – Marror (especially Romaine Lettuce, the choice apparently preferred by the Gemara) is just another and not entirely uncommon form of vegetable. We always dip once, tonight we dip twice – big deal. We always eat either sitting straight or leaning – tonight we lean; is that really so significant, Dad? Is this why we’ve gathered here tonight? Are these seemingly petty, superficial, detail-oriented differences the explanation as to why we’ve prepared the house for a month and dropped everything to come here and sit around this table together? So we could eat a different type of vegetable? So we could lean? So we could dip twice, instead of once? Are these really the “Nishtanah,” the differences that I’m supposed to notice? I mean, missing school is always nice, Dad, but seriously, is this what this holiday is all about?!

To which the father supplies the most important “Nishtanah” of all, and the one the child could only be expected to have missed because it is the least immediately accessible to the naked eye. It is also the diagnosis for which all of the “Nishatanah’s” that the child noticed were merely symptoms. The final “Nishtanah?” עבדים היינו לפרעה במצרים, ויוציאנו ה’ אלוקנו משם – We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but Hashem made us slaves to Him. We were once slaves to a person, but on this night we were redeemed in order to became slaves only to Hashem. And that, my child, is the ultimate “Nishtanah,” the real difference that we celebrate on this night, and the one that in turn gives rise to all of the more superficial differences you have already noted.

Pedagogically, the father is in the right place, because rather than lecture his children about the differences of the night or about Yitziat Mitzrayim in general, he invites his child to build a paradigm for himself via the experience of self-discovery. Once they have done this, the father essentially confirms the child’s findings, before organizing them around a central theme which the child could not have created on his own. Also notice that the children’s own experiential learning has included several modalities and senses – doing, tasting, seeing, hearing, speaking, and eventually classifying. See John Dewey, Experience and Education, esp. p. 35, but the whole book really.

5) The Challenge of שעבוד in a World of Comfort
Many people are confused by the Haggadah’s claim that אלו לא הוציא הקדוש ברוך הוא את אבותינו ממצרים, הרי אנו ובנינו ובני בנינו משועבדים היינו לפרעה במצרים – if Hashem had not taken us out of Egypt, then we, our children, and our grandchildren would continue to be Meshubad to Pharaoh in Egypt. These people find it hard to believe that we would not have escaped somehow. While that fact may be true, it is entirely beside the point.

Rather than translate משועבדים as enslaved (which would really be עבדים, the first word in the same paragraph), the word may perhaps better be translated indebted. Had we spent any more time in Egypt, says the Ba’al HaHaggadah, we would pledge our allegiance only to Pharaoh, identifying ourselves as Egyptian Jews, and then, increasingly, merely as Egyptian.

The boatloads of Italian and Chinese immigrants who came to America’s shores a century ago would be appalled how few of their descendants are even aware of their ancestors’ homelands, much less actually identify as Italian or Chinese. For all intents and purposes, these descendants, in less than half the 247-year time-span that the Jews spent in Egypt, have become משועבד to America. And perhaps we should not be surprised, either, that the 80% of the Jews who in fact did identify first and last as Egyptian and who were not redeemed from Egypt would be mirrored in America today by the 80% intermarriage rate and appalling rates of assimilation. In all likelihood, 4/5ths of the Jews who came to America’s shores in the early 20th Century have descendants who today are unaware that they are Jewish and are משועבד only to America.

The tragedy of שעבוד is perhaps greater even than the pain of עבדות. The latter is a unifying force which promotes, at least in some, a sense of reliance, fortitude, and disgust at once’s oppressors. שעבוד, on the other hand, engenders feelings of admiration and respect for one’s foreign surroundings, along with the most dangerous and pernicious sense that those surroundings are really not that foreign at all.

When we mention at the Seder that אנו ובנינו ובני בנינו משועבדים היינו לפרעה במצרים, we are putting forth the very startling fact that without Hashem’s intervention, there could have been Egyptians walking around today who would call themselves merely Egyptian but whose ancient ancestors were our very Avot – because these Egyptians would have been us. The mention of בנינו and בני בנינו is meant to evoke the endless generational links that would have been lost, the great history and culture of Torah and Torah study which would not have even been missed had we become משועבד to Pharaoh and to Egypt. This is a tragedy which, looking at fifth-generation Chinese Americans, is highly realistic and saddening.

As to the fifth-generation American Jews, the writing was on the wall before the game had ever really begun. To really understand this situation and its origins, you must study Chapter 1 (“The Orthodox Immigrant Community”) in Rabbi Dr. Aaron (Rakkefet) Rothkoff’s amazing biography of YU’s founder, “Bernard Revel: Builder of American Jewish Orthodoxy.” The chapter closes (p. 26) with this chilling – but telling – anecdote:

A recently married Russian Jew of New York’s East Side, when asked whether he still observed the dietary laws, said:
“In a way, yes. We don’t make much of the details like keeping the butter and meat dishes apart, but we do eat kosher food. If we didn’t, the old folks would not come to visit us. We shall keep it up as long as they live.”

6) Serial Killer of One
Someone at my second Seder made an interesting observation about the comparison between Lavan and Pharaoh made in the Tzei U’lemad paragraph. On the surface, it seems ironic that we begin the main portion of Maggid by saying that, in essence, Pharaoh wasn’t really that bad after all. Furthermore, the proof-text for Lavan’s evilness is rather weak in its attempt to assert that Lavan somehow בקש לעקור את הכל, attempted to uproot everything.

The individual at my Seder pointed out that the sum total of “everything” which Lavan “attempted to destroy” consisted of only one thing: Yaakov, the only Jew alive at the time. In essence, then, Lavan and Pharaoh have a lot in common. Pharaoh wanted to destroy all of the male Jews – so did Lavan. In trying to subdue Yaakov religiously, if not physically, all of Hashem’s plans for an impactful Jewish People would have been lost without anyone ever really noticing.

Notice that the Haggadah never actually says that Lavan was worse than Pharaoh in an absolute sense, because if either had accomplished his goal the same end would have come about and the Jewish Nation would have been lost. The Haggadah does say, however, that Lavan attempted to uproot everything, in the sense that his actions would have bore a greater responsibility with so much potentially being lost by his swaying Yaakov from a path of spiritual cognizance. Lavan thus stands as a figure who represents the chilling power of one – of how actions seemingly irrelevant in the greater scheme of things may in fact spell the harbinger of doom.

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1 Response to Roundup of Seder Insights 2012

  1. Pingback: Exploring Lecha Dodi, Part #3: Verses 1-2 | Classroom Declassified

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