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The Passover Story: Life Is Never Smooth

I attended a scholar-in-residence program sponsored by the Atlanta Rabbinical Association last month featuring Rabbi JJ Schacter of Yeshiva University—my alma maître—who presented a paradigm of looking at the Seder that was so new and meaningful that I knew I had to share it with you today. A key feature of the Seder is the asking of the 4 questions. And so in preparation for the Seder, let me ask 4 questions about the Seder itself and the story it tells with the hope that it will give you something to discuss at your Seders.

One would think that the story of Passover begins with Moses at the burning bush. Gd asks Moses to go and gather the elders of Israel and tell them that I sent you and together you will go to Pharaoh and demand that he let the Jewish people go. Gd reassures Moses that He will be with him, but Moses is reluctant and finally tells Gd (Ex. 4:13): Shlach na b’yad tishlach, “Please Gd, send whomever you will send.” In other words, “Send somebody else but don’t send me!” The 1st question is: How can Moses refuse Gd? Our sages contend that Moses was so reluctant to go that it took Gd a week at the bush to convince him. How could Moses delay when he knew from his own experience that every moment Jews were being killed by the Egyptians?

The 2nd question is. Why do we call the holiday Pesach? Yes we know—as the Haggadah tells us—it’s because Gd passed over the houses of the Jews when he killed the Egyptian 1st born. That was the fatal blow that caused Pharaoh to finally give in and let the Jews go. Pesach holiday actually means “Jumping” holiday, for Gd jumped over the Jewish homes. However, this happened before the actual freeing of the Jews. Why not call the holiday, “Redemption Holiday”?

The 3rd question is, we have 3 maztot on the Seder table. One opinion is that it’s for the 3 forefathers—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But as we have 4 cups of wine and 4 questions, why not have 4 matzot for our 4 mothers—Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Lea? After all, the sages teach us that it was for the merit of the Jewish women that we were redeemed.      

The 4th and final question is why do we have 4 cups of wine at the Seder? The Midrash tells us it was for the 4 expressions of redemption mentioned in the Torah (Ex. 6:6-7): V’hotzeyti, “And I will bring you out,” v’hitzalti, “and I will resue you,” v’gaalti, “and I will redeem you,” and v’lakachti, “and I will take you.” But there is another opinion. Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman contends that the 4 cups of wine at the Seder correspond to the 4 cups in the verses of the dream Pharaoh’s butler told Joseph in prison and in Joseph’s interpretation. Wow! Where did that come from? What do the 4 cups of wine at the Seder have to do with Joseph?

These are Rabbi Schacter’s 4 questions about the Seder. He begins his answer with a quote from the Talmud (Peachim 65b) that asks, how did the Jews carry their Passover sacrifice home for the Seder to eat with the family? It was offered in the Temple and roasted on the altar. But how did they carry it home? The Talmud teaches that it was wrapped up in the skin of the sacrifice. Rashi comments that this was similar to the Ishmaelites who carried food in skins. Rabbi Shlomo Klugar (Yesodot Brit Yaakov) makes a brilliant, but simple observation—one of those when you hear it you say, “Why didn’t I think of that.” He says that we focus at the Seder on our experiences in Egypt and the Exodus, but we don’t focus on how we got to Egypt. Therefore, Rabbi Klugar says, the Haggadah invokes the Joseph story. It was the Ishmaelites who took Joseph into Egypt after the brothers sold him. So the Ishmaelite mode of getting the Passover sacrifice home reminds us of the Joseph story and how we got to Egypt in the 1st place.

We no longer have the Passover sacrifice because the Temple has not been rebuilt. So what do we do at our Seders today to remind us of the Joseph story? One of the 4 questions of the Ma Nishtana is why do we dip twice? We dip the Karpas into salt water and the marror into the charoset –2 dips. But why do we dip at all? According to Maimonides, dipping is a sign of wealth. But Rabeynu Manoach teaches that it’s to remind us of the dipping of Joseph’s special Coat of Many Colors by his brothers into lamb’s blood so that their father would assume Joseph was killed. That coat—as it turns out—was responsible for Joseph and then the Jews getting to Egypt.

It seems like a bit of a stretch that dipping the karpas into salt water reminds us of Joseph, doesn’t it? But what is karpas? Would it surprise you to learn that it does not mean “green vegetable,” even though most of us use a green vegetable for the karpas? Tradition teaches us that backwards, karpas spells safrach, meaning, “backbreaking work,” and hence the salt water for the tears of slavery. Karpas is a word that appears only one more time in the whole Bible—in the story of Esther (1:6)—and there it means, “fine wool,” which—as it turns out—was also the material of Joseph’s coat (Rashi Gen. 37:3). So yes, dipping the karpas has a direct connection to Joseph.   

What’s the real point of adding Joseph to the Passover story? Rabbi Schacter comments that the 4 expressions of redemption mentioned in the Torah follow one another too neatly. The Joseph story provides another model of redemption. The Joseph story is a story of complexity—of ups and downs. Initially, Joseph was up. He was the favorite son and wore the Coat of Many Colors. Then the jealous brothers sold him into slavery to a caravan of Ishmaelites going to Egypt. Now Joseph is down. But he becomes head of his master Potiphar’s household—up again. But Potiphar’s wife falsely accuses him of raping her and he’s thrown into prison—down! In prison he successfully interprets the dreams of Pharaoh’s butler and baker and eventually Pharaoh himself and is made prime minister of all of Egypt—up, up, up! 

The reason we invoke Joseph at the Seder is because our lives are complicated—good and bad, health and sickness, we have money and then we don’t have much money, marriage and divorce, blessings and curses. Now we have a very prosperous State of Israel, but also the massacre of the Fogel family and the terrorism it represents. Joseph is brought into the Seder to give us a sense of hope. The 4 terms of redemption—that Gd brought us out, rescued us, redeemed us and took us—are too linear, too neat. Our lives don’t work that way. Our lives, like Joseph’s, are a series of ups and downs.

This answers question #3: Why don’t we have 4 matzot? After all we have 4 questions and 4 cups of wine? Daniel Sperber in his work, Minhagey Yisrael, “Customs of Israel,” brings some classic commentators that suggest that we use 4 matzot. The 4th matzah was a safeyk, a “doubt.” It was to be used just in case if one of the other matzot broke or was lost. But why not then put it on the side of the table or close by the table? Why put it together with the other 3 matzot in the center of the table? For these commentators it’s because the 4th matzah is a safeyk, a symbol of our doubts and at the Seder we are to take take our doubts and place them in the center of the table.

The 2nd question: Why call the holiday Pesach and not “Redemption Holiday”? It’s because redemption is a process. And for us, this process began much earlier than the actual exodus. Actually it begins with Joseph. This teaches us not to look for redemption in absolute terms. There is never a time in our lives when everything is perfect. When things go bad, they usually don’t get better all at once—but in stages. We shouldn’t wait till the final redemption—till everything is wonderful—to feel redeemed.

When we break the middle matzah at the beginning of the Seder, we put one half aside for the afikoman. The other half is kept on the table between the 2 whole matzot. This broken matzah is symbolic of past redemptions while the afikomen half is symbolic of the future redemption. The message of the 2 broken halves of the middle matzah is that all redemptions come with brokenness.

And finally question #1: How could Moses delay and tell Gd that He should send someone else, while he knew that every day Jews were being killed? The sages pondered who was Moses suggesting Gd send in his place? The Pirke deRabi Eliezer suggests that it was Elijah who will herald the coming of the messiah. Moses would then be saying, “Don’t send me, send Elijah now so we can avoid millennia of Jewish tragedy.” He wasn’t arguing for just redemption from the oppression of Egypt. He was pleading to Gd for a final redemption so the Jewish people would not have to suffer the destructions of 2 Temples, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the pogroms, the Holocaust. “Send Elijah now so that Your people will be spared 3,000 years of tragedy.” But Gd responds like at the end of today’s Haftorah, Hiney Anochi sholeyach lachem yet Eliyahu hanavi, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet.” I will send him when the time is right. You see, redemption is not neat—it’s a process. We need to celebrate each step as we put our doubts on the table.

Life is not a neat linear line from birth till death. There are times of amazing joy and times of unbearable heartache. Don’t wait till everything is good to sing Dayenu, to sing thanks to Gd. As in the Dayenu song at the Seder, sing out thanks to Gd for each simcha, for each moment of happiness and naches that life throws you—like being with loved ones and friends at your Seder. Amen!

                                                            Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis



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