SHABBAT HAGADOL 5771
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
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
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
We no longer have the Passover sacrifice because the
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
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
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
The 2nd question: Why call the holiday Pesach and not “Redemption
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
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