Shaarei Shamayim

A Place of Comfort, Companionship and Healing



We all know the old joke that all the Jewish holidays can be summed up as follows: “We were attacked; Gd helped us and we defeated our enemies; let’s eat!” Good joke, but think about it. It’s not really so! It doesn’t explain the master stories behind the eating—especially at the Seder.

The Torah tells us at least 4 times, for example, that we must tell our children that we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt but Gd saved us. And so to fulfill this command, the 1st 2 nights of Pesach we have a Seder, read the Haggadah and tell the story of slavery to freedom. However, if you pay attention you’ll discover that it’s possible to sit through the entire Seder and never really get the major details of the story. In fact, Moses’ name is not even mentioned in Haggadah’s story telling.

The Haggadah begins to tell the story after the 4 questions as follows: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and Gd took us out with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” But, as my colleague Rabbi Mark Greenspan points out, “That’s like saying Tolstoy’s great classic is about ‘war’ and ‘peace.’” Of course, everyone knows that there were 10 plagues—if not from the Torah, at least from the movies: “The 10 Commandments” and “Little Prince Of Egypt.” But the Haggadah’s accounting of it being really 50 or 200 or 250 or 300 plagues can be a little confusing. By the end of the evening, it seems that it might have been easier for us just to read the 1st 15 chapters of Exodus if we wanted to convey the actual story.

Instead, the Haggadah always seems to get side-tracked. It starts off talking about Gd and Pharaoh but ends up talking about Laban—Jacob’s father-in-law, who, we are told, was worse than Pharaoh. We begin talking about Egypt and end up discussing our idolatrous ancestors who lived on the other side of the Jordan River. We sing songs and offer complex analyses of Torah verses but we quote verses from Song of Songs and Chronicles that appear to have nothing to do with the Exodus. We discuss the symbolism of the foods we’re about to eat but we don’t really put them in logical order. And then as the night comes to an end, we find ourselves singing songs about “Who Knows One” and “The dog that bit the cat that ate a goat.” What does that have to do with anything?

The answer is that the mitzvah of reading the Haggadah—which means, “The Telling”—is not so much to tell the chronological story of the Exodus with all its important details. The mitzvah is to tell the story of Gd’s love for us. And all the Haggadah’s diversions from the story that seem to be off topic are really to amplify the message of how much Gd loves us. And the telling of this great love story is needed today more than ever as more and more Jews have become distant from Gd and Jewish life. It’s amazing to me, for example, how many Jews today don’t even go to a Seder!

It’s true that most Jews don’t go around thinking—or better yet feeling—how much Gd loves them. That kind of Gd-loves-you-talk we hear more from Christians. But Christians don’t have a monopoly on Gd’s love. If anything, the Haggadah points out that it is the Jewish people that is a special focus of Gd’s love and that’s why—as the Haggadah states—Gd took us out, “not by an angel or a messenger or even a fiery angel, but Gd Himself in all His glory.” Why? Because we are so precious to Him.    

The entire festival of Pesach—even in its preparations—are an expression of that special loving relationship between Gd and the Jewish people. This morning’s Torah (Ex. 12:42) reading calls the Seder night, leyl shimurim, the night of Gd’s loving protection; and the Seder—at the end—has a long list of examples of Gd’s loving protection on Passover during our long history indicating that this has always been a special night of Gd’s love.  

It all begins for even before Pesach. The night before the Seder we search our homes for chametz. Chametz is dough that has soured and risen. It’s a metaphor for us—at this holy time—to rid ourselves of what’s sour and puffy in our lives. Shlomo Carlebach has a wonderful take on this (Pesach 1994 transcribed by Daniel Flieger):      

I’ll tell you something very deep. Imagine I love someone very much and I always hurt her feelings. So I say, “Forgive me.” But it’s deeper, so deep. How come you hurt somebody’s feelings? Crazy right? And you know you shouldn’t and you still do it. But if you remember that chometz is leavened bread, it really means it’s blown up out of proportion. You know usually when people are angry with each other it’s always out of proportion. I’m angry with you for something very little then I’m blowing it up. So on Pesach just remember, we’re getting rid of the chometz—what’s blown out of proportion—so that we can eat matzah and get back to the truth.

But if Pesach is the festival of love, why do we work so hard for so long in preparing and making our homes Kosher l’Pesach? Why do we need to schlep different dishes and pots and pans to our kitchens for Pesach? I think all this physical work is part of the spiritual process of Pesach. Kabbalah will tell us that Gd’s love and light that He shines upon and in us on Pesach is so strong that we have no adequate vessels to contain it. It’s a love and compassion beyond anything we deserve. But all this physical work of cleaning and schlepping shows our love for Gd and that creates new vessels within us to contain Gd’s love and light that will come our way on Pesach—especially at the Seder—if we’re willing to receive it.

At the Seder we do strange things to provoke questions. We wash without a bracha; we eat reclining; we eat bitter herbs and matzah; we lift a cup of wine and don’t drink; we lift other foods and don’t eat. On and on it goes that we’re asking questions and searching for answers. The Seder is so designed that as we engage each question we come to appreciate another nuance of Gd’s love for us—represented in every symbol and symbolic act—and by doing so we bring a little more of Gd’s light into our homes and into the world.

We can essentially fulfill the mitzvah of telling the story with that 1st verse which tells us simply that we were slaves and Gd saved us. But, as the Haggadah teaches, V’chol hamarbeh l’sapeyr bitziyat Mitzrayim, harey zeh m’shubach, “The more one embellishes the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the more one is to be praised.” The more you tell, the more you engage with Gd, the more His light will shine into you. As Shlomo Carlebach would say, “Pesach is getting into yourself in a very deep way.”

The Haggadah has a special reading at the end, Vay’hi bachatzi halaila, “And it happened at midnight?” What’s so special about the exodus happening at midnight? Midnight is the most vulnerable time—when the night is the darkest—the time when the Jewish people were the most defenseless. Gd waited till midnight to show that it was entirely Gd’s love for us that gave us our freedom.

Let me explain with another Shlomo teaching (ibid):

Seder night is so unbelievable. I can reach the highest level at the Seder because Gd’s light is there. The question is how much will you take with you from this light? You know, we sit there, ask Ma Nistana, eat chicken soup and talk the whole time about the chicken soup and the kneidlach…You know most people ask how was the Seder—that means the food! Heart breaking right?

You see what it is—Seder night? What the world thinks is freedom is the most degrading thing in the world. Freedom is not that you can do what you want…Freedom is that you yourself became a vessel for the highest, for the most awesome…Imagine Einstein is free so he becomes a carpenter—heartbreaking. He missed out on his whole purpose for being. What would you say, “I was free to become a carpenter?” but don’t you understand you could become Einstein…

Anyway friends, I want to bless you and me we should have vessels for this amazing light. And you know every second of the Seder is…like the Ishbitzer Rebbe says: “When you come to a gold mine you don’t take a lunch break and go back and pick up some more gold.” You don’t want to miss a second, because every second you can put so much gold in your pocket. Gevalt! The Seder is the same thing. It’s all gold!

Most of us don’t have our act together; we have to get it straight. Seder mamesh means order. Seder night Gd gives order to our lives and puts everyone’s act together simple as it is. This is the greatest gift Gd could give us…to show the way what we have to do, and who we are.

If—unlike Shlomo—you have difficult time feeling Gd’s love at the Seder, just think of all the amazing miracles he performed for us—the 10 plagues, the exodus, the splitting of the Red Sea. And if you still have a difficult time relating to these miracles of 3300 years ago think about what is the greatest miracle in the world today. The greatest miracle is that you and I are at a Seder celebrating Gd’s love. By any stretch of the imagination, the Jewish people—like every single ancient people that were thrown off their land—should have disappeared from off the face of the earth 2,000 years ago. We’re here because Gd loves us!

And so my holy friends (as Shlomo would say) tonight at the final Seder, have fun and enjoy the people you’re with. But most of all, take in the love and light that Gd has in store for you. Amen!

                                                Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis


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