Shaarei Shamayim

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We’ve made it to the last day of Pesach. It began 8 days ago with great anticipation and it’s now only about 8 or 9 hours to the finish line—till Pesach is over and we can begin the process to restore our bodily systems to some sort of normality. As you know all too well, we’ve all been eating this “bread of affliction” for 8 days. I think it was Shabbos when I reached my MSP—my Matzah Saturation Point!

Question: What do you call someone who derives pleasure from the eating of the “bread of affliction?” Answer: A matzachist!

One more matzah joke: At our Seder, we had whole wheat and bran matzah, fortified with Metamucil—which is, Baruch Hashem, Kosher l’Pesach. The brand name, of course, is…”Let My People Go.”

And so, 8 days ago we started to eat matzah and tonight we can finally finish the eating of matzah till next year—unless, of course, you are a matzachist. Rabbi Avi Weiss (Shabbat Forshpeis 4/11/01) contends that starting and finishing is a Passover theme, but with a strange twist. If you think about it, the Passover holiday is really filled with many starts and many finishes. But they are often starts that don’t finish and finishes that don’t end.

For example, at the beginning of the Seder we wash our hands, but we don’t recite a blessing. We break the middle matzah, but we don’t eat it. We begin to eat the Karpas hors d’oeuvres of parsley or celery, but we don’t continue eating. The meal comes much later.

The same holds true in the Magid story-telling section of the Seder. We hear the 4-Questions only to break before another set of 4 questions are asked by the 4-Children. We begin to tell the story of the Exodus with the paragraph, Avadim hayinu l’Pharoh b’Mitzrayim, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt,” only to halt on the next page and begin a different telling of the story with the words: “In the beginning our fathers were worshippers of idols.” And on the following page we begin yet again by quoting the Torah’s 1st fruits ceremony with the words, “Come and learn what Laban the Aramean attempted to do to our father Jacob.”

Similarly, after the story is told, we begin praising Gd by reciting the Hallel service composed of Psalms of praise. However, after we recite just the 1st 2 Psalms, we stop and break for dinner. The rest of the Hallel praise, however, has to wait until the Seder meal is over. It seems that throughout the Seder we start and stop, start and stop.

There is a famous rabbinic saying (Mechilta on Ex. 19:5):Kol hatchalot kashot, “All beginnings are hard.” Rashi comments on the verse in the Torah that calls us an am segula, “a treasured people,” by suggestion that what Gd is really saying to us is: “If you accept My Torah now it will be pleasant to you from now on, Shekol hatchalot kashot, for all beginnings are hard.” In other words, learning to follow the Torah and beginning to live a Torah way of life may not be easy for you; it may turn your life upside down; but it will be worth it! Kol hatchalot kashot, “All beginnings are hard.”

The phrase itself is a truism for most of us. Once we have started to do something, it’s much easier, but to begin anything, whether a new job, a project, or a relationship is not easy. I’m sure I’m like most husbands in that I have a to-do list of projects that Cheryl has asked me to do that’s much too long because I have a tough time getting started with any of them. I’m just being pulled in too many directions most of the time. But once I do start, I usually can focus and get the job done. Kol hatchalot kashot, “All beginnings are hard.”

Rabbi Samuel Belkin, a”h, former president of Yeshiva University while I was in rabbinical school there, once commented on why this rabbinic saying is in the plural—i.e. that all hatchalot, all beginnings are hard. He suggested that any single venture may require several beginnings in order to succeed. We start, we fail, we start again and we fall, only, hopefully to start yet again. But to succeed, one must be tenacious and not give up.

Let me read to you the story of Rabbi Aharon Davids, who was the rabbi of the Jewish community of Rotterdam in 1944 when the Nazis took his whole community to the concentration camps—as told by his nephew, Joseph Freuchtwanger (

On Erev Pesach, all the Jews were taken from the Vesterbork camp in Holland to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. Conditions in Vesterbork had been harsh, but religious observance had been possible, and that had helped to preserve the dignity and the will to live of the Jews. When they arrived at Bergen-Belsen, families were divided; possessions were confiscated; hard labor broke body and soul; disease spread rapidly; and matzah for the Seder was, of course, not available.

Rabbi Davids wanted to do something to keep the spirit of his family and of his congregants alive, even as their physical strength wore down. To refrain from eating chometz during the week of Pesach was obviously impossible. If they did that, they would starve to death. To find a crumb of matzah in the concentration camp was surely impossible. What should they do? Rabbi Davids had no books and no colleagues to consult. But after a long and anguished struggle, this is what he did. On the night of Pesach, Rabbi Davids sat at the head of a long table in the male barracks and conducted a Seder. He had no Haggadah, but he recited the words from memory. And when he reached the moment when you are supposed to recite the bracha over the matzah, he lifted up his voice, and this is what he said:

“Avinu Shebashamayim, [Our Father in Heaven] it is known and manifest to You that we desire to carry out the commandment to eat matzah, and that we desire to refrain from eating chometz on this, the Festival of Pesach. But we are prevented from doing this by reason of the oppression in which we find ourselves. And therefore we stand ready to perform Your commandment [from Your Torah]: ‘You shall do them [Gd’s commandments]—and live by them (Vayikra 18:5) which the Sages explain means: ‘you shall live by them and not die by them.’ And we stand ready to perform Your commandment: ‘take heed to yourselves and keep your souls alive’ (Devarim 4:9) which the Sages explain to mean: ‘guard your health.’ Therefore, we eat this bread in place of matzah tonight, and we pray that You will keep us in life and redeem us from our servitude soon so that we may be able to perform Your statues and carry out Your will with a perfect heart as we yearn to do. Amen.”

Rabbi Davids and his son, Eli, died in Bergen-Belsen, shortly before it was liberated, but his wife, Erika, and their daughters survived. In 1947, Erika Davids, together with her daughters immigrated to the Land of Israel. She took with her a copy of the prayer that her husband had composed, which one of the survivors of that Seder in Bergen-Belsen had somehow saved. Each year, her family and their descendants, read the prayer that their father wrote at the Seder. It’s a testimony to a man who taught his people to live by the mitzvot and not to die by them.

Kol hatchalot kashot, “All beginnings are hard.” Rabbi Davids knew that completing the Seder that year was impossible. There was no matzah, no green vegetable, no bitter herbs and no charoset. They may be discovered by the SS guards and killed. Nevertheless, with unimaginable courage he began the Seder anyway. And it was a Seder never to be forgotten.  

As there are many starts to the Seder, so are there many conclusions. It’s difficult to say goodbye to an experience of great meaning. Thus, although the Seder comes to its official conclusion after we complete the Great Hallel of praise, over the centuries, beloved prayers and songs were added like Adir Hu, Echad Mi Yodeya and Chad Gadya. At my Seder, we always add Hatikvah as well, the Jewish national anthem—the song of eternal hope. We can’t bear to part with the Seder, so when the end comes, we end again and then again.

In some communities, they recite the book of Shir haShirim, “The Song of Songs,” of King Solomon from the Bible after the Haggadah is completed. “Song of Songs,” as I mentioned on Shabbos, is in essence a love letter between Gd and the Jewish people. Adding this to the Seder that continuously reminds us Gd’s love for us and how he demonstrated that love by saving us from the Egyptians, is yet another example of our hesitant feeling of parting after the intense experience of the Seder. This resistance to separation is clearly seen when we consider that “Song of Songs” is recited again days after the Seder night on the Shabbos of Pesach—Shabbat Chol Hamoed. Its recitation days later, finally completes the Seder experience.

All this points to the fact that, as there are many beginnings to Passover and to life experiences…so too there are many ends. It’s also so hard to say goodbye. As you know, my mother passed away this past summer. I can tell you that it was very difficult sitting down for the Seder this year without her—or at least not being able to have called her Erev Pesach to wish her a sweet Pesach and share our love before Yom Tov. Truth be told, the 1st year of loss includes many goodbyes—i.e. the funeral, the ending of Shiva, the end of Sheloshim, the ending of saying Kaddish after 11 months, the end of the year of mourning, the 1st Shabbos or Chanukah without her as well as the 1st Seder. And the process of goodbye continues even into future years as we say goodbye over and over again—several times a year—when we say Kaddish for a Yahrtzeit or recite Yizkor, as we do today, at the end of each holiday.

And this is the way it should be. There is no end to love. Even death can’t end our love. As it says in “Song of Songs,” Simeyni chachotam al libecha, ki aza chamavet ahava, “Set me as a seal upon your heart, for love is as strong as death. Many waters cannot quench our love, neither can the flood drown it.” By observing our Yahrtziets and our Yizkors, by giving tzedaka to the shule and worthy causes in their memory, we keep our loved ones alive as a living presence in our lives. There is no greater expression of our love because they can’t return it.

For the good and for the bad, that’s the way it is in life. Beginnings and endings don’t always come in neat, clean packages. Often we start only to start all over again. And sometimes we end, only to end again and again. Amen!

                             Rabbi Mark Kunis


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