SHABBAT HAGADOL 5777
I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted already from getting ready for Pesach. There’s so much to do to make sure that when Yom Tov comes we’re able to fulfill all the mitzvot of Pesach—more than any other holiday. One whole tractate of the Talmud—Pesachim, one of the largest, comprising more than 240 pages—is dedicated to a study of the laws of Pesach.
Our Pesach routine is familiar: our homes have to be cleaned, pots, dishes and silverware changed, and all of the chametz disposed of. There’s the shopping, the cooking, the scrubbing and kashering—all part of our preparations for Pesach.
These are tough times for us men—tough having to watch our wives go through all this. I know one man who told me that it’s so painful for him watching his wife having to work this hard during the days before Pesach that he literally has to leave the house!
There’s one mitzvah for Pesach, however, that’s crucial—obligatory for both men and for women—that many of us may not be aware of, and I tell it to you today because it too requires real preparation. And that is the mitzvah to be happy. The Shulchan Aruch, The Code of Jewish Law states: Chayav Adam l’hiyot sameyach v’tov leyv b’moeyd (A person is obligated to be happy and good of heart on the festival). The Mishnah Berura—in its commentary—adds: V’hu mitzvat asey min haTorah…gam b’nashim (This is a positive commandment from the Torah, even for women)! Even women are obligated to be happy and to enjoy Pesach. On this holiday of freedom, women must not become slaves to all the hard work—especially during the Seder. Everyone must pitch in and do their fair share.
Every year I ask myself this question: why does it take such hard work to have a proper Pesach? I instinctively knew the answer but didn’t really know how to express it until I read a commentary this week by my son Joshua on a schmooze Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach—one of the great spiritual lights of the 20th century—gave on the Seder titled: “Pesach & Holy Contradictions.” Shlomo comments:
Now listen to this, and I want you to open your hearts in the deepest way. Anything which is real is always a contradiction. Anything that is not a contradiction is not even worth talking about. If you meet a person and they don’t contradict themselves in anything they are doing, don’t bother talking to them. They’re robots…
For example: is there anything that makes a person more whole than loving someone very much? But on the other hand, is there anything more heart breaking than loving someone very much? It’s a contradiction—the most whole and the most heartbreaking thing in the world. It’s the utmost joy and the utmost pain.
Joshua comments: “All parents know this. Hearing your little kids shouting Abba or Mommy when you come home is the greatest joy in the world. But if your child is real sad, or chas v’shalom really ill, it’s the utmost pain…You know, if you don’t let yourself love someone, then you probably won’t feel real pain. But is that freedom? Am I then a human being or a robot?”
Shlomo continues: The Holy Zohar [the mystical commentary on the Torah] says the deepest depths. Anything that has to do with Gd also contains a contradiction. Rabi Akiva said “One side of my heart is filled with laughter and the other side of my heart is filled with tears,” because Rabi Akiva’s heart was alive.
All those big Rebbes on Simchas Torah night, gevalt. There was utmost joy in the air, and yet the tears were flowing. On Purim, gevalt, you’re high drunk, really high. But gevalt, at the same time of the holiness there is such brokenness…mamesh brokenness.
Joshua comments: “We tend to think of people as either happy or sad. But for real people with real feelings, many emotions can be happening simultaneously. I’ll be playing with my kids and they’ll get hurt and I’ll think they’re crying, but when I get closer they’re laughing. I can’t describe what emotions they are feeling, but only that they are actually feeling. The question for Seder night is: will we allow our neshama (soul) to get out of Egypt, to be free to feel strong emotions, to not be like a robot?”
Shlomo continues: Now listen to this. On Pesach everything is beyond me, mamesh beyond me…The world thinks freedom is something you work for. You have a committee and the world decides to be free—“freedom now.” It’s all-cute and sweet. But freedom is a gift from heaven, you can’t just get it. If Gd didn’t give it to you, you don’t have it and if you have it, nobody can take it away from you.
Joshua comments: “We are free in America today certainly because of the hard work of many, but ultimately it’s because Hashem gave us the gift of freedom…
With your children, you can work so hard to raise them the right way, to teach them Jewish values, but in the end you can only do so much. If they turn to be menschlich and contribute to the world then that too is a gift from Hashem.”
Shlomo: This is the utmost deepest contradiction. The contradiction is that on one hand, getting ready for Pesach is the most preparation [the hardest work], and on the other hand, the deepest depths is that after the whole preparation I realize something so strong, I can’t prepare myself at all…it’s just a gift from heaven.
Now listen to this…I love this girl the most and I am busy preparing myself. I get myself a manicure, a haircut, and a new tie. I buy the best cologne and I spray myself from all 4 sides. I’m standing on the corner of the street, waiting for this most beautiful girl in the world to come. And then, she suddenly starts walking my way.
Let me ask you something. Is she really coming my way because I have a new haircut? Is she coming my way because I smell from perfume? Friends, the craziest thing is that I prepare myself because I really love her so much, but after the whole preparation is over I realize that she is coming only as a gift from heaven. And then, only then it becomes clear to me that loving someone is a gift from heaven. I can be the most handsome man in the world and it’s possible that nobody loves me…It’s possible because you can’t buy love; it’s a gift from heaven.
Josh: “To really experience the Pesach Seder is to realize that the ability to love and be loved is a gift. It’s a time to look around the table at our family and reflect on all that we have to be thankful for. That we have parents who love us and who we love in return is a gift. To have children whom we shower with love is a gift. And to find a spouse who loves us for who we are, and not what we have, that is mamesh a real gift. Elsewhere Reb Shlomo argues that the last of the 4 sons, the one we typically think of as the shy idiot—the sheh-eino yodea lishol (the one who doesn’t know how to ask)—is actually the holiest. It’s not that he can’t ask a question. It’s that he is so involved in the majesty of the Seder, he feels the love so much, and in recognizing what a gift Hashem has bestowed upon us, he becomes speechless. If we can come to this revelation, then we are really “in” the Seder. We are truly free.”
And here comes Shlomo’s point about all the hard work we do getting ready for the holiday: Pesach is the utmost preparation. It’s the deepest preparation in the world and the deepest non-preparation. And this, my beautiful friends…this is the utmost freedom.
There is no holiday we prepare for more and no holiday we feel less prepared for once we’re there than Pesach. How can that be? It’s a contradiction! Because on this special night we enter into the holiest moment realizing on some level that despite all the elaborate preparations and hard work that must be done to reach this holy moment…just like in our own lives, despite all our efforts to accomplish our goals for family, community and career…everything we have in life is ultimately a gift from Gd.
More than any other holiday, Pesach is the holiday of love. Gd saw us at our lowest point. Pharaoh enslaved us and tried to annihilate us. Gd loves us so much that he manipulated the forces of nature and delivered us from Egypt with the 10 Plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea. He brought us to Mt. Sinai and gave us His most precious possession—the Torah as a guide for our lives.
How can we possibly show our love for Gd in light of all He has done for us? This is why I think Pesach preparation is so hard. The very details of doing it right give us the opportunity of expressing our love and appreciation to Gd for all He has done. We will celebrate Pesach as He directs us because of our love, appreciation and trust in Him and the understanding that everything we have is but a gift from Gd.
And this is the ultimate lesson—a lesson in deep humility: of course Gd sees how much or how little effort we make and takes serious account of that. But no matter how much effort we put into our families and careers; no matter how hard we fight for freedom for ourselves and others in this world; no matter how much effort we put into preparing our homes and hearts for Pesach…ultimately the joy and special holiness we will feel on Pesach and especially at the Seder—like everything else—is but a gift from Gd. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis