The great sage Rabban Gamliel declares that one who has not mentioned three themes on the night of the Seder has not fulfilled his obligation. They are: Pesach, Matzah and Maror. Minimally, on the first and second nights of Passover, we must highlight the Korban Pesach – the Paschal sacrifice; secondly, we are mandated to discuss the origins of the mitzvah to consume Matzah; thirdly, we should reflect on the bitterness of the hundreds of years of Jewish enslavement in Egypt.
Question: How are we to inspire our children, grandchildren, families and friends with these themes?
In a nutshell, the evening’s foods remind us of how G-d killed their first-born, saved ours, how disorganized we were, how we left in hurry, and how rotten life was back in Egypt!
One would think that the most “educable moment” of the year – the Seder night – would be utilized to convey some lofty ideals, some sort of eternal message that would resonate for the 21st century Jew, young and old! What ultimate impact does Rabban Gamliel’s declaration make on us at a moment of heightened spiritual sensitivity, Leil HaSeder?
I would like to suggest re-examining Rabban Gamliel’s statement as a reflection of three core themes:
a) The Jew as a member of Klal Yisrael, the community of Israel;
b) The Jew as a model of frugality and simplicity;
c) The Jew as one who sees the value in all of life’s experiences
The Jew as a member of Klal Yisrael
Rabban Gamliel first focuses on the Korban Pesach, the Paschal sacrifice. Let’s examine some of the laws associated with the sacrifice: The lamb is to be selected “according to their fathers’ houses”; if there are not enough people in one family to consume an entire lamb, “then he and his neighbor should take one….”; the meat must be roasted, and not boiled or cooked in another liquid; the lamb must be roasted whole and no bones should be broken; none of the meat must be taken outside the home in which it is being eaten.
Now, what one theme runs through the various halachot/laws of the Korban Pesach? I would like to suggest that it is the theme of family and community unity. Why else is there an insistence that the Pesach meat be consumed within the family or neighborhood, and that the meat not taken outside of the home in the course of the meal? The theme of unity is also evident in the requirement to roast the lamb whole. Commentaries have noted that roasted meat also retains the shape and form of the original animal, while boiling causes the meat to fragment and disperse within a given pot. The message: Jewish unity.
Let’s take this theme to the next level: On the night of the Exodus, G-d gave the Jewish people a directive to begin to view itself as a nation, and not as a mere collective of individuals. We are also not the tiny family that descended, seventy souls strong, into Egypt hundreds of years before. We have crystallized into a nation with all of the responsibility this entails. This idea is brought out best by the following verse: and you should keep it unto the fourteenth day of the same month; and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall slaughter [the Pesach] at dusk.”
The Talmud states: “R. Nathan said: How do we know that all Israel can discharge [their obligation] with one Passover-offering? Because it is said, and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at dusk: does then the whole assembly slaughter the lamb? Surely only one does! But it teaches that all Israel can discharge [their duty] with one Passover-offering.”
In other words, it is not necessary that each one of us actually consumes the meat. It is sufficient that one lamb is taken for the entire nation. The Korban Pesach is an offering that unifies and defines our nation.
I think that this template, in which every Jew lives a life of responsibility for his fellow Jew, as a member of a unified nation – is reflected beautifully in an article by Rabbi Ilan Feldman of Atlanta. Rabbi Feldman writes of the need to create a “model community” rather than an “observant community”; in such a model community, Jewish law/halacha “is observed rigorously, and is seen as the means to fulfill the mission to reflect G-d in the world. Communities are models of the human capacity to connect to the Divine; the goal of observance is to give expression to that glorious spiritual nature of man. Torah is powerful, and secularism and materialism, while capable of attraction and spiritual destruction, are no match for the expressed of man. The vocabulary of such a community is one of connection, of inspiration, of inclusion, of confidence. Its language is that of purpose and mission. There is a sense of custodial responsibility for the Torah, and for other Jews. Non-observant Jews are essentially divine, even if masked by superficial secularism. In looking at other Jews, the goal is not to see how they measure up, but to discover their innate greatness.”
The Jew as a Model of Frugality and Simplicity
The great sage, Maharal, offers a fresh understanding of Matzah, referred to by the Torah as “lechem oni”. One interpretation of this concept is “Bread of Affliction”; another “The Poor Man’s Bread”. Maharal disagrees: Matzah is truly a bread of redemption simply because it is “poor” in terms of its ingredients: just flour and water. A poor person has little aside from himself and his body, the basic minimum for existence. His being is independent of anything outside of himself and his essence. Matzah, too, has nothing besides the basic minimum for making up the dough, flour and water. Matzah Ashira/egg matzah has additives that remove it from the category of “lechem oni.”
Redemption, Maharal explains, means to leave the state of being controlled by others, independent of any external attachments. Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky explains: “A slave is not independent, since he is attached to and controlled by his master. A wealthy person, too, is not independent, since his identity is the result of his attachment to his money and possessions, and can he be controlled by them... But a poor person, having nothing but himself, stands completely separate and independent from anything outside of himself, and he portrays redemption and freedom. Matzah doesn't represent a poor person. Rather it represents the process of going free from slavery, which is accomplished by removing any bonds or dependencies on things outside of oneself. Severing those bonds is exactly the process of redemption.”
Dr. Dale Archer recently wrote in “Psychology Today”: “With every passing day, technology is overtaking our daily lives. Regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, career or economic status, you're probably packing a smartphone right now. In fact, 56% of all Americans own one. The phone, computer, tablet and other high tech devices have become not just an object, but for many a best friend. Many suffer from anxiety if they lose their phone, even if only for a few minutes. We rely on it to do everything from saying I love you to breaking up, from checking bank balances to investing…”
Man’s technological prowess, then, has created a greater degree of dependency on forces outside of himself.
When we decide to purchase a home or a car, or plan a wedding, what percentage of our decisions are governed by that which is absolutely necessary vs. what is expected of us by our peers?
Matzah calls on the Jew to confront his inherent freedom and release himself from the bondage of excessive dependencies!
The Jew as one who sees the value in all of life’s experiences
Traditionally, Maror, the bitter herbs, are cited as the symbol of our embittered lives while slaves in Egypt. A comment by Rambam, Maimonedes, however, sheds new light on the nature of Maror: Rambam writes that whereas the mitzvot of the Pesach sacrifice and Matzah are stand-alone obligations, Maror is not. The verse that mandates the consumption of the bitter herbs, Rambam notes, views Maror as peripheral to the meat and Matzah. Rambam asserts: “If you ate Maror without the meat, you did not do anything halachically relevant, and we don’t say that you’ve fulfilled the mitzvah of Maror.”
What is the symbolic message here?
Rabbi Arye Stern suggests that we are bidden never to view our lives as presenting anything “purely bitter”. We could easily look at the story of the Exodus as featuring two separate elements: the torturous years in Egypt followed by the sweetness of redemption. We could say that the enslavement was truly bitter.
The mitzvot of the Seder night (in their Torah formulation) are encouraging us to transcend this view: The Maror is only relevant to a Jew when consumed within a “wrap” of Matzah and the Pesach meat. Both the Matzah and the meat are symbolic of redemption; similarly, there are elements of our bitter years that are also redemptive.
In fact, any traumatic emotional, financial or health event in one’s personal, family or communal life, can be looked at as either as purely bitter or ultimately beneficial. Personal crises can often be the springboard for a reassessment of one’s values and a new direction in life; the necessities associated with financial hardship can help bring to the surface certain latent talents and inner strength.
Even the bitter herbs can be sweet: This is the message of the Maror!
A Jew who internalizes this message can begin to see the ultimate goodness and the value in ALL of life’s experiences.