Category Archives: PESACH

Dear Alyssa

Dear Alyssa,

Congratulations on winning the Oratory Contest of the Jewish youth movement BBYO.  The topic was: “If you could modify any of the Ten Commandments, which would you choose and what would your modification be?”

You chose the fourth, the Sabbath, since “as a Reform Jew” you “do not observe the Sabbath in a traditional way.”  Your suggested replacement, in consonance with your belief that “Judaism means something different to everyone,” is: “Be the Jew You Want to Be.

You explained how “No one likes to be commanded to do anything, and especially not teens,” and that you therefore “practice Judaism in the way that works for” you.

“Judaism,” you wrote, “means something different to everyone. I believe that we should not let the kind of Jew we think we should be get in the way of the kind of Jew we want to be.”

What kind of Jews, though, should we want to be?

I don’t know if your family celebrates Passover.  But most affiliated Jewish families, including those belonging to Reform congregations, do mark the holiday, which, you likely know, will arrive in mere weeks.  If you have a Seder, it might have a contemporary theme, which is common in non-Orthodox circles.  You might be focusing on the economic enslavement of workers in many places today, or on human trafficking, or on the environment or on civil rights

All, of course, are worthy subjects for focus.  But Passover, or Pesach, has a history that goes back long before all those concerns.  Your great-grandparents, if not your grandparents, likely conducted a traditional Seder, as surely did their grandparents, and theirs before them, and theirs before them, all the way back to the event such a Seder commemorates: the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt.

It happened, Alyssa.  The Jewish people’s historical tradition has been meticulously transmitted from parents to children over thousands of years, and its most central events were the exodus from Egypt and the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai shortly thereafter

The exodus from Egypt was not, as some people think, a rejection of servitude and embrace of freedom.  It was, rather, the rejection of servitude to a mortal king and an embrace of servitude to the ultimate King.  If you read the Torah carefully, you’ll see that fact clearly.  “Send out My nation,” G-d commands, through Moses, “so that they may serve Me.”

And so, while you’re right that people, and especially teens, generally don’t like to be commanded, from the perspective of your religious heritage, being commanded by the Creator, and thus being a light unto the nations in that acceptance of His will, is the greatest privilege imaginable.

In fact, it is the essence of Jewish life.

The end of the exodus story is the revelation of G-d to our ancestors at Mt. Sinai.  There, in an unparalleled historical event, the Creator spoke directly to hundreds of thousands of people.  No one could fabricate such a claim – and no other religion or group ever has.

And at that singular happening, the Torah was entrusted to our ancestors, along with the rules for understanding it and developing the system of laws that we have come to call Halacha.

You are correct that the Reform movement decided at its inception, in nineteenth century Germany, to reject what Judaism stood for over the previous thousands of years.  But there are still Jews – very many of us – who strive to maintain the integrity of the “original” Judaism.

As a thinking, caring young person, you owe it to yourself (and to your people) to not be satisfied with the conclusion you have currently reached, but rather to continue to investigate Jewish history and Jewish texts, and to keep an open mind.  You may be surprised to discover not only the historical veracity of classical Judaism, but the richness of living a “commanded” Jewish life.

I wish you well in that most important quest.

Exodus Exegesis

Well known to every yeshiva child of even tender age are the four terms used in parshas Vo’eira to describe the redemption of our ancestors from Mitzrayim, and associated with the Seder’s four cups of wine.  Two other words, however, are used repeatedly by the Torah to refer to Yetzias Mitzrayim.  While they may come less readily to mind, they share something odd in common: both, along with “yetziah,” one of the leshonos of geulah, are terms for describing a marriage’s dissolution.

The Gemara’s term for divorce is geirushin, and its root is a word used repeatedly in Shmos (as in 6:1, 10:11, 11:1 and 12:39) to describe what Par’oh will be compelled to do to the Jewish people – “divorce” them from the land.  And the Torah’s other own word for divorce, shilu’ach – as in vishilchoh mibaiso (Devorim 24:3) – is also used, numerous times in Shmos (examples include 4:23, 5:2, 7:27, 8:25, 9:2, 10:4 and 13:17) to refer to the escape from Mitzrayim.

In fact, the word yetziah, one of the four well-known redemption words and the word employed in the standard phrase for the exodus, Yetzias Mitzrayim, also evokes divorce, as in the phrase “viyatz’a… vihay’sa li’ish acher (Devorim, 24).

More striking still is that the apparent “divorce” of Klal Yisroel from Egypt is followed by a metaphorical marriage.  For that is the pointed imagery of the event that followed Yetzias Mitzrayim by 50 days: ma’amad Har Sinai.

Not only does Rashi relate the Torah’s first description of a betrothal – Rivka’s – to ma’amad Har Sinai (Beraishis 24:22), associating the two bracelets given her by Eliezer on Yitzchok’s behalf as symbols of the two luchos, and their ten geras’ weight to the aseres hadibros.  And not only does the novi Hoshea (2:21) describe Mattan Torah in terms of betrothal (v’airastich li…, familiar to men as the p’sukim customarily recited when wrapping tefillin on our fingers – and to women from actually studying Nevi’im).

But our own chasunos themselves hearken back to Har Sinai:  The chuppah, say the seforim hakedoshim, recalls the mountain, which Chazal describe as being held over our ancestors’ heads; the candles traditionally borne by the parents of the chosson and kallah are to remind us of the lightning at the revelation; the breaking of the glass, of the breaking of the luchos.

In fact, the birchas eirusin itself, the essential blessing that accompanies a marriage, seems as well to refer almost explicitly to the revelation at Har Sinai.  It can, at least on one level, be read to be saying “Blessed are You, Hashem, … Who betrothed His nation Yisroel through chuppah and kiddushin” – “al yidei” meaning precisely what it always does (“through the means of”) and “mekadesh” meaning “betroth” rather than “made holy” as in, for instance, “mekadesh haShabbos”)

So what seems to emerge here is the idea that the Jewish people was somehow “divorced” from Egypt, to which, presumably, it had been “married,” a reflection of our descent there to the 49th level of spiritual squalor.  And that, after our “divorce,” we went on to “marry” the Creator Himself, kivayochol.

On further reflection, the metaphor is truly remarkable, because of the sole reference to divorce in the Torah.

It is in Devarim, 24, 2, and mentions divorce only in the context of the prohibition for a [female] divorcee, subsequently remarried, to return to her first husband.

The only other “prohibition of return” in the Torah, of course, is a national one, incumbent on all Jews – the prohibition to return to Mitzrayim (Shmos 14:13, Devorim, 17:16).  We cannot return, ever, to our first “husband.”

More striking still is the light thereby shed on the Gemara on the first daf of massechta Sotah.  Considering the marriage-symbolism of Mitzrayim and Mattan Torah in that well-known passage reveals a deeper layer than may be at first glance apparent.

The Gemara poses a contradiction. One citation has marriage-matches determined by divine decree, at the conception of each partner; another makes matches dependent on the choices made by the individual – “lifi ma’asov,” according to his merits.

The Gemara’s resolution is that the divine decree is what determined “first marriages” and the merit-based dynamic refers to “second marriages.”

The implications regarding individuals are unclear, to say the least.  But the import of the Gemara’s answer on the level of Klal Yisroel – at least in light of the Mitzrayim/Har Sinai marriage-metaphor – afford a startling possibility.

Because Klal Yisroel’s first “marriage”, to Egypt, was indeed divinely decreed.  It was foretold to Avrohom Avinu at the Bris Bein Habesorim (Bereishis 15:13): “For strangers will your children be in a land not theirs, and [its people] will work and afflict them for four hundred years.”

And Klal Yisroel’s “second marriage,” its true and final one, was the result of the choice Hashem made, and our ancestors made, by refusing to change their clothing, language and names even when still in the grasp of Egyptian society and culture.  When they took that merit to its fruition, by saying “Na’aseh vinishma,” they received their priceless wedding ring under the mountain-chuppah of Sinai.

Deconstructing Dayeinu

Much of our Seder-night message to our children, mediated by the Haggadah, is forthright and clear.  Some of it, though, is subtle and stealthy.

Like Dayeinu.

On the surface, it is a simple song – a recitation of events of Divine kindness over the course of Jewish history, from the Egyptian exodus until the Jewish arrival in the Holy Land – with the refrain “Dayeinu”: “It would have been enough for us.”  It is a puzzling chorus, and everyone who has ever thought about Dayeinu has asked the obvious question.

Would it really have “been enough for us” had G-d not, say, split the Red Sea, trapping our ancestors between the water and the Egyptian army?  Some take the approach that another miracle could have taken place to save the Jews, but that seems to weaken the import of the refrain.  And then there are the other lines: “Had G-d not sustained us in the desert” – enough for us?  “Had He not given us the Torah.”  Enough?  What are we saying?

Contending that we don’t really mean “Dayeinu” when we say it, that we only intend to declare how undeserving of all G-d’s kindnesses we are, is the sort of answer children view with immediate suspicion and make faces at.

One path, though, toward understanding Dayeinu might lie in remembering that a proven method of engaging the attention of a child – or even an ex-child – is to hide one’s message, leaving hints for its discovery.  Could Dayeinu be hiding something significant –in fact, in plain sight?

Think of those images of objects or words that require time for the mind to comprehend, simply because the gestalt is not immediately absorbed; one aspect alone is perceived at first, although another element may be the key to the image’s meaning, and emerge only later.

Dayeinu may be precisely such a puzzle.  And its solution might lie in the realization that one of the song’s recountings is in fact not followed by the refrain at all.  Few people can immediately locate it, but it’s true: One of the events listed is pointedly not followed by the word “dayeinu.”

Can you find it?  Or have the years of singing Dayeinu after a cup of wine obscured the obvious?  You might want to ask a child, more able for the lack of experience.  I’ll wait…

…Welcome back.  You found it, of course: the very first phrase in the poem.

Dayeinu begins: “Had He taken us out of Egypt…”  That phrase – and it alone – is never qualified with a “dayeinu.”  It never says, “Had You not taken us out of Egypt it would have been enough for us.  For, simply put, there then wouldn’t have been an “us.”

The exodus is, so to speak, a “non-negotiable.”  It was the singular, crucial, transformative point in Jewish history, when we Jews became a people, with all the special interrelationship that peoplehood brings.  Had Jewish history ended with starvation in the desert, or even at battle at an undisturbed Red Sea, it would have been, without doubt, a terrible tragedy, the cutting down of a people just born – but still, the cutting down of a people, born. The Jewish nation, the very purpose of creation (“For the sake of Israel,” as the Midrash comments on the first word of the Torah, “did G-d create the heavens and the earth”), would still have existed, albeit briefly.

And our nationhood, of course, is precisely what we celebrate on Passover.  When the Torah recounts the wicked son’s question (Exodus12:26) it records that the Jews responded by bowing down in thanksgiving.  What were they thankful for?  The news that they would sire wicked descendants?

The Hassidic sage Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein (1856-1926), known as the “Shem MiShmuel,” explains that the very fact that the Torah considers the wicked son to be part of the Jewish People, someone who needs and merits a response, was the reason for the Jews’ joy.  When we were merely a family of individuals, each member stood or fell on his own merits.  Yishmael was Avraham’s son, and Esav was Yitzchak’s.  But neither they nor their descendents merited to become parts of the Jewish People.  That people was forged from Yaakov’s family, at the exodus from Egypt.

That now, after the exodus, even a “wicked son” would be considered a full member of the Jewish People indicated to our ancestors that something had radically changed since pre-Egyptian days.  The people had become a nation. And that well merited an expression of thanksgiving.

And so the subtle message of Dayeinu may be precisely that: The sheer indispensability of the Exodus – its importance beyond even the magnitude of all the miracles that came to follow.

If so, then for centuries upon centuries, that sublime thought might have subtly accompanied the strains of spirited “Da-Da-yeinu’s,” ever so delicately yet ever so ably entering new generations of Jewish minds and hearts, without their owners necessarily even realizing the message they absorbed.

© 2008 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

The Man on the Bima

He ascended the steps to the bimah, the platform where the Torah is read, with the strangely hurried movements of someone who would rather be traveling the other way.

This middle-aged fellow, apparently something of a stranger to a shul, had just been “called up” from his seat in the back of the small shul to make the blessing on the Torah.

They get so nervous, I thought to my cynical, teen-age self that day several decades ago; they should really come more than just a few times a year, if only to get the feel of things.  The blessings, after all, are not very long, the Hebrew not particularly tongue-twisting.

“Asher Bochar Banu Mikol Ho’amim (who has chosen us from among all nations)” – I prompted him in my mind – “V’nosan lonu es Toraso (and has given us His Torah).”

C’mon, man, you can do it.

His life was passing before his very eyes; you could tell. The occasion, for the man on the bima, was both momentous and terrifying.

Then he did something totally unexpected, something that made me smirk at first, but then made me think, – and made me realize something profound about our precious people.

He made a mistake.

Not entirely unexpected.  Many a shul-goer, especially the occasional one, leaves out words here and there, reverses the order, or draws a traumatic blank when faced with the sudden holiness of the Torah.  That would have been unremarkable.  But this congregant was different.

His mistake was fascinating.  “Asher bochar bonu”  he intoned, a bit unsure of himself, “mikol,” slight hesitation, “…haleylos shebechol haleylos anu ochlim.”

The poor fellow had jumped the track of the Torah blessing and was barreling along with the Four Questions a Jewish child asks at the Passover seder!  “Who has chosen us from…all other nights, for on all other nights we eat…”!!

For the first second or two it was humorous.  But then it struck me.

The hastily corrected and embarrassed man had just laid bare the scope of his Jewishness.  He had revealed all the associations Judaism still held for him – all that was left of a long, illustrious rabbinic line, for all I knew.

My first thoughts were sad… I imagined a shtetl in Eastern Europe, an old observant Jew living in physical poverty but spiritual wealth.  I saw him studying through the night, working all day to support his wife and children, one of whom later managed to survive Hitler’s Final Solution to make it to America and gratefully sire a single heir, the man on the bimah.

We have so much to set right, I mused, so many souls to reach, just to get to where we were a mere 70 years ago.

But then it dawned on me.  Here stood a man sadly inexperienced in things Jewish, virtually oblivious to rich experiences of his ancestral faith.

And yet, he knows the Four Questions.

By heart.

When he tries to recite the blessing over the Torah, the distance between him and his heritage cannot keep those Four Questions from tiptoeing in, unsummoned but determined.  The seder is a part of his essence.

I recall a conversation I once had with a secular Jewish gentleman married to a non-Jewish woman and not affiliated with any Jewish institution.  His en passant mention of Passover prompted me to ask him if he had any plans for the holiday.

He looked at me as if I were mad.

“Why, we’re planning an elaborate seder, as always.”

Astonished at the sudden revelation of a vestige of religious custom in his life, I told him as much.  He replied, matter of factly, he would never think of abolishing his Passover seder.  I didn’t challenge him.

When living in Northern California, I became acquainted with other Jewish families seemingly devoid of religious practice.  I always made a point of asking whether a seder of any sort was celebrated on Passover.  Almost invariably, the answer was… yes, of course.

It is striking.  There are more types of haggadahs than other volume in the immense literary repertoire of the Jewish people.  The Sixties saw a “civil-rights haggadah” and a “Soviet Jewry haggadah.”  Nuclear disarmament, vegetarian and feminist versions followed.  At the core of each was the age-old recounting of the ancient story of the Jews leaving Egypt and receiving the Torah.  It is as if Jews, wherever the circumstances may leave them, feel a strange compulsion to preserve the Passover seder and its lessons whatever the costs, and whatever the form most palatable to their momentary persuasions.

Events that took place millennia ago – pivotal events in the history of the Jewish nation – are regularly and openly commemorated by millions of Jews the world over, many of whom do so out of an inner motivation they themselves cannot explain.

They may not even realize what they are saying when they read their haggadahs, beyond the simplest of its ideas:  a Force saved their forefathers from terrible enemies and entered into a covenant with them and their descendants.

But that is apparently enough.

A spiritual need that spawns an almost hypnotic observance of the seder by Jews the world over is satisfied.  And even if, after the seder, mothers and fathers go back to decidedly less than Jewishly observant lives, their daughters and sons have received the message.

As did their parents when they were young, and their parents before them.

The seed is planted.

The seder is indisputably child-oriented.  Recitations that can only be described as children’s songs are part of the haggadah’s text, and various doings at the seder are explained by the Talmud as intended for the sole purpose of stimulating the curiosity of the young ones.

For the children are the next generation of the Jewish nation; and the seder is the crucial act of entrusting the most important part of their history to them, for re-entrustment to their own young in due time.

And so, in the spring of each year, like the birds compelled to begin their own season of rebirth with song, Jews feel the urge to sing as well.  They sing to their young ones, as their ancestors did on the banks of the Red Sea, and the song is a story.  It tells of their people and how the Creator of all adopted them.  And if, far along the line, a few – even many – of us fall from the nest, all is not lost. For we remember the song.

Just like the man on the bimah.

© 2007 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

 

Our Own Private Passover

One day during my teenage years I began to think about what my father, may he be well, had been doing at my age.  The thought occurred too late for me to compare his and his family’s flight by foot from the Nazis in Poland at the outbreak of World War II to my own 14th year of life – when my most daunting challenge had been, the year before, chanting my bar-mitzvah portion.

But I was still young enough to place the image of his subsequent years in Siberia – as a guest of the Soviet Union, which deported him and others from his yeshiva in Vilna – alongside my high school trials for comparison.  At the age when I was avoiding study, he was avoiding being made to work on the Sabbath; when my religious dedication consisted of getting out of bed early in the morning to attend services, his entailed finding opportunities to study Torah while working in the frozen taiga; where I struggled to survive the emotional strains of adolescence, he was struggling, well, to survive.  As years progressed, I continued to ponder our respective age-tagged challenges.  Doing so has lent me some perspective.

As has thinking about my father’s first Passover in Siberia, while I busy myself helping (a little) my wife shop for holiday needs and prepare the house for its annual leaven-less week.

In my father’s memoirs, which I have been privileged to help him record and which, G-d willing, we hope will be published later this year, there is a description of how Passover was on the minds of the young men and their teacher, exiled with them, as soon as they arrived in Siberia in the summer of 1941.  Over the months that followed, while laboring in the fields, they pocketed a few wheat kernels here and there, later placing them in a special bag, which they carefully hid.  This was, of course, against the rules and dangerous.  But the Communist credo, after all, was “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” and so they were really only being good Marxists.  They had spiritual needs, including kosher-for-Passover matzoh.

Toward the end of the punishing winter, they retrieved their stash and, using a small hand coffee grinder, ground the wheat into coarse, dark flour.

They then dismantled a clock and fitted its gears to a whittled piece of wood, fashioning an approximation of the cleated rolling pin traditionally used to perforate matzohs to ensure their quick and thorough baking.  In the middle of the night the exiles came together in a hut with an oven, which, as the outpost’s other residents slept, they fired up for two hours to make it kosher for Passover before baking their matzohs.

On Passover night they fulfilled the Torah’s commandment to eat unleavened bread “guarded” from exposure to water until before baking.

Perspective is provided me too by the wartime Passover experience of my wife’s father, I.I. Cohen, may he be well.  In his own memoir, “Destined to Survive” (ArtScroll/Mesorah, 2001), he describes how, in the Dachau satellite camp where he was interned, there was no way to procure matzoh.  All the same, he was determined to have the Passover he could.  In the dark of the barracks on Passover night, he turned to his friend and suggested they recite parts of the Haggadah they knew by heart.

As they quietly chanted the Four Questions other inmates protested.  “What are you crazy Chassidim doing saying the Haggadah?” they asked.  “Do you have matzohs, do you have wine and all the necessary food to make a seder?  Sheer stupidity!”

My father-in-law responded that he and his friend were fulfilling a Torah commandment – and no one could know if their “seder” is less meritorious in the eyes of Heaven than those of Jews in places of freedom and plenty.

Those of us indeed in such places can glean much from the Passovers of those two members – and so many other men and women – of the Jewish “greatest generation.”

A Chassidic master offers a novel commentary on a verse cited in the Haggadah.  The Torah commands Jews to eat matzoh on Passover, “so that you remember the day of your leaving Egypt all the days of your life.”

Rabbi Avrohom, the first Rebbe of Slonim, commented: “When recounting the Exodus, one should remember, too, ‘all the days’ of his life – the miracles and wonders that G-d performed for him throughout…”

I suspect that my father and father-in-law, both of whom, thank G-d, emerged from their captivities and have merited to see children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, naturally do that.  But all of us, no matter our problems, have experienced countless “miracles and wonders.”  We may not recognize all of the Divine guidance and benevolence with which we were blessed – or even the wonder of every beat of our hearts and breath we take.  But that reflects only our obliviousness.  At the seder, when we recount G-d’s kindnesses to our ancestors, it is a time, too, to look back at our own personal histories and appreciate the gifts we’ve been given.

Should that prove hard, we might begin by reflecting on what some Jews a bit older than we had to endure not so very long ago.

© 2009 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

The Four Answers

It is not only the Torah’s words that hold multiple layers of meaning.  So do those of the Talmudic and Midrashic Sages – even the words of the prayers and rituals they formulated.

Such passages have their p’shat, or straightforward intent.  But they also have less obvious layers, like that of remez – or “hinting” – unexpected subtexts that can be revealed by learned, insightful scholars.

One such meaning was mined from the Four Questions that are asked, usually by a child, at the Passover Seder service.  The famous questions are actually one, with four examples provided.  The overarching query is: Why is this night [of Passover] different from all the other nights [of the year]?

“Night,” however, can mean something deeper than the hours of darkness between afternoon and dawn.  In Talmudic literature it can be a metaphor for exile, specifically the periods of history when the Jewish People were, at least superficially, estranged from G-d.  The sojourn in Egypt is known as the “Egyptian Exile,” and the years between the destruction of the FirstHolyTemple in Jerusalem and its rebuilding is the “Babylonian Exile.”

“Why,” goes the “‘hinting’ approach” to the Four Questions, “is this night” – the current Jewish exile – “different” – so much longer – than previous ones?  Nearly 2000 years, after all, have passed since the SecondTemple’s destruction.

In this reading, the four examples of unusual Seder practices take on a new role; they are answers to that question.

“On all other nights,” goes the first, “we eat leavened and unleavened bread; but on this night… we eat only unleavened.”  The Hebrew word for unleavened bread, matza, can also mean “strife.”  And so, through the remez-lens, we perceive the first reason for the current extended Jewish exile: personal and pointless anger among Jews.  The thought should not puzzle.  The SecondTemple, the Talmud teaches, was destroyed over “causeless hatred.”  That it has not yet been rebuilt could well reflect an inadequate addressing of its destruction’s cause.

The second: “On all other nights we eat all sorts of vegetables; but on this night, bitter ones.”  In the Talmud, eating vegetation is a sign of simplicity and privation.  Amassing money, by contrast, is associated with worries and bitterness.  “One who has one hundred silver pieces,” the Talmudic rabbis said, “desires two hundred.”  So the hint in this declaration is that the exile continues in part because of misplaced focus on possessions, which brings only “bitterness” in the end.

“On all other nights,” goes the third example, “we need not dip vegetables [in relish or saltwater] even once; this night we do so twice.”  Dipped vegetables are intended as appetizers – means of stimulating one’s appetite to more heartily enjoy the forthcoming meal.  In the remez reading here, such “dipping” refers to the contemporary predilection to seek out new pleasures.  Hedonism, the very opposite of the Jewish ideal of “his’tapkut,” or “sufficing” with less, is thus another element extending our current exile.

And finally, “On all other nights, we sit [at meals] at times upright, at times reclining; this night we all recline.”  During other exiles, the “hint” approach has it, there were times when Jews felt downtrodden in relation to the surrounding society, and others when they felt exalted, respected, “arrived.”  In this exile, according to the remez approach, we have become too comfortable, constantly “reclining.”  We view ourselves at the top of the societal hill, and wax prideful over our achievements and status.

Thus, the Four Questions hint at four contemporary Jewish societal ills that prolong our exile: internal strife, obsession with possessions, hedonism and haughtiness.

However one may view that “hint” approach to the Seder’s Four Questions, looking around we certainly see that much of modern Jewish society indeed exhibits such spiritually debilitating symptoms.  Arguments, which should be principled, are all too often personal.  “Keeping up with the Cohens” has become a way of life for many.  Pleasure-seeking is often a consuming passion.  And pride is commonly taken in petty, temporal things instead of meaningful ones.

Most remarkable, though, is that the above remez approach to the Four Questions is that of Rabbi  Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, best known for his commentary on the Bible, the Kli Yakar.

He died in 1619.  Imagine what he would say today.

© 2008 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

The Silence of the Dogs

A curious Midrash holds an idea worth bringing to the Seder

“Midrash,” although redefined of late by some to mean a fanciful, personal take on a Biblical account, in truth refers to a body of ancient traditions that for generations was transmitted only orally but later put into writing.

One such tradition focuses on the verse recounting how the dogs in Egypt did not utter a sound as they watched the Jewish people leave the land (Exodus, 11:7).  The Talmud contends that, in keeping with the concept that “G-d does not withhold reward from any creature,” dogs are the animals to whom certain non-kosher meat should be cast.  The Midrash, however, notes another, more conceptual “reward” for the canine silence: The dung of dogs will be used to cure animal skins that will become tefillin, mezuzot and Torah scrolls.

It is certainly intriguing that the lowly refuse of a lowly creature – and dogs are viewed by many Middle-Eastern societies as particularly base – should play a part in the preparation of the most sublime and holy of objects.  And that, it seems, is what the Midrash wishes us to ponder – along with the puzzling idea that silence is somehow key to that ability to sublimate the earthy and physical into the rarified and hallowed.  The particular silence at issue may be canine, but its lesson is for us.

Providing even more support for that thought is a statement in the Mishna (the earliest part of the Talmud).  “I have found nothing better for the body,” Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel remarks in Pirkei Avot (1:17), “than silence.”  The phrase “for the body” (which can also be rendered “the physical”) seems jarring.  Unless it, too, hints at precisely what the Midrash seems to be saying – that in silence, somehow, lies the secret of how the physical can be transformed into the exalted.

But what provides for such transformation would seem to be speech.  Judaism teaches that the specialness of the human being – the hope for creating holiness here on earth – lies in our aptitude for language, our ability to clothe subtle and complex ideas in meaningful words.  That is why in Genesis, when life is breathed by G-d into the first man, the infusion is, in the words of the Targum Onkelos, a “speaking spirit.”  The highest expression of human speech, our tradition teaches, lies in our ability to recognize our Creator, and give voice to our gratitude (hakarat hatov).  The first vegetation, the Talmud informs us, would not sprout until Adam appeared to “recognize the blessing of the rain.”  Hakarat hatov is why many Jews punctuate their recounting of happy recollections or tidings with the phrase “baruch Hashem,” or “blessed is G-d” – and it is pivotal to elevating the mundane.  So it would seem that speech, not silence, is the path to holiness.

Unless, though, silence is the most salient demonstration of the consequence of words.

After all, aren’t the things we are careful not to waste the things we value most?.  We don’t hoard plastic shopping bags or old newspapers; but few – even few billionaires – would ever use a Renoir to wrap fish.

Words – along with our ability to use them meaningfully – are the most valuable things any of us possesses.  To be sure, one can (and most of us do) squander them, just as one can employ a Rembrandt as a doormat.  But someone who truly recognizes words’ worth will use them only sparingly.  The adage notwithstanding, talk isn’t cheap; it is, quite the contrary, a priceless resource, the means, used properly, of coaxing holiness from the physical world.

And so silence – choosing to not speak when there is nothing worthwhile to say – is perhaps the deepest sign of reverence for the potential holiness that is speech.

Which brings us back to Passover.  As noted, the highest expression of human speech is the articulation, like Adam’s, of the idea of hakarat hatov – literally, “recognition of the good” – with which we have been blessed.  The Kabbalistic texts refer to our ancestors’ sojourn in Egypt as “the Speech-Exile,” implying that in some sense the enslaved Jews had yet to gain full access to the power that provides human beings the potential of holiness.

With the Exodus, though, that exile ended and, at the far side of the sea that split to allow them but not their pursuers passage, our ancestors responded with an extraordinary vocal expression: the epic poem known in Jewish texts as “The Song” (Exodus, 15:1-18 ).  Written in a unique graphic formation in the Torah scroll, it is a paean to G-d for the goodness He bestowed on those who marched out of Egypt – who went from what the Talmudic rabbis characterized as the penultimate level of baseness to, fifty days later, the heights of holiness at Mt.Sinai.

And so it should not be surprising that, whereas Jews are cautioned to use words only with great care and parsimony, on the Seder night we are not only enjoined to speak at length and into the wee hours about the kindness G-d granted our people, but are informed by the rabbis of the Talmud, that “the more one recounts, the more praiseworthy it is.”

© 2006 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

Pesach Sheni, 1945

 [I.I. Cohen is a Polish-born survivor of three concentration camps living in Toronto, and my beloved father-in-law.  The below is adapted from his book “Destined to Survive” ArtScroll/Mesorah)]

 

On Wednesday, April 25, 1945, the SS guards in Kaufering’s watchtowers suddenly disappeared.

The block supervisors in our camp – a satellite of Dachau – stopped beating and cursing; they knew that the explosives that had grown louder each day signaled the death throes of the Third Reich.  Those of us whose legs could still carry them broke into the camp kitchen and hauled away potatoes, flour, cabbage and pieces of bread.  A day earlier we would have been shot on sight for lesser sins, but now, several days since we had been given any food, our hunger overpowered our fright. We stuffed both our bellies and our pockets.

Suddenly the silence was broken by the familiar murderous voices of our German captors.

“Everyone in a row! Roll call!” In a flash, the thugs were once again running about with clubs and revolvers in hand, mercilessly chasing and dragging everyone out of the barracks. , Having already experienced several years together in the ghetto, our small group of young Gerer Chasidim from Lodz tried to stick together. We discussed the situation. It was quite clear that the Allied forces were close by.  Rumor had it that the SS command had ordered camp commanders to exterminate all inmates, so that no living testimony would be available to the Allied armies. We found it hard to believe in such a diabolical scheme, but six years under Nazi rule had taught us that bleak prophecies had a tendency to materialize.

We debated our alternatives. Should we follow orders and evacuate the camp, or risk trying to stay behind and await the Allies? We decided to stay and, one by one, stole into the dysentery block, where only the hopelessly ill lay. We hoped that the guards would choose not to enter the contaminated area.

But our hopes were dashed soon enough when our block door crashed open and an SS officer, his machine gun crackling, shouted “Everyone out! The camp is to be blown up!”  Silence. We didn’t stir, the Nazi left and night fell.

Suddenly the air shook with the wailing of sirens. The Allies were bombing the German defenses! We prayed that the thunderous explosions would go on forever, and eventually fell asleep to the beautiful sound of the bombs.

The next morning we awoke to an ominous silence, broken only by the moans of the dying. We arose cautiously and went outside the block. There was desolation everywhere, and a gaping hole in the barbed wire.  Had it been torn open by the fleeing Germans?  Were we free?

We went to the other barracks, and shared our discover with their frightened inhabitants – mostly “musselmen”, or emaciated “skeletons”.  Soon enough we heard the unmistakable rumble of an approaching convoy.  We sat and waited, our fear leavened with excitement.

The fear proved more prescient, and soon enough melted into acute disappointment, when the all too familiar SS uniforms came once again into view. The Nazis had returned, bringing an entire detachment of prisoners from other camps with them to help them finish their work.  Amid the fiendish din of screams and obscenities, we hurriedly hid in one of the blocks, covered ourselves with straw and rags and lay still, our hearts pounding with terror. Soon we heard footsteps in the block and I felt a hand on my head.  We had been discovered, by non-Jewish inmates of other labor and POW camps.

We pleaded with them to ignore us, and offered them our potatoes but just as the invaders had agreed, an SS officer came stomping in, swinging his club, which he then efficiently and heartlessly used on our heads. A boot on the behind, and we were on our way to the trucks, accompanied by the commandos and the SS.

We were picked up by our arms and legs and thrown onto a wagon piled with barely human-looking bodies; the moaning of the sick was replaced by the silence of the dead.  By a stroke of luck, though, while the guards were busy with another wagon, my friend Yossel Carmel and I managed to roll out of the truck and found refuge in a nearby latrine.  Though our hearts had long since turned to stone, our stomachs were convulsing.

Eventually the wagons left, and we crept back into the very block we had occupied earlier. I tore down the light hanging from the ceiling, and we posed, not unconvincingly, as corpses.  Every so often the door would open, and we would hear a shout of “Everyone out!” but we just lay perfectly still.  Darkness fell, motors rumbled, and then there was quiet.

Friday, April 27, 1945, brought a cold morning.  White clouds chased each other across the bright blue sky as a frigid wind blew through the barracks, chilling our bones. Periodically, the earth trembled with an explosion; we sat quietly, each engrossed in his own thoughts. Suddenly, we heard motorcycles rumbling and dogs barking.  Our hearts fell.  Once again, the Germans were back.

We soon heard footsteps in the block, and then a frenzied voice, “Swine! You are waiting for the Americans? Come with me!” There followed a commotion, the sound of running, the shattering of glass, and then, a burst of machine gun fire. I peeked and saw that those who had been hiding near the window had tried to escape. Yossel and I had not been detected but were paralyzed with fright. Footsteps approached and then we heard the rustling of straw.  When we felt tapping on the piles in which we were hiding, our terrified souls almost departed us.

We held our breath in fear as the footsteps moved away.  Peeking through a hole in the straw that covered me, I felt smoke burning my eyes.  Frantically, we ripped off the straw and rags and saw flames all around us. Hand in hand, Yossel and I fumbled toward the door, suffocating from the smoke, our heads spinning.  In a moment that seemed an eternity, we found ourselves outside.  Just a few yards from us stood the German murderers, fortunately, with their backs to us.

The entire camp was ablaze. We threw ourselves on the first pile of corpses that we saw and lay still; we no doubt resembled our camouflage.  Around us we heard heavy footsteps, screams and the moaning of the fatally wounded.  And what we saw was blood, fire, and clouds of smoke – hell on earth, complete with demons.

When silence finally fell again, I mumbled to Yossel that we ought to say vidui, the confession of sins a Jew makes periodically but especially when facing death.  He chided me to remember what I had told him when we arrived in Auschwitz, our first concentration camp.  The Sages of the Talmud, he reminded me, had admonished that “Even if the sword is braced on your neck, never despair of Divine mercy.”   Yossel recalled, too, the Sages’ admonition that in times of danger Jews should renew their commitment to their faith.

We crawled to a nearby pit, shivering with cold. Through my smoke-filled eyes and fear-ridden senses, I thought I saw SS guards everywhere, with weapons poised.  Yossel, however, finally managed to convince me that there was no one in sight; for an hour or more we lay in that pit. Every few minutes bombs whistled overhead, followed by fearsome explosions nearby. The earth shook, but each blast pumped new hope into our hearts. Slowly, we crept out of the pit and made our way to the only building still standing – the camp kitchen.  There we found a few more frightened souls.

Together we discovered a sack of flour, mixed it with water, started the ovens and baked flat breads.  I noted the irony; it was Pesach Sheini – the biblical “Second Passover” a month after the first – and we were baking matzohs.

Suddenly, the door flew open and a Jewish inmate came running in breathlessly, crying out: “Yidden! Fellow Jews! The Americans are here!” We were free!

We wanted to cry, sing, dance, but our petrified hearts would not let us.  I wanted to rush outside, but my strength seemed to have left me.

When I finally did manage to move outside, I saw a long convoy of tanks and jeeps roaring through the camp. A handful of American soldiers approached the barracks.  One of them, an officer, looked around him, tears streaming down his face. Only then did I fully grasp the extent of the horror around us. The barracks were nearly completely incinerated.  In front of each block lay a pile of blackened, smoldering skeletons.

And we, the living, were a group of ghouls, walking corpses.  Along with the American soldiers, we wept.

Among the supplies the Americans had brought with them was a bottle of wine.  An inmate picked it up and announced: “For years I have not recited the Kiddush. Today, I feel that I must.” He then recited the words of the blessing on wine aloud.

And then he recited the “Shehecheyanu”, the blessing of gratitude to God for having “kept us alive until this time.”

© 2004 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

Holy Matrimony

Well known to every yeshiva child of even tender age are the four terms used in parshas Vo’eira to describe the redemption of our ancestors from Mitzrayim, and associated with the Seder’s four cups of wine.  Two other words, however, are used repeatedly by the Torah to refer to Yetzias Mitzrayim.  While they may come less readily to mind, they share something odd in common: both are terms for describing a marriage’s dissolution.

The Gemara’s term for divorce is geirushin, and its root is a word used repeatedly in Shmos (as in 6:1, 10:11, 11:1 and 12:39) to describe what Par’oh will be compelled to do to the Jewish people – “divorce” them from the land.  And the Torah’s own word for divorce, shilu’ach – as in vishilchoh mibaiso (Devorim 24:3) – is also used, numerous times in Shmos (examples include 4:23, 5:2, 7:27, 8:25, 9:2, 10:4 and 13:17) to refer to the escape from Mitzrayim.

In fact, the word yetziah, one of the four well-known redemption words and the word employed in the standard phrase for the exodus, Yetzias Mitzrayim, also evokes divorce, as in the phrase “viyatz’a… vihay’sa li’ish acher (Devorim, 24).

 

The Original Chuppah

More striking still is that the apparent “divorce” of Klal Yisroel from Egypt is followed by a metaphorical marriage.  For that is the pointed imagery of the event that followed Yetzias Mitzrayim by 50 days: ma’amad Har Sinai.

Not only does Rashi relate the Torah’s first description of a betrothal – Rivka’s – to ma’amad Har Sinai (Beraishis 24:22), associating the two bracelets given her by Eliezer on Yitzchok’s behalf as symbols of the two luchos, and their ten geras’ weight to the aseres hadibros.  And not only does the novi Hoshea (2:21) describe Mattan Torah in terms of betrothal (v’airastich li…, familiar to men as the p’sukim customarily recited when wrapping tefillin on our fingers – and to women from studying Novi).  But our own chasunos themselves hearken back to Har Sinai:  The chuppah, say the seforim hakedoshim, recalls the mountain, which Chazal describe as being held over our ancestors’ heads; the candles traditionally borne by the parents of the chosson and kallah are to remind us of the lightning at the revelation; the breaking of the glass, of the breaking of the luchos.

In fact, the birchas eirusin itself, the essential blessing that accompanies a marriage, seems as well to refer almost explicitly to the revelation at Har Sinai.  It can, at least on one level, be read to be saying “Blessed are You, Hashem, … Who betrothed His nation Yisroel through chuppah and kiddushin” – “al yidei” meaning precisely what it always does (“through the means of”) and “mekadesh” meaning “betroth” rather than “made holy”).

So what seems to emerge here is the idea that the Jewish people was somehow “divorced” from Egypt, to which, presumably, it had been “married,” a reflection of our descent there to the 49th level of spiritual squalor.  And that, after our “divorce,” we went on to “marry” the Creator Himself, kivayochol.

On further reflection, the metaphor is, , truly remarkable, because of the sole reference to divorce in the Torah.

 

You Can Never Go Home Again

It is in Devarim, 24, 2, and mentions divorce only in the context of the prohibition for a [female] divorcee, subsequently remarried, to return to her first husband.

The only other “prohibition of return” in the Torah, of course, is a national one, incumbent on all Jews – the prohibition to return to Mitzrayim (Shmos 14:13, Devorim, 17:16).

 

Decrees and Deserts

More striking still is the light shed thereby on the Gemara on the first daf of massechta Sotah.  Considering the marriage-symbolism of Mitzrayim and Mattan Torah in that well-known passage reveals a deeper layer than may be at first glance apparent.

The Gemara poses a contradiction. One citation has marriage-matches determined by divine decree, at the conception of each partner; another makes matches dependent on the choices made by each individual – with each person receiving his partner “lifi ma’asov,” according to his merits.

The Gemara’s resolution is that the divine decree is what determined “first marriages” and the merit-based dynamic refers to “second marriages.”

The implications regarding individuals are unclear, to say the least.  But the import of the Gemara’s answer on the level of Klal Yisroel – at least in light of the Mitzrayim/Har Sinai marriage metaphor – afford a startling possibility.

Because Klal Yisroel’s first “marriage”, to Egypt, was indeed divinely decreed.  It was foretold to Avrohom Avinu at the Bris Bein Habesorim (Bereishis 15:13): “For strangers will your children be in a land not theirs, and [its people] will work and afflict them for four hundred years.”

And Klal Yisroel’s “second marriage,” its true and final one, was the result of the choice our ancestors made by refusing to change their clothing, language and names even when still in the grasp of Egyptian society and culture.  When they took that merit to its fruition, by saying “Na’aseh vinishma,” they received their priceless wedding ring under the mountain-chuppah of Sinai.

© 2004 Rabbi Avi Shafran