Table for Five: Passover Special Edition
In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
Even if all of us were wise, all of us understanding, all of us knowing the Torah, we would still be obligated to discuss the Exodus from Egypt; and everyone who discusses the Exodus from Egypt at length is praiseworthy.
-From The Passover Haggadah
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, American Jewish University
American Jews like to think of the American and Jewish sides of their identity as being congruent. In many ways, that is true. Both systems of thought, for example, emphasize government by law, such that even society’s authorities are limited in their powers by its rules. Both, although for different reasons, respect and protect each individual to a much greater extent than dictatorships or communist nations do.
These similarities, though, should not blind us to important differences between American and Jewish perspectives on life. One example is what freedom means in the two traditions. The American concept of freedom is that I, as an individual, have the right to do anything I want to do as long as I do not harm you.
In contrast, when the Passover liturgy proclaims it as “the time of our freedom,” it is referring to freedom from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim, straits, called that because the Nile empties into the Mediterranean not as one river but in a series of straits. Jews then can and do interpret the Passover story as celebrating not only freedom from physical slavery, but also slavery from the other straits of life – poverty, illness, prejudice, war, ignorance, etc. That freedom, though, is not intended to enable me to do whatever I want; it is instead to enable me, along with all Jews, to fulfil the commandments we received at Sinai as a free nation. That gives me not liberties, but duties.
Rabbi/Cantor Eva Robbins, Co-rabbi N’vay Shalom, Faculty AJRCA
The experience of sitting at a table with friends and family and reading the Haggadah touches the heart more than mind. For even if every aspect of intellect and experience is refined, something deeper is calling on us, and that is worthy of praise. In Kabbalah, Wisdom or Chochma is right-brain.
Understanding, Bina, is the left-brain. Knowing, Da-at, includes deeper perceptions as well as the place of communication. And Experience, Z’keynim, connotes years of living. All of these remain mind-based unless we open our heart as well.
Ultimately, the Seder teaches something important – to be able to feel and viscerally understand what it means to be a slave so we are able to identify with another. Further in the Haggadah we are reminded that it is an obligation to see ourselves “as if,” “K’ilu,” we had personally come out of Egypt. This tiny word has great import. It is a deep teaching of the importance of empathy, the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. It means being able to understand by feeling what another feels. Being able to identify with another is at the very core of our values to “love another as ourselves.”
I believe this is one of the great teachings of this holiday – to hold this awareness in our hearts, not just in our minds, even as we discuss the story. This is a praiseworthy endeavor. Empathy is the driver of the Jewish response to any form of slavery and all forms of inhumanity.
Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, AJRCA Professor of Hebrew
These words declare our intention on Passover night to perform the mitzvah of recalling the exodus from Egypt and, more importantly, recounting the story of the Exodus to the next generation. Whereas we are obligated to recall the Exodus every day, it is a special mitzvah to do so at the Seder. However, on Passover night we are not to suffice with a mere mention: we are obligated to discuss the Exodus and are encouraged to do so at length.
This section of the Haggadah invites us to renew our conversation about freedom from Egypt, to find new profundity and meaning in it. We search into ourselves for the ways in which our habits, expectations, and even our successes and unchallenged wisdom have come to confine us and to define us in a manner that, upon reflection, can feel trite and oppressive. We must accordingly offer hope to the next generation that God will provide us the tools, insight, and opportunities to claim a freeing sense of Jewish identity and to perform mitzvot with fresh joy and sincere devotion.
Along with the promise of inner freedom is the gratitude and recognition that our circumstances can change for the better at any minute, and that our suffering need not last forever. Akin to the minimalistic bread that is Matzah, we are working to achieve a crisp simplicity, to pare ourselves of both our disappointments and our triumphs. We look forward to an end to our pain and to even greater triumphs.
Chana Margulies, Author of “Jumping in Puddles,” chanamargulies.org
The Rebbe teaches us that Egypt represents cognitive dissonance. Mitzrayim, Hebrew for Egypt, means “maytzarim”, blockages. Signifying the blockage between the head and the heart. I may know the right thing to do, but there is an obstacle stopping me from putting that knowledge into action. Hence, even the wisest of people need to recite the Passover Haggadah. It is equally a biblical command regardless of one’s status.
The reason being, the only way out of Egypt is with G-d’s help, we cannot free ourselves of this dissonance, this blockage, on our own. We need a biblical command, the seder, to break free. Rabbi Shais Taub says, AA is not a self-help program. Alcohol is a self-help program. AA is a G-d help program. It is realizing no matter how clever or resourceful I am, I need a higher power to experience freedom.
In the Exodus we see G-d’s power over nature. That is the power energizing a commandment, which is the infinite power that I need to break through any personal blockage. Chassidus teaches that as we recite Shema Israel we are experiencing a personal Exodus. We are taking what we know intellectually, that we exist in G-d, G-d is all and all is G-d, and expressing it into action through the words of the shema, which impacts our actions the rest of the day. A commandment from our higher power empowers us to fuse our minds and heart and live as wholesome, emotionally free, healthy human beings.
David Sacks, Podcasts “Spiritual Tools for an Outrageous World” weekly
Can all the oceans of the world fit into a single cup? No? Then how can our minds which are finite, contain the infinity of Hashem?
The simple answer is that our minds can’t. Or as a friend once asked me, “Can an ant outthink a man?” When I said, “No”, he said, “Then how can man outthink G-d?”
This means that if you take all the knowledge that mankind has amassed throughout the ages: computers, space travel, and medical breakthroughs — it doesn’t even come close to knowing all the things that there are left to know.
Let’s think about this on a personal level.
For all the blessings that Hashem is giving us that we know about – there are even more blessings (way way more) that Hashem is blessing us with that we aren’t aware of.
Because of this, I’ve started thanking Hashem not only for the things that I know about, but for all the things that He’s doing that I have no concept of, which I’m sure are even greater!
Rav Soloveitchik explains that during the first part of the seder we thank Hashem for taking us out of Egypt. After dinner we complete the Hallel prayer and thank Hashem for bringing the Great Redemption. A redemption that will reveal a magnitude of kindness that is beyond what we can fully grasp!
Therefore, it’s impossible to say enough!
But seder night we get to try!
And that’s yet another gift we can be endlessly thankful for.
With thanks to Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Rabbi/Cantor Eva Robbins, Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, Chana Margulies, and David Sacks
Image: The Stuckman family seder from the film When Do We Eat? written by Nina and Salvador Litvak
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