The central mitzvah of the Seder is to tell the story of leaving Egypt. Our Sages term the telling of the story, in Hebrew, sippur yetziat Mitzrayim, "the story of the Exodus from Egypt." Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik teaches that the term sippur, story, is related to the word sofer, "scribe," or sefer, which means a "scroll" or a "book."
What this meaning suggests is that a sofer, a scribe, who writes a sefer, a scroll, produces something that is permanent, something that will last for generations.
On Seder night, parents are also involved in the act of "writing an everlasting scroll." The child is the sefer, the scroll upon which the parent etches the beauty of this sacred night in the child's mind.
On Passover night we are to be sofrim, scribes, writing indelibly on the hearts and on the minds of our children the story that will be passed down to all succeeding generations.
According to the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Ve'zot Habracha, Remez 962), when Moses died, a voice from Heaven called out, "Moses has died, the great scribe of Israel."
Why was this term used to describe Moses? Was this his greatest attribute – that he wrote Torah scrolls?
Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that "a great scribe" does not just mean that he was a scribe of Torah scrolls. Rather, Moses wrote upon the hearts of his people. He etched the wisdom of the Torah into the very soul of the nation. And he did so in a way that each generation would pass it on to the next.
This is also our goal on the night of the Seder: to impart the Torah on the very souls of our children.
Q: What traditions and values are most important to pass on to your children in today's world?
2. Breaking the Matzah as a Symbol of Sharing We break the matzah as a symbol of the poor man's bread that the Jewish slaves ate in Egypt. One way of understanding this is that a poor person, who can never know where his next meal is coming from, breaks off a piece and saves it for later.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik offered a different interpretation of the "poor man's bread" that was eaten by the Jews in Egypt.
Although when we think of the enslavement of the Jewish people in Egypt, we usually think that all the Jews must have been equally burdened by it, but in truth that was not so. There were various degrees of slavery. Some Jews lived under better conditions, some worse. According to our Sages, the tribe of Levi was never enslaved. What this means is that some had access to food and some did not.
Those that did, claims Rabbi Soloveitchik, broke their bread and shared it with other Jews who had less. The Jews who were enslaved in Egypt would split their piece of matzah and share it with the poor who needed it; hence the term "poor man's bread." This is symbolized by the act of breaking the matzah in half: Yachatz. When we break the matzah as our forefathers did, it is a symbol of the hesed, the loving-kindness, and the solidarity of Jews toward their fellow Jews, their brothers and sisters, even under the harshest conditions.
Q: How do we learn to become more compassionate and giving people?
3. Why Eat Bitter Herbs? The Hasidic master, Reb Yehuda Aryeh Leib of Ger (1847–1905) in his commentary, the S'fat Emet, (Pesach, 1873) cited his grandfather, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir of Ger, known as the Chidushei HaRim who poses the question, "Why do we eat bitter herbs?" He answered the question in the following way: "Feeling pain, the 'bitterness,' is actually a sign of redemption. Just feeling the bitterness is itself the first glimmer of freedom; for the worst kind of slavery is when we grow so accustomed to it that we accommodate ourselves to it."
Rav Kook interprets the meaning of the marror, the bitter herbs, in a similar way: There is a danger that a slave will become so accustomed to his condition that he prefers not to go free. But this was not the case with the Jews. We Jews felt the bitterness – we knew that this was not the life that we were destined for. We knew that we had come from a holy heritage and that we were "princes of God."
Eating marror at the Seder, while indisputably a reminder of the bitterness of our lives as slaves, should also be viewed as a sign of the special quality that we possessed. We always managed to maintain our sense of self, and we always knew that we were a unique people. We "thankfully" tasted the bitterness and knew that we were destined to lead lives that were more noble and dignified.
Q: How do we break away from societal influences that can dull our sense of self and impinge on attaining our personal aspirations?
4. Discovering the Torah in You "Had He brought us before Mount Sinai, and not given us the Torah – dayeinu – it would have been enough for us!"
This verse in the Dayeinu song seems to make very little sense, says the Hasidic master, Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev.
The song culminates in these lines: "Had He brought us to Mount Sinai and not given us the Torah, it would have sufficed, dayeinu."
But what would be the purpose of coming to Mount Sinai and not receiving the Torah?
The answer, he says, lies in what happened in the days and the precious moments preceding the giving of the Torah. Each person who was present so sincerely and deeply opened themselves to God and to the Torah that they were able to discover that the Torah, the will of God, was already implanted within their minds and hearts. Each of us contains the Torah within us, says Reb Levi Yitzchak. The problem is that we so often are preoccupied with the superficialities of life that it prevents us from turning inward and discovering what is truly meaningful and right.
Says Reb Levi Yitzchak, coming to Sinai alone and casting aside all material concerns to hear only the word of God was sufficient to evoke this discovery: the experience of an inner awareness of God's will, even before experiencing God's revelation. This is the deeper explanation of these words: Had we only been brought to Mount Sinai and not given the Torah, Dayeinu, it would have been sufficient!
Q: How do we strip away the many distractions that often limit us in developing a real closeness with God?
5. The Heroic Act of Personal Change "…you were naked and bare" – Passover Haggadah
It is one of the most obscure verses we cite on Seder night.
The author of the Haggadah quote a verse from the book of Ezekiel which describes the Jewish slave in Egypt: "I caused you to thrive like the plants of the field, and you increased and grew and became very beautiful…but you were naked and bare ( Ezekiel 16:7).
What is the meaning of this cryptic verse?
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explains that the life of the Israelite slave was a "naked one," a beastly one. They had been negatively influenced over hundreds of years living a culture that was debased and depraved. Unfortunately, many Jews were living lives that did not reflect a moral and noble behavior, they had succumbed to a life which was "naked and bare," uncouth and unrefined.
And then something almost unimaginable happened, a miracle far greater than all the signs and wonders in Egypt. The Jewish slaves transformed their lives, lifting themselves up and opened their hearts to accept the Divine will. They chose a new path devoted to higher ideals and goals. This says the Rav, required wondrous courage, what the Kabbalistic tradition terms 'gevura'; conquering destructive desires and implementing self-restraint and self-sacrifice.
This heroic and transformative act on the part of the Jewish people in choosing a sacred way of life remains one of the most important and enduring lessons of the Exodus story; an inspiration for us in our own religious growth for all time.
Q: Passover is a time for personal change. What can do to begin making the changes we want to make in our lives?
Passover in Hell
My grandfather's Passover Seder, hiding from Nazis in the Krakow Ghetto.
A raging fire burned through Europe through the years 1939 – 1945, destroying European Jewry. Mendel and Moshe Brachfeld – my great uncle and grandfather – were two brothers who walked through the fires of the Holocaust together. After the rest of their family was killed by the Nazis they made a pact that they will stay together any cost. They survived together, grew together and were welded together. These two brothers outsmarted the Nazi machine by staying alive, staying sane, and sticking together, staying strong in their mitzvah observance. They survived the war and rebuilt their lives, raising generations of committed Jews, and today are buried next to each other on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.
Many survivors were never able to speak about the horrors that they witnessed. My grandfather would never speak of the killing and torture but he would recount as often as he could tales of spiritual growth in the most harrowing of situations. How he and his older brother, with great sacrifice, managed to put on tefillin almost every day in that hell. How they smuggled tefillin from camp to camp, how at one point 500 Jews would line up every morning to put on their tefillin. How they broke open a jail cell and over 100 people were able to escape. How they found a mikva before Yom Kipper and how they survived on only potatoes one Passover. Many stories, all with the same theme – not of horror but of heroism.
There is one story that was repeated every year at the Passover Seder – when my grandfather and his brother celebrated Passover in the Krakow ghetto in 1943.
On the Run in Krakow During World War II, the Nazis established more than 400 ghettos in order to isolate Jews from the non-Jewish population and from neighboring Jewish communities. The Germans regarded the establishment of ghettos as a provisional measure to control and segregate Jews. The assumption behind this separation was to stop the Jews, viewed by the Nazis as an inferior race, from mixing with and thus degrading the superior Aryan race.
Nazi high officials also believed that the Jews would succumb to the unfavorable living conditions of the ghetto, including lack of food, water, and living space. Furthermore, the ghettos served as round-up centers that made it more convenient to exterminate large numbers of the Jewish population later. The Brachfeld brothers were living in in the Krakow Ghetto, one of the bigger ghettos in Poland1 which was established in March 1941. In March 1943, five weeks before Passover, the Germans liquidated the ghetto either killing or removing all remaining Jews. The great city of Krakow – a city that had been home to Jews for 700 years – was officially declared Judenrein – clean of Jews.
The two brothers understood that listening to the Germans surely would lead to their deaths. They decided to go into hiding. In the five weeks leading up to Passover they were caught along with 100 other Jews, and managed to break out of jail. They were running from attic to attic, trying desperately to stay alive and working on getting papers that they could use to escape.
With Passover approaching, the two brothers wanted to find a way to eat matzah on the first night of Yom Tov. It took a lot of inventiveness and sacrifice – getting caught meant getting shot – but they found some flour and built themselves a makeshift oven2. They found a blech and some highly flammable paint. They set the paint on fire and were able to kasher the blech – and they had a kosher for Passover oven. They baked a few small maztahs for the Seder. (How the smell of burning paint was not detected by the Germans can either be a miracle or perhaps the stench of dead corpuses in the ghetto was so overwhelming that the smell of burning paint was insignificant.)
23 Jozefonsky St. The building where the Seder was held
The night of Passover came and they sat down to their makeshift Seder, celebrating the Jewish exodus from Egypt in a hidden attic on Jozefonsky Street in the Krakow ghetto. In years past they had sat at a beautiful set table with the finest silver and surrounded by family. Tonight they sat down in a dark attic, all alone in the world, running from the Nazis, their very lives in danger, with a bit of matzah for which they sacrificed their lives . Marror was not needed; they had enough of that in their lives.
What Freedom? My grandfather, then 21 years old, said to his older brother, "There is no way I can have a Seder tonight. The Seder is to celebrate our freedom, our going out of exile, yet here we sit, our lives in danger, our family is all gone, our parents, sister and her kids were all killed, the entire city is up in flames. The Nazis, with their wild dogs searching for us, won't be happy until every Jew is dead. Isn't this worse than the lives the Jews had in Egypt? What kind of freedom are we celebrating tonight?"3
His brother answered, "Every night in the evening prayers we praise God for taking us out of Egypt to an 'everlasting freedom'. The everlasting freedom that we gained and are thankful for isn't a physical freedom – that is only a byproduct of what we got that night. Rather it's the spiritual freedom that we recognize. Passover celebrates the birth of a nation, when we went from being Egyptian slaves to becoming a newly born Jewish nation – a nation that God could call his own. When we sit down at the Seder we celebrate something bigger than life, a going out of slavery into the embracing hands of our Father in heaven, becoming a Godly nation. This is something that no one can ever take away from us. No matter how much they beat, torture and kill oru physical bodies, our souls will always remain free to serve God."
With those words the two brothers, my grandfather and his older brother, sat down to a Seder that consisted of dangerously produced matzah and a little bit of borscht in place of wine.
My grandfather often said that this was the most magnificent Seder he ever experienced.
1.Jews had been living in Krakow since the 13th century. Many great rabbis through the generations had lived in Krakow including Reb Herschel of Krackow, the Rema and the hassidic master the Meor Veshomish.
2. My grandfather died on the 9th of Nissan 2008, 66 years – almost to the day, when they baked those matzahs.
3 Interesting to note: my grandfather would repeat this story with pride. He was never ashamed to repeat his question and of his initial unwillingness to participate in the Seder. There is nothing wrong with a sincere question that leads to a profound answer. This article can be read online at: http://www.aish.com/h/pes/t/f/ Passover-in-Hell.html.