Monday, March 30, 2015

Two more questions

Hesed or kindness is one of the major lessons the Passover Seder tries to reinforce all throughout the Haggadah.  For your Seder, let me share from the Haggadah The Night That Unites commentary from the beginning, middle, and end of the Seder which emphasizes the value of hesed in our lives.  Feel free to use these commentaries as conversation starters at your Seder.

“This is the bread of affliction…Let all who are hungry come and eat…”  
The Seder begins with an invitation to those in need to join us in our homes for the Seder.  This is an act of kindness and tzedakah.

Rav Kook taught that we begin the Seder this way because the moment we were freed from slavery our true essence could emerge.  We are a people of loving-kindness. Our forefather Abraham instilled this message within our Jewish consciousness (Abraham’s tent had a door in each of the four directions according to the Midrash, so that he could welcome in people into his home no matter in what the direction they were traveling-Rabbi Greene), and so at the Seder, as soon as we enact the story of our liberation, we engage in the act most characteristic of us as a people: feeding the hungry. (page 68)

“Therefore we are required to thank, praise, glorify…”
            Rabbi Soloveitchik taught that we have an obligation to respond appropriately to our good fortune.  There are times in all lives when we are faced with the painful question of how respond to suffering.  In a fresh approach, and the very reverse of times when we face suffering, the Rav suggested that a parallel question needs to be asked when we experience blessing and goodness in life. Why do I deserve this good?
            The Rav teaches:

            God’s acts of hesed, “kindness,” Judaism declares, are not granted to man as a free gift.  Rather they impose obligations, they exact ethic and halakhic demands upon their beneficiary. The bestowal of good is always to be viewed as a conditional gift-a gift that must be returned-or a temporary gift.
When God endows a person with wealth, influence, and honor, the recipient must know how to use these precious gifts, how to transform them into fruitful, creative forces, how to share his or her joy and prominence with the people around, how to take the divine hesed that flows toward them from its infinite Godly source and use it to perform deeds of loving-kindness. (page174)

“I was a youth and also have aged, and I have not seen a righteous man forsaken and his children begging for bread.”
            Rabbi Soloveitchik taught the following explanation in clarifying this challenging verse in Grace after Meals:
            The Standard translation of this verse (Psalm 37:5) is “was a youth and also have aged, and I have not seen a righteous man forsaken and his children begging for bread.”
            The Rav offered a new meaning to the verse.  The verb, ra’iti, “seen,” should be translated in the way in which it appears in the Book of Esther. Esther pleads on behalf of the Jewish people saying, “For how can I watch, ra’iti, the evil that shall come unto my people? Or how can I watch, ra’iti, the destruction of my kindred?” (Esther 8:6)
            The verb ra’iti means “stand as a passive witness to.” This verse in Grace after Meals, should be understood as, “When the righteous were forsaken or his children forced to search for bread, I never merely stood and watched.”
            This verse can be interpreted as a warning against being a mere bystander while other people suffer.
            As we conclude saying the Grace after Meals, we are called upon to engage in providing for those who are in need. We begin the Grace after Meals speaking of God’s goodness in feeding the hungry, and we conclude with the injunction to do likewise. (page 220)

Abraham Joshua Heschel was one of the greatest 20th century American Jewish theologians and he taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York until his untimely death in 1972, He once wrote: “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.” 

We should ask two more questions on top of the famous four.  Who are the hesed masters I admire as role models in my life? In what ways can I use the blessings and gifts that I have received to enhance the world around me?  If you answer those questions correctly, it was not for naught that we were slaves in Egypt.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Be Prepared is the Passover Motto

 “In the Talmud classrooms at Yeshiva University, small Hebrew signs were hung at the front of the room with the words quoting Rabbi Soloveitchik, ‘holiness can only be obtained with preparation.’ Holiness, in other words, is in the domain of man; man chooses to encounter it or not. Holiness relates to a mindset and the willingness to approach certain things and to treat time with the attitude of reverence.
“At the holiest moment in history, God’s revelation at Sinai, the Jewish people are summoned to prepare themselves.  The Torah states, ‘prepare yourself for three days’ (Exodus 19:11). Holiness is shown to be commensurate with preparation.  The Rav (Rabbi Soloveitchik) also offered the following example: When the Torah speaks of Shabbat it says, ‘Remember the Sabbath day and sanctify it.’ An explanation of the verse is that there is a mitzvah in remembering and anticipating the Shabbat all week.  We even count down to the day of Shabbat each week.  Each day at the conclusion of the morning services we say: ‘Today is the first day toward Shabbat,’ and so forth.
“This is our tradition as Jews. According to the teaching of the Midrash (Michilta Yitro 20) and amplified by the great sage, the Ramban, we do not have names of the week like other cultures do.  Rather, we call the day by its count towards Shabbat; echad b’Shabbat, sheni b’Shabbat…, ‘the first toward Shabbat, the second toward Shabbat…’ We do this becauser this is a fulfillment of the mitzvah, lezochro, ‘to remember the Shabbat.
“Rabbi Soloveitchik understood this as an act of preparing for and anticipating holiness, the greater the preparation, the greater the sanctity, the kedusha.”  (From: The Night That Unites: Passover Haggadah with teachings, stories, and questions from Rabbi Kook, Rabbi Soloveitchik, and Rabbi Carlebach, pages 51-2)
Everybody knows that the Boy Scout’s motto is “Be Prepared.”  If there is one holiday that needs a lot of preparation, that holiday would have to be Passover.  All that shopping, cleaning and cooking in preparation for the seder nights is exhausting. Unfortunately there is one area that is constantly underprepared. Too few people review the Haggadah before Passover to renew the seders with new insights, commentaries, and songs.  Too many seders revolve around the same old Haggadahs with archaic English and too many people read the text for the very first time sitting around the seder table. 
There is still time to prepare your seder before the onset of Passover.  Pick up a new Haggadah like The Night That Unites and uses its teachings, stories, and question to make your seder even holier!  If people would prepare the seder table talk like people prepare those delicious seder dinners, nobody would ever ask the fifth question, “When do we eat?”

With Great Freedom Comes Great Responsibility

Peter Parker as Spider-Man learned the hard way that with great power comes great responsibility.  Passover teaches us a variation of that theme.  With great freedom comes great responsibility.

Even before the seder begins, tradition teaches us to care for the less fortunate amongst us.  There is a custom of giving tzedakkah called Ma’ot Chittim or wheat money to the poor so that they may have an enjoyable and dignified seder.

Here is a touching story to demonstrate what I mean

A poor man came to the home of Rav Joseph Baer.  The man said that he had to ask a question regarding the sacred rituals of Passover.  He had a halachic question to ask, a question in Jewish law.  He told the rabbi that he could not afford to buy wine, so he wished to know if he could fulfill the obligation to drink the four cups of wind during the Seder by drinking four cups of milk.

Rav joseph Baer said that no Jew could fulfill this important command by drinking milk, but he gave the man 25 rubles with which to buy wine.

After the man had gone, the rabbi’s wife approached her husband with this question: “Why, when wine costs two or three rubles, did you give him twenty-five?”
Rav Joseph Baer smiled and said, “If he is so poor that he cannot afford wine for the Seder I doubt that he has the money to buy chicken and matzah for the Seder nights. As you know, if he is asking about drinking milk, that means he has no meat or chicken because he would not be mixing it with meat or chicken! I want to give him enough money so that he can buy the food that he needs to properly enjoy Passover.[i]

Rav Joseph demonstrated great responsibility with great sensitivity.  Not only didn’t he neglect his responsibility to help another person, he made sure not to embarrass the poor man by noting how poor he was by telling him that he was going to help him buy not only wine but also the food for the seder.  He just gave him 25 rubles to buy the wine and keep the change. 

Because we were slaves in Egypt, we know what it means to be oppressed.  With great freedom comes great responsibility.

Here is another story teaching us how sensitive we should be to other people.

Reb Levi Yitzchak was very stringent with the laws of baking the matzah for Passover. Actually every Jew is very careful when it comes to eating Passover food; but Hasidic rebbes were especially careful that there be no possible hametz.

It once happened that Reb Levi Yitzchak was sick and unable to bake his matzahs.  His Hasidim, his devoted followers, came to see him before they were to go and bake his matzahs and said, “Holy Rabbi, please tell us exactly which areas we need to be extra stringent in so that we will prepare the matzah to your liking.

Reb Levi Yitzchak answered, “Let me tell you where I am most stringent.  The women that work baking the matzah are very poor women, and some of the men who oversee the baking do not always treat them well.  They are under great pressure to prepare the matzah hastily and often the men raise their voices and get angry at these poor women.  It is being stringent about that, that is most important to me: do not get angry with them! Be sensitive to them.  Anyone who gets angry with them during the baking of the matzah makes it into hametz.”[ii]

Reb Levi Yizchak also demonstrated great responsibility with great sensitivity. Too often when the oppressed are freed and they often oppress their oppressors. Passover reminds us to be care how we act and speak to others.  Each human being is created in God’s image and deserves our respect no matter what their station in life is.  Indeed with great freedom comes great responsibility.


[i] The Night That Unites: Passover Haggadah: Teachings, Stories, and Questions from Rabbi Kook, Rabbi Soloveitchik, and Rabbi Carlebach, page31.
[ii] Ibid. page 32-33.