One of the greatest Jewish thinkers and Talmudic teachers of this generation was the intellectual giant Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. A most influential spiritual teacher, who ignited the Jewish world with song and spirited chassidic teachings, was the trailblazing Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. The saintly Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook served as the first chief rabbi of pre-state Israel and was known for his deep love and compassion for every Jew. The following six Passover insights are a sampling of their unique Jewish voices.
1. Inscribing the Story in the Hearts of Our Children
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 Soloveitchik teaches that the term sippur is rooted in the word l’saper, to recount. But the word has another meaning as well. It is related to the word sofer, “scribe,” or sefer, which means a “scroll” or a “book.”
What this meaning suggests is that a sofer who writes a sefer 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 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, Safra Rabbah D’Yisrael.”
Why was this term used to describe Moses? Was this his greatest attribute, that he wrote Torah scrolls?
Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that safra rabbah, 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 obligation on the night of the Seder: We need to impart the Torah not on parchment, but 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 Soloveitchik offered a different interpretation of the “poor man’s bread” that was eaten by the Jews in Egypt. 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, one of the tribes, 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. Kissing the Matzah
There is a tradition in Judaism of kissing holy items. For example, we kiss the Torah scroll when it is carried around the synagogue. Some kiss the mezuzah on the doorframe each day when entering and leaving a home. Many kiss the tzitzit, the fringes of the tallit, when reciting the Shema.
Reb Shlomo Carlebach taught that the Hasidic master, Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, had the custom of kissing many sacred Jewish items. For example, on the holiday of Purim he would kiss every item of food given to him as a Purim gift in the mishloah manot.
There is a special custom of kissing items as part of the Seder. This is not only a Hasidic custom, it is a practice mentioned by one of the most significant works of Jewish law that we refer to today. The famed Chafetz Chaim, in his authoritative commentary on the Shulchan Aruch (Mishna Berurah 477:5) quotes this custom, and says the following, “The Shelah (Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, 1565–1630) writes: ‘I have seen men of high virtue kiss the matzah and the marror… This is done out of love for the mitzvah, and happy is the man who serves God joyously.’”
Kissing the matzah and the marror is an expression of the great joy and happiness that we have on Seder night. The great Hasidic master, Reb Nachman of Breslov, would teach, “The greatest mitzvah in the Torah is to be full of joy.”
Q: How does being joyful affect my performance of the mitzvot?
4. Why Do We 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?
5. 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 significance of Sinai was only to receive the word of God!
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 himself 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. 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?
6. The Greatest Miracle of All
“…[Y]ou 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 that 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 Soloveitchik, says the following: The life of the Israelite slave was a “naked one,” a beastly one, inundated by lusts and desires. The Jews had been negatively influenced over hundreds of years living a culture that was sexually debased and depraved. Unfortunately, many Jews were living lives that did not reflect a moral and noble behavior; they had succumbed to a life that was “was naked and bare,” uncouth and unrefined.
And then something almost unimaginable happened: A miracle. This was a miracle far greater than all the signs and wonders in Egypt. Jewish slaves transformed their lives. The downtrodden Jewish slave lifted himself up and opened his heart to accept the Divine will. He felt inspired and suddenly 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 you do to begin making the changes we want to make in our lives?
These and many other Passover teachings can be found in the new bestselling Haggadah, The Night That Unites (Urim Publications) by Rabbi Aaron Goldscheider and at the website thenightthatunites.com.
By Rabbi Aaron Goldscheider