By Yochanan Gordon
This past week, I received an e-mail message with a link to a one-minute video. The subject line read, “Must see.” We all get such e-mails with the same subject line, and nine times out of ten they are not worth looking at, so we usually just wave them off and move on with the rest of our day. But there was something quite different about this one-minute video. It was completely worth it and uniquely profound.
In the video, a blind Englishman sits on the sidewalk outside what looks like a government building, with a sign next to him that reads, “I’m blind, please help” and a tin can for accepting contributions. The camera then turns to the hustling and bustling of the passersby getting into their daily routine. Engrossed in their conversations, nary a person acknowledges this blind, destitute man sitting mere feet from them. Perhaps one out of ten throws in a spare coin and continues on his way.
Along walks a woman who stops in front of him, picks his sign off the floor, and, with a marker, begins to jot a different message on its flip side. She then puts it back in place and continues on her way. Suddenly the passersby begin to take notice of this forlorn, needy man and to heed the call of his sign. The contributions begin pouring in by the dozens, perhaps the hundreds.
The woman returns. The man, sensing someone in his vicinity, reaches forward and again touched the shoes of the woman standing in front of him in order to verify that it is that same woman who had changed his sign. Astonished, he asks, “What did you do with my sign?”
The woman replies, “I said the same thing, but in different words.” Then the camera focuses on the sign, which now reads, “It’s a beautiful day outside and I can’t see it.”
The video was part of a marketing campaign by a London-based group called The Purple Feather, whose slogan is “Change your words, and change your world.”
Words are extremely powerful. The Torah says that with the word of G-d the heavens were made. While we can testify to the constructive nature of words, we sometimes fail to realize that they are equally capable of wreaking havoc and destruction. Our relationship with G-d is maintained through prayer and Torah study. Do we expect our prayers to be answered and to cause Him pleasure if our mouths are not fitting to entreat the King?
Perhaps then it is beneficial that this year we read Parashas Metzora prior to Pesach, unlike many other years when it is read following the holiday. Tzora’as was inflicted as a punishment for lashon ha’ra-a misuse of the power of speech-so this parashah is a perfect prelude to prepare us for a more meaningful and enriching holiday experience. From a young age, we are taught about the deep connection between Pesach and the act of talking. Our Sages have pointed out that from the very word “Pesach” we can derive two words, peh sach-(the) mouth talks. The letters of the name “Pharaoh,” referring to the evil despot who enslaved the Jews throughout their years in Egypt, can also be arranged to form the words, “peh rah“-evil mouth.
The Arizal explains that while the Jews were physically enslaved in Egypt, this sense of subordination was placed more specifically on the Jews’ ability to communicate with G-d. As we read in the Haggadah, after the Torah records, “Va’yamas melech Mitzrayim, the king of Egypt died,” it then goes on to say, “Va’yeianchu B’nei Yisrael … Vata’al shav’asam el HaElokim, the Children of Israel groaned … and their outcry went up G-d” (Sh’mos 2:23).
It seems that as long as Pharaoh was alive, he had a hold over the Jews’ ability to communicate with Hashem-even though we are aware that the Jews were exceedingly careful regarding the way they used their mouths in Egypt, as it says we were redeemed as a result of not deviating in our names, clothing, and language.
But did Pharaoh actually die? The Gemara says that he was stricken with tzara’as, which is one of four conditions that renders a person as if dead. So it was only after Pharaoh sinned with his mouth and was afflicted with tzara’as that the entreaties of the Jewish people could have their cries for help answered by Hashem. It is clear, then, how important it is to maintain a clean mouth.
It’s no coincidence that of the four sons in the Haggadah, one of them does not know how to ask. In yeshiva, I imagine this kid would be considered an exemplary student. I mean, what could be better than a student who has no questions? There was a time that if you dared to ask certain questions, you would find yourself suddenly searching for a new yeshiva. Seriously speaking, through all this it is clear how important contributing during the Pesach Seder truly is. If all we have are questions without answers, we are still encouraged to ask them.
The authors of the Haggadah, in their scheme to deal with this son, tells us, “At psach lo-you open him up.” Some say that the reason that the Torah worded this command in the feminine is to teach us that the more we talk to him, or the more we assume the role of the mother in the home (who generally speaks with the children more), the more successful we will be in opening him up.
Pesach preparation is a very exciting time for the women of the house. They are forever trying to get the men to clean up, but their request seems to always fall on deaf ears. However, once Purim is past, we begin a thorough cleanup of the house and car. This is when families begin cleaning the house one room at a time until the house is in a position to once again begin collecting dust and clutter once Pesach is over.
But as important as it is to maintain order around the house by moving bookshelves, beds, and armoires and make the house dust-free, we tend to forget that the purpose of our cleaning is to rid ourselves of the chametz in the house. Chametz is prohibited, not dust. However, while I do not suspect anyone of eating chametz on Pesach or even deriving the slightest amount of pleasure from it, there is an aspect of chametz that we tend to overlook and it is vital that we add it to our cleaning checklist.
On Pesach we were set free from our bondage in Egypt. What does it mean to be free? Having lived all our lives in exile, we obviously have never tasted true freedom. But what is the freedom that we are longing for? In describing the making of the Luchos, the Torah writes that the words were etched in the stones. The word for etched or engraved in Hebrew is “charus.” Our sages write, do not read it “charus” but rather “cheirus“-free. When the Jews stood at the foot of Sinai to accept the Torah, they once again reached a level free of sin, where the angel of death had no power over them. So ultimately, the freedom that we are looking to attain is a similar one, where we rise above our vulnerability of sinning. But how is that possible?
The answer is hidden in the matzah that we eat on Pesach. The contrast between chametz and matzah is that chametz rises, conveying an image of arrogance, whereas matzah is made up of the simplest ingredients, just flour and water. The root of all sin is arrogance and haughtiness. Our Sages tell us that G-d’ attitude toward someone who is arrogant is that “he and I cannot coexist.”
While we can often recognize arrogance in the manner in which certain people carry themselves, it is also expressed in the way we talk to others. It’s only possible to fall into lashon ha’ra if there exists within us a trace of haughtiness. The lesson of the matzah is to return to reticence. Strip ourselves of all extras and return to G-d.
Sefarim say that the word “Afikoman” is a contraction of afiko mon. In the matzah, we are able to get a taste of the manna. In the parashah of the mon it says that it is called mon because upon seeing it “lo yoda mah hu, they did not know what it was.” Having to address a nation complaining of hunger, Moshe and Aharon replied, “V’nachnu mah.” So we see a correlation between the words mah and mon.
In the sifrei Kabbalah the word mon is a contraction of the words mayin nukvin, which simply put represents our initiation through mitzvah performance to cleave to G-d. This requires bittul, or self-effacement before G-d and before our fellow Jew. One who spreads gossip or deceit regarding his fellow Jew is essentially guilty of doing so regarding G-d, like a heretic. The only way for us to avoid falling into the grips of evil speech is to learn to be humble. The Maharal writes in his commentary to the Haggadah that true freedom is represented by the matzah which is made from the fewest ingredients.
So while we have been hard at work preparing our homes and our possessions for the upcoming holiday, getting rid of all of the chametz (and the dust, of course), many of us have overlooked an important aspect of that cleaning list-our very own character. We are not preparing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. However, the Jews in their preparation for the giving of the Torah on Shavuos reached a level of Adam HaRishon prior to his sin, and Pesach is the era of our freedom and our quest towards once again receiving the Torah, which can only be accomplished through freedom of sin.
It’s time now that we can stop looking elsewhere for traces of dirt and grime and take a long look inward before it’s too late. When Pharaoh asked Moshe whom he wanted to take out of Egypt, the reply came, “Our youth, our elderly, our sons, and our daughters.” This year on Pesach we too have to see to it that our exodus into freedom includes family and friends, expressing the unity among ourselves and leaving the discord and arrogance in Egypt as we move forward into a life of everlasting freedom. v
Comments for Yochanan Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.