By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
My office chair had worn out a long time ago. Its stuffing was gone and it had become increasingly uncomfortable to sit in all day. But there was never time to find a suitable replacement. Finally, when the Pesach edition of this newspaper was done, probably inspired by the sparkle and shine all around me, I decided that the time had come for a new chair. The old one served me well, it was loyal and steadfast, but its time had come.
With my sons joining me for a bein hazemanim outing, we headed to an office furniture store in search of a new chair.
We found much more than that.
It was a packed store, filled with the noise and color of a thriving establishment and eager salespeople. There were demos and floor samples topped with large, eye-catching signs broadcasting specials and discounts. After we tried virtually every chair and settled on a couple to choose from, the boss greeted us and helped us make the final choice.
He was a nice enough fellow, as American as “Joe the Plumber,” pony-tailed and muscular. We had no trouble imagining him roaring off on his motorcycle after work. We discussed chairs, backs, lumbar support, vinyl versus leather, and the usual shop banter. He seemed upset with my choice of the vinyl floor sample, without the lumbar bells and whistles.
Then he turned to me with a curious expression. “So what are you eating these days?” he asked.
I wasn’t sure what he meant. Could he tell that I was on a diet? I told him that I wasn’t eating much of anything in a bid to keep my weight down.
He smiled with a knowing wink and twinkle. “Yes, I know. I haven’t eaten anything for two weeks already. My wife turned over the kitchen two weeks ago and is cooking up a storm for the Seder and the holiday. So, for now, there’s nothing to eat.”
I looked at my sons and they looked at me, and we were all thinking the same thing. “That guy, he’s Jewish! He has a Seder! His wife turns over the kitchen! Wow. Who would have guessed that?”
And in that bustling showroom, I was reminded again what makes this Yom Tov special and what makes our people unique.
Ponytails do not dim the neshomah’s light. Whether he knows it or not, that man’s birthright is identical to mine and yours and that of every other Jew. Somehow, the Yom Tov of Pesach touches neshamos of Jews all over, no matter how far they have strayed. Pesach and the Seder ignite their souls and cause them to glow.
The sad saga of the Marranos of Spain is so far removed from us and the world we live in. Yet, a few centuries ago, Jews were forced to choose between baptism and death. Some chose death and eternal life, while the weaker ones opted for physical life. It is not for us to judge them and the awful choices with which they were confronted.
Those whom the tsunami swept into a new way of life tried to maintain some connection to their heritage. Drifting so far from home, yet unwilling to give it all up, they clung desperately to straw reminders of Judaism to somehow keep them in touch with their past identities. Even after they threw away Shabbos, they lit candles Friday evening. In a custom still prevalent among many in Spain, Portugal and Latin America, women light two candles every Friday night. They don’t know why; they do it because their mothers did.
Another of their minhogim was that during the week of Pesach, the Marranos didn’t eat chazer. Thus, although, tragically, they may have eaten chometz on Pesach and chazer the rest of the year, aside from what else they may have done in violation of the Torah, for the eight days of Pesach they abided by the prohibition to partake of meat from a pig.
How that came about might be reflected in the words of Rashi in this week’s parsha. Immediately following the list of animals which the Torah forbids eating, the posuk states, “Ki Ani Hashem hama’aleh es’chem mei’eretz Mitzrayim lihiyos lochem l’Elokim“ (Vayikra 11:46). Rashi explains that Hashem was saying, “If I had brought the Jewish people out of Mitzrayim only so that they would not defile themselves by eating sheratzim like the other nations, that alone would be sufficient reason to have redeemed them.”
It was as if the beleaguered Jews of Spain were begging Hashem not to give up on them. “For this one week,” they were saying, “the week of Yetzias Mitzrayim, please remember that we are worthy. We are still the people you took out and still want to be deserving of Your love.”
It was true in Spain and true in the suburban New Jersey furniture store. At this time of year, when our nation was born, everyone wants to be part of the nation and its celebration.
It’s one of the miracles of this season, the “eis hazamir higiah,” this massive stirring of the collective neshomah of knesses Yisroel which is evident among Jews with little connection who famously conduct “Seders.”
Many question why we are so joyous about the redemption from Mitzrayim even though we are still avodim. Would someone who is incarcerated commemorate the day he was previously released from captivity?
Perhaps we can understand that Yetzias Mitzrayim taught the Jewish people that we are worthy of being redeemed. Thus, despite our present state in the bitterness of golus, we live with knowledge of the truth, with the light of Yetzias Mitzrayim illuminating our way. We know that we have been redeemed before and that we will be redeemed again. We know that we are worthy. We know that we are geulim and we know that the time will soon come when we will be led into the Promised Land.
And perhaps we can well understand the appeal of this Yom Tov even to those far away from observance and Torah living throughout the year.
Maybe the seeds of the connection to the Seder were planted by a generation of Jews who took extra care to tell them the story of Pesach and make it come alive. They had it rough here and everything was arduous. There was an enormous gap between the green-horned parents and their public school-educated American Yankee children. But when Pesach approached, there was great anticipation. The house was turned over, there was no food for a week, and then the big moment of the Seder finally arrived.
Families sat around a large table, as the parents, following the traditions and halachos, were extra attentive to the children. Everything was geared to capturing the attention and imagination of the young ones. They ate different foods, drank wine, dipped maror into charoses, and watched the tears stream down the faces of those eating the extremely bitter horseradish. Everyone made a big to-do when they asked the Mah Nishtanah, and if they were lucky enough to steal the Afikoman, they earned a special treat.
That scene was never forgotten. That image remained etched in their minds, even as they aged and drifted. The uniqueness of that night, the love and attention, and the warmth evident around the Seder table warmed their souls as Pesach came around year after year. There was intrigue and there was passion.
Despite the assimilation and the prevailing cynicism that tore families apart and sent children in different directions, the memories of the Seder as something important in their young lives, something they looked forward to, still touch them.
The uniqueness of the atmosphere, the passionate retelling from father to son as mandated by “Vehigadeta levincha, derech she’ailah uteshuvah,” creates a world that a child never really wants to leave.
It’s the truth of the Seder night’s appeal, and a truth that pertains to every aspect of chinuch. If only their chinuch could keep that spark alive as much as the Seder did, with children asking and parents answering and everyone partaking in one big happy recreation of redemption, how many more shomrei Torah umitzvos would there be and how much happier so many of our children would be.
Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l related that the first masechta he learned well was Bava Kamma. He said that he always felt a special connection to that masechta, but his perception of the masechta was somewhat “kinderish.” It was tinged with the perception of a child. He said that he thus understood why the first posuk we teach a child is that of Shema Yisroel, for the perception of yichud Hashem must always remain kinderish,simple and pure.
The Seder is the time when we access our inner child.
The Rambam, in discussing the obligation of vehigadeta levincha at the Seder, writes (Hilchos Chometz Umatzoh 7:3), “If he has no son (to ask him the questions), then his wife should ask him. If he has no wife, he and his friend should ask each other… even if they are both wise men. If he is alone, he should ask himself, ‘Mah nishtanah, why is this night different?‘”
The Rambam‘s words are difficult to understand. How can one fulfill the mitzvah of vehigadeta levincha, you shall tell your son, by asking and telling oneself? The answer, perhaps, is that one should tell the child deep within himself, that innocent part of his soul, where he knows that anything is possible. The part that hasn’t been sullied by sophistication or by knowing too much.
Find that part, says the Torah, and speak to it. Through that part of you that is still young and innocent, you can inspire and spark that which has become faded and defected from cynicism and wear.
This is the lesson of the furniture salesman and this is the lesson of this beautiful season. We are all children, and like children, we all believe that anything is possible. It really is possible, if we set our minds to it and remove the build-up brought on by life’s trials and tribulations.
Reb Mendel Futerfas was a Chabadsker Yid who demonstrated legendary mesirus nefesh, risking his life to spread Torah and Yiddishkeit in the Soviet Union.
When he was finally caught, he was sent off deep into Siberia for eight years. Reb Mendel wrote that when he was cut off from everyone and everything, he was able to learn by visualizing the cheder in which he studied as a young boy, and the love, devotion and dedication with which his rebbi taught him and the other children in the class, touching them for eternity amidst the frozen tundra of Siberia.
While in that Siberian labor camp, a burly, menacing-looking, communist guard approached Reb Mendel on Yom Kippur and shouted, “Are you fasting today?” Reb Mendel nodded yes, expecting the worst. “I am as well,” whispered the guard as he looked around to make sure nobody could hear what he was saying. “Ten days ago, I overheard you singing a song that my father would sing to me when I was a young boy as we walked together to shul on Rosh Hashanah. I hadn’t heard that niggun in years, but when I heard you sing it, memories came rushing back. I figured that it must have been Rosh Hashanah. I counted ten days from the day I heard the niggun and I am fasting today just as you are.”
The power of youthful memories is strong enough to cut through life’s vicissitudes.
Later in life, after his eventual release, Reb Mendel was asked about the secrets of the successful Russian underground. How did he and others have the strength and stamina to withstand the oppression, interrogations and intimidation of the KGB?
He responded that, at a young age, he had been orphaned of both parents and was raised by grandparents. As such, he was somewhat “spoiled” and was one of the few children in his class who had a pair of shoes to wear. Most of them went barefoot.
He recalled that he once asked his grandfather why it was that, at winter’s end, his shoes were worn out, yet those classmates in the cheder who went barefoot still had their feet intact.
The grandfather explained that, unlike shoes, feet are “baalei chai,” living organisms, and something that is alive doesn’t get worn out.
So too, Reb Mendel concluded his story, the Yiddishe neshomah doesn’t get worn out. It is alive.
And each Pesach, when it is reborn, we are reminded again of its eternal properties: The Jewish soul is alive and well, and, as such, it doesn’t wear out. Like the soles of feet, it might get scratched or bruised, but it never dies.
This is what we teach our children, and this is what we tell the child within ourselves.
Let us keep the experiences, messages and feelings of the Seder and of Pesach alive with us as we climb down from eight days of suspended holiness and return to everyday life.
May our feet and souls carry us through the remaining days of the exile and carry us to the Promised Land bekarov.