Pesach and Jewish Unity
by Jonathan Rosenblum
Hamodia & Baltimore Jewish Times
March 31, 2004
Jewish unity is a major theme of Pesach, as one would expect in a holiday that celebrates our birth as a people. The Pesach sacrifice, eaten on Seder night when the Temple still stood, is one symbol of that unity.
That sacrifice had to be taken from a relatively small animal – a sheep or a goat. When one strikes a small animal, the Maharal of Prague points out, the pain immediately reverberates throughout the body. And so it is with the Jewish people. As the anti-Semites used to say, "Strike a Jew in Kiev and every Jew in New York cries out."
No mitzvah so emphasizes the mutuality of duties to our fellow Jews as that of tzedakah (charity), and tzedakah figures prominently in the mitzvos of Pesach as well. There is a mitzvah of giving tzedakah before every festival, but before Pesach there is a special mitzvah of giving ma’os chitin, money to purchase matzos, to the poor.
In his classic commentary on Shulchan Aruch, the Chafetz Chaim explains why: "[Pesach] is the time of freedom, when Jews gather, each in his own house, to celebrate with great joy. And it reflects no honor to Hashem if our fellow Jews are at the same time hungry and thirsty. . . . Therefore we give [the poor person] flour fro all the days of the holiday so that he too can tell of the going out of Egypt amidst rejoicing." In short, as long as one Jew lacks the wherewithal to celebrate his freedom from Egypt, no Jew is completely free.
On Seder night, we begin with the words, "This is the poor bread that our fathers ate in Egypt. Let all those who are downtrodden come and eat. All those in need come and partake of the Pesach sacrifice." What sense does it make to issue this invitation at the Seder, when our doors are shut and there is no one to hear the invitation?
The Malbim explains that the invitation that we now issue at the Seder table was once declared in the marketplace long before the Seder. It is now included in the Seder as a reminder that preparations for the holiday always included concern for the less fortunate.
But why is such a reminder so important? To remind us of the central role that acts of tzedakah and loving kindness played in our worthiness to be redeemed from Egypt and to be redeemed in the future.
The Bais Halevi explains with a Midrash. A King had sons who fell into bad company. As a punishment, he stripped them of their royal vestments and sent them into exile. From their exile, they requested a high official to intercede on their behalf with their father. But the King rejected all the official’s entreaties, even claiming that the boys were not really his sons. To the latter assertion, however, the official replied, "You cannot deny that they are your sons, for they look just like you."
A prince is identifiable in two ways: either by his royal attire, which attests to his lofty status, or by his obvious resemblance to the king. The mitzvos are described in Kabbalah as the clothing of the soul. When Jews are occupied with the performance of His mitzvos, they are clearly identifiable as God’s nation by virtue of those mitzvos.
But even when we are "absolutely naked" as the prophet Yechezkel (quoted in the Haggadah) describes the Jewish people on the eve of their Redemption, we bear a unique connection to G-d. If no longer identifiable as "God’s nation," we remain "His children." As Moses tells Pharoah, in G-d’s name, "Israel is my son, my firstborn."
The long Exile has stripped us of the mitzvos, our royal attire. Many mitzvos cannot be fully performed in the absence of the Temple. And many Jews have stopped observing even the mitzvos that remain due to prolonged association with "bad company" -- i.e., assimilation among the nations of the world.
Yet our unique connection to G-d has not been completely severed. G-d created the world only in order to give to beings external to Himself, and when we manifest the same quality of giving, we are still recognizable as His children.
On the basis of that intrinsic connection to G-d we were redeemed from Egypt, and so will we be redeemed in the future Redemption. "Zion will be redeemed through justice, and those who return to her through tzedakah" (Isaiah 1:27). Thus the Seder begins with a reminder of the importance of sharing with those less fortunate than ourselves, for only the quality of tzedakah links us to G-d and makes us worthy of redemption.
THE MITZVAH OF TZEDAKAH REFLECTS the responsibility of each Jew for every other Jew, and that mutual responsibility, in turn, follows from the fact that we are citizens of one nation. Pesach celebrates those events that gave birth to the Jewish people as a nation, and we stress our nationhood by emphasizing our connection to and responsibility for one another. The mitzvah of tzedakah thus derives from our essential unity, and at the same time reinforces the feelings of connectedness between us.
Appreciation of our essential unity can only be nurtured today through a conviction in the enduring mission of the Jewish people. Without that conviction, one cannot offer any reason for the continued existence of the Jewish people. The sad truth is that the overwhelming majority of Jews today cannot enunciate any reason for the continued existence of the Jewish people, for they have lost awareness of our unique mission.
That lost sense of mission is reflected in declining feelings of mutual responsibility and in decisions taken oblivious to their implications for the Jewish future. A 2003 study of Jewish mega-donors, those who give more than $10,000,000 a year to charity, shows that of the more than five billion dollars contributed in one year only 6% went to Jewish causes. Those percentages hardly reflect the fact that the Jewish community itself has no needs. The best guarantee of a Jewish future – a quality Jewish education – is beyond the reach of thousands of Jewish families.
Intermarriage, of course, is the ultimate blow to the future of the Jewish people. In most cases, intermarriage marks the end of a line of Jewish descent extending back to Avraham Avinu. Not surprisingly, those who intermarry are characterized by little sense of connection to their fellow Jews. Hebrew University sociologist Stephen Cohen found that only 20% of Jews who intermarry feel any special responsibility to other Jews around the globe.
That lack of connection to other Jews reflects the absence of any sense of a Jewish historical mission. Those who still believe in that mission do not intermarry for the transmission of that mission requires two Jewish parents.
For us, belief in the mission of the Jewish people is inherent in the events we relive on Seder night. Just as Hashem, Who was of necessity complete unto Himself, would not have brought the world into existence unless He had a goal for it, similarly He would not have revealed all His signs and wonders in Egypt unless He had a special role for the people thereby brought into existence.
Unfortunately, most Jews no longer relate to yetzias Mitzrayim or ma’amad Har Sinai. If only we could find a way to ensure that those families for whom the Haggadah is something to be hurried through in order to eat, or those who do not bother to read it at all, could join us for a Seder at which these events are as alive as ever.
Related Topics: Pesach, World Jewry
receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free jewish media resources mailing list