Reclining as Free Men
Twice a year married men take their kittel out of the closet – Yom Kippur and leil haSeder. What is the connection between these two Chagim that is hinted to by the wearing of the kittel?
On Yom Kippur, the all-white kittel symbolizes the angel-like state that we hope to achieve on the day, as we refrain from eating and drinking and other worldly pleasures. For one day a year, we strive to reach a state where we are not drawn to sin and the Satan has no dominion over us.
The judgment on Yom Kippur is basically upon each of us as individuals. The process begins on Rosh Hashanah, when each of us passes in front of Hashem k'bnei Meron, alone, single-file. To prevail in that judgment, we must first subject ourselves to intense self-scrutiny. Before we can seek atonement, we must first know where we are holding and what we need to atone for.
Rabbi Aharon Lopiansky, Rosh Yeshivas Greater Washington, suggests that the kittel we wear on Seder night also hints to the need for a similar self-scrutiny in relation to the goal of the night. The primary mitzvah of leil haSeder is "ve'higad'ta l'vincha – And you should tell your son . . . " The other mitzvos of the night are all designed to enhance the telling over of the miracles that Hashem did for us in redeeming us from Mitzrayim by giving the concepts tangible, physical expression.
The self-scrutiny that precedes leil haSeder, then, has to do with our success in transmitting the mesorah that we received from all the preceding generations to the next generation, our children. Unlike on Yom Kippur when the self-examination needed has to do with our individual spiritual state, on Pesach, the self-examination required relates to our role as members of the historical Jewish people: What are we doing to ensure that the tradition we have received and the collective memories of the Jewish people back to Mitzrayim are being given over in such a way that they will still be vibrant in our children and their children after them?
Our self-scrutiny is twofold. First, we must to consider the content of the messages we are sending our children both verbally and more powerfully by virtue of our example. Second, we have to find the suitable means of doing so, each child according to his needs.
A number of years ago, I related a story of the lifelong impact on a young boy of his father telling him as he lifted him onto the train that would take him across the Austrian border and to the kindertransport that would carry him to safety, "Zei a gutte Yid." As the train pulled out of the station, the boy's father ran after the train yelling, "Zei a gutte Yid."
The last image the boy would have of his father was of him falling on his face while desperately screaming, "Zei a gutte Yid." Those words never left him. Despite being denied any yeshiva education, that young boy grew to raise a family of outstanding bnei Torah and to be the mainstay of kol dvar she'be'kedusha in Petach Tikva.
Leil HaSeder, commented the talmid chacham who told me that story, should be approached as it were our final opportunity to convey to our children what is most precious to us and that which we pray to see passed on through them.
But the right message is not enough. Our goal is that the message be received and internalized by our children. And for that it must be individuated according to the capacity of each child to hear it at his or her current stage of development. There are no points for the greatest speech in the world if no one is listening or interested.
The Torah (and the Haggadah's commentary on the Torah) brings out the point explicitly by speaking of four sons and the different answers given to each of them. The message is only as good as the means of transmission. That too is part of our preparation for leil haSeder.
LEIL HASEDER AROUSES in us more intensely than any time of the year the feelings of being members of the historical Jewish people back to Avraham Avinu. But it also invites us to ask ourselves a very individual question: To what extent are we really free men, and if we have not yet achieved the state for which Hashem took us out of Mitzrayim, what is holding us back?
Do we feel ourselves capable of exercising our free will in choosing our goals and working towards them? Or do we constantly have a sense of being buffeted by forces beyond our control? If the latter, our reclining as we drink the Four Cups and eat are a bit of a bluff.
The matzah, symbol of our freedom, encourages us to reflect on the nature of our freedom. It is referred to as lechem oni – the bread of poverty. It might be asked what poverty has to do with freedom. The Maharal answers that the poor man stands between and is contrasted to two other types – the slave and the rich man. The slave cannot exercise his free will because his will is always subject to that of his master.
And the rich man too has difficulty exercising his free will for he is easily possessed by his possessions. His life becomes so complicated that he has difficulty maintaining any focus on where he seeks to go.
A life of simplicity, according to the Maharal, is the ideal. And matzah symbolizes that life. It consists of only the basic ingredients – flour and water. Anything additional renders it unfit. As such it represents the spiritual world, a world of unity, as opposed to our physical world, which consists of structures joined together and built upon one another. Everything puffed up and consisting of the non-essential elements reflects the physical world.
And attachment to the physical world is not the path to true freedom. As Chazal say, "Ein ben chorin eileh mi she'oseik b'Torah – There is no free man besides one who is fully involved in Torah."
Attachment to physical things or for that matter being obsessed with what we do not have are two forms of the se'or she'b'isa that keeps us from doing the will of our Father in Heaven. But they are not the only ones.
The searching out of every crumb of chametz and its burning on Erev Pesach beckon us to also search inside for whatever is holding us back. For each of us it is something different. For one, it is the lack of seder or an inability to maintain a schedule that prevent him from achieving half of his ambitions.
If one arises in the morning, and feels the necessity of checking emails before davening, or finds himself doing so over and over during the day, one is no longer a free man, until he discovers the determination and strength to break that habit. Again, these are just two examples of the many forms the se'or within us may take.
May we all be zocheh to sit at the Seder table, not just free from the pressures of the preceding weeks, but as truly free men who have scrutinized ourselves with great care to discover what is holding us back and found the resolve to overcome it. If we have done that, our chances will be great of being able to transmit to our children our enthusiasm for a life as servants of HaKadosh Baruch Hu, and not of flesh and blood.
Connecting to the Jewish Story
Twice a year Jewish men don a kittel (a white garment) – on Yom Kippur and on Seder night. What is the connection between these two highlights of the Jewish calendar?
Both are days of reckoning and self-examination. On Yom Kippur, we examine ourselves as individuals created in the image of G-d to determine whether we are worthy of the title. On Seder night, we examine ourselves not as individuals but as members of Klal Yisrael, and ask how are we performing the role of transmitting the remarkable story of the Jewish people to the next generation.
Have we conveyed to our children the priceless treasure of being a member of the Jewish people? Have we made palpable that which was so precious that nothing could cause the 132 generations that preceded us since the Exodus from Egypt to renounce that membership. But for an unbroken chain of ancestors who withstood the rod and were not tempted by the carrot held before them none of us would be here today as Jews.
Seder night is the most powerful time to convey to our children the wonder of Jewish history, the greatest story ever told. Imagine that you had five minutes to explain to your children why being a Jew is the greatest possible privilege and why their continuing the generational chain is your greatest desire. The Seder is that five minutes expanded over hours.
JEWISH HISTORY is unquestionably the greatest story ever told and the most inexplicable without a belief that the Jewish people enjoy a unique relationship with the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. All materialist explanations of history, from Marx to Toynbee, have floundered when confronted by the continued existence of the Jewish people. Challenged by Louis XIV to give one proof of the supernatural, the great philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal replied, "The Jews, your Majesty, the Jews."
The Torah and prophets make seven promises concerning the Jewish people, and as Jewish history moves towards its culmination, we can see that each has been fulfilled. The first is that the covenant between G-d and the Jewish people is eternal, and will not be revoked even for bad behavior. As Leo Tolstoy wrote, "The Jew is the emblem of eternity. The Jew is as everlasting as eternity itself."
The Jewish people continue to exist as an identifiable nation despite being dispersed across the face of the earth for millennia, removed from their Land, without which no people has ever sustained its national identity (Promise 2). And they have done so despite being a small minority in every place that they have dwelled (Promise 3), and being continuously subjected to vicious anti-Semitism (Promise 4).
Anti-Semitism only grows in ferocity the more Jews try to assimilate and fulfill the words of the prophet Yechezkel, saying, "'Let us be like the nations, like the families of other lands . . . ." German race theory developed in response to the mass rush to assimilate by post-emancipation German Jewry, and reached its apex under the Nazis.
Even in the face of that persecution, the Jews have fulfilled their destined role as a "light to the nations," albeit not always and not enough (Promise 5). The Torah is the source of all monotheistic religion. In our own day, Jews are overrepresented as winners of Nobel Prizes in the sciences and medicine by approximately 150 times their percentage of the world population.
Even our enemies have acknowledged the wildly disproportionate impact of the Jews and Judaism on Western civilization. Nietzche, followed by Hitler, bemoaned the wound of "morality' Jews had inflicted on mankind.
As foretold, the Land never gave of its strength under foreign dominion. In the absence of major Jewish settlement, the Land of Israel remained, in Mark Twain's observation, a "desolate country. . . . A desolation [so great] that not even imagination can grace [the country\ with the pomp of life and action. . . . " (Promise 6).
And remarkably in our day, the tiniest of people have returned to a small sliver of land too small to accommodate its name on a map (Promise 7). Israel's Jewish population is already the largest of any country, and soon Israel will be home to the majority of the world's Jews.
ONE PLACE THAT THE JEWISH STORY is not being told particularly well is the United States. Reviewing two recent works on the tension between American Jews and Israel in Mosaic, Elliot Abrams takes aim at what might be called the "Peter Beinart explanation" -- blame for the alienation of American Jewry lies with Israel for its failure to stop oppressing the Palestinians and make peace with them already.
Au contraire, writes Abrams: the major dynamic leading to American Jewish apathy, if not outright hostility, towards Israel are changes in the American Jewish community that have rendered the concept of Jewish peoplehood empty for so many younger Jews. And the primary explanation for that is intermarriage. Multiple studies show that young American Jews whose parents are intermarried are not only more liberal than other Jews but significantly less attached to Israel. According to the 2013 Pew Survey, the intermarriage rate has now reached sixty percent.
All this is what one would expect. As a general rule, those who intermarry are likely to be those for whom Jewish peoplehood is least important and for whom "Jewish" is at best a small component of their identity.
Intermarriage itself exacerbates the detachment. For children of intermarriage, the Jewish story is only partly theirs. And any attempt to emphasize that part of the story is likely to be a source of domestic tension and to trigger a counter-reaction by the non-Jewish parent.
Abrams recounts the response of one audience member to his panel at the annual Brookings Institution's Saban Forum. He bewailed his Jewish daughter's college ordeal because of the harsh criticisms of Israel to which she was exposed, and fairly demanded that Israel change the policies that are imposing a painful experience on Jewish college students. That solipsism is of a piece with what Daniel Gordis describes as the "anti-intellectual narcissism of the campus and media left." Israel should commit suicide, as far as this parent is concerned, so that his daughter never be made to feel uncomfortable on account of being Jewish.
In responses to Abrams' essay, Gordis and Jack Wertheimer deepen his analysis. "Jews throughout the centuries regularly and reflexively invoked the past in a way that made it always present and real to them. . . . ," writes Gordis. "There are dozens, if not hundreds, of Jewish religious practices that kept the dream of Zion alive for generations of Jews who had never seen the land and knew they never would." As American Jews have lost touch with those practices, including the Pesach Seder, and the historical memory they engendered, so has the wonder of Jewish return to the Land ceased to move them.
Wertheimer, former provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, adds that Jewish religious education has failed by reducing Jewish texts "to window dressing in support of fashionable ideas and ideologies. . . ." The campaign to universalize every aspect of Judaism has inspired American Jews, in Wertheimer's opinion "to shirk their responsibilities to their own co-religionists and stripped them of their capacity to empathize with Israeli Jews," who live in a considerably more dangerous neighborhood than their own.
CONNECTION TO THE JEWISH STORY is exponentially stronger in Israel. Israeli Jews feel themselves to be living the latest chapter in the Jewish story. As Europe and even blue America, including the elite campuses, become ever more hostile to proudly identified Jews, it becomes ever clearer that the ultimate destiny of the Jewish people will be shaped on our ancient Land.
The letters to be opened posthumously left by soldiers who fell in 2014 Operation Cast Lead often expressed pride in having given their lives to defend the Jewish people – with the Jewish people coming before nation, or homeland, or family.
But all is not perfect in Zion either. It is crucial that the story of Israel be placed in the context of the 3,300 history of the Jewish people that began with the going out from Egypt. More than 15 years ago, Yoram Hazony waged an international, and ultimately successful, campaign against a 9th grade Jewish history text. Of the texts many failures relentlessly detailed by Hazony, the worst offence was that described by Hillel Halkin: "Nowhere is the ninth-grader reminded that he belongs to the people that he is reading about, that he is flesh of their flesh, blood of their blood; nowhere that their story is his."
As we sit at the Seder this year, may we merit to find the right words and give expression to the emotions that will join another generation of Jews to all those who have preceded them.
Chag Kasher ve'Sameach