Rabbi's Message

Rabbi Charlie’s Mahashavoth – April 2024

Pesah 5784

The Pesah Seder never seems to grow old. On one hand, one may read/chant the text of the Haggadah with no commentary or reflection. But that is not the point of the Seder! One of the models for the Seder was the Greek Symposium, a talk-feast[1], and our rabbis intended for the Seder to be, in fact, a discussion: the four questions[2] were merely suggestions for the questions a child may ask. An early rabbinic passage in the Talmud says that if the child is unable to ask, a person’s wife[3] should ask, and, if there’s no one else, a person must ask themselves! Indeed, we don’t simply tell the story of the Exodus (i.e., read the passages from the Torah), we explore the story and its significance through question-and-answer, and with “visual aids,” the matzah and the symbolic foods that make up the Seder plate.

The different elements of our Haggadah continually seem to have contemporary relevance; one need only look at the many different Haggadoth on the market to recognize the many, many commentaries and perspectives that can enliven and enlighten the Seder experience. Through these tools we may not only deepen our knowledge and understanding of our traditions, but we can easily identify their meaning for our present time.

Sadly, one passage always seems relevant: “For not just one enemy has stood against us to wipe us out. In every generation there are those who stand against us to wipe us out.” The alarming rise in Antisemitism over the past couple of years has already been disturbing evidence that many today continue to share this sentiment. The horrible events of October 7th brought this passage into frightening reality. Moreover, the increase in Antisemitism following this savage attack – and the absurd accusation that Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinian people – demonstrate just how deeply the hatred of Jews remains embedded in too many parts of society.

I would not be surprised if another passage of the Haggadah, that we recite as we open the door for Elijah (generally an uncomfortable passage) resonates particularly strongly with some of us this year: “Pour out Your wrath on the nations that do not know You and upon the kingdoms that do not invoke Your name, for they have devoured Jacob and destroyed his home. Pour out Your wrath on them; may Your blazing anger overtake them. Pursue them in wrath and destroy them from under the heavens of the Almighty!”

At the same time we are well aware that our Pesah experience of slavery and redemption becomes a cornerstone for Jewish ethics: the most frequent mitzvah in the Torah is some variation on You shall not oppress a stranger for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt. We often look upon Pesah (even though it celebrates the birth of Am Yisrael) as presenting a universal message of liberation, human dignity, and compassion. And haven’t many of us learned that we spill wine from our cups as we read the plagues, because we can’t have a full cup of joy knowing that others have suffered?[4]

We deeply feel this conflict today, recognizing that we Jews and the State of Israel have a right to our existence, a right to defend ourselves against a brutal and sadistic enemy. Yet as Jews we cannot ignore our basic values in recognizing the sanctity of all life.

We Jews – especially those in Israel – are experiencing a particularly difficult and challenging year. Yet I find a successful plan for confronting our challenges in the words of an early Zionist, Peretz Smolinskin, who wrote, “This shall be our revenge! We shall revive what they kill, and raise what they topple… This is the banner of our vengeance, and its name is Jerusalem.” We can strengthen ourselves and defeat our enemies by being proud and committed Jews, unabashedly living our values. We can be proud and committed Zionists, helping Israel to continue to be an exemplar among nations. We can begin by creating meaningful Seders where we discuss the words and ideas of the Haggadah and begin to bring those words and ideas into the reality of our lives.

Aliza, Noa, Alison, and I wish you all a Hag Kasher v’Sameah!

Rabbi Charlie

To reflect on the issues I have raised here at your own Seder:

  1. See the outstanding selections and questions presented in A Different Night by David Dishon and Noam Zion, “Should We Feel Joy at the Downfall of Our Enemies” (pp. 100-101)
  2. A fascinating presentation of these questions through the imagery of the Four Children in Levitt and Strassfeld, A Night of Questions (pp. 60-61)
  3. Selections surrounding Pouring Elijah’s cup and opening the door in Mishael Zion and Noam Zion, A Night to Remember: the Haggadah of Contemporary Voices (pp. 112-117)

[1] For example, Plato’s dialogue, “The Symposium.”

[2] There were originally three, see Mishnah Pesahim 10:4.

[3] This is the language and perspective of the Talmud.

[4] Although this idea of not rejoicing in the downfall of our foes (Prov. 24:17) and even having compassion on one’s enemies is well attested in our tradition (for example, Bavli Megillah 10b). This is likely not the original reason behind the spilling of the wine. In the outstanding Haggadah, A Different Night by David Dishon and Noam Zion, they write: “The spilling of the sixteen drops has been understood traditionally in opposite ways. Either it signifies sympathy for the enemy Egyptians who suffered as a result of the painful process of liberating the Jews from Egyptian tyranny; or it reaffirms the righteous vengeance of God’s sword exercising judgment against a relentless, cruel and stubborn enemy.” On the development of the more compassionate interpretation, see Dr. Rabbi Zvi Ron, “Spilling Wine While Reciting the Plagues to Diminish Our Joy?” (TheTorah.com.) On this custom in general, see Rabbi David Golinkin, “Why Do We Spill 16 Drops of Wine While Reciting the Ten Plagues During the Seder?” (Responsa in a Moment: Vol. 10, Issue No. 6, April 2016).