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Rabbi Yossi's Blog

Welcome to Rabbi Yossi's Blog; where you can expect to find thoughts on current events, Torah learning and Jewish spirituality. And of course, some good Jewish humor.

The REAL Passover Seder

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Tomorrow night is the first night of Passover and I’m sure you will be participating in a Seder (if you don’t have plans yet, PM me and let’s help make it happen).

 

The question is, what is the purpose of the Seder? Is it simply about commemorating what happened back then?

The conventional understanding is that it’s about remembering the Exodus. But one second, if it’s all about remembering the Exodus, why then does the Seder include bitter herbs and salt water (reminiscent of the suffering of the slavery)? Shouldn’t the focus of the night be on the Exodus?

A simple understanding is that to highlight the scale of the redemption, it’s necessary to first appreciate the level of persecution.

However, while accurate, this answer is somewhat lacking. The better answer is in fact much more than that.

You see the Passover Seder is not just about commemorating something that happened in the past; that can be done by reading a few passages. The Seder is specifically structured to be experiential, it’s about reliving the slavery and reliving the Exodus.

The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, means borders, or limitations. We eat the maror, the bitter herb, not only to remember their suffering over 3000 years ago but also to acknowledge our own struggles; the limitations in our own life that we just can’t seem to overcome.

And we eat the matzah, not only to remember their Exodus so many years ago, rather to assist us in our personal process of redemption. The matzah is the key ingredient to overcoming our limitations. Matzah is flat and unassuming, with the most basic of ingredients. It’s all about humility - not the sit-quietly-on-the-sidelines image of humility that many people have; it’s the get-out-and-do-what-you-were-placed-here-to-do kind of humility.

We each have a purpose, we were put in this world to fulfill that purpose. And only we can achieve our specific mission, no one can replace us.

We eat the Passover foods and participate in the Seder not just to commemorate the past, but we do it all in order to live the Exodus. To live a truly redeemed and purposeful life.

The Seder therefore includes the bitter herbs and the salt water because it’s about the transition from slavery to freedom. We acknowledge and identify our limitations and only then can we successfully overcome them and be redeemed in every sense.

The Central Theme of Passover

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Passover is coming - it seems that everyone knows something about the holiday and remembers something about how it was celebrated when they were growing up. It’s still one of the most celebrated Jewish holidays.

But what exactly is the central message of the holiday?

Freedom? Overcoming obstacles? These themes are definitely relevant, but I’d argue that the central theme and message is actually something entirely different.

Everyone knows the last of the Ten Plagues, Death of the Firstborn; but while it would have made sense to begin warning about the first plagues, did you know that Moses warned Pharaoh about that last plague right from the very start? G-d told Moses to communicate to Pharaoh that the “Children of Israel are my firstborn and if you won’t let them out,” G-d said “I will kill your firstborn.”

G-d was communicating to Pharaoh that the Jewish people are His “firstborn,” and if Pharaoh continues to harm His first born, then Pharaoh’s first born would be threatened.

Through the Exodus we were born as a people and collectively became the “Firstborn Son” of G-d. It’s an interesting phenomenon, the Firstborn Son of G-d, what exactly does that mean?

Consider this: The oldest child in a family is often treated differently than the other children. Parents expect the oldest child to help out around the house, often more so than their younger siblings; they’re often held to a higher standard (“You should know better, you’re older”) than their siblings and their younger siblings often look up to them as a role model. (I can speak from experience because I’m the eldest child in my family...).

Like it or not, the eldest sibling is viewed in many ways as the bridge between generations and is expected to take more responsibility and is often held more accountable by his/her parents.

Eldest siblings often have a difficult time finding their place, on the one hand they are a child yet at the same time they are considered a role model and have greater responsibility. If they try to exploit their position, they’re reminded that they are not the parent; if they try to avoid some responsibility, they’re reminded that they’re the oldest. It can be a difficult position to be in.

Bottom line, what does it mean to be the “Firstborn Son of G-d”? It means that we are the bridge between G-d and the rest of the world. We have a heightened responsibility and are more accountable than our “siblings.” And when something goes wrong, we’re the first to be blamed…

So, what is the central theme of Passover? That we have a responsibility to the rest of the world to act as the “Firstborn Son.” We are the ones who have the privilege and responsibility of connecting G-d’s ideals and values with the world. Our job is to be the living example of how an ideal human being acts, both physically and spiritually.

Yes, it’s possible for the eldest child to be resented by the younger siblings, and this is true about us too. However, in a healthy family environment, as the family matures the rest of the siblings come to have an appreciation for their oldest sibling.

You deserve to enter the sanctuary

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What can possibly be the message from the outdated (and repeated, but that’s another matter) information about the construction of the Divine Sanctuary in the desert over 3000 years ago?

Here’s the deal - your life (like my life and like the life of everyone else you know) is filled with  extensive responsibilities, numerous expectations, demanding priorities and pressuring deadlines. With the advent of social media and smartphones this ongoing pressure continues unabated at all hours of the day and night. It’s no wonder that in recent years there has been a sharp rise in anxiety and depression…

The key to the solution can be found by examining the juxtaposition of two seemingly different ideas in this week’s Torah portion. At first glance, the fact that the instruction to build the Sanctuary in the desert is taught in tandem with the laws of Shabbat seems incongruous: What’s the connection between the two?

The classic answer to this question is that there is a link in the observance of the two - construction of the Sanctuary cannot violate the laws of Shabbat and we learn the 39 categories of Shabbat-prohibited activities from the types of work required in the Sanctuary's construction.

But there’s more to it. 

You see, our experience of the universe is defined by time and space; we exist in a certain time and take up a certain space. Time and space are both limiting and defining dimensions that each have their set of pressure that comes along with the experience. We’re limited by time and space - we can only accomplish so much in a certain amount of time and we can only be in one place at once.

To help relieve us of this limitation and to help us redirect our focus back to our primary purpose, the Torah provides for a unique sanctuary that we can enter and rejuvenate ourselves. In the dimension of time this is Shabbat and in the dimension of space this is the Sanctuary.

Shabbat enables us to maintain our equilibrium and not get completely swamped and overwhelmed by the external forces in our lives. It creates the space for us to recalibrate our existence and remain in control of our life. This provides us the ability to reconnect to the most important things in our life (hint: it’s not your iPhone) and the strength to face the week ahead.

In space too, we must have a sanctuary that we can retreat into. Back in the day this was the Holy Temple; today however we must create such a G-dly sanctuary in our homes. When we have a secure space that is our sanctuary we can then turn and engage with the world around us.

But there is one more obvious dimension and that is included in the living experience: our very selves. 

Within ourselves there is a built-in sanctuary to which we each have a personal, 24/7, all-access pass. That’s right, the soul is our personal sanctuary. It’s disengaged from the headaches of modern life and it’s not damaged by its encounter with the world. In order to remain healthy and productive human beings, in order to avoid being overwhelmed by the pressures of life, we have to reconnect with our soul.

These three dimensions that encompass the human experience; time, space and soul each have a sanctuary built into it. This week’s Torah portion reminds us to stop what we’re doing, extricate ourselves from the pressure around us and step into the sanctuary. In every dimension.  

Constructive stubbornness

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I think stubbornness is given a bad rap. Is it all that bad to be stubborn? 

We generally think of stubbornness as a negative trait - and it certainly could be misplaced and harmful. But if your stubbornness is leading you to make the right choice - even when you’re feeling uninspired, perhaps it’s not all that bad?

When dealing with others, it’s important to be flexible. We need to take their concerns into account and ensure that they are sincerely valued and appreciated. 

However, when it comes to upholding our Jewish values and principles, some irrational and unwavering stubbornness is the secret to success. 

In fact, the Torah describes the Jewish people as “stiff-necked”; basically the biblical way of saying “stubborn”. And despite being shared in a somewhat negative context, it’s not all that bad. In fact, it’s what has sustained us as a people all these years.

You’ve got to be a little “stiff-necked” to survive persecution by the Philistines, the Babylonians and the Persians. To be tormented by the Greeks and the Romans. You would need more than a little stubbornness to rebuild after the horrific devastation of the various Crusades and inquisitions. And there’s certainly fierce determination embedded in the DNA of our parents and grandparents who rebuilt after the Holocaust.

Yes, our stubbornness has served us well over the generations. Every single person born Jewish today owes that fact to multiple ancestors who refused to waver under any circumstances.  

Sometimes a little opposition calls out our determination; we have to learn to summon our inner positive stubbornness in less confronting circumstances too. Stick to what’s right no matter the fallout.

While it may take even more effort than resisting hostile opposition, it’s well worth the effort. Because without any hyperbole or exaggeration - it’s the key to Jewish continuity.

 

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