On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress of the newly formed United States of America convened a committee to design what would become our Great seal, our emblem and the symbol of our sovereignty.
The committee was comprised of three of the five men who had drafted the Declaration of Independence: Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. Adams chose a painting known as the “Judgment of Hercules,” to adorn the seal. Jefferson suggested a depiction of the Children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night for seal.
Benjamin Franklin also chose a design based on the Jewish story that he would describe as, “Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his Hand.” Franklin in fact suggested the motto for this new country: “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”
As in most cases of committees, it took six years, three committees, and the contributions of 14 men before the Congress finally accepted a design in 1782 and it wasn’t any of the original three suggestions. However, Thomas Jefferson liked the motto “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God” so much, he used it on his personal seal.
Why Matzah before Marror?
The story of our Exodus has universal appeal; it has been embraced by countless groups to inspire their own journey towards freedom including the founding fathers and later the civil rights movement. But the truth is that while the story can inspire others, it is uniquely ours and describes a history that belongs to us alone, it is our family’s narrative.
While others have written about it, drawn emblems based on it and composed songs and poems around it, we alone relive it, and we alone invoke the memory of having experienced it directly with sensory experiences. Others tell the story, but we are the only ones who taste the story.
We retell the story of our journey from bondage to freedom specifically with matzah and marror before us. In the Haggadah we read, “Rabban Gamliel said that one who has not said Pesach, matzah and marror has not fulfilled his obligation.” After reminding ourselves of the centrality of matzah and marror, we soon proceed with fulfilling these mitzvos, first eating matzah and only then consuming the requisite measure of marror.
Every time we invoke the themes of matzah and marror, we seem to do so in the wrong order. Matzah represents our freedom and liberty, the culmination and climax of the story. Marror is because the Egyptians made the lives of our forefathers in Egypt bitter.
The marror, the memory of bitterness, servitude, suffering, oppression should come first and only then should we taste the matzah and remember our journey towards freedom and prosperity? Why do we consistently address matzah and marror in the wrong order?
Many illustrious rabbis have addressed this question, however I would like to humbly offer you my own understanding.
Stories that Bind Us
For years researchers have sought to understand, what holds families together? What are the ingredients that make some families united, strong, resilient, and happy, while others are in disarray, fractured, broken, and fragile? Why are some families functional and others utterly dysfunctional?
As it turns out, the single most important thing you can do for your family is to develop a strong family narrative. Two years ago, the New York Times had a fascinating article entitled, “The Stories That Bind Us.” It provides the background for how this conclusion was reached.
In the mid-1990s Dr. Marshall Duke, a psychologist at Emory University was doing research into the dissipation of the family. His wife, Sara, a psychologist who works with children with learning disabilities noticed something about her students. She told her husband, “The ones who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges.”
Duke decided to test the hypothesis by developing a measure called “Do You Know,” a test for children with questions about their family. Examples of questions were: Do you know where you grandparents grew up? Do you know where your Mom and Dad went to high school? Do you know an illness or something terrible that happened in your family
Duke took the answers he received and compared them to a battery of psychological tests that the same children had taken and he reached an overwhelming conclusion. The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.
Psychologists have found that every family has a unifying narrative and they take one of three shapes. The ascending family narrative is exclusively positive: Son, when we came to this country, we had nothing. We worked hard, opened a store, your grandfather went to high school, your father went to college and now you…”
The second is the descending narrative: “Sweetheart, we used to have it all, then, we lost everything.” Dr. Duke explains that the third narrative, the oscillating family narrative is the most healthful one. “Let me tell you we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a strong business, your grandfather was charitable, but we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. Your father lost a job. No matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.”
Duke and his colleagues concluded that the children who have the most self-confidence and resilience have a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves. Dr. Duke recommends parents pursue opportunities to convey a sense of history to their children. Use holidays, vacations, family get-togethers, or even a ride to the mall to tell your family stories and personal anecdotes. He recommends adopting rituals and traditions that can get handed down from one generation to another. The hokier the family’s tradition, he says, the more likely it is to be passed down.
Duke’s bottom line is this: if you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your collective ability to bounce back from difficult ones.
Passing Over Our Family’s Story
When I saw this article and read about Duke’s research, all I could think of is the Pesach Seder and the wisdom our sacred tradition. This new research simply affirms what we knew and have practiced for millennia. When we sit at the Seder and tell the story of our people, our children feel part of something larger than themselves. When they hear our personal stories of ups and downs, bitterness and sweetness, they feel part of something larger and greater than themselves. They don’t see their own circumstance in a vacuum or feel the need to face their challenges alone. When they see themselves as part of our collective history and our family’s personal narrative, they are encouraged, strengthened and uplifted.
Perhaps this research explains why we eat the matzah and marror out of order. You see, we don’t just eat the marror at the seder as a prop in order to tell the story chronologically. It isn’t just a function of reminding our children we were once slaves, but now we are free.
Rather, we eat the marror to remind our children that our narrative is an oscillating one with ups and down, sweetness and bitterness, successes and yes, even failures. We become stronger, more resilient, more effective, more functional and more united when we don’t hide the marror part of our past but instead, we embrace the marror as part of our oscillating narrative. We don’t have marror and then once we have matzah everything is smooth sailing from there. No, we have matzah and then marror and then matzah and then marror and thus is life.
Knowing our narrative is an oscillating one gives us each courage and strength and empowers us to confront the marrors we may face today. The Passover Seder teaches us to be honest, direct and truthful in our conversations with our family. The more we share about both the matzah and marror moments, the stronger we will be, the more united we will feel and the greater our capacity to overcome whatever may come our way.
A couple of weeks ago, the 20th of Adar, marked the twentieth yahrzeit of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l. In a tribute written shortly after his passing, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, who shared a very close relationship with Rav Shlomo Zalman, described him as a “Gentle giant.” He wrote:
Reb Shlomo Zalman was endowed, as a lamdan, with a set of qualities which served him, ideally, as a posek. He had encyclopedic knowledge — and he had it, as mechudaddim beficha, at his fingertips. His temperament was remarkably judicious, invariably level-headed, and never pedestrian. He was deferential to the views of others, and yet genuinely self-confident. He could be innovative and even daring.
Rav Shlomo Zalman’s brilliance was undeniable, and yet it was perhaps surpassed only by his humility and sensitivity to all. R’ Chanoch Teller recounts the following anecdote: “When Rav Shlomo Zalman passed away, a beggar in Sha’arei Chesed sobbed in her anguish: “Now who will say ‘good morning’ to me every day?” (Mi yagid li boker tov?)”
While a testament to his unpretentiousness and accessibility, the anecdote has the potential to leave the reader believing that one must be the gadol ha’dor, the greatest of the generation, to be friendly, caring and gracious to all. Indeed, Rav Shlomo Zalman’s greatness was seeing his warmth and friendliness as nothing extraordinary at all, but something that should come naturally and be instinctive.
This week, I had the privilege of attending a retirement party of an executive who was stepping down after twenty years of dedicated service to his company. In his typical humility, when he invited me, he portrayed the gathering as being something like a small cake in the conference room for a few minutes to mark his retirement. In reality, however, over six hundred people packed into the company cafeteria, most of them standing for what turned into two and a half hours of tributes offered by those who reported to him and with whom he worked closely.
One by one the presenters noted the individual’s business acumen, talents, skills and gifts. They talked about his attention to detail on documents, his negotiating prowess and his invaluable contributions to the growth and success of the company. Every single one of them, however, also noted that what made him truly special and beloved was not his mind, but his generous heart and soul that he brought to work each day. They described him as a man of high moral character. Exasperated when he couldn’t find a better word (he wasn’t familiar with the word mensch), one person described him as amazingly decent. Speakers were literally chocked up as they recounted his warmth, wise counsel, sagacious guidance, and most of all, his genuine care and concern for their personal lives.
When the event concluded, I asked him, “You only thought a handful of people were going to attend, those you worked closest with for the last two decades. Why do you think over six hundred people decided to attend?” He answered, “When I began my career many decades ago I made a conscious decision that I would smile and greet every single person I would encounter throughout my day at work, whether in the lobby, elevator, hallway, in line at the cafeteria or outside in the parking lot. I made it a goal to learn everyone’s name and made it a point to use his or her name whenever I said hello. I guess people appreciated it and maybe that’s why they showed up today.”
The Talmud testifies (Berachos 17a) about Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai that no one ever preceded him in a greeting [of Shalom], even a stranger in the marketplace.” The Mishna in Pirkei Avos (4:20) encourages us all, “Hevei makdim b’shalom kol Adam, be the first to greet each person.” The Maharal explains that when you walk by someone without offering a greeting you make him or her feel invisible and insignificant. By making a point of greeting someone you demonstrate that you don’t see yourself as superior or better than another. Rather, by instigating the greeting, you show that you respect that person as an individual and thereby you give them dignity and worth.
In his book, “Reflections of the Maggid,“ Rabbi Paysach Krohn tells the following story:
In Argentina there was a ritual slaughter complex, comprised of several buildings. There was a building where the animals were fed, a building where they were slaughtered and the meat packed and loaded onto trucks, and an office building with dressing rooms for the shochtim (ritual slaughterers). The entire area was surrounded by a tall chain link fence and everyone entered through a wrought iron gate in the front, near the parking lot.
The owner, Yisrael (Izzy) Nachmal, was a workaholic. He was the first one in every morning and the last one out every evening. He oversaw every aspect of his company, Ultimate Meats, and made it a point to know every worker. The guard at the front gate, Domingo, knew that when Izzy left in the evening, he could lock the gate and go home.
One evening as Izzy was leaving, he called out to the guard, “Good night, Domingo, you can lock up and go.” “No,” Domingo called back, “not everyone has left yet.” “What are you talking about,” Izzy said, “everyone left two hours ago!” “It is not so,” Domingo said, “One of the shochtim, Rabbi Berkowitz, hasn’t left yet.” “But he goes home every day with the other shochtim, maybe you just didn’t see him,” Izzy said. “Believe me, I am positive he didn’t leave yet,” the guard insisted. “We better go look for him.”
Izzy knew that Domingo was reliable and conscientious. He decided not to argue, but instead got out of his car and rushed back to the office building with Domingo. They searched the dressing room thinking that perhaps Rabbi Berkowitz had fainted and was debilitated. He wasn’t there.
They ran to where the animals were slaughtered, but he wasn’t there either. They searched the truck dock, the packing house, going from room to room. Finally they came to the huge walk-in refrigeration room where the large slabs of meat were kept frozen.
They opened the door and to their shock and horror they saw Rabbi Berkowitz rolling on the floor, trying desperately to keep himself warm. They ran over to him, lifted him off the floor and helped him out of the refrigerated room, past the thick heavy wooden door that had locked behind him. They wrapped blankets around him and made sure he was warm and comfortable.
Izzy Nachmal was incredulous. “Domingo,” he asked, “how did you know Rabbi Berkowitz hadn’t left? There are over two hundred workers here every day. Don’t tell me you know the comings and goings of every one of them?”
The guard’s answer is worth remembering. “Every morning when that rabbi comes in, he greets me and says hello. He makes me feel like a person. And every single night when he leaves he tells me, ‘Have a pleasant evening.’ He never misses a night – and to tell you the truth, I wait for his kind words. Dozens and dozens of workers pass me every day – morning and night, and they don’t say a word to me. To them I am a nothing. To him, I am a somebody. “I knew he came in this morning and I was sure he hadn’t left yet, because I was waiting for his friendly good-bye for the evening!”
We may not have encyclopedic Torah knowledge or a brilliant business mind, but every one of us can be extraordinary just by making a point of greeting everyone with a smile. Whether at work, the gym, the supermarket or walking to Shul, we should never retire from being friendly, courteous and attempting to provide dignity and worth to all.
Cremation in the Jewish community is growing at disturbing rates, with advertisements appearing in Jewish newspapers promoting it as a legitimate post-death option, including in some cases, shockingly, endorsements by rabbis. The prohibitive cost of traditional burial is often given as a reason for this trend, but it undoubtedly is the result of ignorance as well.
It is not just the secular and unaffiliated that are uneducated about the Jewish approach to death and dying. Most people don’t learn about death until they encounter it with the loss of a family member or good friend. Questions like what happens at death, where does the soul go, how do we prepare the body, and what is the afterlife like remain mysterious and unknown. Historically the Chevra Kadisha has always been a modest society who does its work without attention, fanfare or even credit. Those that serve on it do so privately and quietly. But that doesn’t mean that the work it does or the why and how it does it should remain a secret.
Educating about the Jewish view of death doesn’t only prepare people and bring comfort and solace in a painful time that everyone will inevitably face, but in my experience it also inspires living a more meaningful and rich life.
This week, to the great credit of Rabbi Jonathan Kroll, Head of School, senior girls at Weinbaum Yeshiva High School began an eight-session course titled “The Final Journey: How Judaism Dignifies the Passage.” This pioneering project, a brainchild of Rochel Berman, author of “Dignity Beyond Death: The Jewish Preparation for Burial,” is designed to expose students to both the philosophy of what happens at death as well as the practical procedures of the Chevra Kadisha. The course includes a field trip to a funeral home to see the tahara room, tachrichin, and a halachikly appropriate casket.
I had the privilege of teaching the introductory class, in which I attempted to put death in the context of life. At the core of every answer to the myriad of questions revolving around death is the following critical statement: We don’t have a soul; we are a soul. A lifetime of caring for our bodies, pampering ourselves, and seeking physical pleasure often leaves us confused and with the mistaken notion that we are a body and we have a soul. Judaism teaches that in fact, it is the opposite.
Our soul has existed since creation itself and as an extension and expression of the Almighty, it will continue to exist eternally. Our soul is housed in a vessel called the body for what in the span of eternity is a very short period of time: seventy, eighty, or even one hundred and twenty years. Our rabbis don’t refer to what happens at the end of life as death. They call it yetzias ha’neshama, the extraction of the soul from the body because in truth people don’t die, bodies die and people aren’t buried, bodies are buried.
How does the soul experience its transition from the body? Is it painful or pleasurable? The answer is it depends on how that soul lived life when it was housed in the body. The righteous person who throughout his or her life always identified themselves as a soul that had a body and while caring about the body truly invested in nourishing and nurturing the soul, experiences its extraction as a moment of bliss and great joy. The righteous see the body as a burden, a source of temptation and distraction that holds back the soul. Of course they recognize that only with the body can the soul express free will and therefore shape and mold it. They therefore don’t pray for death or welcome it.
However, when it happens, our greatest leaders are described as experiencing a kiss of death, a moment of bliss, when their soul was liberated from the shackles of the body. Rav Nachman of Breslov wrote (Sichos Ha’Ran #179), “I can’t wait to divest myself of this garment that is my body…” To the righteous, removing the body from the soul is as painless and indeed pleasurable as taking off ones suit and tie at the end of a difficult day.
The average person who identified with his or her body throughout life and who invested in nurturing and nourishing the body while neglecting the soul, experiences its extraction very differently. Our tradition teaches that the soul hovers over the body when it is first removed, pained by the startling realization that the body they looked at in the mirror and saw as themselves all those years was only a vessel, a vehicle for the soul. The soul is confused and anxious by the sudden awareness that in fact, we are a soul and only had a body, not the other way around.
The primary responsibility of the Chevra Kadisha is to comfort that soul through its journey and transition. The Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 33) tells us that it is forbidden to leave a dying person alone. The least we can do is provide that soul with companionship and love during its difficult time. We have a shomer with that soul all the way until the body is buried at which time the soul can begin to ascend on high.
If the body is just a temporary vessel, a source of ephemeral pleasure, why do we treat it with such respect, dignity and affection before placing it in the ground? If what matters is the soul, why not discard the body by any means? The soul of the average person which sees itself as inextricably connected to the body endures pain by the separation. After all, they lived together for a lifetime, engaged the world as one, made choices and experienced events, people and places together.
Shlomo Ha’Melech taught (Kohelles 12:7) “The dust returns to the earth as it was and the spirit returns to God Who gave it.” The soul finds solace and returns to God only after seeing its body return to the earth with dignity and respect. Everything about the tahara, the burial preparation, is designed to allow the soul to observe us treat its formal body with great respect. We carefully wash the body from head to toe, we clean under the fingernails, in the ears, and we remove all tubes, lines and catheters. We purify the body by immersing it in a mikvah or pouring 9 kabim of water of it. And then we dress the body in shrouds that are both simple and majestic. We don’t talk about extraneous things in the tahara room, we have a candle lit to represent the neshama, and we don’t pass things over the body treating it like an object or piece of furniture.
When performing a tahara there is an acute awareness that the neshama of the individual is palpably present in the room, watching, observing and grieving. I have walked away from every tahara I have been privileged to participate in with a greater consciousness of my soul, a greater drive to nourish it, and a renewed mindfulness that in fact, I don’t have a soul; I am a soul that has a body.
Imagine the pain of the soul that, rather than witness its body treated with love, affection and dignity, sees it incinerated and cremated into a pile of ash. From our perspective cremation may not seem that different than placing a body in the ground, but from the perspective of the soul in the world of truth, it can be the difference between comfort and grief, consolation or profound pain.
I would like to believe that Hashem Has a way of providing comfort for those that choose cremation or a mausoleum rather than traditional burial out of a lack of Jewish education or experience. However, it is our responsibility to educate as widely as possible on the beauty and deep meaning of the authentic Jewish view of death and mourning.
I concluded my class by encouraging the students to get involved in the holy work of the Chevra Kadisha. There are few things more satisfying and fulfilling than participating in chesed shel emes, lovingness that cannot be repaid. Contact with death inspires greater meaning in life and provides contact with our souls in a way few other things can. There are so many ways to get involved not only in the tahara room, but serving as shomrim, setting up shiva homes, helping make shiva minyanim, stocking supplies, making meals and more.
I am grateful to Rochel Berman and Weinbaum Yeshiva High School for piloting this program and I hope it will be emulated all over, not only for students but adults as well.
To see a greater discussion with further sources on this subject, please see here.
Now that Purim is behind us, the countdown to Pesach has officially begun, complete with its angst, anxiety, stress, and exhaustion. Sadly, many people associate Pesach with backbreaking work, exorbitant expenses, endless preparation, and bread deprivation. It is not unusual to hear moans, groans, and krechts coming from both men and women when mentioning the upcoming holiday. Many describe themselves as rolling into Pesach ‘like a shmatta,’ unable to enjoy the festive atmosphere, meaningful Sedarim, or even quality time with friends and family.
But this is not the way the Torah or our Rabbis intended it. I believe that the bulk of the stress, aches, and pains that result from Pesach preparation is self-induced and utterly unnecessary. True, there is a high cost of matzah, wine, and Kosher-for-Pesach groceries that cannot be avoided and are challenging particularly during these difficult economic times. However, the overly labor-intensive house preparations and extensive,arguably overly complicated menus and recipes can all be avoided.
For some reason, Pesach has gotten away from us with the purely voluntary now becoming mandated standards and what should be the primary goals becoming almost entirely neglected and dismissed. Undoubtedly, halacha demands that we seek and destroy all chametz in our possession. Definitions of “chametz,” “seek,” and “in our possession” are all very clear and require a preparation of a home that should take only a few hours total. Areas and places where chametz is never brought don’t need to be cleaned or checked (Shulchan Aruch o.c. 433:3). Appliances that will not be accessed or used need not be cleaned or checked; they simply need to be put away and sealed. Any food that is not categorized as edible (a dog would not eat it) is not considered chametz (Shulchan Aruch 442:2). There is no need to check for crumbs that are less than a k’zias if they are dirty or soiled and wouldn’t be edible by a human (Mishna Berura 442:33).
Practically speaking, any cabinet, closet or room that will not be entered on Pesach, can simply be closed with a piece of tape across the door and any chametz contents in it sold. Any kitchen cabinet, drawer, or cupboard that will not be used on Pesach need not be cleaned at all; it just needs to be taped shut. Any appliance, food processor, sandwich maker, mixer, bread machine, etc. that will not be used, need not be cleaned whatsoever. They just need to be put away for Pesach in a sealed space.
Nevertheless, at some point in recent Jewish history, Pesach preparation was substituted with spring-cleaning. If one is moving a refrigerator, oven, or any other heavy appliance, he is spring cleaning, not preparing for Pesach. If one is climbing on a ladder to clean a ceiling fan, taking a toothpick to a toaster or food processor, scrubbing grout with a toothbrush, emptying and wiping all dressers, closets, linen pantries, crawl spaces, or shaking out books that haven’t been opened in years, she is spring cleaning, not preparing for Pesach.
Halacha demands that we go room to room confirming there is no chametz that is larger than 30 grams and edible. That can realistically be accomplished in a few hours at most in almost all of our homes. If you are spending days, weeks, or over a month cleaning, if you are worn down, exhausted and your back aches, blame your proclivity for spring cleaning, don’t dare blame God or His wonderful holiday of Pesach.
Make no mistake, this substitution of spring-cleaning instead of Pesach preparation comes at a great cost and it will likely hurt our community’s attitude towards Pesach in the future. Rather than enter Pesach excited, enthusiastic, and energized to spend time with family and share divrei Torah at our Sedarim, we are increasingly becoming resentful and negative about being observant and burdened by Pesach. Rather than happy people eating bitter herbs to celebrate freedom, we are becoming bitter people exchanging our freedom for unnecessary burdens in anticipation of Pesach.
Pesach, more than any other holiday or time of year, is designed to communicate our values, priorities and lifestyles to the next generation. Pesach, and the days leading up to it, should leave our children with sights, smells, flavors, traditions, and experiences they will draw from and seek to emulate in their own homes for the rest of their lives. It should provide memories and recollections that will inspire and charge the next generation in their Judaism and commitment to the beauty of a Torah lifestyle.
Bedikas chametz, complete with its hide-and-seek nature, should be fun, exciting, and adventurous. Instead, for many it has become a chore that we unburden ourselves from as quickly as possible. Burning chametz, rolling matzah balls by hand, chopping charoses, grinding marror, setting the regal seder table, reenacting the Pesach story at our seders, welcoming visiting family, are among the activities that can be carried out with joy, enthusiasm, nostalgia, and meaning.
Depleting ourselves of energy and joy by engaging in spring cleaning rather than Pesach preparation is not only depriving us of the simcha, joy, we are capable of feeling, but it is indelibly impressing on our children negative memories and associations that will likely haunt them and shape their own attitude toward Pesach preparation and observance.
By exerting all of our energy into that which is unnecessary, we have little left to do the things that make Pesach preparation fun and create the memories that our children and grandchildren will draw from throughout their lives. Today, you can buy bedikas chametz kits complete with numbered pieces of bread, packaged finely chopped charoses and even a jar of kosher for Pesach salt water.
With all respect to the companies that have commercialized those mitzvos, I implore you, don’t cave. I vividly remember how we prepared and hid the bread for bedikas chametz and that is how I taught my children to do it. I can easily picture my siblings and me competing over who got to chop the charoses and how my mother and grandmother lovingly added all the ingredients in their special recipe and it is that experience we try to create for our children today. Is adding salt to water so laborious that we can’t put in even that effort to prepare for our seder table?
As we enter the final countdown to Pesach this year, I beg you to ask yourself the question – which sounds will ring in your children’s ears in the future when they think back to Pesach in their home? Will it be moans, groans, bitterness and complaints or will they remember the joyous sounds of an energized family eagerly preparing for a meaningful Yom Tov?
The Shulchan Aruch (529:2) tells us, “Chayav adom liheyos sameach v’tov leiv b’moed. A person is obligated to be joyous and happy on the holiday.” The Mishna Berura is quick to add that being happy on the holiday is a Biblical mandate and applies equally to men and women.
Let’s not allow spring cleaning or unnecessary stringencies to get in the way of fulfilling our duty to God, our children and ourselves of being happy, joyous, energetic, and enthusiastic.
Over the next month, as we prepare for Pesach, let’s remember what is essential and what is unnecessary, what is an obligation and what isn’t even a mitzvah and most importantly, what will make our children love Pesach and what will cause them to resent it.