How Many People Can One Person Feed?

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The week before Pesah preparing and cleaning out homes is at the forefront of our minds. Over the generations observance of many laws and customs generally slacks off. This is not true about the misvah of Pesah. It has retained our fullest commitment, despite the fact that it has become harder to do over the years. In the old days, a family lived in a single-room dwelling and didn’t accumulate nearly as much junk as we do. It was so much easier to clean. There weren’t the various coats and pocket books that each had to be checked. They lived simpler lives, without storage sheds, basements, and garages. Nevertheless, our ladies rise above and beyond the letter of the law to fulfill this misvah. To their credit, they are “petrified” when it comes to hames, and Baruch Hashem, there is no one irresponsible in this area.

Greatness of the Jewish people

Rebbe Levi Yishak of Berditchev was a famous saddik, who was especially known as the defender of the Jewish people. He was always able to view Jews in a positive light, no matter what. There is a famous story about him approaching a Jew eating on the fast day of Tisha B’ab. The Rabbi says, “Perhaps you didn’t know today is Tisha B’ab day?” The man replies, “I know it is.” The Rabbi is not discouraged. “Perhaps you didn’t know it’s prohibited to eat today?” “I know it is,” came the insolent reply. The Rabbi persists, “Well at least you probably didn’t realize that the food you are eating is not kosher, right?” “I know it’s not kosher, and I’m eating it anyway.” At that point, the great saddik raises his eyes to Heaven and says, “Dear L-rd, look how precious Your children are. Even a Jew who eats non-kosher on Tisha B’ab refuses to tell a lie!”

One Ereb Pesah, Rebbe Levi Yitshak wanted to show Gd how precious His people are. What did he do? He called one of the local smugglers and asked him to obtain for him a certain amount of Turkish wool. In those days, Russia was at war with Turkey, and possessing Turkish goods was a major criminal offense, liable for severe punishment. Yet, for the right price, the smuggler agrees, and comes back a few minutes later with the contraband. Next, the Rabbi walks out into the Jewish neighborhood and knocks on the first door he sees. He tells the owner, “There is a medical emergency and I need a quarter slice of bread to save the life of a patient.” “Bread,” the woman responds, “Who has bread? It’s Ereb Pesah!” So, he tries the next door, and receives the same response. Finally, he exhausts his search, not able to find a single morsel of bread in the entire town. He raises his eyes towards Heaven and says, “Master of the Universe, look how dear Your people are. Here, we live in a country in which possessing Turkish wool is punishable by death, and there are police officers and customs agents prowling the streets, yet it is easily obtainable. On the other hand, no government agents threaten Your children from possessing a morsel of bread, and there is not one piece in the entire country. They are so loyal to Your word.” Nowadays too, it is much easier to find a Cuban cigar, which is illegal in this country, in one of our homes than to find a product without Pesah supervision. Even without the legal threat, we keep Gd’s law without outside enforcement.

We Need Gd’s help in Addition to our Own Efforts

Nevertheless, investing tremendous effort to prepare for Pesah is not enough to fulfill the misvah of avoiding hames. There was once a lady who meticulously cleaned for the holiday. Even though she was completely wiped out by the time the seder rolled around, both she and her family took great pride in her accomplishment. A few days later, on Hol Hamoed, she goes down to the well to draw water and what does she see inside the bucket? A piece of bread! She is horrified. This means that all the water consumed over the holiday has been tainted with hames. How could it be that after all her hard work, she and her family were not saved from the strict prohibition of hames? She shares her problem with her local rabbi, and he tells her. “Yes, you invested tremendous effort. Yes, you cooked and cleaned everywhere possible. But there is one thing you forgot.” “What?!” she says in surprise. “I completed my entire checklist!” The rabbi tells her in a soft voice, “You forgot to pray to Gd for His help.” Human beings can only do so much. We need Heavenly assistance to ensure one hundred percent success in avoiding hames. Mistakes can happen. We are limited. This is the additional step we take after we put in the effort. We tell Gd, “We have done our best. Now please help us that we don’t inadvertently stumble upon hames. Please save us from buying and serving a product without proper certification, etc.” Of course, the prayer alone is not sufficient. You have to put in the effort. Then Gd helps those who help themselves achieve total success in performing the misvah.

Gd helps those who do His will in other ways, as well. There was once a pious man in Eastern Europe who owned a brewery. Every year before Pesah, he would follow the halacha and sell the brewery to a non-Jew to avoid possessing hames on Pesah, and then he would buy it back after the holiday. One year, the anti-Semites in town banded together to prevent anyone from buying the Jew’s hames. That way, they reasoned, he would be forced to forgo his ownership of his inventory and abandon the beer to the public for free. Sure enough, Ereb Pesah arrived and the Jew could not find anyone to sell his hames to. With no choice, he was forced to leave the doors of the brewery open with a sign affixed written “Free Beer.”  He left town for the holiday. He returned after Pesah, expecting to find an empty warehouse. The local non-Jews approached him angrily. “What kind of pious Jew do you think you are? Do you think you can fulfill your Passover law by opening the doors of the brewery but putting three fierce guard dogs to prevent entry?” “What are you talking about?” the Jew countered. “Look for yourself,” they said. And he went to the brewery. There he saw three vicious dogs and a warehouse full of beer. He went to his rabbi, concerned that he violated the law. His rabbi reassured him and said, “No. You wanted to give up your hames. You were willing to sacrifice your entire business for Gd’s Torah. So, he sent three angels in the form of dogs to protect you.”

By following Gd’s law, we do not lose out. Sometimes we regret having to throw out some of our hames, perhaps a special product we just bought, or a barely used bottle. If we throw away one bottle the Boreh Olam compensates us with two bottles. He takes care of those who take care of the Torah.

What’s in a Name?

This idea of reciprocity, in which we do our best to fulfil Gd’s word and He then intervenes on our behalf, is also reflected in the names of our holiday. Our holiday has two names: Hag Hamasot (Festival of Massa) and Hag Hapesah (The Paschal Festival). The Torah commonly refers to this holiday as the Hag Hamasot, whereas we commonly refer to it as Pesah. Rabbi Levi Yishak of Berditchev explained this interesting nuance.

The meaning behind the name of Hag Hamasot is this: when we were given the green light to leave Egypt, we left in such a hurry that we didn’t even wait for our dough to rise. Where were we rushing to? A desert! A place with no food and water, totally devoid of livelihood. Yet we rushed out because of our great love of and faith in Gd. What tremendous loyalty that shows. When we travel from here to Florida how much food do we take on the plane? We don’t even trust ourselves that we can manage for a two-hour flight. If it would have been us in Egypt, we probably would have waited to leave until we gathered sufficient supplies of food and water. This is what the prophet Yirmiyahu means when he says, “Zaharti lach hesed neurayich… Lechtech aharai beres lo zerua - I remember the kindness of your youth, when you followed Me to a desolate land.” Thus, Gd says, “I am naming the holiday in honor of your faith and loyalty -Hag Hamasot - commemorating that you rushed forth into uncharted territory with nothing but blind faith.”

We respond in turn and say, “No, Hashem, it’s not to our credit; it’s to Your credit. We remember what You did for us.” The name Hag Hapesah denotes the miracle that Gd did for us to punish the Egyptians with the plague of Makkat Bechorot (Smiting the Firstborn). He killed every Egyptian firstborn. There wasn’t a single Egyptian house without a tragedy. Yet he passed over our homes and saved us.

So, look how beautiful it is. Gd names the holiday Hag Hamasot in our honor, and we say, don’t focus on us, look at You; look at how much You did for us. So, we call it Hag Hapesah to show our gratitude to Him.

Each side is honoring the other. “Ani ledodi vedodi li - I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me.” That is why the seder night is a reaffirmation of our marriage to Gd. He says, “I love you, My chosen nation.” We turn to Him and say how much we love Him for all His miracles.

This is a life lesson. Unfortunately, people are often so eager to receive compliments and be noticed that they become negligent in giving gratitude. It is a time to focus on the other, and usually, when we do that, they reciprocate to us. This is the message of the names of the holiday.

Children are our Priority and our Future

All the preparation, shopping, cleaning, and cooking, with all the stress and toil is ultimately building up to one moment - when the child stands up on his chair and says Ma Nishtana - the four questions. Look at the emphasis our religion places on educating the children. In Judaism, the children are the main priority. Without them there is no future.

This was actually the argument between Moshe and Pharaoh. Eventually, when Pharaoh initially agreed that the Jews could leave, he asks Moshe, “Who is it that you want to go?” Moshe’s answer is clear, “b’narenu u’vizkenenu nelech - we will go with our youth and with our elders.” He places the youth even before the elderly. Moshe is telling Pharaoh that the children will perpetuate our beliefs. They will carry the baton of our religion into the future. When Pharaoh hears this, he refuses. In his mind, worship and service of Gd are for adults only.

Our synagogues are quite noisy. While this is something to be worked on, there is at least one type of noise which is not a problem - the presence the youngsters. While, of course, they need to be taught proper behavior in the synagogue, Baruch Hashem, there are children. Other communities only allow the adults to sit in the synagogue. The children in those communities end up being pushed away, and the seats in those synagogues start to empty out as the adults grow into old age and eventually pass on.

We remind ourselves that all this work was for my son to stand on the chair. That is the deeper meaning of the word seder, order, meaning the priority is that our children’s education comes first.

Beautiful Pesah Memories

I want to share my personal feeling, and I imagine you probably share the same feeling, that some of my, and most likely your, best memories as children were the seder night and the whole Pesah experience. We have vivid pictures of our parents and grandparents making hagalah in the kitchen, bringing Pesah pots up from the basement, and eating in the kitchen because the dining room was already kosher for Pesah. We recall our fathers coming home from work on the night of bedikat hames and how we would hide ten pieces of bread, and then following him, as he went around with his candle and bowl, saying “hot or cold?” All these rituals left an indelible impression. We all remember looking forward to the biggest attraction - burning the hames the next morning. I bet we even remember the special menu our mothers made for lunch on Ereb Pesah, when you couldn’t have either hames or massa. Who can forget the grand seder table, set for royalty, with all the family together with the haggadot, excited to be together and share divreh Torah? These are our most treasured memories.

Therefore, we have an obligation to make sure that we bequeath our children cherished memories of our own family during Pesah preparations and the seder night. We must afford our children the same enjoyment. However, unfortunately, our Pesah experience has become modernized. Today, Pesah is about reservations, flights, and vacation attractions. Even if we do go away, we must remember it is first and foremost a holiday, not a vacation. We must ensure that our children don’t remember Pesah as tennis and swimming. Those can be done any time of year. It is the customs and rituals that make the holiday truly special, and these memories never fade.

Interestingly, I find that this emphasis on children and family continues after the holiday as well. During the period of the Omer, there is a waning of social obligations, as we do not hold weddings and other semahot. I often find a special pleasure in the relative quiet of these evenings to spend more time with my children. In our community one can go to three weddings a week, not counting a brit and other functions during the day. This often leads to a situation where we have less time for our children, and they end up being taken care of by nannies and babysitters. We don’t have the time to even do homework with them. Thesesemahot take their toll on our children. They feel most happy, secure, and confident when their parents are at home. Even if we don’t actively spend time with them, the father merely being in the living room and the mother upstairs gives them a sense of well-being. Semahot and dinner parties are not our first obligation; our children are our first obligation. We brought them into this world; they didn’t ask to come here. We brought them here against their will. That’s why the seder night means order. It refocuses us on our parenting priority and makes us recognize that we should not be parents by proxy.