The Pesach Sink


“It was in the reward of the righteous women who lived in that generation that Israel was redeemed from Egypt.” 

The sink plays an important role on Pesach.

No, we are not talking about the various solutions for how to use one’s kitchen sink on Pesach, whether by being “koshered” with boiling water or with special inserts.

We are talking about the seder, when our rabbis added an extra hand-washing.

Normally, of course, when we sit down to a meal, we are required to wash our hands before eating bread.  On Pesach, too, we wash our hands before eating our “bread” – matzah.  But much earlier in the seder, we wash our hands for a different reason – to prepare for eating the karpas vegetables in salt water.  Throughout the year, we do not require hand washing before eating a moistened vegetable, but at the seder, we do, such that we wash our hands twice on the night of the seder.

Let’s take a closer look at these two washings.

The first, as mentioned, is in preparation for the karpas.  The Gemara explains that we eat karpas at the seder to arouse the children’s curiosity.  Normally, after kiddush, we wash our hands and then eat bread, and so the children will notice something different when we wash our hands and eat a vegetable dipped in water.  We want to pique the children’s interest at the seder to keep them awake and involved, and so we eat karpas, anticipating their bewilderment which will then draw their interest.

We might say, then, that the first washing prepares us for engaging our children at the seder.

The second washing, of course, is in preparation for eating matzah.  However, the Gemara in one place speaks of the second washing as performed for “tibul sheni – the second dipping.”  Meaning, we wash in preparation for the dipping of the marror in haroset, which we do after eating the matzah.  Apparently, the second washing serves to prepare us not only for the matzah, but also for the marror and haroset.

At first glance, these two washings are entirely unrelated to one another – one precedes our efforts to arouse the children’s curiosity, and the other precedes the matzah and marror.  In truth, however, these two washings are very closely linked – and embody one of the important themes of the Pesach celebration.

The Egyptian Apple Orchards

To understand how, we need to examine the custom to dip the marror in the haroset.

The Gemara teaches that we eat haroset on Pesach, “to commemorate the apple.”  Rashi explains that this refers to the Gemara’s account elsewhere (in Masechet Sotah) of how Beneh Yisrael miraculously continued procreating in Egypt.  The Gemara relates that the men, physically and emotionally shattered from the backbreaking slave labor, had no interest in building families.  They questioned the value of bringing into the world children who would be enslaved, humiliated, and subjected to endless suffering.  They returned home in the evening without any interest in creating children.

The righteous women, however, refused to surrender.  With extraordinary strength, courage and faith, they insisted on creating the next generation of Jews, trusting that Gd would help.  They would adorn themselves, encourage their husbands, and entice them, so that the Nation of Israel would continue.

The Gemara tells that when a woman was ready to deliver a child, she would go out to apple orchards, to hide from the Egyptian officials.  Gd dispatched special angels from the heavens who cared for these infants, and later brought them to their parents.  After the Exodus, when Beneh Yisrael beheld the vision of angels during the miracle of the splitting of the sea, they recognized these angels who had cared for them and raised them when they were young infants.

Thus, the Gemara teaches, “It was in the reward of the righteous women who lived in that generation that Israel was redeemed from Egypt.”  If it weren’t for the faith and heroism of these righteous women, there would be no “Israel” to redeem.  The nation survived the bitter experience of bondage only because of these women.

This is what we commemorate when we dip the marror into haroset at the seder.  The haroset represents the apple orchards where the righteous women of Beneh Yisrael produced the next generation, in spite of the bitter conditions that they endured.  We dip the marror into haroset to demonstrate that in times of “bitterness,” in periods of hardship and pain, we must draw inspiration from the righteous women who continued trusting in Gd and in the future of the Jewish Nation even under the harshest conditions.  The men despaired, but the women didn’t – providing us with a powerful lesson about faith, courage and resilience even in trying times.  This is the message of dipping our bitter herbs in the haroset at the seder.

The Sacred Mirrors

Once we understand this symbolic message of the marror and haroset, we are closer to understanding why this stage of the seder is preceded by washing our hands.

The secret is found in the Torah’s account in Parashat Vayakhel of the construction of the Mishkan, the mobile Sanctuary which served as the “Bet Hamikdash” during Beneh Yisrael’s sojourn through the wilderness.  The Mishkan included numerous furnishings, including the kiyor – the sink from which the kohanim would wash their hands and feet before entering to perform the service.  Significantly, the Torah makes a point of informing us who brought the metal from which the kiyor was made.  Rather than simply telling us in general terms that the kiyor was made from copper which Beneh Yisrael had donated, it specifies that it was made with the mirrors donated by the nation’s women.  Why is this piece of information necessary?  Why do we need to know that the sink was made from mirrors donated by women?  The Torah does not specify who donated the wood or gold for the ark or the altar – so why does it specify who donated the copper for the kiyor?

Rashi explains that these mirrors were, in fact, especially significant.  When the women brought their mirrors to be used in the Mishkan, Rashi writes, Moshe initially refused to accept them.  Mirrors, he figured, are tools of vanity, used by the yetzer hara (evil inclination) to arouse inappropriate thoughts and desires.  What place could such items possibly have in the Mishkan, the nation’s sanctuary, where Gd Himself resided?

Gd, however, informed Moshe that he was wrong.  He explained that not only were these mirrors acceptable – they were the most beloved and precious of all the materials donated by Beneh Yisrael for the Mishkan.  These mirrors were used for the most sacred of all purposes – to bring the broken, downcast slaves in Egypt to create children and thereby ensure the survival of Am Yisrael.  These mirrors were the symbol of the unbreakable spirit of the righteous women who were determined, under unspeakably difficult conditions, to produce the next generation so that the nation would endure.  And so nothing was more sacred than these mirrors.  Nothing Beneh Yisrael donated was worthier of inclusion in the Mishkan than the mirrors which they used for purpose of producing the next generation of Jews.

The Hida (Rav Haim Yosef David Azoulay, 1724-1806) extends this idea one step further, suggesting an explanation for why these mirrors were used specifically for the sink.  The letters of the word “kiyor” can be divided into two pairs: resh-yod, and kaf-vav.  The combined gematria (numerical value) of resh and yod is 210 – the number of years spent by Beneh Yisrael in Egypt.  Initially, it was decreed that they should suffer for 400 years under the oppression of foreign rule, but Gd released them from bondage after just 210 years.  The Hida explains that because Beneh Yisrael reproduced so rapidly, they completed 400 years’ worth of slave labor in just over half that time.  The nation grew so large so quickly that the amount of slavery endured by the population in 210 years equaled the amount that would have been endured in 400 years by a population produced through natural growth.  The second pair of letters – kaf-vav – has the gematria of 26, which is the gematria of the divine Name of Havayah, the Name which signifies Gd’s mercy and compassion.  The word “kiyor,” then, signifies the fact that Beneh Yisrael’s rapid population growth aroused Gd’s compassion such that the period of bondage ended much earlier than it was supposed to.

And precisely for this reason, the Hida explained, the kiyor is forever associated with the sacred mirrors donated by the righteous women.  It was these mirrors that enabled Beneh Yisrael to grow and flourish even under the harsh conditions of slave labor – and so appropriately, they formed the kiyor, the feature in the Mishkan that represents Beneh Yisrael’s early departure from Egypt by virtue of their exponential growth.

The Sink and the Seder

In light of all we have seen, we clearly see the connection between the two washings at the seder.

As mentioned earlier, the first time we wash our hands is in preparation for karpas – which is the first thing we do at the seder to arouse the children’s interest, encouraging them to ask questions and participate.  The second time we wash our hands is in preparation for the marror and haroset – when we recall the determination of the righteous women in Egypt to continue producing children, to extend the glorious chain of Am Yisrael, despite the hardships of exile.  We prepare for both these stages of the seder by going to the sink – to remind ourselves of, and draw strength and inspiration from, those women.  We are to reflect on their heroism which facilitated the redemption from Egypt, so we, too, are driven to commit ourselves to the process of producing and raising the next generation of Am Yisrael.

This is why children occupy such an important part of the seder experience.  Halachah requires us to make a special effort to engage the children at the seder, to encourage them to ask, to speak, to share, and to discuss the event of the Exodus and its significance for us.  This is because Pesach celebrates not only what Gd did to bring us out of Egypt – but what our ancestors did to be deserving of this miracle.  And the most important thing they did to earn this miracle was ensuring that there would be for whom to perform this miracle, that there would be a new generation of Am Yisrael.  Therefore, we focus a great deal of attention at the seder on the children, because this celebration is all about the work we need to do to produce the next generation of Am Yisrael.

The Arizal (Rav Yitzhak Luria, 1534-1572) taught that the letters of Gd’s Name represent the link between parents and children.  The first two letters of the Name – yod and heh – represent the father and mother, and the next two letters – vav and heh – represent the children.  On this basis, the Arizal explained the sages’ comment that as long as the wicked nation of Amalek exists in the world, the divine Name is incomplete, and consists of only the first two letters – yod and heh – without the last two.  (See Rashi to Shemot 17:16.)  Amalek seeks to destroy the Jewish People by disrupting the process of mesorah (tradition), interfering with the transmission of our laws, values and lifestyle to the next generation.  And so as long as Amalek succeeds, Gd’s Name is “broken.”  Our responsibility is to complete the Name, to bring the two halves together, by extending the chain of Jewish tradition, creating the next link, producing children and transmitting to them our beautiful tradition and heritage.

If so, then we can perhaps explain the terms used to refer to the two washings at the sederurhatz and rohtzah.  These two stages entail the same act of hand washing, and yet, the sages gave them two different names.  Both words contain the root (“wash”), but the first adds the letter vav, and the second, the letter heh.  This is hardly coincidental.  Together, they form vav-heh – the missing link, so-to-speak, in Gd’s Name, the notion of connecting the generations.  Our hand washing at the sink, the symbol of the heroic women in Egypt, teaches us to commit ourselves to the perpetuation of Am Yisrael and of our Torah tradition even under the harshest circumstances, as this holds the key to our nation’s success and our long-awaited final redemption.

Raising Children in the American Exile

We, too, find ourselves in a bitter exile, though quite obviously, of a much different kind.  Thank Gd, we are not enslaved, subjugated, persecuted or oppressed by a foreign government.  The challenges of our exile are, primarily, spiritual in nature.  One could definitely make the case that it has never been more difficult than now to raise religiously devoted children.  It is clear and evident that we cannot possibly hope to motivate and educate our children to embrace our values and practices without enrolling them in religious schools, the cost of which entails an enormous financial burden.  And, even with the outstanding institutions and educators with which our generation is blessed, we are up against the pervasive influence of general society, and the technology which exposes our youngsters to general culture already from a young age, around the clock.  This exposure is terribly destructive, not to mention a source of distraction.  In our effort to inspire our children to study Torah and perform mitzvot, we are competing with a deluge of media, the constant availability of forms of amusement which, in many cases, are in complete odds with our values.

It is understandable that some of us might feel discouraged, or even hopeless, about the prospects of successfully raising religiously committed children given the financial and cultural challenges.  We run the risk of giving up, like the men in Egypt.  But on Pesach, we draw inspiration from the women who refused to surrender, who understood that they needed to do everything they could to produce the next generation, and then look to Gd for help.  Our continuation as a people depends upon our hard work to beget and raise children, and our faith in Gd’s assistance in overcoming the difficult challenges entailed.  Let us learn from our great-grandmothers in Egypt – and our great-grandmothers in generations past, who made great sacrifices to build beautiful Torah homes even under the harshest conditions.  And let us pray that Gd, as He did in Egypt, will send our children the “angels” they need to care for them, to protect them from the spiritual dangers that abound, until we will all be taken from this bitter exile and brought to the Land of Israel where we will, like our ancestors at the sea, behold the divine presence, speedily and in our days, amen.