By: Rabbi Eli J. Mansour
Was the world created in the autumn, or in the spring? The Gemara in Masechet Rosh Hashanah records a debate between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua on this question. Rabbi Eliezer maintained that Gd created the world on the first of Tishri, in the autumn, whereas Rabbi Yehoshua held that this took place in Nissan, with the onset of spring. Tosafot (commentaries by Medieval French and German Talmudists) clarify that in truth, these two sages do not disagree, but instead refer to two different stages of the creation process. According to all views, Gd set time, as we know it, into motion in Tishri in anticipation of creation, but the formation of the world did not take place until Nissan. It emerges, then, that the world came into being in the springtime.
Appropriately enough, this season has, ever since, heralded the “resurrection” of nature, when vegetation resurfaces and awakens from its winter-long slumber, and the wondrous cycle of nature is renewed. But there is another kind of resurrection – no less profound than the renewal of life itself – which takes place during this season. This phenomenon is tied to a familiar, age old custom – spring cleaning.
While the world at large has embraced this practice, the “original” Jewish version of this annual ritual involves far more than a broom and a garbage bag. And contrary to popular belief, though much preparation is required in advance, the full process of “spring cleaning” in a Jewish household actually culminates on the night of Passover itself. But to fully understand this concept, we must first come to recognize one of the fundamental themes of Pesah itself.
The Bread of Belief
The main missva of Pesah, of course, which has also become the symbol of the holiday, is the elimination of all leavened products and bread in favor of massa. The Zohar refers to massa as “lehem de’mehemnuta” – the bread of belief.” It symbolizes not only the event of the Exodus, when our ancestors were rushed out of Egypt and had to bake their dough before it could rise, but also the basic theme and message which this event conveys – the faith and belief in the one, true Gd and His providence over the entire earth.
There are two things that separate between ordinary, leavened bread and massa: time and space. Massa and bread are both made from the same ingredients – flour and water – but bread, unlike massa, is given the opportunity to ferment and rise. Leavened bread is, essentially, massa that was given more time, and occupies more space.
And time and space are precisely the two entities that differentiate Gd from the earthly realm. Everything that happens in the natural world is bound by time and space; it takes place at a specific moment in time, and in a specific place in the universe. Gd, however, the nature of whose existence cannot be grasped by the human mind, exists beyond time and space. Thus, for example, the sages teach that the aron (ark) in the Mishkan, which represented Gd’s presence, did not occupy any space. The chamber measured 20 cubits in length, and yet, if one measured the distance from each wall to the ark, he would measure ten cubits. The ark did not take up any space in the sacred chamber, because Gd does not occupy space; He exists beyond space, just as He exists beyond the confines of time.
The Maharal of Prague (Rabbi Yehuda Lowe, 1525-1609) explained that this is why the massa is referred to as “the bread of belief.” The massa symbolizes our belief in a Creator. It proclaims that although we live in a reality that is confined by time and space, we acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being who created the rules of this reality, including time and space, and thus exists above and beyond time and space.
Indeed, this is the basic message of the Exodus: the belief in Gd who exerts full control over the natural forces. The miracles of the Exodus, and the emergence of an oppressed, helpless, despondent slave nation as a proud, independent people, demonstrates to all the existence of a Gd who has absolute authority and unlimited power over all that transpires in the world. Many people feel – as Pharaoh did – that with enough brute force, they can exert full control over their surroundings. The celebration of Pesah, and the symbolism of the “bread of belief,” reminds us that we are under the providence of an omnipotent Gd who exerts unlimited control over us and the universe.
“For it was in the month of spring that Hashem your Gd took you out from Egypt” (Devarim 16:1). The Exodus occurred specifically in Nissan, during the season of rebirth and renewal, and therefore on Pesah we renew ourselves, our commitment to Jewish faith. Just as nature is reborn during this season, so are we reborn, spiritually reinvigorated by the story of Yessi’at Missrayim, the remarkable events of the Exodus. The Jew’s spiritual “spring cleaning” occurs not in the weeks prior to Pesah, when we rid the home of hamess, but rather on the first two nights of Pesah, when we spend several hours discussing the story of our ancestors’ miraculous redemption. Reawakening ourselves from the “slumber” of our normal routine, we “cleanse” our emunah (faith) from the slow accumulation of pride and overconfidence built up during the year. This reinforcement of authentic Jewish belief is our form of renewal and rebirth.
Pesah and Avraham Avinu
The rabbis teach us that the three regalim (pilgrimage festivals) of Pesah, Shavuot and Sukkot correspond to the three patriarchs. Pesah, the first of the regalim, corresponds to the first patriarch, Avraham, while Shavuot and Sukkot correspond, respectively, to Yizhak and Yaakov.
Avraham brought the monotheistic faith to a pagan world. At a time when virtually all people on earth worshipped idols and/or forces of “nature”, Avraham proclaimed the existence of Gd and worked tirelessly to disseminate this faith. Appropriately enough, several major events of Avraham’s life took place on Pesah. The berit ben habetarim, the covenant in which Gd promised Avraham that his offspring would inherit Canaan (Beresheet 15), occurred on Pesah. Avraham waged a successful battle against the four eastern powers to rescue his nephew during Pesah (Beresheet 14), and on Pesah angels visited him to announce that he would have a son (Beresheet 18). Avraham, the man whose life’s mission was the dissemination of emuna (Jewish belief), is closely associated with Pesah, the holiday of emuna.
But there is yet another critical aspect of Avraham Avinu that closely relates to the observance of Pesah – his successful transmission of this faith to his son, Yizhak. Avraham represents not only emuna itself, but also its perpetuation throughout the ages, a process in which every Jewish parent must take part by conveying the Torah to his or her children.
The Torah issues a specific command to speak to one’s children about the Exodus on Pesah night (“vehigadeta levincha bayom hahu – You shall tell your children on that day” – Shemot 13:8). The descriptions of these wondrous events can inspire our children and infuse them with the core Jewish belief of Gd’s existence and unlimited power. Of course, the parent’s obligation applies throughout the year, at all times. But on Pesah, when we are to renew our commitment to faith, we must focus particularly on instilling this faith within our children, which we achieve through the experience of the seder.
“He’emanti ki adaber – I believe because I speak” (Tehillim 116:10). Faith must be discussed and spoken about at length. The more we talk about emuna, the more firmly it becomes cemented in our minds and hearts. This is why the Torah requires us to speak to our children about the Exodus on Pesah, and, as the Haggada famously exhorts, “Vechol hamarbeh hareh zeh meshubah – Whoever increases is praiseworthy.” The seder must be used as a time to engage our children in serious discussion about not only Yessi’at Missrayimitself, but the more general themes that emerge from the story, the themes of Gd’s existence, divine providence, reward and punishment, and our role as Gd’s chosen people. And the more we discuss these subjects, the more “praiseworthy” we are, and the more successful we will be in perpetuating our faith and the legacy of Avraham Avinu.
A Parent’s Unique Role
There is no substitute for direct parent-to-child communication in the area of emuna. Although many children tend to resist their parents’ instruction, as they grow older they develop a strong fealty to the traditions received from their parents. While this has been proven in countless academic studies, we perhaps know this best from personal experience. When we married and established our own families, we implemented the customs and traditions that we witnessed in our homes. As important as formal classroom education is, nothing rivals the impact that parents have upon their children. The sederthus offers the opportunity to inspire our children in a way that cannot be achieved in any other forum.
We read in the Book of Shofetim (chapter 6) of the appointment of Gidon as the leader over Beneh Yisraelas the nation suffered under Midyanite oppression. An angel appeared to Gidon in a winepress, and announced, “Hashem is with you, O mighty soldier!”
Gidon responded, “Please, my master, if Hashem is with us, then why has all this befallen us? And where are all the wonders of which our forefathers told us, saying, ‘Didn’t Hashem take us up from Egypt’! But now Hashem has abandoned us!”
Rashi, commenting on this exchange, explains that it took place on Pesah. Gidon, Rashi writes, said to the angel, “Just last night, my father dictated the hallelfor me, and I heard him saying, ‘When Israel left Egypt’ – but now He has abandoned us!”
Rav Yerucham Lebovitz of Mir noted the seeming peculiarity in Gidon’s response. Gidon was now being appointed the leader over Israel, and this was done in the form of a prophetic revelation. Obviously, Gidon was not just a simple, ignorant Jew; he was a scholarly, righteous and capable leader. He certainly did not need his father to tell him about the Exodus, an event that most schoolchildren are familiar with. Why, then, did he recall specifically his father’s account of the story of Yessi’at Missrayim?
Rav Yeruham explained that the information one receives from his parents leaves a far more profound and enduring impact. Gidon knew all about the Exodus, but he was especially inspired and affected by the experience of hearing his father speak about it. It was the night of the seder, not any other educational experience, that infused within the new leader a sense of the protection Gd gives His nation.
This is what makes the sedernight such a special opportunity to indelibly impress upon our children the core principles of Jewish faith, and inspire them with the knowledge of Gd and our obligations toward Him.
Which Haggadahis the Best?
No, this is not a plug for the Sephardic Heritage Haggadah which bears my name. The word haggadah literally means, telling. What is the best way to conduct this “telling” and convey these messages to our children? How can we best ensure that the sederexperience will have the desired impact upon them?
The answer is alluded to in the maggidsection of the Haggadah, which emphasizes that the obligation to speak to one’s children about the Exodus applies only “at the time when massaand marrorare placed before you.” Long before academics ever studied the mechanics of learning, our sages knew that the most effective means of conveying the messages of the Exodus was through a multisensory approach. We show the massaand say, “This it the bread that our ancestors ate!” The children taste the marrorand feel a sensation of bitterness. The story comes to life, and becomes real. Rather than remaining an abstract piece of information, the experiences of our ancestors transforms into a tangible reality.
Why do people enjoy going to the theater to see a play? What leads millions of people to spend hundreds of dollars on tickets and parking to see a Broadway show, when they could simply hear somebody tell them the story? The answer is obvious. The show is produced by professional directors and actors who use lively backdrops and interesting props that make the story real, thereby making it far more exciting. Bringing the story to life generates excitement and evokes a strong emotional response.
As we prepare for the seder, we should perhaps follow the example of the theater. We need to dramatize and use visual representations to bring the story of Yessi’at Missrayimto life. In fact, there are “ten plagues” kits and accessories available for purchase – complete with frogs and all – to help parents dramatize the events. The use of these and similar “theatrical” devices could prove indispensable in our attempt to inspire our children through the story of the Exodus.
A parent once asked me, “Which is the best Haggadahto use at the seder?” He likely expected me to encourage him to use the Haggadahwith the commentary I wrote. To his surprise, however, this was not what I answered. Instead, I advised him to use the Haggadahthat has the best pictures.
Certainly, one should study the commentaries to the Haggadah in preparation for the seder. But at the seder, the best Haggadah is the one that most effectively helps convey the story with with realism and emotion. Pictures can be a vital asset in our attempt to make the seder an enjoyable, memorable and inspirational experience for ourselves and our children – sometimes even more so than in-depth commentaries.
Our Own Exodus Stories
Finally, we can inspire our children by supplementing the story of the Haggadah with our own stories of personal redemption. The best story is a personal story, the firsthand account of events that one personally experienced. We have all undergone an “Exodus” of one type or another during our lives; each person has undoubtedly seen and felt Gd’s direct assistance at some point. These experiences not only bolster our own faith, but can also be valuable resources in our efforts to inspire our children. When they see how Gd stepped in to help their father, mother or grandparent, they sense in a very real, tangible way the Almighty’s presence and involvement in the world, and in their own lives.
I urge everyone to take a 10-15 minute break during maggid (yes, this is halachically acceptable) to discuss religious subjects that are not directly related to the Exodus, but are closely related to the fundamentals of Jewish faith. The seder offers all parents a special opportunity to teach and inspire their children – and this opportunity ought not be squandered.
One of the haftara readings on Pesah is Yehezkel’s prophecy of the “assamot yeveshot,” the dried, lifeless bones that Gd resurrected. This vision, which foresees the ultimate resurrection of the dead, aptly conveys the message of rebirth which, as we have seen, plays such a prominent role in our observance of Pesah. If we capitalize on this opportunity for spiritual “resurrection,” then we and our families will experience a true renewal, reenergizing ourselves and our children with increased devotion to Gd and His Torah. And this would be the most successful and meaningful “spring cleaning” possible.
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