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Words to the whys at your seder


PARASHAT VAYIKRA (LEVITICUS 1:1-5:26)

This week, in many synagogues around the world, we begin to read a new book, Sefer Vayikra, Leviticus. Here we are taught: “No meal offering that you offer to the Lord shall be made with leaven, for no leaven or honey may be turned into smoke as an offering by fire to the Lord” (Leviticus 2:11).

The two times the Torah forbids leaven (chametz) is in this verse referring to the altar and also on Passover. What is the link?

According to Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, in his “Ha’emek Davar,” leavened bread is the human attempt to add onto the natural state of creation. The closer we stand in our relationship with God, the less we need to manipulate nature. The altar was in the Beit HaMikdash — the dwelling place of God’s presence on Earth, a place of intense proximity. There is no need for our chametz intervention. Likewise, with Passover, we bind our souls to God as we eat the “Bread of Faith.” There is no need for extra tinkering.

As Vayikra, in ever a slight way, turns
our attention to Passover, let us jump in
with a few holiday-related gems to share at the seder.

Paying for Hope

Buying Chanukah candles and paying for the four cups of wine on Pesach are the only mitzvot that require a poor person to sell their clothes, if need be, in order to be carried out, according to Jewish law. Why only these two items?

Rav Shmuel Halevi Wosner explained that at the root of this law is the notion that every poor person must know that even in the middle of their darkest hour and their darkest exile, God brings light. The promise of Chanukah and the hope of the four cups, both of which celebrate pirsumei nisah, the publicizing of the miracle, underscore the point that in the moment when things are most difficult in our lives, we are going to find that salvation.

In the Kiddush, we say that Shabbat is first among our holy days and is “a commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt.” What does this line mean?

The bodyguard of the Seer of Lublin, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi of Ropshitz, shares his take: The amazing power of the Exodus is imbedded with the ability to help us transcend above levels that we couldn’t ordinarily attain. So the beginning of a great and triumphant renewal starts within the darkness — moments when we thought all hope was lost. Right at that moment, God says, “Hold out your hand, and I will help you move to places you never dreamed possible.”

A Holy Effort

Why does wine have its own distinct blessing? We don’t make a separate blessing on the meat or the chicken that’s brought out later. Rav Chaim Zeitchik says it’s not because of wine’s precious value. I’m sure that we could find a rare food that has a higher dollar amount, perhaps caviar.

You know what’s precious about it? Dvar mitzvah habaah mitoch yagiyah chashoov. Something that comes through work, a process, is more important, much more powerful. The blessing upon wine is special because it took work to get to it. You take grapes, you have to wait for fermentation, you have to press them out in order to bring it to your wine cup.

Something is much greater when you get it through effort. It is for this same reason why the beautiful stones the priests wore in the temple are mentioned last out of all of his clothing in the Torah. According to the tradition of the Talmud, these stones came to us via the clouds. In other words, they were a freebie. We didn’t work to get them and therefore they are less precious to us.

 A Roman Custom

At specifically placed times throughout the seder, we recline by leaning to the left. The Talmud mentions a pragmatic reason for this: so that we shouldn’t choke. The rabbinic tradition favored another reason, and that is that reclining is a symbol of our freedom.

Rabbi Norman Lamm asks a great question: Why did we adopt a symbol of freedom that was synonymous with the Romans, especially given that there are so many beautiful Jewish customs and cultural idiosyncrasies.

Look around. Our seder is incomplete. We are missing the korban Pesach, the Passover offering, which was the highlight of Passover in the ancient Temple. We are missing so much because the Romans laid waste to our divine abode. We went into exile because the Romans sent us into exile. And so, ironically, we recline to display a great remembrance, a zecher l’mikdash. We remember our Temple while those who ravaged it no longer are here. 

RABBI SHLOMO EINHORN is rav and dean of Yeshivat Yavneh and the author of “Judaism Alive” (Gefen Publishing, 2015). He also holds the record for the longest continuous Torah class at 18 hours.

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