Monday, April 05, 2004


And so, dear readers, as sunset approaches and we make final preparations for our seder, I must conclude the postings for now. To all who have been inspired by these thoughts and will add them to your own celebrations, thank you for inviting me to come and celebrate Pesach with your families, even in a virtual incarnation.

I will likely return to posting on this blog for other holidays - particularly the ones that have inspired me to deep reflection on my own faith and awareness of the Sh'chinah. And, God willing, I will return b'shana ha'ba'ah, next year as I resume my Pesach study and reflection.

To you all, I wish a Pesach kasher v'sameyach - a kosher, joyous and fulfilling celebration of Passover. Yehi ratzon, may it be His will, that we all will achieve personal awareness, liberation and redemption. Chag sameyach!

Plagues are in the Eye of the Beholder

What is particularly interesting about the plagues has to do with relativity in perception. What the Egyptians experienced as a plague, the Israelites experienced as a revelation and a path to redemption. Often, what redeems us first appears as a "plague" or tribulation. Only later do we realize that the travail ultimately leads us to a renewed life.

A few examples from among the plagues: Dam – blood – the first plague: Only the water of the Egyptians was turned to blood. When the water came to the Israelites, it miraculously became pure water again. Tz’far’de’ah – frogs – can also be read (taking the consonants only, without the diacritic markings that define vowel sounds) as Tzipor De’ah, that refers to the birdsong of the knowledge of divine holiness. Dever – wild beasts – we can understand as animalistic inclination. If read by us instead as devar – we can reverse animalistic inclination into the Word (devar) of God. The ultimate plague, makat b’chorot – killing of the firstborn – speaks to our conceptions and preconceived notions. We often hold our conceptions of the world as tightly as if they were our children. The lesson here is that in order to achieve true redemption, we must reorient our beliefs, our self-conception and preconceived notions to be able to effect the requisite awareness.

Va’yotzi’enu adoshem mi’mitzrayim... - God brought us out of Egypt...

... yad chazakah, u’viz’ro’ah n’tuyah, u’v’mora gadol, uv'otot, uv'mof'tim
by a mighty hand, an outstretched arm and great awe, and with signs and with wonders.
We read about three progressive manifestations of God: the mighty hand, denoting strength; the outstretched arm, denoting both embrace and the drawn sword; and with great awe, denoting the ultimate revelation of the Sh’chinah, or literally Divine Manifestation via the signs and wonders. In addition to their reference to the miracle of the Exodus from Egypt, when we think about the metaphorical nature of our bondage, the affliction of unawareness, we are also liberated by yad chazakah, u’viz’ro’ah n’tuyah, u’v’mora gadol, by a mighty hand, an outstretched arm and great awe. It is God's great strength that raised us from other animals on earth and gave us a soul and the awareness of the possibility nobler existence. The outstretched arm is both a welcoming embrace and, as the Haggadah indicates, a challenging sword, that refers back to the notion of the requisite struggle to embrace our faith of which we spoke earlier. Finally, we come to the "great awe." Our awe is only inspired if we can see their manifestation in the signs and wonders. If we are open to seeing miraculous signs in our own lives, we will then be able to experience the Divine Manifestation that ultimately delivers us from the bondage of our own mitzrayim.

Va’nitz’ak el adoshem... - And we cried out to God

In slavery - both the physical bondage of Pharaoh’s Egypt and the metaphoric bondage of unawareness - our ability to speak out is suppressed. Sometimes, even complying with social norms - being "politically correct" - is a form of bondage that restricts even the freedom of thought. Once we have gained awareness we "cry out" and can begin the path to redemption - even, as the Haggadah says, our crying out is nothing more than a moan. Once we have cried out, that is, awakened our awareness, we then have the ability to yar’e et an’yeinu, "see our affliction." This, in particular, means understanding our own hearts and personal motivations.

Va’ya’re’u otanu hamitzrim... - The Egyptians did evil to us and afflicted us

Certainly our oppressors in ancient Egypt performed unspeakable evil as told in the Torah and among the various commentaries. But there is another, more subtle interpretation that also applies. Here, the interpretation of "did evil to us"can also be taken to mean that the Egyptians made us evil in our own eyes. By treating us with such indignity, we tended to act "down" to that expectation, just as we tend to "act down" to the expectations of those in our own lives. Our primary affliction is self-denigration, often imposed by those who look down upon us or treat us with prejudice, and that is indeed, 'hard labour." The way to achieve liberation is to free ourselves from this sort of oppression by both acting with dignity ourselves, and treating others with dignity that befits the Jewish soul.

Sunday, April 04, 2004

Chacham / Rasha / Tam / She'ayno Yode'ah Lish'ol - Ma hu omer? - What Is He Really Saying?

As we examine the four aspects, we are told to ask, Ma hu omer? - What does he say? Naturally, we can take meaning from what is actually said. Often, however, it is what is not said that provides understanding and insight.

The chacham or wise son asks the detailed question about the pronouncements, regulations and laws concerning Pesach. On first blush, this seems to be a reasonable quest for knowledge so that the wise one will be able to fulfil all the requirements of Halachah. But, sometimes, such detailed questioning serves another purpose. It is sometimes used in arrogance to demonstrate one's (self assessed) vast knowledge. In these cases, there is the risk that chacham may change into rasha - wisdom into wickedness. It is this realization that gives a more subtle interpretation of the response. The wise son is told, "ayn maf'tirin acher hapesach afikoman," literally, one should not eat anything else after the final taste of the Pesach sacrificial offering. But if we "unpack" the word pesach in this context, we find peh sach, a mouth (peh) with the power of speech (sach). The wise man is reminded that when his mouth is full with the power of speech - that is, when he is very knowledgeable - he should not partake of anything else that would be "brought on as dessert" (afiko-man in Aramaic); in other words, trifling or the proverbial "icing on the cake." His knowledge must reside in humility and an appreciation of one's own limits and capacity.

Rasha or wicked son is traditionally thought of as not really being interested in the answer to his question, but rather is using the questioning as a mockery, demonstrating his disdain for the spiritual journey of redemption that others are travelling. Immediately the wicked one is rebuked: "God did this for me when I went out of Egypt. You would not have been redeemed." We are at once told that such contrariness precludes redemption. But in considering ourselves as if we personally had come out of Egypt, we must realize that, in ancient times, no slaves were necessarily truly worthy, but all were liberated. How did this happen? The Children of Israel "cried out to God" and in this act of faith achieved redemption, regardless of their individual state or situation. This is consistent with the mystical tenet which affirms that ultimately, in the time of the Mashiach (Messiah), everyone will be redeemed, including the unworthy. The lesson from the answer provided to rasha now becomes interesting and hopeful: We will all eventually be redeemed; the only question is when. And by turning away from wickedness and our contrary nature, we can hasten the day for our personal redemption and liberation - whenever we individually choose to effect it.

The simple son, tam, asks a simple question, "what is this?" or mah zot? in Hebrew. The Breslov Haggadah directs us to a passage from the mystical Zohar that describes mah as denoting Torah and zot referring to the Divine Manifestation. The apparent simplicity of the question belies the profound understanding that has engendered it, at least from a Kabbalistic ground. Mah zot? asks, "Is it not true that Divine Manifestation is achievable only through the Torah? If so, how can we explain that the Exodus from Egypt was accomplished through Divine Manifestation, even though the Torah was only given later (the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai?) The answer - that it was the "strong hand" of God that brought us out - gives an insight into the true power of the Torah as the hand of God. But realizing the profundity of the question itself gives us a possible insight into the paradoxical nature of the apparently simple son: Through his relative silence, he displays his deep wisdom. Or, as Rebbe Nachman used to say, "The greatest of wisdom is not to be a wise man at all."

Finally we come to the son who does not know how to ask a question. We are told that we have the obligation to effect a beginning for this son by saying that "this" - our life of freedom - is what God did for "me when I went out from Egypt." This son displays the latency of the divine spark in each of us. As soon as we realize that the miraculous abounds around us, we can awaken our own divine spirit that lies dormant.

Our objective at the seder is ultimately to achieve awareness of Divine Manifestation and thereby liberate ourselves from whatever enslaves us, as I noted earlier. The parable of the Four Sons gives us insight into ourselves, into the complexity of our inner, often conflicted, nature. We learn to be wise, but humble; that we can choose the time to effect our redemption; that true wisdom lies in embracing the simple, yet profound; that the spark of divinity lies within each of us, and it is up to us individually to ignite it. It is a marvellous and beautiful examination of the nature of humanity.

The Torah Speaks of Four Sons...

The parable of the four sons is one of the set pieces of the Haggadah. My father, who scripted the seder and pre-selected who would read each passage, always laid out the four sons parable in the same way: I read the wise son, my next younger brother read the wicked or contrary son, and "the twins" - brother and sister - read simple son and son who is unable to ask a question, respectively. I can't help but think there was some bias and favouritism shown in that particular arrangement.

There are many ways to read this section of the Haggadah - and all work - from the literal to the mystical. Taken literally, we can read the specific instructions provided by the Haggadah as to how to deal with, and instruct each type of person. The wise son is tutored in the intricacies of the laws and regulations of Pesach celebrations, down to the last detail of the Afikoman. The wicked son is admonished for his attempt to mock those who believe by being told that, had they been enslaved in Egypt, they would have not been redeemed. The simple son is provided with the most explicit explanation for the proceedings: "With a strong hand, God brought us out from Egypt and from the house of bondage." Finally, the son who does not (yet) know how to ask a question is provided with a simple starting point, explaining that all before him is "because of what God did for me when I went out of Egypt."

But, of course, there is much more interpretation and understanding to be had. Most commentators and thinkers tend to favour the view that the four sons represent four aspects of ourselves and our individual faith. It is the nature of the human heart or spirit to be pulled in these four directions - and often we find ourselves conflicted among several of them simultaneously. Sometimes, in probing our wisdom we discover rebelliousness and cynicism. We are often stumped with the simplest of matters and left unable to take the next step or probe further to achieve understanding. The guidance provided here can be considered a "how-to" that will assist in the later, more complex, considerations of the Haggadah.

Friday, April 02, 2004


There are those who attend our seder who are, shall we say, Hebraically challenged. A few years ago I prepared a song-sheet of transliterations for some of the most popular Pesach seder-time hits. Voices were raised that evening - even in song! So for those out there in the blogosphere who may have guests who are themselves so challenged, I offer my songsheets to you. The Passover Song Sheet for the Hebraically Challenged is available in two flavours - Word format and Adobe PDF format. I make these available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license (as is this entire blog.)

If you want to recreate them in another format, CC means that you can - and if you do, please ShareAlike. Let me know, and I'll post links (or host them, if need be.) If your family uses the song sheets and if "by magic" you can make a recording (okay, so technically recording on yomtov is traif...) and convert it to MP3, I'd love to hear (and possibly host it if it's not too large.)

All the Days of Your Life

A quintessentially Pesach-dik examination of the minutiae: Rabbi Elazar, son of Azaryah asking about the obligation to celebrate the retelling of the Exodus story at night, and the Ben Zoma explanation that, in the Torah it says, "That you may remember the day when you came out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life." The explanation continues to point out that "the days of your life" refers only to the days, but all the days of your life includes the nights as well. Standard year-after-year seder stuff.

But what does it really mean for us? Why this how-many-angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin type of interpretation, distinguishing between the phrase with, and without, the word 'all?'

It is easy to remember the redemption and our freedom when things are good, when we are successful and prosperous. These are the sunny days of freedom. We can clearly distinguish between conditions of slavery and the brightness of liberation. But "all the days of your life includes the nights as well." In other words, we must especially remember our redemption during the times that are dark and otherwise gloomy - the metaphoric nights of our existence. When things are not going well, it seems as if even the days are as black as night. In such circumstances, we must remember that, long ago, God heard the suffering of the Children of Israel and came to effect their liberation, putting an end to their suffering. This odd passage in the Haggadah tells us to always remember that redemption is possible, even during our blackest times, or when faced with the most impossible of odds.

Ma Nistanah Halaylah Hazeh? - The Four Questions

Pity the last-born child for s/he will be saying the Ma Nistanah into adulthood. My 14-year-old daughter groans at the realization that none of her cousins have yet gotten married, let alone had kids, who one day could replace her annual duty at the seder. She gave me one of *those* looks when I told her about a 28-year-old who lost the birth-order lottery and was stuck for eternity with the role of the youngest child present. WhatEVerrrrrr...

The Four Questions - that are really five - comprise the thematic setup for the majority of the Magid section of the seder. They begin with the overarching observation of
Ma nishtanah halaylah hazeh mikol halaylot?

Why is this night different from all other nights?
It is meant to call to our attention, as if we had not already noticed, that this seder night is indeed different from all other nights. So why is is necessary to explicitly draw our attention to this seemingly obvious conclusion?

The answer lies in a (sorry about this) McLuhanesque paradox: We need to be told to explicitly notice that this night is different so that we won't ignore its difference. It is very easy to take the seder - along with its intricate and elaborate symbology and lessons - for granted. We perform the same ritual year in and year out. It's the same words, the same tunes, the same meal, the same characters, the same family feuds, the same gossip. It becomes part of our routine, albeit a once-a-year routine. Whatever has become routine loses its special quality, and takes with it our ability to notice the fine details and profundity of its impact. Its effects (to borrow language from the academic side of my musings) receed into the ground.

We do not merely announce that this night is different, but we ask why this night is different. In presenting the observation of its unique characteristics and quality as a probe rather than a declaration, we challenge all in attendance to step back from the routine aspects of rote ritual and to try to discover the specific aspects that make the night different.

The Haggadah helps by suggesting four supplementary probes as starting points:
Sheb'chol halaylot anu och'lin chametz umatzah. Halaylah hazeh culo matzah?
Sheb'chol halaylot anu och'lin sh'ar y'rakot. Halaylah hazeh maror?
Sheb'chol halaylot ayn anu mat'bilin afilu pa'am achat. Halyalah hazeh sh'tei f'amim?
Sheb'chol halaylot anu och'lin bayn yosh'vin uvayn m'subin. Halaylah hazeh culanu m'subin?

[Why is it] that on all other nights we may eat either unleavened or leavened bread and on this night only matzah?
[Why is it] that on all other nights we may eat any kind of vegetables, but on this night we must eat Maror?
[Why is it] that on all other nights we are not required to dip our foods even once, but on this night we must dip our food twice?
[Why is it] that on all other nights we may eat either sitting straight or reclining, but on this night we must eat while reclining?
What is particularly interesting about all this is that the Haggadah, while asking the questions, does not provide direct answers throughout the entire body of its text. The Breslovers say that faith is the answer, but frankly, as much as I believe in the power of faith, I think that in this case, its a cop-out.

Rather, the observation that we start out the Magid with questions and then do not actually answer them directly helps to answer the very first question - why is this night different? These are different sorts of questions than those we are typically used to. They are meant to probe issues of awareness relative to aspects of our redemption, the overall theme of Pesach. The children ask the questions, and for young children questions always have direct answers (even if the answer is "because I said so"). In expecting answers that never come - year after year - eventually we will awaken to the awareness that the quest for understanding the nature of our redemption will not be simply handed to us; it must be actively sought, in this case, through the symbols, allegories, narratives, ritual and foods of the Pesach seder. The Four Questions direct us to where we must begin our search. While there may be merit in providing the direct answers - especially to the children - there is even more merit in probing the nature and depth of the question itself.

Shver Zol Zein a Yid - It's Tough to Be a Jew

And I'm not referring only to the requirement for prune juice on Pesach! Oy... talk about tough!

The ha lach'ma chant ends with the following verses:
Hashata hacha, l'shanah haba'ah b'ar'a d'yis'ra'el.
Hashata av'dei, l'shanah haba'ah b'nei chorin.

This year we are here, next year we will be in the land of Israel.
This year we are slaves, next year we will be free men.
According to a story in the Breslov Haggadah the Aramaic word (b')ar'a is the same as eretz, or land, in Hebrew. But we are told that eReTZ and RaTZon, meaning desire or wanting, have the same root, or, without the diacritic vowel sounds, are the same word. (You were paying attention in the last lesson, right?)

Yisrael is an interesting word in itself. In addition to referring to the land (now State) of Israel, it is also the name that was given to one of our three forefathers <grin>, namely Jacob. You may recall, from Sunday school, the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. After that encounter, he was given the name Yisrael, literally meaning "struggles with God." Jacob, as we know, was literally the father of the Jewish, or Israelite, nation - the twelve brothers that became the twelve tribes that went down to Egypt in the first place. From the story of Jacob's encounter and subsequent renaming, we learn that to be a Jew is always a struggle, hence, shver zol zein a yid.

Our journey to redemption via the seder adds another element to this understanding. When we chant l'shanah haba'ah b'ar'a d'yis'ra'el and juxtapose it with l'shanah haba'ah b'nei chorin, we are reminded that in order to achieve the freedom that comes with our redemption, we must not only be a Jew, and we must not only endure the struggle that is required to be a Jew, we must also want to be a Jew, with all that it means.

In other words, we may be Jewish by virtue of our birth. But in order to achieve freedom as a Jew, we must have the desire to be a Jew.

Magid - We Are People of Telling Stories

We are often called "People of the Book," a literate people. We have a phonetic alphabet - Hebrew - but one without vowels. (The diacritic markings that convey vowel sounds are not used in the Torah.) In other words, we must know what the word sounds like in order to read it. But the lack of vowels goes beyond that: In order to understand which of the possible homographic words to pronounce, we must understand the context of the statement to be able to read in the appropriate meaning. In languages that have alphabetic vowels, the context can be removed and meaning can still be derived from the text alone. First there was context and the necessity of prior understanding; only later came text that could stand alone.

Context is derived from narrative - traditional story-telling. This makes sense because, in ancient times, we were an oral culture. Through the imperative to tell the story - Magid - we are taken back to that time when all understanding was a matter of understanding the appropriate context.

Rebbe Nachman observes that context is vitally important even as we begin to tell the story by chanting the traditional verse, ha lach'ma an'ya - "this is the bread of affliction." But the matzah is also the bread of redemption. Isn't it interesting that the same matzah can simultaneously be the bread of affliction and redemption. How can we understand this paradox?

It all has to do with how we experience the seder. Remember that we must each regard ourselves as if we, personally, were brought out of the land of Egypt and delivered into freedom. If our experience of the seder is complete and sincere, we will indeed experience the matzah as the bread of redemption. On the other hand, if our experience of the seder is merely superficial, the matzah for us will always remain lach'ma an'ya.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

A Note on Matzah-dik Negotiations

According to the Breslov Haggadah,
The host should be aware that should the ransom be high, one is permitted to use another piece of matzah, just as in the case if the Afikoman was lost.
Take that, Uncle Ike!

Yachatz - Dividing Between Awareness and Unawareness

Taking the middle of the three matzot and dividing it into two unequal parts is the signal for the children to pay attention. The larger half is denoted as the Afikoman. Depending on one's local tradition, either the children try to steal it, or the leader of the seder hides it sometime during the proceedings, for it to be found after the meal. Either way, the Afikoman is ransomed by the one who finds it when it is time for it to be eaten. When my children were a bit younger, the negotiations over the price at my father's seder took on the characteristics of labour negotiations in the auto industry - especially when my uncle the lawyer was present and "represented" his great-niece and -nephew. Strictly pro bono, you understand.

Matzah, that tradition tells us the children of Israel prepared in haste on the eve of their departure from Egypt, is a symbol of our awareness of God, according to the Bratslavers. The lesser half of the matzah, the Lechem Oni or "Bread of Affliction," symbolizes our lack of knowledge and awareness with which we begin the seder. This unawareness is indeed the "affliction" with which we all are burdened until our personal redemption and knowledge of God through Divine Manifestation. By repeating the story of the Exodus and discussing the various interpretations and explanations that form the bulk of the Haggadah, we symbolically embark on the journey from unawareness through redemption. At the end of the seder, we eat the larger half, the Afikoman that symbolizes our acquisition of the knowledge of God, and our awareness of the Divine Manifestation.

The process of yachatz and the ritual of the Afikoman provides the ultimate optimism for humankind - we may now be afflicted by our ignorance; we begin our redemption through the seder. Ultimately - after wandering through the des(s)ert of our ignorance - we achieve complete freedom and redemption by assimilating the knowledge of God.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Victorious Karpas

Karpas is traditionally a green vegetable. The seders that follow my mother's family line use a piece of celery to dip in the salt water. On the other hand, my wife's family's tradition uses a potato for karpas. (I haven't wanted to potentially create a family feud over this, so I haven't checked the halachah (religious regulations) on this issue.) My mother-in-law explains it this way: "Back at home in Poland, who had vegetables at this time of year? We had only potatoes. Besides, this way you won't be so hungry all the way to the meal."

The common interpretation of the traditional green vegetable is that Pesach is a spring holiday. The green vegetable suggests the renewal and rebirth that is synonymous with the end of winter applies equally to our festival of redemption. But we can also connect the green vegetable - especially a leafy green vegetable - with the laurel wreath that was worn by victors in ancient battles and competitions. Thus the humble karpas becomes a symbol of victory - the triumph of God's will and the ancient Israelites over the tyranny of Pharaoh's hardened heart.

Washing and Trusting

After Kadesh - the b'racha over the first cup of wine - comes U'rchatz, washing the hands without saying a blessing. (Why don't we say the blessing, you ask? Because we're not eating bread (matzah) yet.) Interestingly, the Hebrew word that comes from the root rachatz (washing) has another meaning when read in another ancient language: u'rchatz means "trusting" in Aramaic.

Pesach is a holiday of miracles, but miracles that occurred millennia ago. In our own time, it is often difficult to believe in miracles because we often substitute faith and trust with a belief in the power of modern technology. This is not to completely dismiss the power (and benefits) of technology, but rather to observe that our current emphasis and focus on technology often prevents us from seeing the miraculous around us, and hence erodes faith and trust.

U'rchatz - we wash the hands immediately before eating the simple sustenance of a lowly ground vegetable (Karpas). In noting the Aramaic translation, we are reminded not to take even the simplest things for granted, but to observe and trust in the miraculous processes through which we can enjoy them.

Sunday, March 21, 2004

We Are Moshe

There is an age-old question that arises from the Haggadah: Where's Moshe (Moses)? Moshe is the putative hero of Pesach, the one called on by God to challenge Pharaoh and lead the Children of Israel out of Egypt. He is clearly the "star" character in the biblical book of Exodus. But he is conspicuous by his absence from the Haggadah. Not a single mention anywhere throughout the prescribed readings. Everyone else is there - Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (and his rival, brother Esau.) Evil Laban is there, as is the Pharaoh himself. All sorts of rabbis and sages from throughout history are mentioned, with all their strange commentary on fingers, hands and the actual number of plagues (more on this later). But Moshe? Nowhere to be found.


It was always explained to me that featuring Moshe in the Haggadah would convey celebrity that could border on placing Moshe's role in the Exodus above that of God. This, of course, would never do, so the sages chose to eliminate Moshe entirely from the Pesach ritual so as to circumvent a potential "Moshe cult." Besides, my teachers told me, it would teach us humility - if a person as great as Moshe did not receive such recognition, why should any of us expect it? (If he blogged, I wonder if Moshe would be one of the A-list bloggers... )

Such an explanation always seemed to come from the "avoid the evil eye" school of thought - that if you were too full of yourself, the evil eye would come and cut you down to size. While I could understand the lesson being taught there (and there are those who would say that I didn't actually learn the lesson being taught) it was a very unsatisfying dismissal of Moshe. Finally, thanks to the Bratslavers, I have an insight.

The Haggadah's exclusion of Moshe emphasizes that it was God's power, not Moshe, that delivered the Israelites. But the Torah teaches us that God required Moshe to effect the redemption. That, in itself, is an interesting dynamic. Surely God could have appeared to Pharaoh directly, brought the plagues, or merely swept up the ancient Hebrews in a wind storm of some sort and deposited them on the far side of the Red Sea. But God needed Moshe to express the Divine Manifestation and actualize it by confronting Pharaoh, calling for the plagues and actually leading the Israelites upon their being granted freedom. God was always present, and indeed, was the power that delivered the slaves from bondage, but was never actually seen: Moshe was the vehicle for all the miracles that were Divine Manifestation.

In our own life, we accomplish miracles, although often of a less dramatic sort than the ten plagues. Life springs from our bodies. Children learn to read under our tutelage. We build enterprises that create livelihoods, wealth and prosperity for thousands. We create art and music that survives for centuries and evokes incredible ranges of emotion. That we have elevated ourselves from a base, animalistic nature to accomplish wondrous things is truly a miracle. (And yes, I realize there are those among us who are closer to animalistic in their behaviour than to angelic.) All of these miracles are, for those of some faith, Divine Manifestations, for which we are the vehicle.

The Haggadah tells us that, during the Pesach celebration, we are each to consider ourselves as if we, personally, were brought out of the land of Egypt. But the absence of Moshe throughout the text of the Haggadah tells us something even more important. It is we, individually who fill in that absence. Not only are we to feel as if we were delivered from Egypt; we are to consider ourselves as personally playing the role of Moshe during the celebration. The Haggadah is reminding us that each of us has the personal responsibility to realize Divine Manifestation in our world throught our acts and works. But we must not forget that Moshe Rabbeinu achieved awareness of this role by speaking "face to face" with God, first at the burning bush, and later at Mount Sinai. Before we can truly fill in for Moshe in our own celebration of redemption, we must equally achieve the requisite awareness of our individual roles in our world. What we do matters. What we accomplish for good in the world contributes to collective miracles.

On Ritual and Practice

I have to admit that most of our extended clan aren't that religious (that's putting it mildly), but they are traditional. There are other families who observe the rituals to the last detail, "ayn maf'tirin acher ha'pesach afikoman" - that "one may not eat dessert after the final taste of the Passover offering" (symbolized by the hidden piece of matzah, the afikoman.) There are others who insist that a modern seder is incomplete without reference to modern-day abuses of human rights and a call for the liberation of those who may not be enslaved as Pharaoh enslaved the Israelites, but are still living under the yoke of injustice. Neither view is incorrect, as far as they go, but neither should they be imposed as an injunction.

A disciple of Rebbe Nachman, one Reb Noson, reminds us,
Sometimes, because a person tries excessively hard to perform a mitzvah in the very best way possible, he ends up not performing the mitzvah at all.
The Rebbe himself told us to perform the mitzvot "with simple sincerity," noting that the Torah was given to imperfect mortals to embrace, not to "ministering angels."

So this raises a question: What is it that we are supposed to do, among all the rituals and variants that are available to us at the seder celebration? There are, as I understand it, four obligations at the seder:
  1. You must eat matzah
  2. You must eat maror (bitter herbs)
  3. You must drink four cups of wine
  4. You must tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt in a way that everyone present understands
And, if we listen to Rebbe Nachman, we must be sincere. And it strikes me that the ability to truly be sincere and able to act without reservation in one's life is itself the most profound liberation and redemption possible.

A New Haggadah

At our seder, we use a wonderful haggadah from the Artscroll Mesorah Series - The Family Haggadah. I quite enjoy the translation and commentary in all of the Artscroll editions of prayer books and the Tanach, and their Family Haggadah is no exception. But to develop some other thinking, and to bring stories and parables that will enhance the seder experience, I turn to others. I have a gorgeously illustrated edition called The Passover Haggadah - Legends and Customs, published by Adama Books. It has many such parables and thought-provoking commentary. A sample:
Once the Seer of Lublin said: "I prefer a wicked person who knows he is wicked, to a righteous person who knows he is righteous."
Last year, just before Pesach, I happened to find The Breslov Haggadah, published by The Breslov Institute whose mission it is "to serve as an introduction to the teachings of the chassidic master Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810)." I've always been drawn to the joy of celebration that embodies chassidut, although I am very far from a "black hat" in my own practice, such as it is. Still, Rebbe Nachman brings a wonderful, simple and life-affirming approach to Jewish philosophy and practice. In browsing the pages, I can immediately see that "Rebbe Nachman mi Bratslav" will be joining us, both in this blog and at our seder celebration.

Misplaced Mouse Click Leads to a Recollection

As I was about to set up this blog, my mouse pointer slipped, and I inadvertently went to the Sitemeter referral log for the McLuhan Program weblog. By some "coincidence" (you don't actually believe that there are any real coincidences, right?) the top referral was a Google search for haggadah "blood fire and columns of smoke". Funny, I thought, I don't remember writing about Pesach or the haggadah in the McLuhan blog. But, Google rarely lies, and indeed, a year ago, I had these thoughts (and a Laws of Media tetrad) about liberation, the war in Iraq and the obligations of freedom.

This blog, however, is decidedly not about politics. At holiday time, I prefer to be a little more philosophical, theological and non-partisan in my thinking. Your personal Pesach journey may (probably will) differ, to which I say, "Kol hakavod!" (Loosely translated as, "more power to you!")

Why is this Blog Different From All My Other Blogs?

Some readers who happen upon this blog will know me from my usual musings on McLuhan-related themes and the goings on at the McLuhan Program. Others might know me from the course blogs we keep for some of our course offerings. Others might not know me at all. This last group has the advantage, I suppose, since you won't be coming here with any preconceived notions. This blog is different than all my other blogs.

I have, for a number of years now, been called to lead the family seder, at least in one half of our clan. This is, I suppose, the continuation of a tradition that has spanned three generations now. My grandfather, Ben Steinberg (of blessed memory), led the seders for the extended family when I was a boy. I remember vividly the joy and pride he felt when my aunts - both blessed with beautiful voices, one of whom is now a professional singer - chanted the Shochayn Ad in heavenly harmony. I always sat immediately to his left... and never once was able to spy his hiding of the afikomen.

My father conducted, and still conducts, the second seder, although the numbers at my parents' seder have dwindled over the years to include immediate family only. My father's is a participatory, if scripted, affair, with each person's part being indicated in the carefully marked up Haggadot. Everyone reads in turn - mostly in English - but, of course, one of the obligations is to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt "so that everyone will understand," and for those who attend my parents' seder, English is the language of understanding.

So here am I, the third generation of seder-leaders. In my view, the admonition to ensure that "everyone will understand" takes on an interpretive obligation. The challenge for me is to find some deeper meaning to the story of the redemption in a way that, through the evening, everyone will be touched or inspired with at least one new idea or insight that might inspire them along the way to their own redemption from whatever enslaves them. So each year, a couple of weeks before Pesach, I continue my annual study, contemplation and thinking about fusing ancient traditions, centuries of thought, philosophy and scholarship, and application to modern life in the celebration of the seder.

This weblog - as an outering of private mind and an amplification of voice - are the collection of my thoughts as I embark on this year's journey from ancient Mitzrayim to modern time.