Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Pesach - A Time "Four" Reality

(Picture by Shoshanah Shear
reflecting the Exodus from Egypt
and what we were freed for.)

On Pesach evening, we will be reading from the Haggadah. This perfectly formulated ordered book is said to include the very secrets of the entire world. It seems like a conglomeration of totally disconnected points. Yet to the discerning eye – and of course the seasoned Torah scholar, the story of the Exodus – the Jewish people's leaving the land of Egypt to go towards true freedom, the Land of Israel with the Torah itself – is perfectly told, no matter how it looks on the surface. For this reason, perhaps, the Haggadah is the chosen method of sharing the story – rather than, for example, simply opening the book of Exodus and reading it from beginning to end.

Today, in fact, there are so many Haggadot available that just about every great Torah scholar who has ever lived has his very own Haggadah. You'll see Haggadot with pictures of the Ben Ish Chai (Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad) on them, Haggadot with pictures of Rabbi Yisrael Yaakov Kanievsky (the Steipler) on them, Haggadot with a variety of other great Torah scholars, Tzaddikim and giants – each apparently having written his own Haggadah. Of course, this is not true. Rather these Haggadot simply contain many of the teachings that these giants shared about the Haggadah and hence these Haggadot are named after them – so to speak.

The novel ideas found in the Haggadah are so many that were one to begin collating every Haggadah available and publishing just one complete version – would mean nothing less than a Guiness world record for the largest book in the world! It's no wonder that the Haggadah speaks of the importance of reciting this story on the night of Pesach, "Even if we were all wise people, understanding people, even if we all knew the entire Torah, even if we were all old… still we would be obligated to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt… and all who tell more – that one is praiseworthy!" And much to tell – there certainly is.

It is a sad point in our day, when so many feel that the recital of the four questions fulfils one's obligation – if one manages to even get that far. In fact, so many are already such experts in the "old" traditional story of the Exodus – that the night of Pesach may be no greater than a night of eating a few unleavened pieces of bread (reluctantly), if they will actually be at the table at all.

With so much to share, I'd like to take just one snippet in the Haggadah with the hope that those reading this will think through a central idea that the Seder highlights – that Pesach highlights and that of course the Haggadah itself highlights.

On Pesach – the Haggadah says – one does not fulfil one's obligation until one says three things "Pesach, Matza, Maror". In fact these three things are the keys to the entire Seder. They represent the essence of what being Jewish is really all about. They represent the way of the world, and there is much to say about what each of these really is.

Pesach – the Passover sacrificial lamb represents the freedom of the Jewish people from slavery. When the Temple stood, this lamb would be the lamb prepared for the main meal. It represents everything we're hoping for today – true freedom. Our not being able to eat it is surely a sign of the sadness of where we are at today – being unable to have a Temple and truly connect with G-d and experience absolute G‑dliness. Those who would know what this feeling is, would certainly do nothing less than observe every one of the 613 commandments without blinking an eyelid. The fact that so many lack the appreciation of the Mitzvot is about as good a proof as any that our loss of the Temple, means our loss of freedom – of knowing who G-d is, and connecting with Him. Naturally the Paschal sacrifice was the very thing that the Jewish people were heading towards with their leaving Egypt, as they prepared these lambs four days before leaving Egypt, an absolute insult to the Egyptians who worshipped these animals on a daily basis. Yet, they were helpless to stop the Jewish people from continuing with their plan of leaving the land of Egypt.

The Matza represents our having left Egypt in a hurry. The Jewish people fled Egypt in a hurry and did not have time to wait for the dough to rise. Matza represents this enthusiasm which we each need to keep with us when engaged in the commandments of the Torah. Those lazy and not wanting to learn or do, are true slaves to the world around them – not realising that there is a task ahead to refine this world. This must be done with haste!

The Maror represents the bitterness of the Jewish people that they underwent while in Egypt. It was not a pleasant state to be in, and we must forever remember what true slavery feels like. Once again, today we are faced with the eating of Maror on a daily basis, though most seem to enjoy the taste. The lives we live without the Temple – are lives without much meaning – save for those moments when the treat of Torah learning and practise takes us out of exile and brings us directly back to G-d. Those eating real raw "chrain" – with their eyes shedding tears as the burn goes right through their systems – should do well to remember that this is the real state of affairs for the soul today. A life of Maror is certainly not a pleasant one, and one from which we must all run from as fast as we can.

Running from Egypt – the Matza and Maror – must be with the sole goal in mind of that Paschal lamb – true freedom with the Temple and an overwhelming influence of G-d's presence being felt around us continually. What a goal to strive for and desire and pray for continually.

But still, there is a problem with the above points. The Haggadah tells us that anybody who does not say these three things on Pesach does not fulfil his/her Pesach obligations. Yes, these three things represent the crux of what Pesach is all about. But for ONE thing…

Pesach is not about threes. It's about fours! On Pesach, we ask four questions. We drink four cups of wine. There are four expressions used in the Torah to declare our freedom. Actually as one works through the Haggadah the number 4 stands out again and again – except of course for here! The Haggadah speaks of only three things. One is left to wonder what exactly is missing!

The numbers 3 and 4 are both highly significant (as all numbers are!) We know that the Jewish people have 3 forefathers and 4 foremothers. Why?

The number 3 can be compared to a stool that one may sit on. It has three legs. One sits comfortably on the chair, and it supports one. Yet, the truth is that with a bump in the wrong direction, the stool will topple over. 3 works well. But when it comes to true sturdiness, 3 is unacceptable, and we need something with 4 legs. A proper dining room chair will have four legs. A table will have four legs.

The number 3 can certainly work… but four? Four is better! It somehow just keeps the support of something so that even a kick won't knock it over. It will still stand strong.

Indeed 3 speaks about a fantasy world of what can work… but doesn't really. 4 speaks about a world of reality. At the end of the day, while the 3 legged chair will get the job done, it is the four legged chair that will be the most widely used.

Our 3 forefathers – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, likewise represent a world of fantasy. There is something missing in all of their lives, something which only the foremothers are able to latch on to. While the forefathers are living in worlds of fantasy, the foremothers live in the world of reality.

Abraham's life ends up with him being comfortable having a child through a woman other than his wife (i.e. Hagar.) While intrinsically the boy born of this relationship – Ishmael – could be a good son, the truth is that something goes terribly wrong with him and his descendants who continue to fight with the Jewish people to this day. Yitzchak – the son born to Abraham and Sarah is really the only son that should have been born, but due to circumstances, things turned out that Ishmael was also born. Abraham loved Ishmael too – after all, he was his son (and his eldest at that!) Yet Isaac was the son born to his true wife – Sarah – who he had truly longed to have a son with.

When Sarah saw that Ishmael would be a problem for her son Isaac, she told Abraham that the boy must be sent away. Abraham – due to his love for the boy, was not happy with the decision and wanted to let the lad live with them and be a part of the Abraham dynasty. Sarah wants him out!

Naturally we see the truth of Sarah – and the problem that Abraham faced. Abraham lived in a world of fantasy – one where even an Ishmael can live harmoniously with his "brother" Isaac. Sarah saw the truth – the reality. In this physical world filled with physical things (and weapons too!) Ishmael can simply not live with Isaac. How true Sarah's feelings were, and how false were Abraham's insights into what Ishmael would become. Of course, Abraham was on a stature of spiritual holiness that nobody in today's generation can understand. His insight into his son was not for nothing. To him, Ishmael had some very beautiful qualities – and for this, he loved him. But that is the world of fantasy (a world of truth in the spiritual realms) – not reality! Sarah – the woman, saw the reality.

Isaac on the other hand had two sons who shared a common goal – to work with each other. Esau was to be involved in work, while Jacob studied Torah. What a noble thing for brothers to do – working together for each other's good. Isaac loved Esau, even more than he did Jacob. Yet Rebecca loved Jacob more.

The truth is that Esau did have an important role to perform and he was certainly a great student of Torah… only he had a bad side to him. He enjoyed killing others in cold blood, stealing from others, and raping those who pleased him to rape. What with all the realities of Esau's life – the life of Jacob – a man studying Torah all day was far more pleasant in the eyes of his mother Rebecca. Yet Isaac was no fool either. What he saw in Esau were some very special qualities (aside from his killing, robbery and raping!) In the Torah of Chassidus, one can truly see the good side of Esau and there is much to learn from him.

In the world of fantasy – of course, Esau was and is really a very good man. It's just that when his soul comes into this physical world, it leashes itself out in every physical manner it can think of! But, if he is a son of Isaac – he must surely be someone very special. Isaac knows that. Rebecca does too… but she's real. She realises that Esau will never share with his brother Jacob, and while the team of brothers may be a good thing in the world of fantasy (the spiritual realms), in the world of reality (this world – the physical) – Esau will simply run off with the goods, leaving Jacob to fend for himself! Being in the tents of Torah won't help him pay his bills much – and Rebecca realises this. That is why she arranges things so that Jacob receives the blessing from Isaac – the one "due" for Esau.

The fantasy man – Isaac, lives in world of fantasy goodness. Wonderful. But in the world of reality – the world of women (who bring things into this world in a very real way, not leaving the exalted thoughts of Torah to pay the bills…) is a world of reality. Esau can simply not get the blessing. It must go to Jacob!

Apparently our forefathers were similar, and Jacob – even with his own difficulties, did not see what would happen to him – making him make the same mistake!

When Jacob fell in love – it was with Rachel. He wished to marry her and was actually going to go through it all, until her sister Leah ended up getting mixed in to the ceremony due to her father Lavan's intervention. Could the marriage have been diverted? Certainly. The Torah teaches that it was in fact Rachel herself – who gave over the special wedding signs she had arranged with Jacob before – to her sister Leah, so that when they met under the Chupah, Jacob would think he was marrying Rachel. The scheme worked, and come what may – Jacob was destined to marry Leah first.

Shouldn't Rachel have simply kept quiet and let Jacob marry her first? She loved him too! Why did she do this?! Without going into detail, let us consider just one point which we can meditate over for years and never get to appreciate even then! Even with the tremendous self-sacrifice of Rachel, it was to Leah that the blessing went to be the mother of the Moshiach. Leah's fourth child – Judah – would be the father of Moshiach. Had she not married Jacob, one wonders – if in the cosmic sense of things – if indeed Moshiach would have come through Rachel. After all, it seems, G-d wanted the Messiah to come directly through Judah – who was to be born to Leah.

More than this, the entire mystery of going into Egypt and coming out again was based upon the order of marriage of the two sisters. After all, Joseph became the youngest son (save for Benjamin at the time) who would be tormented by his brothers, sent into Egypt and then become viceroy and be responsible for saving Egypt and many other lands too, and ultimately bringing real redemption for the entire Jewish people. Had Joseph been born first, the brothers would not have behaved to him as they did (he would now have been the eldest son!) which would have meant that he would not have gone down to Egypt. And of course, when the famine did eventually come, there would not be a Joseph in Egypt ready to save the entire Jewish people!

Rachel of course – with her Divine inspiration knew this. Jacob did not. In the world of fantasy – Jacob's world, things could work out well by marrying Rachel first. But in reality, this just could not take place – not in a physical world filled with impurity and much more.

3 represents the men – caught up in worlds of fantasy – where much can be, but what with a 3 legged chair – a slight kick and it can all fall down! The number four represents women who ground everything into reality – into the physical world. This is why we have 3 forefathers, and 4 foremothers. This is a short insight into our great Fathers and Mothers.

Pesach is a night of fours – except of course for the THREE things we must say. What then of the fourth?!

This is exactly the point… the fourth thing is just this. There are three things that one must SAY to fulfil one's obligation. The fourth thing is speech – of actually doing and saying something. One can fantasize about Matza, Pesach and Marror as much as one wants to. One can come up with the best and deepest thoughts about each of these things. But without actually making something of them (leaving them simply in the air literally) one does not fulfil one's obligation.

Life is not about philosophy, of thinking about things – no matter how lofty they are. Life is about doing, of making something happen because of speaking and because of doing. Fantasy works well when people want to simply show how great they are, but the reality of life is far deeper, it's about speaking things – to put into action.

The Seder is not about some story that happened thousands of years ago that we already all know (from the many years we've been through it before.) It's all about doing it again. Of saying everything again. Of eating the Matza and Maror again!!! Just like Torah too, which is about doing everything again and again. There is never enough of it, and each time there is something new. But it is only when we put ourselves into Torah and Mitzvot that we actually begin to see just how much is involved.

There is no getting out of it. This is the physical world, a world of reality. A world of four. A world of speech and action. Being at a Seder is simply not good enough. It's about doing everything, the right way – completely from beginning to end. It's about speaking it out and learning what Torah and G-d are all about – and of course what a Jewish soul is. What it means to be a slave (as we should know only too well) and what it means to be truly free – something that can only happen with the holding on to the Torah and her commandments.

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