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Out of time

by Rabbi Lee Jay Lowenstein
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer

Without a doubt, the single most important moment of the Passover holiday is the seder. This glorious occasion of family and celebration is probably the second most observed Jewish ritual next to Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur. In our hearts we sense that the identity and destiny of what the Jewish people are about is intertwined within the complex labyrinth of ideas and songs that compose the Passover Haggadah.

                                                                                                                      

Without a doubt, the single most important moment of the Passover holiday is the seder. This glorious occasion of family and celebration is probably the second most observed Jewish ritual next to Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur. In our hearts we sense that the identity and destiny of what the Jewish people are about is intertwined within the complex labyrinth of ideas and songs that compose the Passover Haggadah. Paradoxically though, the seder in general, and the Haggadah in particular, are of the most misunderstood mitzvot which we perform. We find ourselves scratching our heads and wondering softly (so as not to break up the speedy pace which will get us to the meal within one hour), "What is it specifically that we are to accomplish on this night?" "Does this great moment in time amount to nothing more than perfunctory readings of debates over whether or not the Egyptians were smitten with 50 or 250 plagues at the Red Sea?" "Whose idea of freedom is reading a disjointed collection of rabbinical sayings and musical scores?"

These are serious questions which secretly gnaw at us all and absolutely must be addressed if Passover is to leave a lasting impression upon our minds and souls (instead of our stomachs where the matzah remains for weeks). No other holiday besides Passover has a seder. Sukkot, Shavuot, and Rosh Hashanah all require festive meals, but do not dictate a specific approach and order to their format (besides certain nominal halachic requirements). When we look at the 15 steps of the seder which have been outlined for us to follow, we make a fascinating discovery. We are not surprised to see, among the list, instructions for "Karpas" (eating a vegetable dipped in salt water), "Maror" (eating bitter herbs), "Matzah", and "Tzafun" (eating the Afikoman matzah desert), all of which commemorate specific aspects of the Passover holiday. However, "Kaddesh" (the recital of Kiddush on wine), "Rachtzah" (washing the hands), "Motzi" (breaking bread), "Shulchan Orech" (the meal), and "Barech" (Grace after Meals) are not special to Passover; they are part of our weekly Shabbat ritual and are very commonplace. Why are they counted as steps, given equal treatment as those which will only appear this one night and not again until next year?

It is interesting to note that with regard to a parent's obligation to provide for his child's education, Jewish law is very clear that the parent himself is not required to be the actual teacher. As long as the parent secures a rebbe (teacher), be it through a personal tutor or through enrollment in a day school, that parent has discharged his obligation. However, this is superceded one night every year, on the night of the Passover seder, wherein we must fulfill a positive commandment of: "And you shall tell your son on this day. . ." (Exodus 13:8). Why is this so? What makes this night different from all other holidays that it requires us to assume a role which we do not normally play the rest of the year? Why are we not instructed to relate the miracles of the exodus during Sukkot? Or re-enact the giving of the Torah on Shavuot?

The month of Nissan in general, and the 15th day therein in particular, have a special place in the historical destiny of the Jewish nation. It was on this day that Abraham was informed that there was going to be a Jewish people which would descend from Sarah and him. It was on this day that Isaac, the fulfillment of this promise, was born. On this day an entire nation emerges from under the oppressive hand of their hosts to begin a new epoch of history. Finally, on this day the final redemption will take place and the world will be brought to its highest fulfillment. Passover, therefore, represents far more than an isolated commemoration of the Israelite flight from bondage thousands of years ago. It is a date which is alive with the unfolding history of our people. It is a moment which bonds the past, present, and future into a single moment.

The Maharal, one of the greatest Jewish thinkers in the past five centuries, in the introduction to his work on redemption entitled Gevuros Hashem, explains at great length the process of how Hashem weaves miracles into the flow of history. Unlike others who say that miracles are freak occurrences involving disturbances in the natural order of the world, without any set pattern or theory, the Maharal proposes a different approach. He explains that in addition to the standardized set of laws which govern nature, there is a systematic order and logic to the supernatural world as well. These two worlds, the natural and supernatural, exist on parallel planes which intersect at specific times and with a specific formula resulting in the occurrence of a miracle. It is no small coincidence that the Hebrew word for a system of governable laws is "seder".

On this night a new nation would be born, a nation who would operate differently than all other people. Other nations are subject to the limitations of time and the confines of the universe. This people, though, would have the power to change their world, to subjugate time and break free from its hold. This people was born at the very culmination of the revelation of a "new order" ushered in with the climax of ten debilitating plagues, sent to implant an awareness of an all-powerful G-d who alone controls the forces of the world. Their existence will, therefore, forever be wrapped up in, and an intimate part of, that new order which brought them into being.

The Jew's essence is rooted in his "beyond timeliness", in his connection with that supernatural order. Do we not hear time and again that, by all laws of nature, the Jewish people should have ceased to exist hundreds of years ago? An existence of this nature is one in which multiple moments in time can be experienced simultaneously (after all, the concepts of past, present, and future are only applicable to the laws of nature of which time is one of). On this night we celebrate the coming of age of this new seder (order) with our own family seder. On this night Kiddush, washing, eating, and even reciting Grace after Meals take on new dimensions. Tonight they represent a concept of holiday that does not belong to this world of time and space, but to the seder of the supernatural.

The way we make this a tangible reality is through the perpetuation of our people. When parent and child engage in an open dialogue about the meaning of their Jewishness, they are forming the bridge which takes the sense of history of the past and the hopes of the future and blends them into a single moment of the present. The past is given new meaning (who I am is made up of where I come from); the future is given a fighting chance (if I know who I am, I will want to make sure this is passed down and made a part of someone else's life); and the present is transformed into a fulfilling experience knowing that I am the keystone which makes it all real.

Rabbi Lee Jay Lowenstein, who hails from Atlanta, is an educator at the RASG Hebrew Academy of Greater Miami.


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