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Seder Thoughts

by Rabbi Shimon Feigenbaum
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer

Torah from Dixie author Rabbi Shimon Feigenbaum explores tiny tidbits of the Passover Haggadah. In his trademark style, Rabbi Feigenbaum explains little nuggets of Torah wisdom at an easy-to-understand level.


"This is the bread of our affliction. . ."

We begin telling over the story of the exodus from Egypt with Ha lachma anya. We invite all those who are needy to join us in our festive celebration, and we express our hope for the redemption from our current exile.

The redemption has an obvious connection to Passover, but what is the purpose for instituting a specific passage inviting the needy at this time? Tzedakah (charity) is a mitzvah that we must always perform. What is the reason for stressing tzedakah at the beginning of the Passover Haggadah?

The Beis HaLevi, one of the most brilliant Talmudists of the 19th century, explains that the future redemption will come because of our performance of the mitzvah of tzedakah. Therefore, we can understand the connection between the redemption and tzedakah. The question we must now ask, however, is why does tzedakah bring the redemption more than any other mitzvah? The Beis HaLevi explains this connection with the following story from the Midrash:

A wealthy man had an only son whom he loved dearly. He treated his son to the best of everything. When the son got older, he rebelled against his father. Eventually, the father had the son removed from his house. The young man lived with his friends who would hang around the city streets all day doing nothing productive. After a short period of time, one could not tell that he had grown up in an affluent home. He looked like the other street people with whom he now spent his time.

A friend of the family was very concerned and decided to ask the father to take his son back. This kind man beseeched the father, "Please have pity on your only child and let him return home." The father, who was still angry with his son, replied, "Who are you calling my son? He does not dress like me, he looks like he lives in the street, he does not resemble me in any way." The family friend wisely answered, "Yes, that may be so, but look at his face. His face resembles your face. He must be your son." With those words, the father gave in and welcomed his son home.

This story represents the relationship between Hashem and the Jewish people. Hashem is the wealthy father who gave His only child, the Jewish people, everything good. We rebelled and were sent away. We became like those around us by not following the mitzvot, and now our father Hashem can say that we no longer resemble Him. Our only chance for being saved is that our "face" still looks like Hashem's "face". We resemble each other, so Hashem must take us back. There is one mitzvah that we still do well enough to resemble Hashem, and that is the mitzvah of tzedakah.

The law is that one who gives tzedakah, even if he does not give it with a full heart, has still performed the mitzvah of tzedakah. Therefore, even if we are not fulfilling the other mitzvot properly, in the merit of the mitzvah of tzedakah we can still be brought home by Hashem.

"We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. . ."

After asking the Mah Nishtanah, we answer with Avadim Hayinu which is an outline of the events of the exodus from Egypt. We say, "And if Hashem had not taken us out of Egypt, we and our children and our grandchildren would still be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt."

Throughout history, there have been many times that oppressed peoples were freed. It would seem that even without the miraculous exodus from Egypt, the Jewish people would not have been slaves forever, but would have eventually gone free. Why, then, do we say that we would still be Pharaoh's slaves?

The greatness of the exodus was that it was Hashem who took us out to be His people. It is true that we eventually may have left Egypt through human hands, but we would not have been Hashem's people. We would be no different than the Egyptians. Therefore, it would be as if we were still slaves to Pharaoh.

"It happened that Rabbi Eliezer. . ."

The Haggadah relates the story of five sages who stayed up all night discussing the exodus from Egypt. In the morning, their students came and reminded them that the time for reciting the shema prayer had arrived. Apparently, these great men were so involved with their learning that they had lost track of the time.

However, the Shem Mishmuel, a great Torah scholar of the 19th century, explains that these sages were indeed aware of the time. Why, then, did they need to be reminded to say the shema?

When we recite the shema, we are declaring that we believe that there is one G-d who controls all events. Even when we do not understand why the events are happening, we are secure in the belief that it is from Hashem and for the best. The sages were learning about the exodus from Egypt, where even though there did not seem to be any hope for the Jewish people, they were nevertheless redeemed. This brought about the secure feeling that one has when understanding how Hashem rules the world. Upon seeing this recognition on the faces of their teachers, the students said to them with admiration, "It is time for the recital of the shema." They meant to say, "You have now reached the level to truly understand the meaning of the shema."

"Regarding four sons the Torah speaks. . ."

The Passover Haggadah praises Hashem for giving us the Torah. We then say that this Torah teaches us how to address the four sons: the chacham (wise son), the rasha (wicked son), the tam (simple son), and the eino yode'a lishol (one who doesn't know how to ask). What is the connection between the four sons and praising Hashem for giving us the Torah?

The answer is that the greatest praise for the Torah is that it can be used to teach so many different types of people. Let us compare a general knowledge textbook with the Torah. A textbook used by a first grader is written on one level. An older student cannot use this book, so he has his own textbook, and a high school student requires yet another book. However, this is not the case with the study of the Torah. A young child learning his first verse, an older student learning Chumash (Pentateuch) with Rashi, and a teacher preparing for his students, all use the same Chumash. Even though the Torah is learned on many levels, there is one basic text for everybody. This indeed shows us the greatness of the Torah which addresses each of us on our own level.

"One is wise, one is wicked. . ."

The first of the four sons discussed in the Passover Haggadah is the chacham, the wise son. He asks, "What are these testimonies, statutes, and ordinances which Hashem, our G-d, has commanded you?" Our answer to him is a detailed explanation of all the laws of Passover. The next of the four sons is the rasha, the wicked son. He asks, "What is the purpose of this work to you?" The Haggadah teaches that this son does not get a response. Instead we silence him for asking a question through which he excludes himself from the performance of mitzvot.

We are upset at the wicked son for using the words "to you" in expressing his question. The problem is that when the wise son asks his question, he also says "which Hashem has commanded you," seemingly separating himself as well. Why do we respond differently to the wise son than the wicked son?

The Dubno Maggid, a great 18th century Torah scholar best known for his incisive parables, answers this question in his classic fashion with the following parable: A man was once remodeling his home. He wanted to turn two rooms into one big room, so he set out to knock down the wall separating them. One person came by and was shocked by what he thought was a foolish and destructive act. "Are you insane? Why are you knocking down a perfectly good wall?" Another man can by and politely asked, "Excuse me, but why are you knocking down the wall?" Both people asked the same question. The only difference was the attitude. One only wanted to find fault, while the other was merely curious to find out the reason behind what he saw.

This applies to the wise and wicked sons as well. Although their questions were similar, there was an obvious difference in tone and attitude. The wicked son was out to criticize, but the wise son truly wanted to understand. This is further evidenced by the wise son's usage of the term "our G-d" in formulating his question.

Rabbi Shimon Feigenbaum is an educator at the Torah Day School of Atlanta.

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