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Pesach 5779 - Shkoyach!

By Rabbi Zvi Teichman

Posted on 04/17/19

Parshas HaShavua Divrei Torah sponsored by
Dr. Shapsy Tajerstein, DPM - Podiatry Care.
(410) 788-6633

Once again, we will reenact the Seder as our ancestors have for generations.


Some families repeat long standing interpretations on the Haggadah that were expressed by their illustrious predecessors centuries ago. Many have unique and ancient customs associated with the various steps within the Seder. For the most part though the central text of the Haggadah remains universal and is the greatest common denominator amongst our people on this night and testament to our mutual mission.


Reflecting on my own experience as a child having sat at a Seder table together with grandparents who were transplanted from a world so different and seemingly much more authentic than my own, I often ponder what is it that was bequeathed to me on this special night that I am now entrusted with to convey to my children and grandchildren?


Was it the special niggun they sang to Vehi She’amdah? Was it the specific type of vegetable our family used for Karpas? In what way do we represent the message of our ancestors?


Is it plausible that by simply doing the exact same thing for eighty plus generations we make it so compelling for our progeny to continue this tradition so loyally?


Wherein lays the secret of this night that has powered the survival of our people against the onslaught of all sorts of enemies, both physical and spiritual, throughout the millennia?


Each day we are commanded to remember the day we departed from the land of Egypt.


This constant reiteration is an affirmation of our absolute faith in G-d and His abilities to manipulate nature as He pleases and compel man to profess His will and our consequential allegiance to His directive as a result of that reality.


But on Pesach it isn’t just about Emunah, faith, per se. We avoid expounding directly on the portions in the Torah that deal more directly with the actual events that took place in Egypt prior to the Exodus. We rather read from the portion in the Torah that is recited by one who has merited to offer the first fruits of his bountiful crops, Bikkurim, in the Temple, in tribute to G-d who has brought him to this magnificent blessing of success.


That recitation begins with recalling how Lavan first sought to destroy us, causing a chain of events that led us to descend unto the land of Egypt, where Pharaoh deviously turned against us enslaving us until we called out to G-d, Who came to our rescue, bringing us into the land from where these very fruits were born, concluding with utter gratitude for all that G-d has done.


It is not about our faith as much as it is about the expression of our realization of G-d’s intimate involvement in our lives, Who through both the difficult times and the successful moments is guiding us with constant love and concern.


The Rishonim point out that although we ought to recite a blessing before performing this mitzvah of Sippur Yetzas Mitzrayim, nevertheless since we minimally fulfill the command when we recall during the recitation of Kiddush, which is a Bracha itself, that the holiday is a ‘memorial of the Exodus from Egypt’, there is no need to add another blessing.


Haven’t we even earlier also remembered the Exodus at the end of the recitation of Kerias Shma at Maariv in the portion of Tzitzis, which is also part of a blessing, that of Kerias Shma? Why does this mention of the Exodus not suffice to mitigate the need for a separate blessing?


Evidently it is the mentioning of the Exodus in the context of a blessing that extols our fortune of being ‘chosen’ by G-d, Who showers us with love, and the gratitude we sense in that awareness, that mimics the fuller version of that command on this night as opposed to the mentioning of the marvelous Exodus as the reason we are beholden in duty and service to Him.


That is why the retelling of our ‘shameful’ beginning is integral to the tale for it accentuates all the more so the gratefulness we feel in having arrives at our praiseworthy station vis-a-vis our relationship with G-d. (Siach Yitzchok)


The greatest irony in this notion is that this very concept of the vital need to express gratitude and to say thanks, find its sole source in a regard to how grateful we must be towards the Egyptian nation.


The Torah instructs that an Egyptian who seeks to join our ranks by converting, although initially is prohibited to marry from ‘the assembly of G-d’, may be permitted after three generations to marry freely from within our ranks without any exception.


The reason the Torah gives for this is, ki ger hayisa beartzo, because you were a sojourner in his land. Rashi amplifies because they hosted you in a time of dire need, when Yaakov and his family were initially hosted in Goshen during the famine.


Despite their ulterior motive, as Pharaoh himself implies when greeting them suggesting they assist ‘his’ men with their cattle herding skills, and notwithstanding their eventually displaying their true  original intent when they cast the male children into the sea, we must nevertheless show gratitude for their ‘kindness’ by permitting an Egyptian convert after three generations to fully marry into the Jewish people.


The motto of Pesach is gratitude yet ironically the only direct addressing of this supernal quality in all of Torah is in its directive to be grateful even to the self-minded Egyptians. What are we to make of this?


In the story of the Exodus we learn that one must even display gratitude to inanimate items as well, as we are taught that Moshe would not smite the water nor dust of the land to initiate the plagues of Blood, Frogs and Lice out of gratitude to the water which saved him as a baby from the clutches of Pharaoh’s henchmen, as well as the dust that concealed the Egyptian he smote.


What logic could there be in the need to be thankful to soulless objects? Why would we be obligated to appreciate those whose inner desire was self-serving and malicious?


Why are we so pent-up when it comes to the formality of saying ‘thank you’, going overboard when our children don’t immediately say thank you when receiving a gift?  


What is the origin of this courteous gesture?


Oddly there is nary one place in the entire Chumash where an individual offer thanks to the one who proffered a favor?


David Graeber in his book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years writes:


Saying “please” and “thank you”... first took hold in Western society during the commercial revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as evidence of the democratization of society - our desire to view everyone as equals. Before that, saying please and thank you was a way to show deference to a lord or master. “Thank you” derives from “think” it originally meant, “I will remember what you did for me”- and “please” is short for “if you please,” “if it pleases you to do this”...


Like so many of our everyday courtesies, it is a kind of democratization of what was once a habit of feudal deference: the insistence on treating absolutely everyone the way that one used only to have to treat a lord or similar hierarchical superior.


In fact, the English “please” is short for “if you please,’ ‘if it pleases you to do this’. Its literal meaning is “you are under no obligation to do this.”... This is not true; there is a social obligation, and it would be almost impossible not to comply. But etiquette largely consists of the exchange of polite fictions. When you ask someone to pass the salt, you are also giving them an order; by attaching the word “please”...


In English, “thank you” derives from ‘think,’ it originally meant, ‘I will remember what you did for me’ - which is usually not true either - but in other languages... it actually does means ‘I am in your debt’... you are symbolically placing yourself in your benefactor's power - since a debtor is, after all, a criminal...


The habit of always saying “please” and “thank you” first began to take hold during the commercial revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries... the language of bureaus, shops, and offices, and over the course of the last five hundred years it has spread across the world... It is also merely one token of... a set of assumptions of what humans are and what they owe one another, that have by now become so deeply ingrained that we cannot see them.


In other words ‘thank you’ is merely the currency by which we assure our own self-interests in maintaining a ‘balance of power’ so that we may continue to serve each other's interests.


The Torah perspective however sees in an act of kindness the ‘eyes of G-d’ peering through, giving credibility to the doer of good, enabling one to serve as a conduit of G-d’s ultimate will.


We acknowledge an act of giving as evidence of the worthiness of its conveyer in acting on behalf of G-d.


When we are grateful to the dust it is ultimately a testament to G-d who operates through the agency of matter and men.


Even an Egyptian can have a spark of good that pierces through the thick layer of selfishness, although that seed may take three generations in the soul of a convert to sprout forth.


On the Seder night we reflect on all that we have been privileged to live through, the good the bad and the (seemingly) ugly. We exult that we sit privileged at our tables in the knowledge of G-d’s guiding hand throughout that process.


G-d in the very last words of the Torah makes reference to Moshe having broken the Tablets reminiscing the worlds of approval G-d uttered when He said: Asher Shibarta - Yeyasher Kochacha that you broke them. Asher is a language of validation. G-d is asserting that his choice was a valid one representative of the will of G-d. It is not simply a ‘thank you’ but an affirmation Moshe’s worth.


The greatest legacy we can leave our children is when we express our acknowledgement of G-d’s guiding hand in all our travels, instilling within them that sense of privilege we feel in enduring for our ultimate benefit and good. That is the essence of Pesach.


My grandparents joy and expression of thanks to G-d on that night betrayed the difficult lives they each lived; loss of spouses; deaths of children; abject poverty, and much more. It is the joy and privilege in their eyes that reflected the very image of G-d that accompanied them in life, that inspired us at the table.


That is our role, that is our mission. May we sense and appreciate all that we represent as conduits of His will. If we do our children will join with joy, in that march towards the final redemption.


באהבה,


חג כשר ושמח,


צבי יהודה טייכמאן