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Insights into the Haggadah

May 9, 2009 | by

A selection of great Haggadah insights you can use at your Seder.

by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

Karpas is a vegetable such as celery, parsley, or boiled potato. Passover is the spring festival, when we celebrate the birth of our nation. These vegetables are a symbol of rebirth and rejuvenation.

These are the bitter herbs, which symbolize the lot of the Hebrew slaves whose lives were embittered by the hard labor. Many people use horseradish for Marror and Romaine lettuce for Chazeret.

Charoset reminds us of the hard labor the Jews had to perform by making bricks from mortar. Charoset is a pasty mixture of nuts, dates, apples, wine and cinnamon.

During the times of the Temple in Jerusalem, the Korbon Pesach (Pascal Lamb) was brought to the Temple on the eve of Passover. It was roasted, and was the last thing eaten at the Seder meal. To commemorate this offering, we use a roasted meat bone with a little meat remaining.

A second offering, called the "Chagigah," was brought to the Temple and eaten as the main course of the Seder meal. Today, instead of a second piece of meat, we use a roasted egg -- which is traditionally a symbol of mourning -- to remind us of the destruction of the Temple. The Talmud points out that every year, the first day of Passover falls out on the same day of the week as Tisha B'Av, the day of mourning for the destruction of the Temple.

by Rabbi Tom Meyer

All who are hungry -- come and eat. All who are needy -- come and join the Passover celebration.

It's hard to believe that as you're reciting this on Passover night, any hungry, homeless people will be hanging around outside your door. So what's the point? The message is that we cannot have a relationship with God unless we care about other people -- both their physical and psychological needs. Judaism absolutely rejects self-absorbed spirituality.

The Haggadah says: "All who are hungry... All who are needy..." The first one refers to physical hunger -- if you're hungry, come have a bite. The second is psychological -- if you're lonely or depressed, come join us.

The purpose of the Seder is to bring us closer to God. Closeness in the physical world is measured by distance. Closeness in the spiritual realm is measured by similarity. We come closer to God by becoming more like Him. Since God provides food for all creatures and tends to all their needs, at the very beginning of the recitation of the Haggadah we issue an invitation to the poor and needy. Thus we define ourselves as givers, whether or not any poor people rush in to accept our invitation. And don't forget: Next year invite needy guests before Passover.


by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

The Seder is centered on asking questions. The youngest child asks the Four Questions; we wash our hands before eating the karpas because it is an unusual activity which prompts the asking of questions; the Four Sons are identified by the type of questions they ask.

Why are questions so important?

The Maharal of Prague (16th century mystic) explains that people generally feel satisfied with their view of life. Thus they are complacent when it comes to assimilating new ideas and growing from them. A question is an admission of some lack. This creates an inner vacuum that now needs to be filled.

At the Seder, we ask questions in order to open ourselves to the depth of the Exodus experience.

Got a good question? Ask it at the Seder!

by Sara Yoheved Rigler

The Wise Son asks, "What are these statutes?" In the Torah, statutes (chukim) are laws that don't have any apparent rational reason. We do them because God asked us to, just like you might run all over town searching for purple roses because your beloved asked you to.

The Seder is a service of love and connection. It connects us to God, to the other people at the table, and to the entire Jewish People. The Wise Son doesn't get lost in intellectual sophistry. He asks, "What do I need to do in order to attain this love and connection?"

The Evil Son scoffs: "What's all this Passover stuff to you?" The opposite of love and connection is exclusion and distance. The Evil Son excludes himself from the Jewish People. He distances himself through ridicule, by mocking God, the Torah, and the lofty process of the Seder itself.

The Haggadah tells us to respond to him by "breaking his teeth." Teeth break down large pieces of food into smaller, digestible pieces. The Evil Son's propensity to belittle what is great and beyond his ability to digest must be checked.

The third son is the Simple Son. He asks, "What is this?" "Simple" here does not mean stupid. The Simple Son is looking for God in a straightforward and direct way. According to Hasidic interpretation, "What" in his question refers to God. In whatever situation he finds himself, the Simple Son looks for God's presence.

The Son Who Does Not Know How to Ask is the fourth. His apathy prevents him from asking any questions, thus sabotaging any possibility of learning and growth. In truth, every human being has a question. On Seder night, find your question within and ask it!

by Rabbi Ahron Lopiansky

And they oppressed us. "As it says: "They placed taskmasters over them, in order to afflict them with burdens. And for Pharaoh they built store cities named Pitom and Ramses." (Exodus 1:11)

The Torah defines the redemption from Egypt as God saving us from slavery. But many other kinds of suffering characterized the Egyptian exile: torture, infanticide, enforced separation of husbands and wives, etc. In the very first of the Ten Commandments, God gives as His calling card: "I am the Lord your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." (Exodus 20:2) Why the emphasis on slavery rather than the other afflictions? Hebrew has two words to describe work: avodah and malacha. Maimonides explains that malacha has a finished product as its climax. Avodah describes labor without any real purpose or accomplishment. The term for a slave-eved--is a derivative of this word. A slave works for no goal other than to satisfy his master.

The Talmud teaches that the location of the store cities which the Jewish slaves built was on marsh land. No sooner did they build a layer than it sank into the marsh. The greatest anguish of their labor was that it was purposeless. When God saved us from purposeless work, He opened our eyes to the horror of a life that has no sublime purpose. Therefore, God at Sinai introduced His commandments to us with the ultimate calling card: "I am the God who removed you from the ordeal of life without purpose or meaning. Now I will show you what life is for: to come close to Me by rectifying yourself through the commandments which follow."

by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

"And God brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with awe and with signs and wonders." (Deut. 26:8)

People often ask: "Why are there no miracles today? If I saw the signs and wonders of the Exodus, I too would believe." The Talmud tells the story of a father who puts his son on his shoulders, and carries him day and night wherever he goes. At mealtime the father reaches up his hands and feeds the boy. Quietly and consistently, the father cares for his son's every need. Then one day as they pass another traveler, the boy shouts out: "Hey, have you seen my father?" We are all prone to take God's providence for granted. In truth, miracles abound in our lives. The only difference between the miracles of the Exodus and the miracles of our immune system is frequency. A one-time miracle elicits our awe. A repeated or constant miracle elicits a yawn. Sadly, the more constant God's miracles, the more apt we are to ignore them. In the words of Oscar Wilde: "Niagara Falls is nice. But the real excitement would be to see it flowing backwards."

Do we fully appreciate the miracle of trees breathing carbon dioxide so that we can breathe oxygen? Do we recognize the miracle of a one-celled zygote becoming a human being with brain, knees, eyelashes, and taste buds? Passover teaches us to love God for the wonder of Niagara Falls flowing forward.

by Rabbi Stephen Baars

In each and every generation, a person is obligated to regard himself as though he actually left Egypt.

The Talmud records that in actuality only 20% of the Jewish people left Egypt. The other 80% did not identify strongly enough with the Jewish people's role and goal. They were too assimilated and immersed in Egyptian society. So they stayed behind. The Haggadah is focusing us on the fact that our ancestors were among the group that had the courage and foresight to leave. It is always difficult to make changes. We may feel that we don't have the drive, stamina, and determination to make bold decisions. The Haggadah reminds us that we are part of the group that left. It is in our blood.

by Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf

After the Afikomen, nothing else should be eaten for the remainder of the night -- except for the drinking of water, tea, and the remaining two cups of wine.

Would Disney World be worth the trip if you had to come home with no video or photos? In our rush to preserve every experience on some form of tape or film, we are in fact sacrificing a great deal. As we assume our position behind the camera and begin to stalk the big game of "Kodak moments," are we not also removing ourselves from the picture, becoming detached observers instead of active participants?

The law of the Afikomen -- once it's over, it's over -- is a hint to the lost spiritual art of savoring, a sensitization technique which allows us to become completely immersed in an experience.

It means fine-tuning our senses to consciously engage every day and every moment; to celebrate life and to imbibe the totality of every experiential step we take.

Upon concluding the Seder, Jewish law bids us not to taste anything after the Afikomen. This is a night for savoring: ideas, feelings, and images. Parents teaching, children learning, and all of us growing together. Allow it to become a part of you. Savor this night of connection and freedom. Only then can you leave. Not with souvenirs, not with photos, but as a different person. A different Jew. And this you will never forget.


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