Shmini (Leviticus 9-11 )
GOOD MORNING! This Wednesday evening, Jews all over the world will begin to celebrate the holiday of Passover. For most of us, because we have made the choice to isolate ourselves from even our closest family and friends, this Passover will feel somewhat strange and perhaps a little dispiriting. Last week I wrote an article that might help you cope a little better under these trying circumstances. For those of you who missed last week’s Shabbat Shalom Fax of Life, you can find it here.
Interestingly enough, the Passover Seder is a key Jewish life cycle observance – according to the Pew Research Center almost 8 out of 10 people who identify as Jews participate in a Seder. This same group had only about 5 out of 10 fasting (at least partially) on Yom Kippur and only about 2 out of 10 lighting Shabbat candles regularly. Surprisingly, more than 4 out of 10 Jews who don’t have any religious affiliation (those that acknowledge some Jewish parentage but identify as atheists or agnostics) also participated in a Seder.
Because the Passover Seder experience is so universally observed and fundamental to Judaism, I decided to reprint a primer to the Seder from our beloved mentor and teacher, Rabbi Kalman Packouz, of blessed memory.
Q & A: What is Pesach (Passover) and how is it celebrated?
There are five mitzvot (commandments) for the Passover Seder, two from the Torah and three from our Sages. The two mitzvot from the Torah are to eat matza ("In the evening you shall eat unleavened bread" – Exodus 12:18) and to tell the story of our exodus from Egypt ("And you shall relate to your son [the story of the Exodus] on this day" – Exodus 13:9). The rabbis added the mitzvot of drinking the four cups of wine, eating marror (bitter herbs), and reciting Hallel (Psalms of praise for the Almighty). During the times of the Temple in Jerusalem, there were 16 additional mitzvot associated with the Pesach offering.
All of these commandments are to help us re-experience the exodus and to feel and strengthen our sense of freedom. The mitzvot are to experience either the affliction or the redemption.
The matza is called "lechem ani" – the bread of the poor man ... and "lechem oni" – the bread of affliction. It has the dual symbolism of representing our affliction (we ate it while slaves) and our redemption (we hastily made matza to eat when we left Egypt).
The four cups of wine represent the four different terms for our redemption in the Torah (Exodus 6:6-7). Wine is the drink of free men! Bitter herbs is affliction (just look at the faces of those eating horseradish!) and Hallel is our thanks to the Almighty for our redemption and freedom..
Passover is the "Holiday of Freedom" – spiritual freedom. The Almighty brought us out of Egypt to serve Him and to be free. Isn't this a contradiction? What is the essence of freedom?
Is freedom the ability to do what one desires unhampered and without consequence? That is license, not freedom. James Bond had a "license to kill," not the freedom to kill. Freedom means having the ability to use your free will to grow and to develop.
Our leaving Egypt led us to Mt. Sinai and the acceptance upon ourselves the yoke of Torah. This is the centerpiece of our freedom. It sets the boundaries of right and wrong; it sets forth the means to perfect ourselves and the world we live in; it defines ultimate meaning and satisfaction in life. Only with boundaries does one have the ability to grow and develop. Otherwise, with unlimited license, life is out of control.
People think they are free when they throw off the yoke of the Torah. However, unless one has the revealed wisdom of the Torah, he is at risk of becoming a "slave" to the fads and fashion of his society. Slavery is non-thinking action, rote behavior, following the impulse desires of the body. Our job on Pesach is to come out of slavery into true freedom and to develop a closer relationship with the Almighty!
During all eight days of Pesach we are forbidden to own or eat chametz (leavened bread – i.e. virtually any flour product not especially produced for Pesach) or have it in our possession (Exodus 13:7). Why the emphasis on being chametz-free? Chametz represents arrogance ("puffing up"). The only thing that stands between you and God ... is you. To come close to the Almighty, which is the ultimate pleasure in life and the opportunity of every mitzvah and holiday, one must remove his own personal barriers. The external act brings the internal appreciation – we remove chametz from our homes and likewise work on the character trait of humility.
Who is Really Free and How Do We Gain Freedom?
The year is 1978 and the man's name is Yosef Mendelovich. The setting: a dank cell, deep within the bowels of the Christopol prison in the Soviet Union. The date is April 12. On the Jewish calendar it is the 14th of Nisan, one day before the start of Passover.
Yosef is a prisoner. He is a gaunt human shell, and he is about to light a candle. Made of hoarded bits of string, pitiful droplets of oil, and stray slivers of wax, this is a candle fashioned by Yosef's own hands. The candle is lit – the search for chametz begins.
Sometime earlier Yosef had complained of back problems. The infirmary in hell provided him with mustard to serve as a therapeutic plaster. Unused then, this mustard would later reappear as marror – bitter herbs – at Yosef's Seder table. A long-saved onion bulb in water has produced a humble bit of greenery. This would be his karpas. And the wine? Raisins were left to soak in an old jelly jar, water occasionally added, and fermentation was prayed for. This was wine. The Haggadah that Yosef transcribed into a small notebook before being imprisoned had now been set to memory. The original was secretly passed on to another "dangerous" enemy of the State: Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky.
Is Yosef free? He cannot do whatever he wants. He has been denied even the liberty to know when the sun shines and the stars twinkle. For Yosef the world of free men doesn't even begin to exist.
Yet, Yosef, perhaps, is more free even than his captors. Clearly self-aware, he knows exactly who he is, what he wants, and is prepared to pay any price to have it. Today he walks the streets of Israel, studies Torah, and buys box after box of matza to serve at his Seder. He is a free man now, but in many ways he was just as free when he was behind those lifeless prison walls.
Self-awareness means that we are able to stand outside of ourselves; to look within and assess our goals, values, priorities, direction, and truthfulness. Unaware of these things, we remain mired in a dense fog of confusion and doubt. Can we ever be fully self-aware? Probably not. But aware enough to set ourselves free? Yes, and this is one of life's most pivotal challenges.
Achievement and maintenance of freedom is available only through the ongoing struggle for self-awareness. This process of clarification, coupled with the conviction to follow wherever it may lead, is the only way to achieve a spiritually sensitive, value-driven life of liberty. Ironically, this freedom can land you in a prison where you are the captor, while your guards are the prisoners. Just ask Yosef Mendelovich – one of the freest people who ever walked the earth.
All of the above was penned by Rabbi Kalman Packouz, of blessed memory. I have chosen to include the story about Rabbi Yosef Mendelovich for two reasons: 1) R’ Mendelovich came to speak in our University here in Miami Beach shortly after being released from communist Russia. The vast majority of what was written above is exactly as I heard it about 35 years ago and I can attest to its veracity. 2) As all of us now struggle emotionally with our extended “isolation” or “quarantine” (euphemistically referred to as “shelter in place”), I find the message of understanding what it means to be truly free more pertinent than ever.
With God's help I will publish a bonus Shabbat Shalom Fax of Life early next week on the current COVID-19 crisis and what is the message God wants us to learn. Because many of receive you it via fax, please not that you will not be able to get a second fax next week (it takes almost the entire week to send the many tens of thousands of faxes out) so it will be sent out exclusively by email and also available on our website ShabbatShalom.org – if those of you who generally only receive it via fax wish to receive it by email, please send an email to my attention firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have a wonderful yom tov (holiday) and STAY SAFE!
(or go to http://www.aish.com/sh/c/)
Miami 7:23 - Guatemala 5:57 - Hong Kong 6:24
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"A generation which ignores history has no past and no future." – Robert Heinlein