The first time I led a Pesach seder I was a junior in college. The Hillel rabbi only wanted to lead one seder that year so he asked for a student to lead the seder on the second night. I was president of Hillel that year and something in me (insanity??) spurred me to volunteer. He sat down with me a few days before Pesach, went through the Haggadah with me and wished me luck. That second night I put on a tie and jacket (what else would I wear) and stood in front of dozens of students and some community people and gave it my all. How was the seder? Well . . . we need not talk about that here.
Thirty years after that experience we have arrived at Pesach, the Yom Tov that celebrates the exodus of the Jewish people from the tyranny of Egyptian slavery to freedom. One of the most fascinating aspects of Jewish tradition is the calendar year. While indeed many of our holidays do recall historical events, our observances of them are not mere commemoration events, but rather opportunities to re-live the event itself in some way. Sitting in a sukkah is supposed to remind us of our Biblical ancestors who sat in sukkot during their sojourn through the desert. We stay up all night learning Torah on Shavuot to bring us back to that spectacular revelatory experience at Sinai when the Jewish people received the Torah.
On Monday night Jews around the world will sit down at the seder, whose structure helps us re-live that experience. The Maggid section of the Haggadah is designed to bring us through this event. We begin with “Avadim Hayinu – We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt . . .” and over the course of what seems to be a long period of time we tell the story of how our ancestors were idol worshippers, but Avraham realized there was only One G-d in the world, we talk about the Jewish people going to Egypt and becoming enslaved and crying out to that G-d. We describe the plagues and empty our cups of just a bit of wine. Toward the end we list all the wonderful things HaShem has done for us through the singing of Dayyenu. Then, just before the second cup of wine, we recite the blessing of Geulah, Redemption. Finally we eat the matzah, the maror, the Hillel sandwich and commence with a delicious meal.
There are so many lessons to be learned from Pesach, so many ideas on which to focus. One thing my Hillel rabbi mentioned to me was the notion that each person has their own personal Egypt for which they need an exodus. Every person has challenges of some kind, things to which we become slaves and prevent us from becoming who we really want to be. The experience of the exodus was a challenge as the people found themselves caught between the Egyptians and the Reed Sea. With inspiration, through Moshe and Nachson ben Aminadav, the Jewish people went forward and overcame that obstacle and found themselves as free people on the other side. What will inspire us, who will encourage us to push though the challenge and free us from our personal enslavement?
Matzah is the perfect symbol for this idea. It simultaneously represents slavery, as matzah was the food the Jewish people ate while enslaved. It also stands for redemption for the Torah describes that the dough did not have time to rise since the Jews needed to leave Egypt quickly. May the matzah we eat remind us that we need not be enslaved to those ideas, those actions that hinder our true potential for greatness. May that matzah inspire us to move towards our own personal exodus. The Jewish people have become a great people since that moment at the Sea. For each of us, greatness is within our reach.
Wishing you all a Hag Kasher v’ Samayach, a wonderful, joyous Pesach.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
I was up early this morning preparing soup and fish for Shabbat. I chopped up the vegetables and threw them in to the pot with water and let it boil for about 90 minutes. I put the fish into a pot to boil for about 45 minutes. By 5 am I prepared the cholent, putting the beans and barley into the crock pot. By this time the vegetables we soft and I pureed them into soup. I added a bit of onion powder and garlic powder, but I discovered one problem – no salt. I forgot to buy more when I went shopping last night. I found some soy sauce in the cabinet, poured some in and made a mental note to buy more salt on my way home today. I could use soy sauce in the soup, but I really can’t dip the challah into soy sauce at the Shabbat meal.
This week we begin Sefer VaYikra. The main thrust of this third book of the Torah is to put into use the mishkan whose construction was described for much of the second half of Sefer Shemot. The parsha begins with the offerings that were brought in the Mishkan. In the parsha there is this strange idea of a Covanant of Salt. The Torah says, “You shall salt your every meal offering with salt; you may not discontinue the salt of your G-d’s Covenant from upon your meal offering – on your every offering shall you offer salt.”
What exactly is this Covenant of Salt? The midrash describes that during Creation when a division was made between the “Heavenly Waters” and the “Earthly Waters,” the “Earthly Waters” protested – they wanted to be close to the Divine as were the “Heavenly Waters.” To comfort the Earthly Waters, HaShem forged a covenant with them that they too would have a share in Divine service through the salt that comes from the salt water of the oceans. The salt would be used as part of the sacrificial offerings in the mishkan and in the Beit HaMikdash.
Today, when we no longer have offerings, the Shabbat table is considered a Mikdash Me’at, a replacement for the altar and we use salt with the challah. Salt was used as a preservative before refrigeration. Some Hasidic commentaries say that salt neither spoils nor decays making it a perfect metaphor for the unbreakable bond that HaShem has with the Jewish people.
Salt has another property as well. When salted just right it enhances flavor, it makes the flavor of that food stronger; more tasty. There is another metaphor – the role of parents and teachers and leaders in general is to bring out the strengths of our children, of our students, of the people we are privileged to serve as leaders. Salt brings out the strengths of the food so we enjoy the food to the fullest. Our task as parents or as teachers is to bring out the full potential of our children. Leaders need to bring out the talents of others, to help them reach their full potential.
May we all be a metaphorical salt shaker for others, to help bring out the greatness of our children, our students, and those people who lives we touch every day.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
Many years ago I returned from Israel and planned to move to Philadelphia. I spent a few weeks at home before the move. The first Friday I was home I bought a timer for the lamp next to my bed so that it would go off at certain time allowing me to sleep. I did not realize that I did not understand the directions how to use the timer. I went to bed, was able to read for a bit until the timer turned the lamp off at the time I wanted. Unfortunately around 2:30 am the timer turned the lamp back on and I suddenly had bright light shining on me. Needless-to-say I did not get much sleep that night.
This week we read the double parsha of VaYakhel/Pekudei and in doing so we complete the Book of Shemot. The main thrust of these two parshiyot is the completion of the building of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary the Israelites were commanded to create during their sojourn through the desert. As we discuss last week embedded in all these parshiyot is Shabbat, that one special day in the Jewish week that takes on a different dimension.
The parsha opens with Moshe gathering the people together and relates the following Divine command,” on six days work may be done, but the seventh day shall be holy for you, a day of complete rest . . .” Two words are significant here. First is the word for work. The Hebrew is melacha. The second work is that for complete rest which is Shabbat. Unfortunately these translations are not adequate.
What exactly is melacha? It really isn’t work. The reason that the concept of Shabbat occurs often in these parshiyot regarding the Mishkan is that melacha is related to those activities that were used to create the Miashkan. The rabbis generated 39 categories of creative activity that were employed to build the Mishkan. It is these activities from, which we must refrain on Shabbat.
The first time the word Shabbat is used, as well as the word melacha, is the beginning of the second chapter of Bereshit. There had just been six days of activity to create the world. On the seventh day there is none; that creative activity has come to an end. If one reads the first verses of that second chapter it reads, “. . . and He stopped on the seventh day, from all His melacha that He did.” What did HaShem stop (the word is Va’Yishbot – the root is the same as Shabbat)? He stopped doing melacha. However, the word melacha is not defined. Not until Parshat VaYakhel do we understand the word for melacha is related to the activities for the mishkan.
HaShem used “melacha” to create the world. Humans, through the Divine command, used melacha to create the Mishkan. Shabbat is the cessation of the creative activity necessary to build and maintain the mishkan, to create and maintain the world. In a bit of a twist, one must actively stop in order to create Shabbat.
The Mishkan was another dimension in space; it was created to be a dwelling place for the Divine presence (however that truly worked). Shabbat is our Mishkan in time; it is another dimension to experience something special that the regular week can’t capture.
Chazak, Chazak, v'nitchazayk
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
I was up early this morning. At 4:00 am I found myself in the kitchen chopping vegetables, boiling water as I made a pureed vegetable soup, made gefilte fish and put the meat, barley, potatoes and beans into the crock pot for cholent. Later today my wife will make the chicken. By the time I get home this afternoon there will be a familiar delicious aroma emanating from the kitchen. Shabbat is coming.
This week we read Parshat Ki Tissa. A common theme found within this parsha as well as the two previous parshiyot, Teruma and Tetzaveh and next week’s double parsha VaYakhel/Pekudei, is that of the Mishkan, its construction and maintenance, and the Kohain and his functions. The Mishkan was built to serve a place for HaShem’s presence to dwell. The Kohain was the designated person to oversee and perform the Divine rituals. The idea of kedusha, holiness, was pervasive throughout the camp.
Embedded in these parshiyot is Shabbat. “The Israelites shall guard the Shabbat, to make the Shabbat an everlasting covenant for generations. Between Me and the Israelites it is a sign that in six days HaShem made the Heavens and the Earth and on the seventh day He stopped and was refreshed.” This is but one passage that we read in these parshiyot. This passage is also the introductory verses recited for the Shabbat day Kiddush. Shabbat adds to this idea of holiness. However, whereas the Mishkan was holiness in a place, Shabbat is holiness in time.
In contrast to all this we read the unfortunate incident of the Golden Calf. Moshe was up on Mount Sinai and supposed to return in 40 days. The people counted the days incorrectly and when Moshe did not return at the time they anticipated they became agitated, converged upon Aaron, who took their gold, threw it into the fire and out came a golden calf. Many of the commentators say this was not an act of idolatry, that the calf was supposed to replace Moshe, not HaShem, however given that the people announced, “. . . this is your god, O Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt,” there is certainly a idolatrous nature to the event.
There is an idea within the Torah commentators that the some of the events in the Torah are not in chronological order, but rather placed in the order we have them for reasons we may not fully understand. The incident of the Golden Calf is one such example, that it took place prior to the command to build the Mishkan. Despite the miracle of the splitting of the Sea, and spectacular event at Mount Sinai, the people were still accustomed to the religious practices of Egypt. The Mishkan and Shabbat serve to constantly remind the Jewish people that there is but One HaShem in the world, and that presence could be perceived in place through the Mishkan, and in time through the Shabbat.
We no longer have the mishkan, or the Temple. We still have Shabbat, that wonderful, sacred time by which we are reminded of priorities in life. It is the day when we can unplug from the regular week of wrestling with the world and focus on appreciating the world, appreciating what we have, appreciating the holiness of life itself.
The soup, fish chicken and cholent are waiting. Shabbat is coming.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
In November we had the first round of Parent / Teacher Conferences. At the end of the second night I walked slowly to my car. It had been two 12 hour days and I was tired and not really focused on anything in particular except to go home. I opened up the rear door of the car, put my book bag on the seat and then got into the front. Something was wrong. The seat was pushed all the way back and my feet didn’t reach the pedals. The inside of the car looked different. Suddenly it hit me - I was in the wrong car!! I discovered that my car was two spaces away on the other side of white van. I got out of the car, grabbed my bag, got into my car and went home.
This weekend we have the merit once again to read Megillat Esther, the episode of the near annihilation of the Jewish people at the hands of a tyrannical madman and the salvation they received from Queen Esther. There are two specific points in Megillat Esther which are particularly poignant to me.
The first comes when Mordecai, through a middle man, requests that Esther go to the king to intercede on behalf of the Jewish people. Esther is reluctant since one who approaches the king without being summoned could be put to death and she hadn’t been summoned in a while. Mordecai’s reply message that she must go ends with a statement that is powerful, “. . . and who knows whether it was just for this occasion that you attained the royal position.” Esther’s task, or at least one of them, was to save the Jewish people from destruction.
The second moment comes towards the end. After the war, after the Jews defeated the Persian army, the narrative of the megillah describes the Jews’ victory and the establishment of Purim as a holiday, that there should be feasting on the 14th of Adar (on the 15th in the capital of Shushan) and that Jews should exchange Mishloach Manot with one another to promote friendship and unity. The text then says that the Jews “established and accepted” to observe these days. The Talmud explains on this verse that Jewish people were accepting on themselves not only these days of a new holiday of Purim, but the entire Torah. This moment was a recommitment to Jewish tradition.
We all have an important role to play in this world, a role that no one else can fulfill. Esther’s role was to save the Jewish people and set in motion other events that would lead to the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. Our role - whatever it is – is no less crucial than Esther’s. We never know what souls we may save, how our actions may build others. We must remember that our actions, our words are powerful. Yes, we make mistakes, yes, at times we fall short. Jewish tradition has the concept of Teshuva, to repent, to return to get back on track.
Jewish tradition is our guide. The Talmud says that the Jews in Esther’s time made a new commitment to the Torah. The word “Torah” means instruction. It comes from the same root as “shoot.” One shoots straight. Jewish tradition is our instruction guide to help us along our path – so we don’t get into the wrong car in the dark.
May this Purim be a joyous one for everyone.
Shabbat shalom and a Purim Samayach
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger