By Rabbi Shmuel Reichman
We all want to share deep and thoughtful ideas at the Seder in order to enhance the experience. I hope this collection of Divrei Torah will aid you on your journey towards a meaningful, transformative Seder night.
What’s With All the Questions?
A notably prominent theme of the Seder is that of asking questions. While “Mah Nishtanah” is the most obvious example, the commentators explain many features of the Seder as purely serving as an impetus for the children to ask questions. It’s not only children, though, who are enjoined to question. The Gemara in Pesachim (116a) says that if a man’s child cannot ask the questions, then his wife should, and if he has no wife, he must ask himself questions. Even if two Torah scholars are sharing their Seder together, they should ask each other. Why is questioning such an integral part of the Pesach Seder?
Asking questions is the gateway to learning. A question creates a gap- it allows you to recognize your current limitations, to shed the illusion that you already know everything. You can only learn something once you realize that you don’t already understand it. The Gemara in Gittin (43a) says that you can only understand a Torah concept if you originally struggled with it. Only by recognizing that you don’t already know something can you break it down, analyze it, and see it in a new way, thereby building a new, deeper understanding. If you believe that you fully understand something, you simply will not allow your mind to develop a new way of seeing it. Only by realizing a lack in your understanding and perception can you develop deeper paradigms.
The Seder night serves as an opportunity to pass over our mesorah, our tradition and legacy, to the next generation. It’s a night when we speak about emunah (faith), the meaning of being a Jew, and our purpose in this world. In order to teach these lessons to our children and ourselves in a deep and lasting way, we must encourage the Seder participants to ask questions, no matter the age or knowledge-level.
Our yetzer hara (evil inclination) convinces us that we are perfect, that we already know everything. As such, there’s no need to question. This flawed belief is personified by Eisav, who was born fully hairy. Hair is the outermost expression of a grown human being – Eisav projected the belief that he was completely developed and therefore required no additional growth. The name “Eisav” itself is the word “asui” – meaning made or complete. Eisav represents the illusion of being complete, perfect, not requiring any further work or growth.
Our goal and mission as the Jewish People is to grow, develop ourselves, and fulfill our potential. On the Seder night, as we focus on whom each of us can become, we ask questions – creating holes that we then yearn to fill with additional knowledge, insight, and growth.
What’s Our Goal in Telling Over the Story of Yetzias Mitzrayim?
We conclude the paragraph of “Avadim Hayinu” by proclaiming, “v’chol hamarbeh li’saper bi’yitzias Mitzrayim, harei zeh mishubach” – all those who elaborate on the Exodus from Egypt, behold, this is praiseworthy. The Rambam (Maimonides) codifies this as a legitimate halacha of Seder night. What is the meaning of this statement? What is the importance of telling over the Pesach story at great length, and why on this night specifically?
There are two ways to interpret the statement of “v’chol hamarbeh.” The first is on a quantitative level, that one should tell over as much of the Exodus story as possible. The second is a qualitative approach, that one should delve into the miracles and wonders that Hashem performed when taking us out of Mitzrayim in as much depth as possible.
There is, however, a third way to understand this statement, one that offers a new perspective on Yetzias Mitrayim and the goal of Seder night. Yetzias Mitzrayim was not merely a historical event, rather it was the birth of the Jewish People – our people, you and me. The story did not end with the birth of the Jewish People, it continues with them growing into the nation they are meant to become. When the Jewish People left Mitzrayim, we journeyed to Har Sinai and Matan Torah, where we were given the Torah and our mission in this world as Hashem’s chosen nation. This is the story that has continued throughout history, that you and I are commissioned to continue to this very day.
Sippur means to tell over a story, and the hagaddah says that whoever does this increasingly is praiseworthy. Jewish history is not only “his”-story, it’s our story. It is our mission and destiny, and we must continue to grow and thrive in this mission. The goal is to make yourself a part of the Jewish story, to continue what began with Yetzias Mitzrayim, to become the person you were meant to be. V’chol hamarbeh…. harei zeh meshubach.
Wine on the Seder Night… Really?
Pesach is a spiritual time, where we connect to some of the deepest themes of Judaism. Why then do we spend the night drinking wine? We see repeatedly that wine is a dangerous and damaging entity, connected to many infamous sins. According to one opinion, the eitz ha’da’as was a grape vine. Immediately after the mabul, Noach became intoxicated, repeating Adam’s original sin. Lot and his daughters erred with wine. According to one opinion, Nadav and Avihu’s sin was performing the avodah while intoxicated. If wine has so many destructive consequences, why do we spend our Seder night drinking wine?
Nothing in the physical world is objectively good or evil, rather, everything has the potential to be used for either good or evil. The choice is solely up to you! Electricity is neither good nor bad. An outlet can be used to charge your appliances, but it can also give you an electric shock. The same applies to money: it can be used to enable Torah learning, but it can also be used to fund destruction and chaos. A charismatic personality can be used to inspire others to grow, or to seduce them down a twisted path. Everything in this world is merely potential, waiting to be used. Evil, therefore, is really the misuse of potential, when we choose to use an object for something other than its true purpose. Evil is the breakdown and corruption of good. This is why the Hebrew word for evil is “rah”, which means brokenness or fragmentation.
Hashem created the world in this way so that we can have free will. We get to choose whether to use things for their true purpose, actualizing their potential, or to misuse them, getting pulled into the clutches of evil. This choice between good and evil is magnified as the power of something increases. The more power there is, the more potential there is. For example, a 220 watt outlet can either charge your phone, or give you a small electric shock you. But 20,000 watts can either light up your neighborhood or electrocute you. The more power, the more potential. Of course, this results in an important principle: the value in any power is only in as much as it can be controlled. Otherwise, the more power you have, the more destruction you will have, as we often see with nuclear energy and money. Just think about giving a child the power to cross the street by himself. When do you give him such a power? Only when he has the ability to control it, to know when not to cross the street.
The Vilna Gaon explains that wine is the greatest paradigm of physical potential. On the one hand, it is clearly dangerous, and its misuse often leads to utter disaster. But when used properly, it elevates you. Wine is able to open up the mind, allowing it to transcend its normal limitations. As Chazal explain, “nichnas yayin yatzeh sod”- when wine enters, secrets are revealed. [Both yayin and sod have the gematria of 70]. Wine opens up your consciousness to a deeper level of experience and understanding that transcends the revealed level of reality.
The spiritual nature of wine is also evident in its physical nature. Everything physical rots, withers, and decays with time, such as the human body and food. Wine, however, only improves with time. Furthermore, as R’ Shlomo Zalman Aurbach explains, when it comes to most foods and drinks, the more you have, the less you want; you become full and lose your appetite. With wine, however, the opposite is true: the more you have, the more you desire.
This is why we have wine at every point of kedushah- at every point where we want to uplift the physical. It’s our way of showing that we’re taking the physical, something that has the potential for both spirituality and spiritual emptiness, and using it for the good. We therefore make kiddush on wine on Shabbos, on Yom Tov, at a wedding, at a bris milah, and for other such holy celebrations.
We drink wine at the Seder in order to uplift the night of Pesach. We are uplifting our Seder experience, but we are tapping into a larger experience as well. The Ramban explains that the grand miracles of Pesach are meant to instill within us the understanding that not only are the open reversals of nature miraculous, but the day-to-day workings of nature are miraculous as well. Hashem performed outstanding miracles when taking us out of Mitzrayim, but the entire world of nature is a constant miracle upheld by Hashem as well. This means that every aspect of this physical world is infused with Godliness, with the potential for spirituality, and we can therefore uplift every single thing we encounter to a state of holiness. As we relive the Pesach story at the Seder, we learn about the inherent spirituality present within every facet of the physical world. What better way to do this than with wine?