Say the words “bar mitzvah” and you immediately think happy thoughts. It is quite a momentous occasion for the bar mitzvah bochur, as now he becomes a gadol, obligated to fulfill all of the mitzvos of the Torah. The zaidies and bubbies kvel with nachas as the boy lains the parsha. The parents rejoice with the hopes that their son will grow to be a credit to Hashem, to their family, and to Klal Yisroel.
But one particular bar mitzvah was different than most. It was held shortly after World War II. There were no zaidies or bubbies, no father or mother to celebrate with this child. The boy was an orphan, the lone survivor of his family, who perished in the war. His bar mitzvah was celebrated with fellow yesomim in the botei avos orphanage founded by the Ponovezher Rov, Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman.
Of course, it was a bittersweet simcha, perhaps more bitter than sweet. But there was something else unique about this occasion, for the bar mitzvah bochur was the last surviving child of the Kovna Ghetto. How unfathomable. Not one other surviving child but this one boy, whom Hashgacha had saved and brought to Eretz Yisroel. The Ponovezher Rov, as expected, participated in the simcha, and his deep emotions at the time were recognizable on his face. Who was qualified to empathize with this child more than the Rov, who lost most of his family, his yeshiva, and his entire kehillah in Churban Europe?
As was his derech, the Rov asked for a Chumash and spoke about a topic from that week’s parsha, Parshas Shemini. In that parsha, we learn of the death of the two sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu. After this tragedy, Moshe Rabbeinu inquired about the se’ir hachatos, for it had been burned. “Vayiktzof al Elazar ve’al Issamar bnei hanosarim leimor… And he was angry with… saying…” (Vayikra 10:16). This last word, leimor, is seemingly extra, asked the Rov, for it is usually meant as a commandment to pass on these words to others. However, in the context of this posuk, where Moshe was speaking only to Elazar and Issamar, there was no message to be passed on to others. If so, what is the connotation of leimor?
The Rov explained that Rashi was bothered by this question and therefore explains leimor here differently than its usual meaning. Leimor, says Rashi, means “answer my questions.” Moshe requested a reply from the remaining kohanim. What answer did Moshe Rabbeinu want to hear and what was his claim?
Chazal tell us that because Aharon Hakohein was involved with the sin of the Eigel, it was decreed that all of his sons should be burned. It was only because of the entreaties of Moshe that Hashem had mercy and spared the lives of Elazar and Issamar. Therefore, Moshe asked them an incisive question: “Why were you spared? Why did Hashem have mercy upon you? It was for one reason only: So that you can bring honor to Hashem and always sanctify His name.” If so, asked Moshe, where is your kiddush Sheim Shomayim? Have you fulfilled the word of Hashem properly?
Now, with tears in his eyes, the Rov turned to the bar mitzvah boy and said, “You were the only child spared from all of the children of the Kovna Ghetto. Undoubtedly, you were saved for a special reason: to sanctify Hashem’s name. And this thought should always be on your mind. Hashem is saying to you, ‘Answer My claim! Where is your kiddush Sheim Shomayim? And not only to you does Hashem call out, but to every Jewish survivor Hashem inquires, ‘Answer Me! Sanctify My name!’”
It was not long after World War II, related Rav Berel Wein, that Rav Isaac Herzog, who would later become the chief rabbi of the State of Israel, visited his school in Chicago. The talmidim were very much taken by his royal bearing, dressed in his kapote and top hat. They sat quietly and attentively as he addressed the audience.
“I have just returned from Rome,” he said, “where I had a personal meeting with the Pope. I inquired about the many Jewish children who were now under the domain of the church r”l. As the war broke out, their parents saw the helpless situation and tried saving their children by leaving them in the hands of gentile neighbors or with local churches. Now that the war was over, he asked for the Pope’s cooperation in helping return these holy Yiddishe neshamos to our people, but no cooperation was forthcoming.
“The Pope replied that their religion dictates that once a person crosses the threshold of their convent, they may not be returned.”
As these words were uttered by Rav Herzog, he he paused for a moment and then broke down, crying bitter sobs. Together with him, all of the rabbeim in the room started crying. The children in the room were shaken by seeing the grown men crying.
Then Rav Herzog regained his composure and turned to the talmidim, saying, “Those boys are nebach imprisoned, isolated from their people, from the Torah, and from their heritage. But you boys are boruch Hashem living in a free country, together with your families. You have the great opportunity to learn in a yeshiva and you are free to keep the mitzvos of the Torah. What are you going to do with these precious gifts Hashem has given you? How are you going to use it to sanctify the name of Hashem? What are you going to do for Klal Yisroel? This should always be foremost in your thoughts.”
After he concluded his speech, the talmidim stood in line to greet him with shalom aleichem. As the students gave him shalom, he stopped each and every one of them and asked them, “What are you going to do for Hashem and for Klal Yisroel? This left an indelible impression all those present at the drasha. Indeed, many of them became rabbonim, roshei yeshiva, maggidei shiur, and askonim for the klal.
After all of the Pesach preparations – the cleaning, the cooking, the setting of the Pesach table with grandeur and beauty – we finally participate in that much-anticipated moment, the actual Seder. The zaidies and bubbies shep such nachas and the parents are delighted as the little ones say the Mah Nishtana. Then the head of the household says the Haggadah. Divrei Torah are recited at the table, kashos are asked, teirutzim are given, and hopefully all queries are clarified during the mitzvas sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim. But there is still one question that remains unanswered.
The Zohar Hakadosh says that on Pesach night, the heavens above us open up and Hashem summons the heavenly retinue to come and observe how Klal Yisroel relates the tales of their redemption and recounts all of the chassodim. Yes, Hashem takes part in our Seder and has tremendous nachas ruach from it. At the conclusion of Maggid, after we have made a reckoning of all of the makkos and after we have counted all the favors for which we owe thanks to Hashem in Dayeinu, and after we explain in detail the reasons for Pesach, matzah and maror, we declare, “In every generation, one is obliged to regard himself as though he himself had actually gone out from Mitzrayim…”
At this moment, if you listen closely, if you’re able to look beneath the surface, you can sense what follows. It is the voice of Hashem making the same request of us that Moshe Rabbeinu made of Elazar and Issamar thousands of years ago: “Leimor! Answer me! If indeed you feel fortunate as if you yourself went out of Mitzrayim, if you feel liberated, if you’re able to taste the freedom, then answer Me! What are you going to do with this freedom? You are set free for a purpose to serve Me and be mekadeish Sheim Shomayim. Are you living up to your end of the deal?”
To this, we declare, “Lefichoch anachnu chayovim… Therefore, it is our duty to thank, to praise, to laud, to glorify, to exalt…to Him who performed all these miracles for our fathers and for us…” Every year, at this point of the Seder, we reaffirm our commitment to Hashem to utilize our freedom to praise and serve Him, and then we go into immediate action. We say Hallel and then fulfill the mitzvos of matzoh and maror. But even after we have concluded the Seder, we are not yet finished. The very next evening, we begin to count Sefiras Ha’omer, initiating our seven-week preparation for Shavuos, the day of Matan Torah, the main reason of our salvation from the Mitzriyim.
“Yachol MeiRosh Chodesh.” One might think that the mitzvah of sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim starts with Rosh Chodesh. Therefore, the Torah says “bayom hahu, on that day.” This might mean that we have this mitzvah during the day of Erev Pesach. Therefore, the Torah adds “ba’avur zeh, because of this.” That means that the mitzvah of sippur applies only when the matzoh and maror lie before you. Why, indeed, doesn’t the mitzvah apply to all of Nissan, which is associated with the geulah?
Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky explains that merely telling the story of our redemption or philosophizing about it is not sufficient. It is possible to get emotionally charged over the exodus, but if it does not lead to concrete action in serving Hashem, then it has not fulfilled its purpose. This is why the sippur must be done at the time of matzoh and maror so that it leads to the immediate fulfillment of Hashem’s mitzvos.
On this Pesach night, let us answer Hashem’s call of “Leimor! Answer me!” reaffirming our commitment in utilizing our cheirus to elevate ourselves in our level of avodah and sanctifying the name of Hashem.
Chag kosher vesomeiach.