Thursday, Apr 18, 2024

Chosen, Blessed and Free

As we approach one of the many peaks of the Seder, we raise the matzah and recite Ha Lachma Anya, opening the Maggid section. Speaking in unfamiliar Aramaic, we begin by stating that the matzah that we are about to eat at the Seder is the very same matzah that our forefathers ate in Mitzrayim.

We continue with a seemingly unconnected invitation to any and all poor people to come join our meal. Anyone who needs a place to eat should come and share the Korban Pesach with us.

We conclude with the declaration that this year we are here, in golus, but next year we will be in Eretz Yisroel. Now we are enslaved, but in the coming year we will be free.

Why does this series of statements open the discussion about Yetzias Mitzrayim? What is the connection between the different sentences of the paragraph? Why do we hold up the matzah?

Repeatedly, the Torah refers to the Yom Tov of Pesach as Chag Hamatzos. In davening and Kiddush, we refer to the Yom Tov as Yom Chag Hamatzos.

Matzah is the symbol of Pesach. It encompasses all the messages of the Seder. As we consider and contemplate the exalted moment when our forefathers left Mitzrayim, we eat the very same matzah, unchanged in formula and taste, at the very moment they did, on the same night, year after year, century after century, going back all the way to the day our nation was founded. With this bread, we became a nation. We left the shibud Mitzrayim and emerged as bnei chorin.

The Gemara in Maseches Brachos (17a) relates that Klal Yisroel tells Hashem, “Galui veyodua lefonecha sheretzoneinu laasos es retzonecha, umi m’akeiv, se’or shebe’isa. We wish to fulfill Your will, but the se’or shebe’isa prevents us.” Rashi explains that se’or shebe’isa is the yeitzer hara, which is machmitz us as yeast does to dough.

We can suggest that matzah is referred to as lechem geulim not only because we ate it as we were leaving Mitzrayim, but because man wants to be good, but the se’or shebe’isa causes him to sin and veer off course. Matzah is lechem geulim because it is baked without chimutz, without se’or. One who subjugates his yeitzer hara is a ga’ul; he is redeemed and free. Thus, Chazal state, “Ein lecha ben chorin ela mi she’oseik baTorah.” The free man is one who is occupied with Torah.

The original matzah didn’t rise because, as we say in the Haggadah, “Lo hispik lehachmitz ad sheniglah aleihem Melech Malchei Hamelochim uge’olom.” Hashem redeemed the Jewish people from Mitzrayim suddenly, before the dough they were in the middle of baking for their trip was able to rise, and thus they were left with matzah.

Matzah symbolizes freedom, because it came into existence amidst the great urgency with which Hashem hurried His people out of Mitzrayim. The cause – Jewish nationhood – didn’t allow for the bread to reach completion; it didn’t allow for se’or and chimutz. Bread of freedom and a life of freedom are both brought about by the same process, removal of se’or and chimutz. A person cleanses his soul of sin by being preoccupied with serving Hashem and studying Torah, and he thus earns his freedom from the shackles life places upon him.

We open our Seder with the statement that the whole night – the entire Yom Tov, in fact – is about the matzah, the food of freedom. The first phrase tells us that it was “eaten when we left Mitzrayim,” in reference to our being rushed out. It was baked without the se’or shebe’isah.

We then address the poor, turning to those who are lacking in life and service to Hashem. We proclaim to such people that they should join us in eating the matzah and deriving the lessons it contains.

“Join us!” we say. “Eat and learn from the matzah, and you will also be blessed and free along with us and all those who enjoy the blessings of Pesach. You will be impoverished no more.”

We continue by acknowledging that while we are now unable to bring the Korban Pesach, if we have indeed internalized the message of the matzah, we will be able to offer Pesochim and Zevochim next year in Eretz Yisroel.

Finally, we acknowledge that now we are still enslaved. The se’or shebe’isah still interferes with our lives. We have been unable to expel it from our souls. We affirm our commitment to examining the message, studying the lessons of “Ha Lachma Anya.” Even though we are now captive to the yeitzer hara, we resolve that by next year we will be free of his domination over us.

Simple, unconstrained, and as free as the matzah.

The Klausenberger Rebbe shared an experience from the concentration camps. He was placed in a barracks with forty-two other inmates. Within a day of his arrival, forty of the men had died of illness, famine or despair. There were two survivors, the rebbe and a Budapest banker. They got to talking through the long, cold, lonely night. Who could sleep in the valley of death?

The rebbe asked the Hungarian if he was Jewish.

“Of course I am. How else would have I ended up here?”

The rebbe inquired what he did for a living.

The banker spoke about his exceptional accomplishments, describing how he started as a clerk and rose to the post of bank president. He was then appointed chairman of all the banks in Hungary. “Have you not heard about how I stabilized the pengo? I was featured in every newspaper, hailed as a savior.”

The rebbe admitted that he had not.

“Are you sure you are Jewish?” the rebbe asked again.

“No, I’m not Jewish,” the banker answered.

He explained that he had been born Jewish, but he made the decision to convert in order to further his career. He told the rebbe that he didn’t regret the decision for a moment.

“Besides achieving great things in my work, saving the economy of my country, I married a wonderful woman from a noble family.”

“Were you happily married?” asked the rebbe.

“What a question! We were blissfully married for thirty years. We had a beautiful home and went on grand vacations. I bought her jewelry and gifts every few weeks.”

“So where is she?” the rebbe wondered.

“She isn’t Jewish. Why should she have to endure this nightmare too?”

“Wouldn’t you agree that a good wife always accompanies her husband and doesn’t leave him alone to face problems?” the rebbe probed.

The man turned the conversation to his accomplished and wealthy children. One was a lawyer, one a general, and the third a professor.

“Are they here with you?” the rebbe continued to ask.

“No, of course not. They are busy with their careers.”

“How can they abandon their father at such a time?” asked the rebbe.

The conversation continued in this vein throughout the bitter night.

The following night, it was just the two men again, and the conversation resumed, the rebbe pointing out that the man’s career and family weren’t enough to help him.

Finally, the financier cried out, “What are you trying to do to me? Don’t you see how shattered I am? Why do you persist in crushing my spirit even more?”

The rebbe appeared unmoved, reiterating his points. “Your family, prestige, high-rolling colleagues and accomplishments can’t do anything for you here, as you lay hungry and cold.”

Late that night, the banker broke. He wept and wept, barely able to speak. Finally, he said, “It was all a mistake. I wanted to succeed and I turned my back on the way of my fathers and grandfathers. I have nothing, absolutely nothing, to show for it…”

He sobbed and sobbed. With dawn’s first light, the banker from Budapest breathed his last, his soul joining the procession of souls that rose heavenward from that dreadful place.

The rebbe would retell the painful story. “I felt such satisfaction, difficult as it was to hurt him that way. His soul was slowly being cleansed, purified in a fire of truth, layers being stripped off his neshamah as the spark came alive. That man died having experienced genuine teshuvah and returned his soul to his Maker the way it had come down, a neshamah tehorah.”

The rebbe understood the secret of matzah. It was all just se’or shebe’isah. The rebbe took off the crust, the airy mounds of dough, and revealed the simple matzah, a Jew’s essence, when all the distractions and diversions are peeled away.

Fortunate is he who doesn’t require suffering or challenges to be reminded of his essence, but is able to see it clearly in good times as well.

Back to the Seder. With this deeper insight into matzah and its message, we can begin to celebrate, beginning with genus and marching our way on to geulah, a journey from Ha Lachma Anya through Afikoman.

After partaking of the Afikoman matzah, we are forbidden to eat anything, for we must keep that message fresh on our palates. We must not forget what we have learned and experienced on this night.

The Ritva posits that if a person ate matzah before chatzos, as is the obligation, as long as the taste of matzah remains in his mouth, it is as if matzah umaror munachim lefonov and he fulfills the mitzvah of Maggid as he discusses Yetzias Mitzrayim.

The Ritva opens our eyes to what the taste of matzah really means. It is not only a gastronomic phenomenon, but a spiritual one. Ta’am matzah is the experience of being connected to what matzah represents. And how delicious that taste is!

On Erev Pesach, when you grate the horseradish and tears flow down your cheeks, think of your grandparents performing the same task, the same way, in some little town in Eretz Yisroel, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary or Syria. When you go from room to room with the candle in your hand, think of the strength of the Jewish chain and remember that it is you who makes it strong. It is the faith-imbued traditions that you pass on to your children that will guarantee you the merit to welcome Eliyohu Hanovi when he arrives with his joyous, long-awaited message.

When you sit surrounded by family at the Seder, know that Jews have been doing this exact same thing for thousands of years. You are a link in a golden chain, giving voice to our faith and traditions as so many others before us have done. The same tastes, smells, sounds and incantations have been filling the world ever since our people left Mitzrayim. When we sing Vehi She’omdah, we hear our parents, grandparents and forefathers all the way back to the Yam Suf. Is there anything more comforting? Is there any sound stronger than that?

I recently held in my hands a classic Haggadah printed in the year 1629. While for collectors it represents a fascinating prize, for it is one of the earliest Haggados printed with pictures, I was fascinated by it for another reason. I was thinking of the astounding trip this wine-stained Haggadah must have taken over the past 400 years. Printed in the ghetto of Venice, it could have seen Jews in their most prosperous times and during pogroms. It was around in times of a comfortable golus and in times of bitter fright.

The Haggadah includes the most beautiful sight of children reciting the Mah Nishtanah the same way, century after century, always with shyness mixed with pride and cherubic beauty on display for admiring parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters. Is there anything more breathtaking? It is the future sitting alongside the present, delving into the past.

The Haggadah has seen us in times of strength and apparent weakness, but always with faith in Hashem and our future. Always with the knowledge that come what may, we are the am hanivchor, chosen, blessed and free.

A friend told me about his colleague who assumed a rabbonus in a small shul in a New York suburb. He arrived shortly before Yom Tov and noticed that as the kohanim would ascend the steps in front of the aron kodesh for Birkas Kohanim, a particular mispallel would leave his seat and step outside. He saw the scene repeat itself each day of Yom Tov. On the last day, he asked the man why he left shul for duchening.

Listen to the man’s answer.

Like so many others, he had been torn away from his home and family by the Nazis and thrown into a cattle car. He arrived at the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp and was exposed to a new reality. The smell of death was everywhere.

As Pesach approached, he heard whispered conversations. He observed gaunt faces flush with excitement at the idea of having a Seder right there in the barracks. He recounted to the rabbi that although they realized the dangers, they couldn’t bear the thought of not at least having a semblance of a Seder, as desperate as their situation was. They had neither matzah nor wine or a Haggadah. Maror was in plentiful supply.

They sat in their barracks, late at night, and recited what they could from memory. They then began singing some of the familiar Seder songs. Their spirits defied their dark surroundings, the mitzvah of sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim lifting them above the reality of danger and fear, taking them to a place of faith and joy. Their raised voices were overheard by a chasidishe rebbe who was in the camp. He had been heading to his own barracks when he heard the muffled sounds of a Seder. He entered and sat down with the other walking skeletons and joined the chorus.

Shortly thereafter, their celebration was interrupted by stomping boots, barking dogs, and shouted curses. The feared sadistic monster, S.S. Commander Amon Goeth, stormed in. He was aghast that such a scene was taking place in his barracks. “Who put this together?” he barked.

Fearing for their lives, each man looked at the others. Nobody responded. They knew that the culprit would be killed.

“I will kill all of you if the ringleader doesn’t accept responsibility for his crime. I will not stand for this disobedience,” Goeth shouted.

“The rebbe stood up,” the man recounted. “He said that he had hatched the idea and put it together.”

“Sleep well tonight,” the Nazi said, “for tomorrow I will show you Jews what happens to those who disobey me.”

“On the first day of Yom Tov,” the man tearfully recounted, “the rebbe was led to the gallows, which were visible to the entire camp. We were all forced to line up and watch the awful spectacle.

“They stood the rebbe on a chair and fastened a noose around his neck. The rebbe then addressed his Nazi captor. ‘Every human being knows that a man condemned to death is given his last wish. I want a moment to address the people. I am a kohein. I bless my flock on the holidays. Today is a holiday. Please let me bless them one last time.”

His wish was granted.

“The kohein started to recite the timeless brachos.


“Ignoring the noose around his neck and the place he was in, the rebbe sang out the first word.

“The incensed Nazi shot him. The chair was pulled out from under him. The rebbe had duchened for the last time.”

The man finished his tale.

“Decades have passed since then, but every year, on the first day of Pesach, I remember the rebbe and his Birkas Kohanim. I go out because I don’t ever want to forget that ‘Yevorechecha.’

“When I look in the siddur and see the word ‘Yevorechecha,’ I want to hear the rebbe’s voice. In my head, I still hear his voice, and in my heart, I’m still getting those brachos.”

Just as that man clinged to the fragment of memory of the Rebbe’s duchening, so must we cherish the taste of matzah. If we manage to hold on, keeping it safe and treasured, living with its message that we are geulim at heart, capable of transcending limitations imposed by the se’or shebe’isah and the challenges of golus, then we will remain bnei chorin.

Leshanah haba’ah bnei chorin be’ara d’Yisroel. Wishing you a kosheren and freilichen Yom Tov.




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