The essence of the Haggadah and the entirety of Pesach is the relationship between father and son and the obligation for a father to transmit to his son the story of the geulah from Mitzrayim. The Torah and Chazal prescribe different ways to speak to different children and lay out the format for the Seder evening conversation.
The people of Adopt-a-Kollel were kind enough to gift me Haggadah Nifle’osecha Asicha from Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein. I opened it up to the page on which he tells the following story.
One Shabbos morning a few years ago, an old man and his son entered a shul in Petach Tikvah. They stood frozen at the door, gazing at the people davening Pesukei Dezimra. Finally, they felt comfortable enough to find themselves seats and sit down. There was no need for a siddur, because they both couldn’t daven, as they had been locked behind the Iron Curtain for seventy years.
The older man paid attention to the chazzan and seemed to enjoy his tunes and chanting, while the younger one waited for his father to lose interest so they could go back home. He’d have to wait.
As the laining progressed, the old man started paying particular attention. All of a sudden, he started screaming towards the gabbai in a beautiful Litvishe Yiddish, “I must have an aliyah. Please, I must have an aliyah.” The kind gabbai acquiesced and called the senior guest to the Torah at the next opportunity.
The old man borrowed a tallis and a yarmulka and made his way to the bimah. He pushed away the siddur that was given to him to read the brachos and, with a deep and emotional voice, he began to slowly recite the brocha, saying each word with meaning.
When the baal korei finished his portion, the scene repeated itself, as the man cried his way through the words of the second brocha. There was utter silence in the shul, as everyone fixed their eyes on the old man standing at the bimah crying.
After davening, people approached the guest. They asked him questions, intending to elicit his story.
“I was born and bred in Vilna,” he began. “When I was 12-1/2, my parents started fighting about where I should go to school. My mother wanted me to continue in yeshiva, but my father wanted me to go to the gymnasia school of the maskilim. He said that this way, I would learn a trade and how to maintain my Yiddishkeit while living among goyim.
“My father won and I was sent to that school. I began focusing on the studies, which brought my father much satisfaction.
“My bar mitzvah celebration was held in the large Vilna shul. I was given the aliyah for maftir, made the birchos haTorah and lained the haftorah. My father was beaming, while my mother was upstairs in the ezras noshim weeping.
“As I came down from the bimah, Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky came over and shook my father’s hand, wishing mazel tov. And then he said to my father, ‘For your benefit, let me warn you that if you do not remove your son from the gymnasia school, generations will pass before your son will be called to the Torah a second time!’
“My father did not obey the rov.
“Today, for some reason, I felt a pull to the shul,” the man said as he began to weep once again. “When the baal korei began to read the parsha, I remembered that this is my bar mitzvah parsha.”
He raised his voice and said, “Yidden, her vos ich zog eich. From that Shabbos of my bar mitzvah, when I had an aliyah to the Torah, until today is exactly seventy years [two generations]. Today is the first time since my bar mitzvah that I received an aliyah!
“Ay, iz der gaon geven gerecht. Oh, what the great rov said was so true.”
His father, back in Vilna, might have meant well. He wanted the best for his son and thought that the Haskalah school would provide for him the best of both worlds. But he should have listened to the rov, because if you want nachas from your children, the way to achieve that goal is by following the Torah, as interpreted by the gedolei olam, our leaders, the people such as Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky with whom Hashem blesses us in every generation. Those who think they understand better and ignore the warnings of the rabbonim gedolim jeopardize their ability to succeed in this world, and the next.
Pesach is an intrinsic part of our fiber. Its mitzvos, rituals, liturgy and special foods enrich and enhance our souls year after year.
While the Yom Tov has a special effect on children, as we grow older we perceive new depths. Chag hacheirus becomes more meaningful, as we appreciate its valuable messages in a different, richer way. We increasingly realize how Pesach is meant to equip us with new resolve to rid ourselves of chometz and cheit, villains and tormentors. It drives us to pine ever more for the geulah, so that we might merit visiting the home of Hashem, offering korbanos to Him.
We recognize that we can only arrive at cheirus and geulah by doing what is incumbent upon us and fulfilling our missions as best as we can. We reach our potential by delving into the study of Torah and seeking messages from great men whose lives are totally devoted to Torah and nothing else. Sometimes, they tell us to act, and other times, they say to desist. Those who seek the brachos of the Torah follow it, and don’t follow the path of greater personal benefit or enjoyment, whether they understand or not.
At the time of Krias Yam Suf, the Jews were afraid that the Mitzriyim would catch up to them and destroy them. They cried out to Moshe for a game plan. Instead, they were told, “Hashem yilocheim lochem ve’atem tacharishun. Your job at this time is to remain silent and do nothing. Hashem will fight for you.”
Chazal state that this advice is eternal. There are times when we must speak up and times when we must remain silent, times to do battle and times to be passive. Our limited human intelligence is not always able to figure out the proper course of action. How we are to act in all times is prescribed by the Torah, as is so beautifully expressed by Shlomo Hamelech in Koheles: “Eis livkos, ve’eis lischok… Eis le’ehov, ve’eis lisno, eis milchomah, ve’eis shalom.” How we are to act in each “eis,” or time, is determined by the Torah.
The Torah is a constant, but people change, every generation is different. We have a generational obligation to speak to our children in a language and voice they will understand, respect and follow. What worked in the past does not necessarily work now and to assume it does risks losing touch with those whom we love and wish to follow in our ways.
After his arrival in Eretz Yisroel, Rav Elozor Menachem Man Shach lived in a small apartment in the Kerem Avrohom neighborhood of Yerushalayim. The diminutive, humble man kept to himself, engaging in Torah learning all the time and rarely opening his mouth to express an opinion on issues of the day. His acquaintances in the Kerem shul saw him as a talmid chochom, but few foresaw a position of leadership for the scholar.
Eventually, the poverty-stricken Rav Shach accepted a position as a maggid shiur in Tel Aviv, grateful for the chance to teach Torah and earn an income. Within weeks of starting the new job, however, he detected that the leader of the place possessed an outlook that was contrary to the views of gedolei Yisroel.
When he came upon that realization, Rav Shach immediately resigned his position and returned home, settling back into his corner of the small neighborhood shul where he again spent his days and nights learning.
His rebbi, the Brisker Rov, encouraged him that he acted properly by leaving his job and told him that a better position would come along. “Someone who forfeits parnossah because of principle will see brachos,” he told him.
In time, the Ponovezher Rov discovered Rav Shach, and after living in virtual anonymity for so long, the rosh yeshiva’s rise to leadership began, ushering in the glory era for the olam haTorah.
He was an exceedingly humble man, but when the Torah demanded strength from him, he was strong as a lion.
Some years ago, I wrote of a dream I had before Pesach that year. In the dream, I gained a new understanding of the posuk, “V’acharei chein yeitzu b’rechush gadol,” in which Hashem foretold to our forefather Avrohom the future course of Jewish history. Hashem told Avrohom that after being enslaved for many years, the Jewish people would be freed and would depart their host country with a great treasure.
The common understanding is that the promise of “a great treasure” was fulfilled with the vast quantity of belongings the Jews received from the Mitzriyim prior to being sent out.
In the dream, I thought that the rechush gadol the Jews received was the matzoh that baked on their backs as they left b’chipazon. Matzoh is not simply a physical food. It possesses spiritual qualities and is a gift to the Bnei Yisroel. Only we have the ability to take flour and water and transform them into a cheftzah shel mitzvah.
The Netziv of Volozhin, in his peirush on Shir Hashirim titled “Rinah Shel Torah,” writes in the introduction concerning the posuk which states, “Sheishes yomim tochal matzos uvayom hashevi’i atzeres l’Hashem Elokecha lo sa’aseh melacha – You shall eat matzos for six days and on the seventh you shall rest for Hashem and you shall not do any work” (Devorim 16:8).
He explains that on the first day of Pesach, the obligation to eat matzoh is to remember that we left Mitzrayim in such haste that the bread the fleeing Jews took along for the journey had no time to rise. He says that the obligation related to the consumption of matzoh the first six days of Pesach recalls the eating of the korban mincha by the kohanim. The korbanos mincha were brought of matzoh breads and were never made of chometz. That was to teach the Jewish people that in order to draw closer to Hashem and achieve a higher level of holiness, they must reduce their involvement in the pursuits of Olam Hazeh.
On Pesach, we sustain ourselves with matzoh for six days for that same higher purpose. On Pesach, a Jew attempts to rise spiritually and become closer to Hashem.
Therefore, on the seventh and final day of the holiday, Jews are commanded to refrain from work and to internalize the message of the six days of eating matzoh.
Not partaking of chometz is supposed to affect us in a fundamental way. It is supposed to change our outlook on life and remind us of our purpose here. Eating matzoh for seven days is not something we do to fill ourselves physically. The change in diet is meant to bring about a spiritual change in our souls.
This message supports the idea that the matzoh is a rechush gadol. Matzoh is a gift from Hashem that enables us to elevate our rote observance of mitzvos to a higher dimension of avodas Hashem. Partaking of matzoh for a week is meant to reduce our drive for physical gratification. If we heed its message, it is truly a gift, a rechush gadol, which has the power to uplift and purify us and draw us closer to our Creator.
I found a similar idea in the words of the Ramchal in Derech Hashem (4:8). He says that as long as the Jews were enslaved in Mitzrayim and living amongst the pagan population, their bodies were darkened by the poison of impurity that overwhelmed them. When they were finally delivered from that society – goy mikerev goy – their bodies underwent a purification process so that they would be able to accept the Torah and mitzvos.
This is the reason they were commanded to refrain from consuming chometz and to eat matzoh. The bread that we eat all year is prepared with yeast and rises. Easier to digest and tastier, it is the natural food of man. It feeds man’s yeitzer hora and more base inclinations.
Klal Yisroel was commanded to refrain from eating chometz for a week in order to minimize the power of the yeitzer hora and their inclination towards the physical, and to strengthen their attachment to the spiritual.
It is impossible for people to live on this diet all year round, and it is not Hashem’s intent. But if we maintain this diet for the duration of Pesach while incorporating the lessons of matzoh, it will energize us spiritually for the remainder of the year.
Rav Aryeh Leib Schapiro of Yerushalayim writes in his sefer Chazon Lamoed that the Ramchal connects this to the dictum of the Rambam in Hilchos Dei’os (2:1) that a person seeking to rectify his conduct should go to the opposite extreme of his natural inclination, and he will then end up in the middle, where Hashem wants us to be.
The Rambam continues (3:1) that a person should not reason that since kinah, taavah and kavod – jealousy, evil desires and the craving for honor – lead to man’s demise from this world, he should therefore adopt the extremes of self-denial, refusing to eat meat or drink wine, marry, live in a nice house or wear nice clothes. Pagan priests lived this way. According to the Rambam, it is forbidden to follow this path; one who does is called a sinner.
The Netziv’s and the Ramchal’s understanding of Pesach is in accord with the words of the Rambam. While it is undesirable for people to live this way all year round, if one takes a temporary turn to the extreme, it will help him return to the middle, where we all belong.
The Yom Tov of Pesach provides a respite from the pressures that govern our daily lives. Pesach is one week of the year that frees us from the yeitzer hora and the pursuits that drive us throughout the year, which lead to dead ends, disappointment and depression.
Matzoh is indeed a rechush gadol, a treasure of the Jewish people. Matzoh weakens our evil inclinations and strengthens our inherent goodness. Matzoh has the ability to raise us above our preoccupation with the mundane.
Pesach is not meant to be a holiday of gorging and self-indulgence. On the contrary, Pesach is the time given to us to refrain to a certain degree from such pursuits and to absorb the lesson of the matzoh.
Following a week of such elevated behavior, we continue along that pattern as we count to Shavuos, when we mark the acceptance of the Torah as the ultimate gift from G-d to man. It is only after the week of matzoh and seven weeks of Sefirah that we can achieve the highest possible levels of spiritual accomplishment.
If we take the words of the great Netziv and Ramchal to heart and properly observe the mitzvos of Pesach, and we review the lessons the matzoh can teach us, its influence and inspiration will long remain with us, giving us the strength to rise above whatever challenges we face throughout the rest of the year.
Gedolim such as Rav Chaim Ozer, Rav Shach, the Brisker Rov, the Netziv and the Ramchal light up our way and provide direction and inspiration for us to follow if we wish to enjoy life the way Hashem intends us to and if we wish to be successful in all we do.
Despite all we have been through, a constant in Torah life is that those who seek lives of blessings follow the words of Torah giants. In our day as well, despite the prevalence of so much superficiality, cynicism, pessimism and negativity, when it comes to the bottom line, people who adhere to Torah know that wisdom is found by those who dedicate their lives to the pure pursuit of Torah and mitzvos.
May we merit to be among them and to follow them, living lives of steady aliyah.
This story took place on Erev Pesach seventy-five years ago, in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. A couple of weeks before Yom Tov, the Bluzhever Rebbe, Rav Yisroel Spira, placed his life in jeopardy and approached the murderous head of the camp, Commandant Hass. He asked permission for forty men to bake matzoh for Pesach. He asked the Nazi to supply them with wheat and in return they would forgo their daily ration of bread for eight days.
Surprisingly, the Nazi examined the request seriously, without issuing any threats of punishment. However, he said that since the German Reich was run in a very orderly fashion, he would have to get clearance from Berlin. A week later, the response came from Berlin and the request was approved.
After returning to the camp from their body-breaking labor, the rebbe and his group assembled a small oven and began grinding wheat kernels to make flour. They mixed the flour with water and quickly kneaded the mixture, rolling out matzos to bake in their tiny oven. Flames danced atop the branches fueling the oven and the holy work of baking matzos for Pesach in Bergen-Belsen was underway.
Suddenly, the commandant burst into the room, screaming at the Jews like a wild man and breaking everything and everyone he saw. His eyes fixed on those of the rebbe, and he beat him to a pulp. When he was done, the 56-year-old rebbe was barely hanging on to life.
The historic attempt ended disastrously.
The next night, the people sat down to a “Seder” in the rebbe’s barracks. They had everything – well, almost everything. The rebbe knew the Haggadah by heart, and he was going to lead the Seder. For wine, they were going to drink the slop the Nazis called coffee. There was no shortage of maror, with bitterness everywhere. The rebbe let it be known that he was able to retrieve and save a very small piece of matzoh. They were set.
When it came time at the Seder to eat matzah, everyone assumed that the rebbe would be the one to perform the mitzvah and eat the small piece he had rescued. After all, he was the oldest, it was his idea to bake matzos to being with, and he had risked his life to obtain permission for it. Not only that, but he was a tzaddik, he was leading the Seder, and he was the one who had saved the piece. But they were wrong.
After proclaiming “motzie matzah,” the rebbe looked around the room, as if he was trying to determine who is the most appropriate person to eat the matzoh. A widow, Mrs. Kotziensky, stood up and said, “Since upon this night we engage in transmitting our traditions from one generation to the next, I propose that my young son be the one to eat the matzoh.”
The rebbe agreed. “This night,” he said, “is all about teaching the future generations about Yetzias Mitzrayim. We will give the child the matzoh.”
After they were freed, the widow approached the Bluzhever Rebbe. She needed help. Someone had proposed a shidduch for her, but she had no way to find out about the man. Maybe, she said, the rebbe could help her. “Can you find out who he is? Can you see if he is appropriate for me and if I am appropriate for him?”
“What is his name?” asked the rebbe.
The woman responded, “Yisroel Spira.”
The rebbe said to her, “Yes, I know him well. It is a good idea that you should get to know him.”
She returned to the shadchan and gave her approval to set up the match. When the woman showed up at the right address, standing before her was none other than Rav Yisroel Spira, the man she knew as the Bluzhever Rebbe!
A short time later, they married, and the little boy who ate matzah in Bergen-Belsen became the rebbe’s son and eventual successor.
Which spiritual attributes did the rebbe see in that woman that led him to marry her? When asked, the rebbe answered that in the cauldron of Bergen-Belsen, where the horizon was measured in minutes and the future was a day at a time, a woman who believed in the nitzchiyus of Am Yisroel, that our people is eternal, and who worried for the future generation was someone with whom it was worthy to perpetuate the golden chain.
Thankfully, we aren’t tested the way those holy people were that night in Bergen-Belsen. Our matzos come easy. For a few dollars, we can have as many as we want. We can drink wine without fearing a pogrom. We can eat maror and not live it. We don’t have to make awful choices.
We can sit as kings and queens at the Seder, surrounded by different generations, concentrating on doing our best to transmit our glorious heritage to the future generations, ensuring that they know the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim and Avodim Hayinu.
May we merit much nachas and simcha, cheirus and freedom, kedusha and mitzvos, at the Seder and every day.