The Seder of Paradox, An Evening of Growth

In many ways, the Seder is the high point of the year. For those who know, each one of us is like the kohein gadol at our Seder (Haggadas Sheim MiShmuel, page 37), dressed in pristine white, celebrating our creation as a people. Even unaffiliated Jews, often sadly unaware that their “kosher-style” Passover meal is the antithesis of the Judaism they think they are commemorating, at least want to be part of some semblance of a Seder. But not only are there are paradoxes regarding those who do not understand the kedushah of these special evenings, but there are enigmas for all of us. Their resolution, however, sheds new light on what we can gain from the Seder and what can be its profound impact upon our lives. Let us explore two of these at this time.

The first of these is not limited to Pesach, but the very name of what we do this night raises the issue. A glance at several mussar shmuesen by Rav Chaim Shmulevitz zt”l impresses upon us the evil of doing mitzvos by rote. It seems as if to the great Mir rosh yeshiva, the most dangerous word in our vocabulary is hergel, serving Hashem out of habit, and as usual he marshals numerous sources to prove his point. However, my rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l (Sefer Hazikaron) points out that at the very beginning of every single day, we beg Hashem, “May it be Your will…shetargileinu beSorasecha – that You accustom us to study Your Torah and attach us to Your commandments.” Here it certainly seems as if hergel can be a good thing. My rebbi resolves the paradox by teaching us “that our entire lives oscillate back and forth between the need for healthy proper routines and the obligation to create a daily sense of freshness and excitement, as it says, “Bechol yom veyom yihiyu be’einecha kachadoshim – every day the Torah should seems to us new and novel. But how do we do this and what is the connection to Pesach?

I believe that the answer is the word Seder. Our lives must be organized around Torah schedules and halachic guidelines. Dovid Hamelech taught us this when he declared that “raglai molichim osi lebais hamedrash – when I thought I was going elsewhere, my feet took me right to the place of Torah study” (Vayikra Rabbah, Bechukosai). I know many people who almost swear that their GPS automatically takes them straight to shul in the morning. If we have no seder in our lives, chaos is bound to ensue.

The story is told about a number of baalei mussar that when they visited their sons in yeshiva, they immediately went to check their beds and cubbies. If all was in order and the beds were made neatly, they felt that everything else would work out as well.

This approach was presented by the Dubna MaGgid in a powerful moshol. Long ago, when all clocks had many delicate gears, an earthquake shook up the local timepieces, wreaking havoc with their punctuality and daily obligations. When things calmed down, an expert clock repairman visited the city, while long lines waited patiently for their lives to be put back in order. Everyone left happily, knowing that they would no longer be tardy or arrive too early for their appointments. However, the craftsman shook his head sadly as he examined one man’s timepiece. “I’m sorry, I can do nothing for you, my friend.” The man who had waited patiently for hours was astounded. “But you fixed everyone else’s clock. What’s so bad about mine?” The wise expert responded gently, “Everyone else kept winding their clocks even though the time was wrong. You, however, must have neglected your watch completely. It does not pay to fix those few gears that point to the numbers when everything else is rusted.”

The rituals of the Seder, too, represent our personal routines that must be kept scrupulously, or else we become rusty in our avodas Hashem. Yet, of course, we must constantly reinvigorate our actions with new ever-deeper understanding of what we are doing and why we are doing it. That may be one aspect of the significance of Parshas Hachodesh before Shabbos Hagadol. Parshas Hachodesh reminds us to renew our excitement and energy in serving Hashem. The Seder makes sure that we do not deviate from time-honored routines and conventions, even to the point of not changing anything from year to year.

Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler zt”l, author of Michtav M’Eliyahu (Sefer Hazikaron Michtav M’Eliyahu, page 129) was invited to spend Pesach in a very pleasant atmosphere. His response was, “The Seder is organized for me in the place where I live.” At first, it seems that Rav Dessler did not want to disrupt his cherished personal routines. However, the next paragraph reveals that for Rav Dessler, this was the best place for him to rejuvenate himself every year. “Fortunate is the person,” he declares, “who concentrates on organizing the Seder in his heart. It enables us to be megayeir – to virtually convert – ourselves as our forefathers did.”

Rav Dessler is teaching us the secret to resolving the hergelchiddush conundrum. It is only upon the background of a strong foundation of good routines and habits that we imprint our own innovations and fresh approaches without losing the essentials of what we are doing.

A practical, albeit difficult, application of this approach may be gleaned from the Yid Hakadosh of Peshicha. He testified that every single day he felt transformed from a gentile to a Jew (Sefas Emes, Bamidbar 5639). Furthermore, it was indeed for this reason that he was called by his unusual title, since he traveled this spiritual route every day (Niflaos HaYehudi, introduction, page 3). The Sheim MiShmuel (Shabbos Hagadol 5674) uses this concept to explain the greatness of the kohein gadol. When a regular kohein begins his avodah in the Bais Hamikdosh for the very first time, he offers a Minchas Chinuch, commemorating the new level his life has reached. However, the kohein gadol offers such a sacrifice every day (Rambam, Hilchos Klei Hamikdosh 5:17) because he experiences this sense of renewal every day. Rav Elimelech of Grodjisk zt”l, a descendent of the Yid Hakadosh, testified that even his holy grandfather experienced this metamorphosis primarily over Pesach (Emunas Yisroel, Parshas Hachodesh). We might add that when we recite at the Seder, “We became a nation there [in Egypt],” it is a moment we can all seize to reestablish our deep connection to our Judaism.

The second paradox we will explore is one of the most important for the night of Pesach. It is the apparent contradiction between feeling like a slave and experiencing the freedom and even royalty of being Hashem’s nation of princes. We also alternate between horror over our past idolatry (ovdei avodah zarah hayu avoseinu) and pride in our current status (keirvanu haMakom la’avodaso). This is, of course, the mandate of maschil b’genus umesayeim beshevach – beginning the Haggadah with lowliness and finishing up with our praise, but how exactly do we balance these themes?

Let us begin with the garment of the night, the ubiquitous kittel. As we mentioned earlier, we each rise symbolically to the level of the kohein gadol, who wears only pure white when he enters the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. The Maharal (Divrei Negidim 41) reveals that we are granted this unprecedented level from heaven without any personal preparation just as Hashem took us out of Mitzrayim without our involvement (isarusa dele’eila). Rav Yissochor Dov, the Belzer Rebbe zt”l (Chodesh Ha’aviv, chapter 8), explained that for this reason we wash our hands for the vegetable dip (urchatz) even though we are not tamei. This is similar to the kohein gadol who immersed himself five times on Yom Kippur although he, too, had not become defiled.

On the other hand, we find a fascinating disagreement between the Taz (472:3) and his father-in-law, the Bach, concerning whether or not an aveil, a mourner, should wear a kittel. The Bach is of the opinion that an aveil should not demonstrate his joy at being a free man, as represented by the glory of the kittel. The Taz, on the other hand, allows him to do so, since the kittel evokes the tachrichim, the shrouds of death, so that we should not become complacent amidst all the joy and happiness of the Seder. Therefore, there is nothing inimical for an aveil to wear the kittel.

 It is obvious therefore that the kittel represents two opposite emotions and experiences, one extremely sad, the other as blissful as can be. How can we resolve these two variant perspectives?

Let us attempt to do so with a story. Rav Noach Rozovsky zt”l of Anovlik, a chossid of the Yesod Ha’avodah of Slonim, spent a Pesach with the famed Baron Shimon Rothschild. He watched in amazement how the servants brought silver and gold utensils for every guest, as they walked upon thick carpets surrounded by the trappings of the noted family’s wealth. Suddenly, one of the guests appeared faint and was escorted out only to return looking healthy for the next course. Rav Rozovsky stared in shock at the strange phenomenon. One of the regulars at the Baron’s Seder explained to the puzzled rabbi, “Don’t worry. Mr. Rothschild hires an actor to faint every year so that he will not become too arrogant with his display of opulence.” Rav Rozovsky realized that to the wealthy Baron, the kittel was not enough of a reminder that death awaits all. He required a more dramatic “taste of reality,” supplied by the fainting actor (Haggadas Mekarvan LaTorah, page 143).

We may learn a great lesson from Baron Rothschild, who was rightly known as “the Frum Rothschild.” Each of us must assess our own spiritual status at any given time, evaluating if we need to accentuate the avdus or the cheirus, the simcha or the reminder of death, in short the matzoh or the maror. May we all derive the maximum spiritual aliyah from our Sedorim so that we can truly welcome Eliyahu Hanovi and Moshiach Tzidkeinu this year.