Stories and Depth: Two Paths to a Successful Seder

One of our annual challenges is to enliven and reinvigorate the Haggadah for our children and grandchildren. One key is preparation. I once heard from Rav Shlomo Brevda zt”l that just as we must prepare matzos, maror, salt water, etc. for a proper Seder, so must we ready ourselves to make sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim exciting and fresh for young and old alike. I discovered several marvelous examples in the new Haggadah bearing the commentary of Rav Reuvein Karelenstein zt”l called Yechi Reuvein. When we relate the saga of maschil b’genus umesayeim bishevach – how Klal Yisroel went from lowliness to greatness – we mention two key words. The Torah (Yehoshua 24:3), as quoted in the Haggadah, tells us that Hashem “took your forefather from beyond the river and led him throughout all the land of Canaan.” How many times have we recited those two magic words – va’oleich oso – without commentary or story? However, Rav Karelenstein (page 184) reminds us that we have all been led by Hashem, whether we realized it at the time or not, to various destinations. Let me share the astounding example of a kiruv gadol and a much simpler one of my own.

Rav Shachna Zohn, a talmid of the Chofetz Chaim, was traveling from America to Eretz Yisroel and was supposed to change planes but fell asleep and ended up in Thailand for Rosh Hashanah. To his chagrin, he discovered that at the time, there was only one minyan in the country, which was under Reform auspices and did not separate men from women during the services. Rav Zohn asked the leaders of the group to create a mechitzah, but they refused. Surprisingly, however, the participants assented and a semblance of kosher davening ensued. Rav Zohn asked to speak before the tekios, such as they were, and was granted permission. He was eloquent but diplomatic in his presentation. Everyone recognized that his words were on a significantly higher level than they had ever experienced and he gently invited all to join him in Aish HaTorah and its female equivalent after Yom Tov. Indeed, several backpacking students took him up on the offer. Later, more accepted the opportunity and changed their lives.

Do we have any idea on any day what Hashem has in store for us? Avrohom Avinu’s greatness was that he constantly realized that he was merely a vehicle of Hashem’s va’oleich oso.

In my own small way, I discovered this truth on the road as well. I was returning from a speaking engagement, missed my flight by a moment and was upset about all the scheduling ramifications. Sitting with a pocket sefer but also kvetching about my fate, I noticed a chassidishe Yid gesticulating fruitlessly to the airline representative behind the desk. He spoke only Yiddish or Hebrew, communication was nonexistent, and I instantly realized that I had been divinely chosen to be his interpreter. An hour later, I led him to his proper gate, we exchanged names and numbers, and I stopped kvetching, satisfied that Hashgacha had been kind enough to grant me the opportunity to help a fellow Yid.

Do we ever know where Hashem is going to lead us? Are we in charge of our fate?

The Haggadah gives an answer even as we become reacquainted with the adventures of our avos and discover how we got to Mitzrayim, why we were there and beyond.

Rav Zohn’s rebbi, the Chofetz Chaim zt”l, tells us an even more poignant story with which we can finally understand the plight of the aino yodeia lishol, the son who is too ignorant to even ask a question. Rav Tuviah Wein heard the story directly from the Chofetz Chaim (Yechi Reuvein, page 177).

In a small shtetel near Vilna, the Chevra Mishnayos were learning Yevamos, with the silent participation of a Cantonist Jew. Like his fellow victims of Czarist cruelty and anti-Semitism, he had been wrenched from his parents at the tender age of 12 and was now an illiterate Jew in his fifties. Unfortunately, in those days, some inconsiderate Yidden would refer to the Cantonists as Yevonim, since they, too, knew nothing about the Jewish religion or Torah. As the more knowledgeable Jews were debating the various opinions in the Mishnah, the word yovom – the living brother who must marry or give chalitzah to his dead brother’s widow – was uttered numerous times. Suddenly, the long-suffering old soldier could no longer contain his pain.

“Have you no shame?” he tearfully demanded. “How many times must you insultingly call me a yovon? Is this what the Torah teaches you?”

Of course, not having any idea what a yovom is, he only heard the perceived epithet yovon thrown mercilessly at him. The chevra members tried hopelessly to explain to him the difference between a yovom and a yovon, but all to no avail.

“I do not forgive you!” he screamed, “for continuing to insult me so horribly. “What should we do?” the forlorn good Jews lamented, until one wise man suggested, “Let us show him the difference between a final mem and a final nun,” but this, too, merely elicited a sad reaction. “I do not understand what you are saying. Don’t you know that I cannot even read an alef or a bais? You are spilling blood again and again.”

Finally, the maggid shiur reacted quietly with his own question: “My dear brother,” he whispered, “so what would you like us to do?”

The Cantonist drew himself up to his full height and answered with dignity, “Please just teach me how to read and I will come to my own conclusions.”

They did indeed teach him the AlefBais.

The Chofetz Chaim concluded, “I knew that man and everyone called him the Gaon of Leipnishuk. From not knowing AlefBais or even how to ask the right question, he became a gaon in Torah after learning the holy AlefBais.”

Does this not change our concept of the aino yodeia lishohl and the eternal mandate to teach at pesach lo? Each of us must reach out to the holy neshamos at our Seder with the right story at the right time, so that we connect with the sacred ancient words, making them our very own and those who are traveling the road from Mitzrayim with us.

The second component of a successful sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim – particularly with older children and adults – is to move beyond the simplistic understanding we may have had in our own youth and explore the penimiyus, the profound meaning in every phrase of the Haggadah. Whereas in the past, this area of understanding was literally a closed book to many, today there are wonderful translations of numerous hashkafah works that can add multiple dimensions to our Seder experience.

To give just one example, my readers may forgive me for offering a powerful, perhaps even life-changing Pachad Yitzchok. My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l, notes (Maamorei Pachad Yitzchok, Maamar 6) the mystery of why the Haggadah is largely built upon the recitation of the speech recited by the farmer who offers bikkurim, as found in the Torah in Parshas Ki Savo. Much has been written over the centuries about this enigma, but Rav Hutner offers an answer that goes to the heart of the Haggadah and Yetzias Mitzrayim.

Let us think carefully for a moment. Did we, as Klal Yisroel, leave anything undone after Yetzias Mitzrayim? It is true that we emerged from the 49 levels of tumah to which we had descended in Egypt. We offered the Korban Pesach, despite the frightening danger of slaughtering the Egyptian god before their very eyes. We watched the debasement of the Egyptians through the ten plagues and had our infatuation with their culture torn from our psyches forever (Rav Tzadok). We sang the Song of the Sea, became a nation of nevi’im praising Hashem in myriad ways that have been eternally incorporated into our daily tefillos. So what did we miss?

Rav Hutner reminds us that there were two bits of unfinished sacred business. First of all, when Moshe Rabbeinu first approached us about the impending exodus, we did not listen “because of shortness of breath and hard work” (Shemos 6:9). Our meforshim through the ages have explained this failing as a combination of both physical and spiritual weariness. After being given the amazing news that we would return to Eretz Yisroel, the land of our forefathers (6:8), we did not or could not accept the divine promise. As Rav Hutner puts it graphically, “Whoever has an ear attuned to the music of the Torah will hear the answer in the resounding declaration of the joyous farmer offering his first fruits: “Hashem took us out of Egypt… He brought us to this place and gave us this Land.” This enraptured speech, which stresses our arrival in Eretz Yisroel, is the direct response to our failure to respond to the words of Moshe. The Vayevi’einu and heveisi are our announcement that now we accept and express our appreciation for the veheiveisi eschem we missed four decades before. The Haggadah therefore becomes both our teshuvah and tikkun for our lapse at Yetzias Mitzrayim. The Haggadah here becomes a form of repentance – v’anisa v’amarta – a rectification of something for which we were unready at the actual exodus.

The life-changing aspect of this understanding is that we must always look back to see if we have left something unfinished. Not only is it “all in the details,” but sometimes what we could not accomplish earlier becomes our mandate in later years. Through the medium of joint storytelling and in-depth learning, may we use the Seder and Haggadah to grow exponentially in our emunah, bitachon and understanding of Torah and mitzvos.