This lesson may also be gleaned from a Haggadah-related comment by Rav Hillel Vitkind zt”l, rosh yeshiva of Novardok, Yerushalayim, and a follow-up by Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l. Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein (Lechanech Besimchah, page 73) relates that when he was 14 years old, he was taking a walk from the Slabodka Yeshiva, where he was learning, when he met Rav Vitkind. A short distance ahead loomed a building that housed inappropriate entertainments. Rav Vitkind turned to the young bochur with a pleasant smile. “You should know,” he taught him softly but forcefully, “true pleasure may not be found there, but only within yourself… In that place, one can only find temporary, fleeting, animalistic pleasures. However, the enjoyment you receive from a sevara – a novel Torah thought you learned from your rosh yeshiva – will remain with you for a very long time. Every time you think of it, you will smile with pleasure and be the luckiest person in the world.”
Rav Zilberstein relates that besides the profound impact that these penetrating words had upon him, he searched for many years to find a source for this idea that the power of a Torah thought continues with full force every time one remembers it. Then, finally, he found it in the commentary of the Ritvah on the Haggadah passage of what to answer the wise son. We tell him that “nothing may be eaten after the Afikoman.” As we know, this prohibition results from the concept that we must retain the taste of the Afikoman, which represents the Korban Pesach, throughout the night. The Ritvah notes that “if one ate the matzah before chatzos (midnight), but the taste remains later on, he may continue to recite the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim as if the matzah is actually before him.” Thus, we see that for as long as a spiritual taste is extant, it is as if one is still learning or experiencing the mitzvah. When Rav Zilberstein related this discovery to his father-in-law, Rav Elyashiv zt”l, the latter immediately responded, “That is why we recite daily ‘Vehaarev na – Please, Hashem, make the Torah sweet to us.’ Indeed, as long as the words of the Torah are delightful, it is considered as if we are still learning Torah.” We, too, should strive to keep the sweet tastes of Pesach in our mouth for as long as possible.
The following, then, are just three lessons, all relating to dealing with contemporary life, that we can take with us from the beautiful Yom Tov that did not go away, but became very much part of us.
I begin with something that is very dear to me, because the question bothered me for years, until Rav Chaim Kanievsky opened my eyes. In Mah Nishtanah, every Jewish child has asked for centuries, “Why do we eat on this night while leaning over?” The Rambam (Peirush HaMishnayos, beginning of Arvei Pesachim), apparently based upon a Medrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:2), states that we lean over “as the kings eat.” The obvious question is that, true, we went from slavery to freedom when we left Egypt, but when and how did we suddenly become monarchs? Rav Chaim, in his characteristic brevity, answers that Klal Yisroel at Har Sinai was assured that we would become “a kingdom of kohanim” (Shemos 19:6). Although this promise came later, since the potential was there at Yetzias Mitzrayim, we were already considered kings on the night of Pesach.
It would seem that this may be akin to the famous lesson taught by Rav Chaim Shmulevitz zt”l as well. Shlomo Hamelech (see Rashi, Kohelles 1:12) reveals to us that his kingdom had diminished precipitously. First he was the king over the entire world, then only over Klal Yisroel, then only over Yerushalayim, “velibesof al makli – and then over my walking stick.” Now, we know what it means to be the king over the world, Klal Yisroel or Yerushalayim, but what can it possibly mean to be the king over your stick? Rav Chaim teaches us a lesson that can literally help us walk through the difficult times in life with our heads held high. A king is always a king. His clothing, level of power and area of jurisdiction are irrelevant. When Shlomo Hamelech had nothing but his cane, he was nevertheless “every inch a king.” As miserable as we still were when we left Egypt, our innate gift of royalty had already kicked in, so we perform heseibah at the Seder not just as newly freed slaves, but as sovereign melachim. We, too, can access this eternal teaching never to forget who we are, no matter where we are.
Our second all-year-round lesson to be derived from the Seder is taught to us by the Gaon of Vilna. In arranging the Four Sons logically, the wise son is usually paired with his apparent opposite, the wicked son. The Gaon, however, teaches that the tam, the so-called simple son, is the antithesis of the rasha, the wicked son. He cites a posuk in Iyov (9:22) which clearly sets up this dichotomy. Perhaps the reason can be gleaned from an insight of the Chossid Yaavetz, who left Spain with the Abarbanel in the expulsion of 1492. In his moving journal, he describes that many of the Spanish intellectuals gave up their religion in the face of their horrific suffering. However, the simple Jews most often adhered to their faith and died al kiddush Hashem. It is said that the Baal Shem Tov worked throughout his life to attain the emunah peshutah, the simple faith, of uneducated but fully devoted Jews. Yaakov Avinu is described by the Torah as an ish tam (Bereishis 25:27), because the ideal of temimus, perfection in faith, is the ultimate definition of a Jew. To the extent that we accept Hashem’s will in our lives, we identify and exemplify the path of the avos.
Our third life’s lesson from the Haggadah grants us a perspective on life’s challenges and problems. What, if anything, should bother us? When should we seek change and move to alter our situation? We recite in the Haggadah that the pivotal moment came when “vayarei’u lanu haMitzrim vaye’anunu – the Egyptians did us harm and caused us pain.” A number of meforshim (Boruch She’amar, Mar Deror) explain that vayarei’u means “they caused us to become evil,” and vaye’anunu means “they caused dissension amongst brothers and between husbands and wives.” This is when we cried out successfully to Hashem. What should bother us is when we feel that our surroundings are causing us to deteriorate. As long as our Jewish character and personalities, our middos and ideals are unscathed, we have nothing to fear. It is when our enemies are succeeding at lowering our spiritual loftiness that we must become alarmed and raise our voices in urgency.
According to these meforshim, neither the pain of bondage nor even Paroh’s slaughtering of our children caused us to storm the heavens until we sensed that we were losing our identity as a nation. It is up to us to recognize when assimilation, intermarriage and the depravities of an immoral society are endangering our lofty stature enough to cry enough.
May our recent journey to geulah lead us to the ultimate geulah, bimeheirah beyomeinu.