Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Pesah: Perspective

Thoughts on Pesah 2020
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On most years, I speak from the pulpit at the end of Arbit on the first night of Pesah, briefly reviewing the various requirements for eating and drinking at the Seder. Finishing the definitions of kazayit and revi’it, I remind everyone that the importance of these shiurim notwithstanding, the primary focus of this night is on the shared involvement of all family members in the reenactment of yessiat Missrayim. In other words, the measurements of the food and drinks do not represent a “means to themselves,” but rather make up the necessary ingredients for an exalted experience. Let us, this year, delve deeper into what that means.

The task of sublimating our human desires into spiritual realities is one of Judaism’s central challenges. Malbim, the great 19th Century exegete, likened our life’s duty to that of the alchemists of old, who sought to transform base metals into precious silver and gold. “Man, throughout his life, must undertake the process of alchemy to change [his physical self] into a transcendent spiritual entity,” he wrote, “This process is achieved through thoughts and actions, for through them, [man] can separate from physicality and become a transcendent spiritual entity.”[1]

It has long been noted that the tunes of many of the traditional Syrian pizmonim were adapted from non-Jewish songs of festivity and passion. In addition to a broader halakhic analysis regarding the permissibility of doing so, several rabbinic authorities pointed to a particular beauty in the transfer of the melodies from a “realm of impurity” to one of “sanctity.” [2] By channeling tunes once composed in praise of hedonistic passion to a context of divine yearning, many of the Syrian pizmonim characterize this specific ideal of our worldly endeavors.

Jewish mystical tradition furthermore maintains that God’s light shines most in our world of relative darkness, in contrast to the Upper Worlds of manifest light. “The purpose of the soul entering this body is to display her powers and actions in this world, for she needs an instrument,” the Medieval kabbalist R. Moshe de León z”l wrote, “If she is not fulfilled both above and below, she is not complete.”[3] R. Adin Steinsaltz likewise explained that “matter can be a vessel to contain the Infinite, which the spirit, with its greater vulnerability, cannot be.”[4]

I have always felt that many of the missvot performed on the first nights of Pesah are exemplary features of bringing forth holy sparks from a material world.

Why do we drink four cups of wine at the seder? “The rabbis lived in a world where people regularly drank wine at festive occasions, and those who could afford it, even more regularly,” Joshua Kulp wrote. Basing himself on a scholarly proposition that four cups of wine was once considered the appropriate quantity of wine for a ritual celebration, Kulp suggested that the ritual role of the cups familiar to us at the Seder is the Rabbis’ adaptation of an already accepted practice of festive drinking.[5] Our practice of structuring the Seder around the four cups, then, represents the repurposing of drinking wine from an act of self-indulgence to one of religious significance.

Our mention at the Seder that one must state and explain the reasons for the missvot of Pesah, massah and maror is likewise telling. HaRambam’s recording of this law in the context of sipur yessiat Missrayim teaches that these foods must be used as props for our colorful “restaging” of the Exodus from Egypt.[6] It emerges, then, that food – the icon of pleasure-seeking – encounters sanctity at the Seder.

“You can mend the cosmos by anything you do – even eating,” the great kabbalist R. Yisshak Luria (the Ari) z”l once remarked, “Do not imagine that God wants you to eat for mere pleasure or to fill your belly…the purpose is mending.”[7] The food at the Seder is transformed even beyond fulfillment of an eating-missvah;  it is entirely reappropriated to serve as an entry-key into the transcendent experience of leaving Egypt. Raising the massah and maror, pointing at them and mentioning their significance transports us to a spiritual time and place far beyond that of our present-day situation.

We are currently living through a particularly turbulent time period. What relevant message can we incorporate from this understanding of the Seder to our contemporary lives?


Consider the context of our “relived” experience of freedom after more than two centuries of servitude. Instead of madly storming into the open-access pleasures of the world, we approach them with a careful search for latent sanctity. We sensitively craft a general perspective that meets the challenges of a life of freedom.

The lesson of perspective is ever-important today. Open your eyes and search for the potential positive that is nestled away in our world now transfixed on misery and gloom. Discover the personal growth awaiting your solitude, realize the family members awaiting your attention and find the suffering people awaiting your kindness.

Shift your perspective, ignite the “sparks of light” from within, and let them radiate this world of utter darkness.

[1] R. Meir Leibush b. Yehiel Mikhel Wisser, Commentary of Malbim: Bemidbar 19:1. Cited and translated by R. Aryeh Leibowitz, The Neshamah: A Study of the Human Soul (Nanuet, NY, 2018), pg. 161.
[2] See R. Jacob S. Kassin, Introduction to Shir UShevahah Hallel VeZimra (New York, NY, 1964), pg. 9-10. See, as well, e.g., R. Ovadia Yosef, Yehaveh Daat vol. 2 (Jerusalem, IS, 1978), no. 5 and Yabia Omer vol. 6 (Jerusalem, IS, 1986), no. 7, and R. Meir Mazouz, Bayit Ne’eman vol. 1 (Bnei Brak, IS, 2015), no. 35. And for a brief English survey, see R. Shlomo M Brody, A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halakhic Debates (New Milford, CT. 2014), pg. 174-176.
[3] R. Moshe de León, Sefer HaRimonim, ed. Elliot R. Wolfson (Atlanta, GA, 1988), pg. 106.
[4] R. Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, The Long Shorter Way: Discourses on Chasidic Thought (New Milford, CT, 2014), pg. 255.
[5] Joshua Kulp, The Schechter Haggadah: Art, History and Commentary (Jerusalem, IS, 2009), pg. 171-174, and Shamma Friedman, Tosefta Atiqa Pesah Rishon (Ramat Gan, IS, 2002), pg. 405-411. Listen to our class on this topic, “The Four Cups: A History,” at
[6] HaRambam, Mishneh Torah: Hilkhot Hamess UMassah 7:5. Listen to our class on this topic, “Pesah, Massah & Maror,” at
[7] Translated by Daniel C. Matt, The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism (New York, NY, 1995), pg. 149.