Pesach Tidbits for Your Seder Table

Looking for engaging content for your seder? Print out this smorgasbord of thoughts to enhance your Seder table by Rabbi Mordechai Lipskier.

By Rabbi Mordechai Lipskier

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קרבן פסח

DANCE, SMILE, BE FREE

One of the laws regarding eating the Korban Pesach is that we must not break any of its bones. Why not? The Sefer HaChinuch (mitzvah 16) explains that Hashem wanted the Yidden to behave royally, and breaking bones is the way poor and down-and-out people eat. 

A slave mentality is very difficult to overcome, even after being liberated. As a runaway slave from Mauritania, Africa, told a New York Times reporter in 1997, “G-d created me to be a slave, just as He created a camel to be a camel.”

If so, how were the Yidden able to free themselves of the slave mentality? 

The first step to being free is acting that way. “A person’s thoughts and emotions are drawn after their actions,” the Sefer HaChinuch asserts. 

Dance!

For several years after their marriage, my paternal grandparents lived in the country of Georgia. They did very well financially and were able to provide nicely for themselves as well as for the Yidden around them. Eventually, they had to flee Georgia and in 1947, after two years of arduous travels, they arrived in the United States. They were now penniless immigrants. And even after they settled here, they never regained the wealthy lifestyle they had once lived. My grandmother was understandably broken by her new plight, so my grandfather asked the Rebbe for advice. The Rebbe suggested that since she enjoys dancing, she should make an effort to go to weddings and enhance the joy of the bride and groom with her dancing. For as long as her feet could carry her, she did as the Rebbe suggested and it improved her life dramatically. 

It’s common behavior to dance when we’re filled with joy. But it’s liberating to know that when we dance, we’ll fill ourselves, and others, with joy.

Smile!

Reb Shlomo Madanchik was mayor of Kfar Chabad for many years. He and his family once had  yechidus with the Rebbe and as they were about to leave, the Rebbe asked that he stay in the room. “I didn’t want to talk about your flaws in the presence of your wife,” the Rebbe told him, “but I see that you’re lacking joy. I’m well aware of the difficulties in your work, but Hashem certainly gave you the abilities to overcome them, and the only way to do this is through joy. Your lack of joy is affecting your work, your family and all those with whom you interact. The past is behind us—from now on you must be b’simchah.” 

The Rebbe then clarified, “I mean literally from this moment onwards; pinch your cheeks and smile!” The Rebbe then began smiling broadly, bringing a smile to Reb Shlomo’s face and sending him off on a much better path.  

It’s easy to smile when we’re happy. But to become happy through smiling means breaking out of our Mitzrayim, our meitzarim, our constraints.  

Just Do It!

The Rebbe often quoted the above Sefer HaChinuch, encouraging us to just do it! If there’s something good we want or need to do but we don’t know if we’re holding there yet, the best thing for us may be to just go ahead and do it. And if there’s a bad habit we’re finding difficult to break, we should know that the best place to start is in action, not in theory. And, mitzvah goreres mitzvah, every good step brings Hashem’s blessings for more good. 

We have the freedom to start behaving freely, now! 

~ ~ ~

ערב פסח שחל להיות בשבת

COME FIRE, COME WATER

The Gemara (Yoma 35b) states that every Jew is obligated to study Torah, no matter their circumstances: rich, poor, in possession of a strong yetzer hara, etc. The Gemara then goes on to give examples of people who overcame their challenging circumstances, so that we may take a lesson from them. Here’s the story of the poor man:

To the poor person, the members of the Heavenly court say: Why did you not engage in Torah? If he rationalizes his conduct and says: I was poor and preoccupied with earning enough to pay for my sustenance and that is why I did not engage in Torah study, they say to him: Were you any poorer than Hillel, who was wretchedly poor and nevertheless attempted to study Torah?

They said about Hillel the Elder that each and every day he would work and earn a half-dinar, half of which he would give to the guard of the study hall and half of which he spent for his sustenance and the sustenance of the members of his family. One time he did not find employment to earn a wage, and the guard of the study hall did not allow him to enter. He ascended to the roof, suspended himself, and sat at the edge of the skylight in order to hear the words of the Torah of the living G-d from the mouths of Shmaya and Avtalyon, the spiritual leaders of that generation.

The Sages continued and said: That day was Erev Shabbos and it was the winter season of Teves, and snow fell upon him from heaven. When it was dawn, Shmaya said to Avtalyon: Avtalyon, my brother, every day at this hour the study hall is already bright from the sunlight streaming through the skylight, and today it is dark; is it perhaps a cloudy day? They focused their eyes and saw the image of a man in the skylight. They ascended and found him covered with snow three cubits high. They extricated him from the snow, and they washed him and smeared oil on him, and they sat him opposite the bonfire to warm him. They said: This man is worthy for us to desecrate Shabbos for him. 

What does the Gemara mean that the snow fell upon him from heaven? From where else could it have fallen?! Also, what did Shmaya and Avtalyon mean by “this man is worthy for us to desecrate the Shabbos for him,” don’t we break Shabbos to save the life of any Jew?

One of the interpretations of this story is offered by way of another story about Hillel Hazaken:

The Sages taught a baraita with regard to the basic halachah governing the eve of Pesach that occurs on Shabbos: This law was forgotten by the sons of Beseira, who were the leaders of their generation. The fourteenth of Nisan once occurred on Shabbos, and they forgot and did not know whether the Korban Pesach overrides Shabbos or not. They said: Is there any person who knows whether the Korban Pesach overrides Shabbos or not? They said to them: There is a certain man in Jerusalem who came up from Babylonia, and Hillel the Babylonian is his name. At one point, he served the two most eminent scholars of the generation, Shmaya and Avtalyon, and he certainly knows whether the Korban Pesach overrides Shabbos or not. The sons of Beteira sent messengers and called for him. They said to him: Do you know whether the Korban Pesach overrides Shabbos or not?

Hillel conveyed what he had learned from Shmaya and Avtalyon, showing that indeed the Korban Pesach is brought even on Shabbos. 

After Hillel brought these proofs, they immediately seated him at the head and appointed him Nasi over them, and he expounded the laws of Pesach that entire day. In the course of his teaching, he began rebuking them [mekanteran] them with words. He said to them: What caused this to happen to you, that I should come up from Babylonia and become Nasi over you? It was the laziness in you that you did not serve the two most eminent scholars of the generation living in Eretz Yisroel, Shmaya and Avtalyon.

What was so unique about this ruling that it compelled them to appoint Hillel as Nasi? Another question: Hillel is known for his humility, so what was the meaning of his rebuke? 

Hille’s self-sacrifice for Torah was not only a good example for poor people, it was also what enabled him to preserve Torah for all Jews of future generations. 

The snow that fell that night was out of the ordinary, it fell from “Heaven” with the sole purpose of bringing out Hillel’s self-sacrifice. When Shmaya and Avtalyon witnessed this, they saw a future leader. They therefore proclaimed that “this man is worthy to [be the one to eventually teach the Jewish people that it’s proper to] desecrate Shabbos [in order to bring the Korban Pesach].”

(In fact, some suggest that the halachah Hillel learned that night on the roof was none other than the very halachah of Korban Pesach.) 

And this was Hillel’s message to the Bnei Beseira: The only way to preserve Torah is through total dedication, to the point of self-sacrifice. 

Come Fire…

While on this topic, it’s worthwhile to share a story about the Tzemach Tzedek, whose yahrtzait is on the 13th of Nissan.

The story, told by the Frierdiker Rebbe, took place when the Tzemach Tzedek was approximately ten years old.

During the Alter Rebbe’s last years in Liozna, in about 5557 (1797), in addition to the Chassidic discourses that he used to deliver in public, he began to expound Chassidus privately to his children. This would take place late every Friday evening.

Now, one half of the Alter Rebbe’s apartment consisted of two large rooms. One of them housed a small minyan, and that was where people used to wait before entering the Rebbe’s study for yechidus. Chassidim used to call it “the Lower Gan Eden,” while the other room, the Rebbe’s study, was known as “the Upper Gan Eden.” Between these two rooms stood a large stove, which heated them both.

The Tzemach Tzedek longed to hear the Chassidus that the Alter Rebbe was teaching his children, but since he was not allowed to enter (since he was only a young grandchild), he clambered into the oven, and there he would lie quietly and listen. He did this for several weeks. 

One Friday night the weather got cold, so the gentile odd-job man brought in firewood and did his best to stoke the stove. Since the wood did not quite seem to fit in, he laid it out just inside the stove door, lit it, opened the flue, and fire flared up.

Suddenly, the burning sticks shot wildly in all directions, and the door of the stove burst open. The poor fellow screamed in alarm. People rushed in from all sides, both the other half of the apartment, where the Rebbetzin was then sitting with her daughter-in-law, the wife of the Mittereler Rebbe, as well as from the Alter Rebbe’s study, from which the Mitteler Rebbe ran in. The room was strewn with lumps of smoking firewood, and on the floor of the stove they saw—a human frame. 

As soon as the Alter Rebbe’s son Reb Chaim Avraham ran forward and dragged out the little person, the Rebbetzin cried out: “Oy! It’s Mendel!”

They were all horror-stricken: the child lay unconscious. The Alter Rebbe placed his hand on the Tzemach Tzedek’s little head and he came to at once. 

When the Rebbetzin found out that her grandson had repeatedly asked his grandfather for permission to go in and hear the Chassidus that he expounded to his children, been refused permission, and because of his intense yearning had climbed into the stove where he had (baruch Hashem) been saved from harm, she complained bitterly to the Alter Rebbe: How could he possibly have thought it proper to put a life in jeopardy?

Replied the Alter Rebbe: “The teaching of Chabad demands pnimiyus, and this can be arrived at only through actual self-sacrifice. Before the time of Avraham Avinu there were other great tzadikim and chassidim; as the Sages teach us, for example, ‘Adam Horishon was a great chossid.’ But for pnimiyus to become the established order, to be bequeathed from one generation to the next, the self-sacrifice of the akeidas Yitzchak first had to be forthcoming – for pnimiyus can be attained only through mesiras nefesh.”

“Ee-vadi mee n-ye u-tonem…”

There’s an upbeat nigun which chassidim often sang to strengthen their spirits at farbrengens. The Russian lyrics (“Ee-vadi mee n-ye u-tonem…”) mean, “In water we will not drown and in fire we will not be burned,” referring, of course, to the merciless torture that the Soviet government constantly threatened them with. 

The Rebbe spoke about this song, noting that while it was very relevant back in Soviet Russia, today it seems completely outdated and irrelevant, baruch Hashem.

But, the Rebbe explained, we too are challenged by fire and water.  Torah is likened to water, and doing mitzvos with passion is likened to fire. Although we have the liberty of studying Torah freely, we mustn’t “drown” in Torah and neglect the scrupulous fulfillment of mitzvos or the obligation to reach out to another Jew. Likewise, we mustn’t allow the excitement of mitzvos and reaching out to other Jews to consume our minds entirely; we must also cool down and dedicate time to focus on Torah study.

It’s in our blood. Come fire or water, we can persevere. 

~ ~ ~

יחץ

FROM THE PITS

Why do we take a whole matzah and break it, instead of taking two broken pieces to begin with? Moreover, the two halves are so different; one represents our affliction and the other is set aside for the afikomen, representing our freedom! 

Before Pesach 5664 (1904), the Rebbe Rashab made great efforts to send matzah and other Pesach needs to the Jewish soldiers fighting in the Russian army against the Japanese. He later received a thank-you telegram, signed, “The soldiers in the trenches of Shanghai.” 

After reading the telegram, the Rebbe Rashab said: The Baal Shem Tov would sometimes sign his name “Yisroel from Okop.” In actuality, the Baal Shem Tov was born in a city called Tlust, not Okop. Where did the name “Okop” come from? The city of Tlust once had a wall surrounding it which crumbled over time, leaving deep trenches in which poor people, the Baal Shem Tov’s parents amongst them, built their homes.

“With the power of the Baal Shem Tov’s trenches,” the Rebbe Rashab concluded, “we can overcome all other trenches, because the power of the Baal Shem Tov lives on. It’s up to us to remain in combat.”

The Baal Shem Tov was born in the pits, literally, and came into this world when the Yidden were in the pits, spiritually. But it’s precisely the power of Chassidus, the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, that has the power to lift the Yidden up from the deepest lows to the highest heights.  

There are times when redemption seems unthinkable. How can we, as a people or as individuals, leave the trenches of our deep, dark galus?!

This is the message of yachatz. Although all we see in front of us is the broken matzah, we must know that this is only half of the story. It’s from this very situation that our liberation comes. Like the afikomen, our liberation may be temporarily hidden, but it’s about to emerge. 

With the power of Chassidus, we can lift ourselves and others out of the pits. And we can lift the whole world out of this galus, to the highest heights: Moshiach.

(שיחת ליל ב’ דפסח תש”כ)

~ ~ ~

הא לחמא עניא…כל דכפין ייתי ויכול…

EVERYONE IS A PREFERRED GUEST 

Why does the Haggadah open with these statements? Also, what’s the connection between the bread of our affliction and the invitation we extend?

The Pesach Seder is not merely a reflection on our redemption from Mitzrayim in the past, but rather an experience of the present-day redemption from our personal Mitzrayims, our constraints. 

Matzah represents humility. Most undesirable traits stem from an unhealthy sense of self. A bloated ego or an overly sensitive one makes us self-absorbed so that we can’t see our own faults or the virtues of others. When our egos are sensitive to the finest touch, we can never be happy or satisfied. 

Ingesting matzah, humility, is the ticket to free our true selves of our distorted, bloated selves. 

The litmus test to know how well we’re integrating the message of matzah is by observing how tolerant and welcoming we are to others. If I’m too self-conscious to invite people to my home, or, if I invite only those whose company I enjoy, then I’m still in Mitzrayim. But if I can say, “Anyone who’s in need can come,” that’s an indication that I’ve ingested humility. 

At this point, matzah is not just a bread of the past; it’s the sustenance of the present. And leaving Mitzrayim isn’t history, it’s an ongoing story. 

(לקו”ש ח”ז ע’ 262, מכתב כללי ר”ח ניסן תשמ”ג)

~ ~ ~

כאן הבן שואל

WHAT ABOUT THE GIRLS?

It’s customary that girls also ask the Mah Nishtanah, so why does the Haggadah mention only the son?

The P’nei Menachem of Ger once said, in a so-to-speak playful manner:  

The Mah Nishtanah begins with the words, “Tatte, ich vil bai dir fregen…” A boy, even as he grows up, will continue to ask his father questions and seek his advice. But a girl will eventually get married, and her husband will then be the one she’s supposed to ask. Thus, the Haggadah doesn’t want to make a blanket statement that daughters ask questions to their fathers. 

(הגש”פ ליקוטי אב)

~ ~ ~

כנגד ארבעה בנים דברה תורה

I HAVE [AM] A QUESTION 

A man once asked Reb Chaim, the illustrious Rav of Brisk, if he may fulfill his Seder obligation by drinking four cups of milk instead of wine. Reb Chaim explained that one must drink wine, and he gave the man a handsome sum of money for his Yom Tov expenses. 

When Reb Chaim’s wife asked why he had given so generously, he answered, “The man clearly doesn’t have enough money to buy wine, and his idea to use milk indicates that he has no meat either. So I gave him enough money to buy both.”

Four Questions?

At the Seder we talk about the four sons and the questions they ask. The Torah doesn’t classify them as four categories of questions and answers, but as four different people. The Torah also doesn’t make one statement for all of them, but directs us to address each one individually. 

Questions are not only about obtaining information. Sometimes they’re about settling inner struggles and conflicts. “Why did the brakes fail?” When the mechanic asks this question it’s purely investigative. When the driver turns to Hashem with this question, it’s of a very different nature. Providing both questioners with the same information, in the same way, may answer their actual question, but it won’t settle both people. 

Questioners are stuck in their own personal “Mitzrayim,” i.e., confines and bondage. In fact, they may not even be aware that they are stuck. Our first objective is to identify the source of their issue, their “Mitzrayim,” and help free them from it. With that in mind we can go on to successfully give them the “Torah,” i.e., the answer to their question.

(שיחת ליל ב’ דפסח תשכ”ב)

The Information Age

Imagine if the man in the story asked the same question on an online forum, today. “May I fulfill my Seder obligation by drinking four cups of milk instead of wine?” 

He’d likely receive a variety of responses. An avid halachah student might treat him to a thorough exegesis on the legal intricacies of his question. A rigid stickler for the rules, interpreting the question as callousness towards tradition, might give the man a sermon on the importance of maintaining the chain of Jewish tradition. Others may chime in with similar questions, and some might choose to ignore the question entirely, dismissing it as ignorant or unimportant. 

He may receive a technical answer to his question, but will he get the wine and meat he needs? 

The message of the Four Sons is not only about how to answer, but also how to ask. 

With the wealth of information available online today it’s tempting to search for answers to our questions. But if we’re honest, we’ll realize that we’re short-changing ourselves. The internet knows a lot of information but it doesn’t know and understand us. Discussing our predicament with a rav, mashpia or friend may be more difficult than an online search, but it’s ultimately the better solution for us.

Pesach is a time for education. Let’s reflect on how to ask and how to answer. And let’s teach this invaluable value to our children and our fellow Yid. 

~ ~ ~

תם מה הוא אומר מה זאת

IT’S ALL GOOD?

The government once ordered soldiers to patrol the Jewish neighborhoods. Their presence would not be a blessing for the Yidden, to say the least. One of the students of the Baal Shem Tov heard about it and said, “Whatever Hashem does is for the good.” The Baal Shem Tov said to him that it’s a miracle he wasn’t around in the times of the Purim story, because he would have said it’s all for the good, and who knows what the end would have been, with such an attitude!

On another occasion, a student of the Baal Shem Tov was about to leave on a journey to Eretz Yisroel. Before he left, his Rebbe cautioned him to be careful with his words. During one of the stops, he spent time on an island where he met an old Yid sitting and studying Torah. 

“I hear that the Yidden in Russia suffer a lot,” the old man said, “Is that true? Is life indeed difficult for the Yidden there?” 

The chossid answered, “Hashem is a Father,” implying that Hashem does what’s best for us. The old man repeated his question and received the same answer. Eventually, when the chossid returned home, the Baal Shem Tov said to him: “Didn’t I tell you to be careful with your words? That old man was Avraham Avinu. He was imploring Hashem to send Moshiach, because the Yidden in Russia are suffering terribly. But the prosecuting angel claimed that the Yidden seem content, they only daven for their material needs and don’t seem to need Moshiach. You had an opportunity to confirm that what we really need is Moshiach.” 

The Minchas Elazar of Munkatch used these two stories to explain the passage of the Haggadah “Tam mah hu omer.”

The “Tam” of the hagadah is a Yid who fulfills the command of tamim ti’hiyeh im Hashem Elokecha (be wholehearted with Hashem, your G-d). As Rashi explains it, “Conduct yourself with Him with simplicity… accept whatever happens to you with [unadulterated] simplicity.”

When this Tam hears about the suffering of the Yidden, he accepts it, just as he accepts his own challenges; knowing that it’s from Hashem. 

However, being a Tam is a very noble trait only when accepting “whatever happens to you.” But when something happens to another Jew, we must plead with Hashem to change things for the better. 

So, we say to the Tam, bechozek yad hotzianu Hashem mi’Mitzrayim. The redemption that was then was enough to forcibly take us out of our deep entrenchment in kelipah, but it wasn’t a complete redemption. We’re still in galus, and we must ask Hashem to send us the true and ultimate redemption with Moshiach. 

(שער יששכר, מאמר אגדתא דפתחא אות מה)

“A Pogrom is a Pogrom!”

During the era of the Mackno movement’s pogroms, the Rebbe’s teacher told him that there’s a hint in the torah to these horrific events. “What’s the purpose in knowing that there’s a hint in the torah?” the rebbe asked him. “Knowing this” his teacher explained, “makes it a little easier on the heart.”

At a farbrengen many years later, the Rebbe relayed the conversation he had with his teacher but concluded that notwithstanding the fact that everything comes from Hashem, “a pogrom is still a pogrom!,” and Yiden should never have to suffer.

Galus, the rebbe explained, is a concealment of Hashem’s presence, and that’s a problem. 

We must never justify another Jew’s difficult plight. And we must never stop demanding of Hashem for our true need: the coming of Moshiach, now. 

~ ~ ~

מצה: מיכלא דמהימנותא

PIOUS HERESY 

Before Pesach one year, the Baal Shem Tov was in a noticeably serious mood. His chassidim worried, and their concern grew as the Rebbe directed them to recite specific tefillos and do extra mitzvos. At the Seder, the Baal Shem Tov sang the Haggadah with the usual joyous tunes, but shared no Torah thoughts. His serious frame of mind persisted, until suddenly, eyes closed, he laughed loudly and announced, “Blessed is Hashem and His nation of ‘Yisroelkes’ who outdo Yisroel Baal Shem Tov.”

He explained that a terrible pogrom against a Jewish village had been plotted for the first night of Pesach, and there was nothing he could do to annul the decree. In another town, a simple couple with no children, adherents of the Baal Shem Tov and his teachings, sat alone at their Seder. After the wife asked the Four Questions and they drank the prescribed cups of wine, the husband told the story of Pesach. When he described Pharaoh’s decree to throw the Jewish baby boys into the Nile, the wife protested, “If Hashem were to bless us with a child, you can be sure I wouldn’t treat him the way Hashem treated us!” And so began their debate. She protested the dismal Jewish plight and he defended Hashem’s decisions. Ultimately they concluded that just as Hashem took us out of Mitzrayim, he will take us out of this galus, and they erupted into spontaneous and joyful dancing. 

“These Jews,” announced the Baal Shem Tov, “just annulled the decree.”  

He explained to his students that the essence of bitachon is a firm trust that no matter how grim the circumstances, Hashem will help. This, however, is only with regard to our own plight. When we see another Jew suffering, saying “Hashem will surely help” is a sin. It’s our responsibility to do whatever we can and implore Hashem to help them.

(אג”ק אדמו”ר מוהריי”ץ ח”ג ע’ עב)

When someone asks us for help, we must go into “heretic” mode and tell ourselves: For right now, there’s no G-d (G-d forbid)! I’m the only hope this person has.

But don’t worry, our deletion of Hashem will probably be only temporary. Chances are, when this person feels relief they’ll probably say, “Thank You, Hashem, for sending me such good people.”

~ ~ ~

כן עשה הלל …הי’ כורך פסח מצה ומרור ואוכל ביחד

SANDWICHED BETWEEN…

Hillel used to make a sandwich of the Korban Pesach, matzah, and maror. What’s the meaning behind eating all three sandwiched together?

The Yidden are divided into three categories: tzadikim, benonim and resha’im.

Maror represents resha’im, those who embitter their own lives with a lack of goodness. Matzah represents benonim, those who are in a constant struggle to maintain their goodness. Pesach represents the tzadik. He has utterly slaughtered his animal soul. Also, the numerical value of the word Pesach, when each letter is spelled out, פ”ה, סמ”ך, ח”ת, is 613. A tzadik is someone whose entire being is about fulfilling all mitzvos of the Torah.

The goal of Pesach is that every Yid should leave the Mitzrayim of their animal soul, and the way to attain this is by all Yidden helping each other in that journey to spiritual growth. Those who are doing well should reach out to those who need help, and they, through the power of their unique journey to teshuvah, will enrich the lives of others. 

(עפ”י מעשה רוקח פסחים)

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