Short Pesach Thoughts
by Rabbi Michoel Gourarie
Fire And Ice
In this week's Torah reading we read the story of the ten plagues that punished the Egyptians.
The seventh plague that G d sent upon the Egyptians – the plagues that made way for the final exodus from Egypt – was hail. Enormous hailstones rained down, destroying Egyptian crops and damaging their fields. But then the Torah adds a miraculous detail that is somewhat puzzling. It tells us that each hail stone contained a flame of fire that burned inside the ice. What purpose did that fire serve?
The Zohar explains that the ten plagues were not sent just to dismantle Egypt's infrastructure. They were powerful forces that provided the Jews with strategies for spiritual rehabilitation. Each plague carried with it an important lesson in the journey of growth and true freedom.
Hail is cold and icy and symbolizes insensitivity and indifference to other people and their needs. The "hail" personality is someone that appears to lack the capacity to care, to be compassionate or to love. This is someone that seems totally cold and couldn't care about anyone or anything. Is this person beyond hope? Can a spark of love be ignited?
With this plague the Torah declares that even the stone hearted can be aroused. Every person has a flame of love and compassion within them. But with some that flame is a love of self, driven by ego and channeled inwards rather than towards others. The result is selfishness and care for one self, with insensitivity to others. The fire burns, but it is hidden inside the ice.
All that needs to happen is for the ice to melt, and the fire of love and compassion will be visible to all. To achieve this, the "hail" individual needs to do two things:
a) Chip away at his/her ego by developing a sense of humility.
b) Begin to do acts of kindness and love even in the absence of motivation. The deeds themselves will stoke the fire.
The flame always burns. It is up to the individual whether it will be hidden by hail or burn openly.
AT THE BOTTOM BUT CLIMBING
At the beginning of the Pesach Seder, just after Kiddush, we eat "Karpas" - a small piece of vegetable dipped in salt water. The standard explanation for this practice is that we do it to stir the curiosity of the children. When they observe us doing something unusual like eating vegetables before the meal, they begin asking questions, setting the tone for the night.
But there is another important lesson to be learned from this custom. A vegetable grows in the ground. On the night of Pesach, the Karpas is transformed from something stuck in the dirt of the ground into a symbol of holiness. It receives a prominent place at the beautifully laid table with our best dishes and expensive wine. This simple vegetable becomes part of the royalty of the Seder.
We too sometimes feel low and impure. Like the vegetable, we sometimes experience the feeling of being 'stuck in the ground'. But the power of the Pesach Seder is so strong that it plucks us out of the ground allowing us to engage with the holiness of this special night, giving us a place of prominence at the Seder table. No matter how low our point of origin is, we can rise to the occasion, tasting the internal and spiritual freedom embedded in the Seder experience.
There is just one condition. The vegetable becomes part of the Seder, but the pebbles and pieces of earth that surround it do not. A vegetable grows, but a stone remains the same. As long as we are committed to growth, we may join the Seder despite our lowly past. But when we resist change and growth, we remain a pebble stuck on the ground.
HAVE YOU EATEN DESSERT?
I have worked hard to be a good, decent and honorable human being. I don't drink, smoke or eat unhealthy food. I don't cheat, lie, gossip or humiliate other people. I stay away from bad company and am allergic to shady business. But I am still unhappy and constantly have this ongoing feeling of emptiness. Can you help?
The answer to your problem is in your question. You have clearly described what you don't do but you haven't mentioned what you are doing. Decent living can be achieved by avoiding evil. But happiness, meaning and purpose can only be reached by engaging in something positive.
In two weeks, we will celebrate the Pesach Seder. The Hagadah mentions three Mitzvot that are central to the Seder experience.
a) Maror - we eat bitter herbs
b) Matzah - the special unleavened bread that we eat on Pesach
c) Korban Pesach - the Paschal offering that was eaten on Pesach night in Temple times. Today we remember it with the shank bone on the Seder plate.
The commentaries explain that these Mitzvot create a formula for a life of growth and meaning.
a) Maror - The sharpness of these herbs symbolizes the bitter things in life that we need to stay away from. It reminds us to reject impurity, immorality and all evil activities.
b) Matzah - The mitzvah of eating Matzah reminds that it is not enough to avoid evil. We need to feed our soul by doing something positive. We cannot just reject bad, we must do something good.
c) The Paschal Lamb - One of the laws of this sacrifice is that the roasted lamb should not be eaten as the main course. The meat had to be served as a dessert and enjoyed as an extra delicacy. Doing only what is necessary satisfies the hunger? bus doesn't bring a sense of fulfillment. It is only when we go beyond our comfort zone, exploring new opportunities of goodness that we experience true happiness.
You have a body and a soul. The soul needs its nourishment just as the body needs its food. Just staying out of trouble is like not eating poison but not eating anything else either. You are missing the main course and the dessert too. Find a friend who needs help, come to an extra Shiur, do an extra Mitzvah or volunteer for a good cause. The more you do the more it will taste good.
HOW TO MAKE A SANDWICH
I enjoy the Matzah sandwich on Pesach night. But I don t understand why we first eat Matzah on its own, followed by plain Maror (bitter herbs) and only then the sandwich. Isn't that a bit like sampling bread and vegemite separately and only then putting them together?
Besides a number of Halachic explanations there is an important lesson in this practice. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses - the good part of our personality and the dark side. Matzah is a symbol of those strengths and Maror represents the weaknesses.
Our positive side comes from the soul. Just like Matzah does not rise so too the essence of the soul has no ego. It has a Divine imprint and is the foundation of our personality strengths. That spark of purity gives us the ability to rise above egocentricity and become selfless and moral human beings.
But there is another self- centred force that resides within us known as the animal drive. This force is the source of selfish conduct, inappropriate emotional responses and destructive behavior. The challenges and inner struggle caused by this part of our personality is represented by the bitterness of the Maror. At the Seder it is a mitzvah to eat these herbs because true freedom can only be achieved if we are ready to acknowledge our weak and dark side and work on improving it.
Initially we eat them separately because they are different and come from two distinct forces within our identity. But eventually these two parts of our personality must come together as a sandwich. The bitter part of our character doesn't have to disappear - it can be transformed. Every negative emotion has a purpose and can be powerful and positive if channeled and used correctly. Controlling others can be transformed into self control, anger can become passion and jealousy can be channeled into healthy ambition. Even our dark side is not intrinsically bad. If the animal drive learns to take guidance and direction from the soul it can be harnessed into a powerful force.
The Maror on its own is bitter, but when protected and controlled by the Matzah it becomes a delicious sandwich.
Midnight - a Pesach Thought
Before the exodus from Egypt, G-d told Moses that He would deliver the final blow to the Egyptians, the plague of the firstborn, exactly at midnight. The Zohar explains that midnight also became the defining moment of freedom for the Jews. Although they did not physically leave until the next morning, they became spiritually free exactly at the moment of midnight.
Analysis of this concept highlights an interesting difficulty. Time is constantly moving. An exact moment of midnight doesn’t actually exist. Any moment of time, no matter how small, belongs either to the first or second half of the night. As soon the first half of the night ends, the second one has already begun. There is no moment that exists in between the two.
The mystics explain that the two halves of the night represent the two primary forces of our personality - “Chesed” and “Gevurah. Chesed is the power of giving, love and closeness. Gevurah is the power of restraint, respect and discipline. The first half of the night represents Gevurah, the second Chesed. Light is associated with giving (Chesed) , darkness with withdrawal (Gevurah). The first half of the night moves away from light, the second towards day.
Success, happiness and spiritual growth require a combination of both. There is a time to give and time to hold back, a time to submit and a time to be assertive, a time to be flexible and a time to be strict.
This is not easy, as most people are disposed either to one or the other. Every person is born with a specific personalty and set of character traits that are hard to change. For each of us there are times when our personality will work well and there are those circumstances when we must be ready to do things that do not come naturally to us.
True freedom means that we are not trapped or locked into our natural personality. Freedom means that we can change and we can choose when to use Chesed and when to use Gevurah. True freedom means that we are not dictated to by our instincts, but are able to use a higher code of conduct to make decisions and control the direction of our emotions.
Freedom was given to us at midnight – a moment that does not exist in the natural world. Midnight represents the gift of transcendence - a Divine gift that gives us the power to rise above our natural instincts. To be free means to live in the world of midnight – to know how to choose when to use Chesed and when to use Gevurah , based on Divine direction.
As this is the last email before Pesach I would like to wish each and everyone a Chag Sameiach – a Happy and Kosher Pesach.
LEAVING THE FOUR PRISONS
In the weeks leading up to Pesach there are four special Torah portions that are read in the synagogue in addition to the regular weekly Parsha:
1)"Shekalim" - about the yearly 'half Shekel' tax that was given in temple times.
2)"Zachor" - remembering the evil nation of Amalek, who attacked and weakened the Jewish nation as they left Egypt.
3)"Parah" - the mitzvah of the 'Red Heifer' whose ashes were used to purify those who came into contact with a dead body.
4)"Hachodesh" - the first Mitzvah given to the Jews as a nation to establish a lunar calendar and to sanctify Rosh Chodesh (the first day of every month).
Pesach is the festival of freedom, celebrating the exodus not only from physical slavery but primarily from spiritual bondage. Every year we relive the Pesach experience and are given the opportunity to achieve our own internal freedom, freeing ourselves from those things that imprison us and prevent us from growing spirituall y.
In preparation to this experience, the reading of the four special portions allows us to identify four powerful forces that, when mishandled, consume the human being and inhibit growth and personal exodus. These four potential prisons and their antidote are reflected in the four special Torah readings that we read in the lead up to Pesach. If we don't get these under control we remain in our own prison, unable to take the next step.
The first is money and material pursuits. The Talmud says that he who has a hundred dollars wants two hundred, and he who has two hundred wants four. The person is always hungry for more, consumed by the desire to amass more wealth. So we read "Shekalim" - the mitzvah to give a half Shekel. The 'Half Shekel' reminds us that what we have is incomplete and meaningless if not used for a higher purpose. It teaches us to appreciate that which we have and to focus on making it meaningful.
The second is power. After the exodus the nation of Amalek could not tolerate Jewish independence. They attacked the Jews to control them and weaken their strength. Our sages teach that arrogance and jealousy destroy the human being (Ethics of our Fathers). So we remember Amalek in the portion of Zachor to free ourselves from the trap of control, arrogance and jealousy.
The third is the prison of the mind. As great as intellect is, it can also paralyse us. Often we are uncomfortable doing things that we cannot rationalize. We refuse to acknowledge a higher reality that understands the broader picture beyond our finite existence. The third portion, the Mitzvah of the red Heifer, is the one Mitzvah that even King Solomon could not understand. We are taught to free ourselves from our limited intellect and to be ready to do even that which we do not understand.
The fourth is time. Some people are controlled by the constraints of time. They are managed and controlled by time always feeling pressured and overwhelmed by lack of good time management. Time is like the rest of creation, which is there to support the growth of the human being, not to rule him. In the fourth portion the Torah teaches us that we must create the calendar. We must manage time, making it work for us and support our spiritual journey.
With these four important reminders we are ready to sit at the Seder and to taste our own freedom.