What the Story of Pesach Means for Us Today

This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah                                                               for her neshama.
By Samantha Hulkower

Even though we tell the same story every year on the first night of Pesach, there is always something new we can learn. When we are children it is a captivating tale, interesting enough to keep us at the table to hear what happens next to our ancestors. As we get older, perhaps we become more interested in the philosophical discussion of the four sons, or how Pharaoh's behavior at the expense of the Egyptian people could be seen in other leaders in the world today. There are many ways to view what is ultimately a simple, yet fantastic, part of Jewish history.
Pharaoh reading the news
For the uninitiated, here is an abridged version for you: The ruler of Egypt (or Mitzrayim in Hebrew), is paranoid about maintaining his power. When his advisers tell him that a leader will emerge from the enslaved Jewish people to bring them out of Egypt and to freedom, Pharaoh orders all baby Jewish boys be killed. We already learned how Miriam HaNaviah convinced the Jews to ignore Pharaoh's decree, and from this Moshe Rabbeinu, the predicted leader is born. Moshe actually grew up in Pharaoh's own palace, but after killing a cruel Egyptian taskmaster, had to flee. While in exile, God catches Moshe's attention through a burning bush and here Moshe begins his ultimate quest to lead the Jewish people to their freedom, albeit quite reluctantly. He returns to Egypt, and with the help of his brother Aharon, warns Pharaoh if he doesn't let the Jewish people leave, he's going to regret it. As we can guess, Pharaoh is nonplussed and the plagues begin. First the water turns into blood, then frogs get everywhere (literally), followed by lice, wild beasts attacking, the domesticated animals dying,  boils, hail that also happens to be on fire, locusts that eat whatever vegetation hadn't been destroyed by the hail, darkness so thick the Egyptians couldn't move, and finally the death of the first born in every family. By the end, his kingdom had been ruined and Pharaoh grants Moshe the ability to let the Jews leave. However, they are barely a few days out into the desert, on their way to Israel, when Pharaoh changes his mind and sends his chariots to recapture them. There is a dramatic showdown where the Jews are trapped between the Sea of Reeds and Pharaoh's army. Of course, at this point, God splits the sea, the Jews cross, and when Pharaoh's army tries to follow, the sea closes and that is the end of that.

One thing that is very special about Pesach is that the events all unfold in front of the entire nation of Israel. All other religions have more intimate gatherings when their spiritual leader has his communication with their god. In our case, the Pesach story happens, including all of the plagues and the splitting of the sea, happens in front of the entire nation, not to mention also in front of all of the Egyptians. It is for this reason that it is a mitzvah to remember every day that God took the Jewish people out of Egypt, to become a free nation in Israel. Because we (or our super duper great grand parents) were able to see the actions of God with their own eyes, it was easier for them to connect with Him. Today, we have so many distractions in the world and ways to rationally explain why there isn't a God (G-d forbid) it can be hard to remember what we were able to see so clearly at this very point in time thousands of years ago. By remembering these things every day, we help to stave off those doubts.

Rav Shlomo Wolbe, of blessed memory, says that this is exactly why we had the various events that not only make for a good story, but physical events that we could feel with all of our senses. Part of the mitzvah while reading the story from the haggadah is to actually feel like you yourself are leaving Egypt, being freed from slavery. There are many ways to interpret this to someone's modern life metaphorically, but sometimes part of getting yourself into the right mindset includes physical action. Part of the idea of 'fake it 'till you make it' is to put on a smile until you feel happy, or if you are working from home, still putting on your office clothes rather than staying in your pajamas in order to be more productive. On Leil HaSeder (the Seder Night) really put yourself in this story. Whether you are reading it in English, Hebrew, or some other language, utilize the descriptive terms to feel like you are there and utilize this metaphorical experience the joy of being freed from whatever personal slavery you feel that you are trapped in (it could be anything from a bad habit you are trying to break or learning how to deal with a Pharaoh in your own life). Don't forget that it is always possible to be freed from slavery, no matter how it manifests itself in your life. Chag sameach!!

Preparing for Passover

Cleaning for Passover

Watch Preparing for Passover on PBS. See more from Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

Recommended video:

Passover: Insights for the Seder

This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah                                                               for her neshama.
by Samantha Hulkower

The Ibscha Relief from the tomb of Khnumhotep II,
showing Semitic traders (possibly the Hyksos) coming to Egypt some 4,000 years ago.
            NebMaatRa, Wikimedia Commons
This Friday night, the holiday of Passover begins. While the annual tradition of the Seder is always fun, after doing the same thing year, after year, after year the four questions can start getting as stale as last year's matza. We might be left wondering, after reading the same story for so long, what can we really get out of the Seder this year?
The fact is, how much we get out of the Seder depends on how we approach it, which leads directly to the four sons - four possible attitudes. Perhaps we can even find within ourselves elements of each of the four. At times wise, curious, fascinated and probing; at times cynical. Sometimes we are just simple, and sometimes we don't know how to ask; we have lost the curiosity,we are no longer interested. Here are a few insights into the Seder that should satisfy your curiosity, no matter which of the four sons you identify with:
What does 'Seder' even mean?
There is no meaningless ritual in Judaism. The more we make an effort to examine the reasons behind the actions we do on Seder night, the more we will be able to appreciate the richness and meaning behind each step. The word 'Seder' means 'order.' The traditional sequence of 15 incremental stages is specifically designed to catalyze our critical thinking and to prompt important questions of Jewish identity, and what freedom means to us. Jewish tradition teaches us that our attitudes are shaped by our actions. As a result we engage in what could be described as a series of behavioral stimuli that comprise the traditional Seder service. The multifaceted experience of eating, drinking, dipping, reading, discussing, questioning, leaning and singing of Seder night presents us with an interactive educational framework within which we can begin to take a fresh look at our own personal freedom.

What does matza have to do with slavery and freedom?
True freedom comes from a genuine openness to learn and discover. If we can just shethat cynical or 'know it all' blockage, we can gain so much that night.We'll have already attained one giant leap away from slavery, towards freedom. Matzah is literally free of all additives, externalities and superficial good looks - it is bread without the hot air. It represents the bare essentials. Everything we pursue in life can be divided into necessities and luxuries. To the extent that a luxury becomes a necessity we lose an element of our freedom by being enslaved to a false need. Jewish thought teaches that we should not submit to peer pressure, viewing ourselves as competing with others. It is far better to focus on our 'personal bests' rather than 'world records'; life is an arena in which we do not need others to lose in order for us to win. On Passover we can focus on the essence and leave the externalities behind. It is a time to get rid of the ego that powers our self importance and holds us back through distracting us from our true goals.

Happy Passover!
Content from Aish.

The mitzvah of living in Eretz Yisrael

This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah for her neshama.

North Israel-Mt Hermon
Many new immigrants who move to Israel are often met with astonishment from Israelis (and more than a few Americans) as to why they would leave the US to make a new life for themselves in Israel. Of course, there is something exciting about being part of the 'Start-Up Nation'. There are mystical reasons to live here: according to tradition, while the rest of the world was flooded in the mabul, no waters crossed over the boundaries of Israel, leaving the land and air here with the original qualities imbued with the whole world during creation. Related to this, the Jewish Sages say that just breathing the air of the land makes people wise and that Divine Intervention is felt more strongly here. Beyond good food, and holy air, many people actually move here for a more substantial reason: because it's a mitzvah.

There are different accounts of what all of the 613 mitzvot laid out in the Torah are, but almost everyone agrees living in the Land of Israel, Eretz Yisrael, is one of them. The source for this is in Bamidbar 33:53 which says, "...dwell in the land because I gave it to you". The famous Torah scholar and Kabbalist, the Ramban, expounds on this passuk, saying "It's better to live in Israel, even in a town that is mostly non-Jewish, than to live in the Diaspora in a Jewish town." Those are strong words. 

Living in the land is considered so important that one needs a valid reason to even leave! There are three reasons given for why one is allowed to leave Eretz Yisrael: for parnassah (they can't make a living here), for shidduchim (to get married), and to learn Torah (if there is an opportunity for a better or safer place to learn, which was a valid reason for many years, but less so today). 

Let us consider how special this mitzvah really is - it's one of only three that you do with your entire body (the other two being dwelling in the sukkah and mikvah). Basically, even if you are just taking a nap while in Eretz Yisrael, you are doing a mitvah. One of the mitzvot that are contingent upon being in the land is that every dalet amot you walk (about 8 ft), is a mitzvah. Just strolling down to the corner makolet (small supermarket) to get milk you are racking up those mitzvah points.

As mentioned before, there are certain mitzvot that only apply in Israel when a majority of the world's Jews live in the Land - such as many agricultural laws, the forgiving of debts, tithes given to Kohanim. In addition to the individual mitzvah of living in the land, these laws have a communal aspect - since the majority of Jews need to live here for them to be mitzvot, then it suddenly becomes everyone's responsibility to live here to help one another fulfill all the mitzvot. That is part of being a Jew - helping each other in life. So what are you waiting for? Come live here, help yourself, and your fellow Jew, do a mitzvah! 

Chanukah - Focus

This post is dedicated in memory of Shlomo ben Aryeh Zalman. May it be an aliyah for his                                                                    neshama
Elisheva Maline

Success, by measurable standards, is a lapel that people pin to the jackets of those who eat, drink and breath their dreams into reality. Classic examples abound: Olympic champions, Tai chi black belts (read: the guys who might spend a decade or so at the feet of their masters subsisting on little more than rice and seaweed), Torah scholars who cover ground in the 63 Tractates of Shas, CEOs of mass corporations, heads of well known not-for-profits, teachers who've hauled their students up from C averages to B+ averages all share one thing: focus. 

Each of the above, and more, had a long term goal, but they didn't pause at the threshold of reality, asking themselves, "What if...?" They strategized. They set short term goals. What's more: they developed tunnel vision. And they saw their dreams bear fruit.   

What's the holiday of Chanukah got to do with it?

When Greece came to power, most Jews decided to turn their backs on their religiosity and become Hellenists (the old fashioned term for secular). Not satisfied with dwindling ranks, these self proclaimed Greeks sought to dilute whatever vestige of authentic Judaism was left. This meant approaching the Greeks and having them put a ban on specific commandments which form the bedrock of our faith. These commandments were Shabbot, Brit Milah, Rosh Chodesh, keeping Kosher (Jewish dietary laws) and the study of Torah.
As it became increasingly harder to be religious and uphold Greek law, Jews began learning Torah in secret. Sensing this, Greek soldiers prowled the streets and marketplaces, looking for scholars who were breaking the rules (much like today's traffic police keep their eyes peeled for people to slap speeding tickets on). This is where the game of dreidle came into play. Whenever a clandestine group of scholars sensed a soldier around the corner, they tucked their sefarim (books) away and began a game of dreidle poker.

At one point, the situation became so unbearable that a certain group of people -- the Hasmoneans -- started a rebellion. Miraculously, their small troop of men defeated the mighty Syrian Greek army.

Their fight took place on more than just the physical plain: the two parties were involved in spiritual as well as psychological warfare. What do I mean? The Greek view is that anything we, as people, attain must be attributed to the power of nature and, specifically, to the innovativeness of man. Judaism, on the other hand, is determined to give credit where credit is due and declares that everything we gain must bring us to a state of gratitude to G-d. When Adam faced the darkness of a motzei Shabbos (Saturday night), he made fire so that he might see and not be subject to stubbing his toes or stumbling around in the dark. While the Greek mindset is to proclaim Adam's discovery of fire the inventiveness of man, Judaism calls that scenario a Heavenly bestowed gift. Yes, Adam was the one who actually rubbed two sticks together, causing a spark to ignite and start a flame. But Who placed the random thought in his head that friction between two pieces of wood would cause them to create a substance that would give off both heat and light? How can a person experiment about what he doesn't know he doesn't know? And if he does discover something by some freak accident, as scientists are often wont to, should it not be attributed to the the hand of Hashem?   

Living with Jewish awareness that it is G-d who runs the world, and that it is G-d who calls the shots and pulls the strings takes an enormous amount of focus. So much so, in fact, that by the time Jews were asked to put the pedal to the medal, there were only a few left to do so.

But did it they did.

And we won the war.

Yashar LaChayal

The majesty of the Western Wall

Nefesh B'Nefesh