Passover Thoughts 5779

Passover Thoughts 5779

Here are three short essays with some specific thoughts to share at Passover to help stimulate conversation at the Seder.

Parshat B’Shalach
January 19, 2019
13 Shevat 5779
© 2019 Paul M. Hamburger

The Shabbat during which we read Parshat B’Shalach is known as Shabbat Shira – the Shabbat of Song. On this Shabbat, we read the song of celebration that the Jewish people sang after crossing through the Sea of Reeds.  That song, Az Yashir, is so much a part of who we are that we recite it every day as part of our morning prayers. “Az Yashir Moshe u’venai Yisrael Va’yomru Laymor. Then Moses and the Children of Israel sang this song to the L-rd, saying…”

After reading the Torah portion more closely, though, this Parsha could just as well have been known as Parshat “Vayilonu” or “They Complained.”  The Parsha is filled with complaints – the Jewish people complained to Moshe, Moshe complained to G-d, G-d complained to Moshe about the people complaining to Moshe about G‑d!  In fact, the entire episode of crossing the sea begins with G-d saying the ultimate complaint: “Ma Titzak Aylai” – “What are you yelling at me for?  Speak to the people and go.” 

In a sense, the song at the Sea and the complaints both come from the same place inside of us.  We complained because it was a spontaneous reaction to our immediate surroundings.  We were deprived – we were hungry, thirsty, and wandering on a seemingly aimless path – so we complained.

The song was also a spontaneous reaction; it was an expression of celebration by the Jewish people after they were saved.  The Midrash records how the angels tried to sing and G-d stopped them by saying “How can you sing when my creation is drowning in the sea?”  The angels asked why, then, could the people sing?  The answer was that, unlike the angels, the people had actually experienced the events and their song was a natural expression in response to their personal salvation.

Singing the song every day reminds us that (as we say on Passover) we need to see ourselves as if we had crossed through the Sea of Reeds.  The siddur does not need a daily recitation of our complaints; we seem to handle that quite nicely on our own. Singing a song, particularly a song of praise and thanksgiving, is different.  If the song is going to come from our hearts and have meaning and power, we need to inculcate that internal sense of gratitude every day. That way it can be just as instinctively generated and connected to us as our most worthy complaint.

In his commentary, Ramban pointed out that the Jewish people complained of everything except one thing – having to go to war.  They complained that G-d was taking them out into the wilderness to die, they complained of lack of water and food; but they never complained about having to fight Amalek.  They just did it.

We are told that when Moshe would lift his arms, the army of Israel would win, and when he lowered his arms the army would lose. 

Rashi explained that it was not Moshe’s arms that dictated the outcome, it was our outlook.  When, to paraphrase Isaiah, we were able to lift our eyes upward to the heavens and see who created all this, we accomplished great things and could defeat our worst enemy.

Perhaps that is one reason for including the story of Amalek in Parshat B’Shalach. Complaints vs. Praise – The choice is ours.  If we lift our eyes to the heavens, the spontaneous complaints will be drowned out by the stirring words of the Song at the Sea “Az Yashir Moshe u’venai Yisrael Va’yomru Laymor.”


Parshat Shemini
March 30, 2019
23 Adar II 5779
© 2019 Paul M. Hamburger

At the Passover Seder, we read each year of the four children – the wise one, the wicked one, the simple one, and the one who does not know how to ask a question. There is another child to consider, though. That is the one who is not there; the one who for whatever reason has opted out of participation in Jewish rituals or even his or her Jewish identity. Our challenge is to find a way to bring the so-called “fifth child” back to the Seder. By studying Parshat Shemini, we can learn a valuable lesson in how we can approach this challenge.

This issue is raised in the Torah’s description of the various animals that are or are not Kosher. When it comes to fish, the Torah says generally (Ch. 11, v. 9) that we can eat those fish that have fins and scales. The next verse says that those fish without fins and scales are prohibited. But then, in Chapter 11, verse 12, the Torah states that “all those [fish] that do not have fins and scales in the water are abhorrent for you.”

Rashi notes that this last statement seems unnecessarily repetitive. He then reconciles these verses by explaining that verse 12 refers to a fish that never had fins and scales in the water. In other words, if a fish has its fins and scales in the water but sheds them by the time it is on dry land, that fish is still Kosher.

Said another way, if you are inclined to say that a fish without fins and scales is not Kosher, the problem might be with you and not the fish. Dig a little deeper and realize that the fish started out just fine and remains Kosher even if the current outward appearance is less than what you’d like.

Here is the lesson in dealing with the “fifth child.” We tend to look at the child who is not at the Seder and assume the problem is with the child – after all, he or she doesn’t have the “fins and scales” of religious life that we look for. We assume that it is only natural for a “non-observant” child to be absent. Therefore, we might conclude that there is something about the child that we need to change to make him or her “Kosher” enough to sit at our Seder.

Parshat Shemini tells us that the problem is not with the “fifth child;” the problem is with us. We cannot judge a child (or a fish) by its outward appearance. As parents, teachers, and role models, we need to look inside ourselves and say “what can we do differently” to attract and encourage all of our children and make sure they know that they always have a place at our Seders and in our hearts.


Haggadah Lessons From “A Few Good Men”

April 19, 2019
14 Nissan 5779
© 2019 Paul M. Hamburger

In the movie “A Few Good Men,” there are countless memorable scenes.  But, believe it or not, one in particular speaks to some important lessons about the Haggadah.  In the scene, the prosecutor Captain Ross, played by Kevin Bacon (the only kind of bacon we can interact with), is questioning a marine corporal about a mysterious procedure known as a “code red”.  Here is a summary of the famous scene.

Captain Ross showed the corporal an official “Marine Outline for Recruit Training” and asked the corporal to identify the chapter that addresses “code reds.” The corporal confirmed that there was no such chapter and that it was just a term they used down at the base. As luck would have it, Captain Ross pulled out a manual entitled “Standard Operating Procedures, Rifle Security Company, Guantanamo Bay Cuba.” Perhaps, asked Captain Ross, the corporal could find the “code red” chapter in that manual.

Again, the corporal was at a loss. There was no such chapter in that manual either. Captain Ross then feigned disbelief at the idea that there was no book, no manual, no pamphlet, and no set of orders or regulations that explained how to perform a proper “code red.”

After the corporal confirmed that fact, the defense attorney Lieutenant Kaffee ran up, grabbed the book from Captain Ross’s hands, and handed it to the corporal. He then asked the corporal to show the court where in the manual it explained the location of the mess hall and the meal times. When the corporal could not find that section in the manual either, Lieutenant Kaffee feigned his own disbelief and asked how the corporal knew when and where to eat while on base. “I guess I just followed the crowd at chow time, sir” was the corporal’s simple answer.

Of course, on the Seder night, our “operations manual” is the Haggadah.  But that is not the only connection between this movie scene and Pesach night.  Just as the number 4 figures prominently in the Haggadah (4 cups of wine, 4 questions, etc.), this short scene has 4 lessons for us as we work our way through the Seder.

Lesson 1:  You need to know what is in the manual/Haggadah; but everything you need to know is not limited to what is in the manual. 

Although much of the key text of the Haggadah comes from the Mishnaic and Talmudic period (perhaps around 170 C.E.), the oldest complete Haggadah probably dates back to around the 10th century and was part of a prayer book compiled by Saadia Gaon. Over the succeeding centuries, more stand-alone manuscripts started slowly cropping up.

Today, there are literally thousands of versions of Haggadot in all languages, styles, and formats. There are themed Haggadot addressing matters of social justice as well as contemporary trends. Knowing this, consider that the exodus from Egypt, which forms the story we commemorate at Seder night and the lessons we are to give to our children, happened thousands of years before anyone produced a comprehensive manual to tell us what to do. 

So what did they talk about before there was a manual telling them what to say? How did they know what to say if it wasn’t in a book?  Maybe they followed the crowd at Seder time and simply told their story to their children.

Lesson 2:  Some of the information that is not in the manual can be the most essential to your daily sustenance and survival.

Everyone who has attended a Seder can remember the family traditions of what we ate, what we said, what we wore, who we were with, etc.  All of these elements of the Seder go into building our personal Haggadah, one that can’t be written down in an instruction manual.  These are the parts of the Seder that we remember year after year and that often bind us to our past.

Lesson 3:  An interactive presentation is more powerful and makes a more lasting impression than a monotonous monologue.

In the movie, Lieutenant Kaffee could have simply waited until his summation speech to the jury to make his point that the marines knew about code reds without being told to look in a manual.  But by jumping out of his chair and immediately questioning the witness in an interactive way, his point was made without ever having to explain what the point was. 

A Seder can be a more powerful experience if it is interactive.  Don’t sit there like passive members of the jury watching a lawyer present the case. Ask questions, challenge the witnesses, debate the text; this is what a Seder is all about.

Lesson 4:  Don’t get so caught up in debating the text of the manual that you forget to eat!

At the beginning of the Haggadah, we read a lesson that on Seder night the more one tells about the exodus from Egypt, the more one is to be praised.  What story is offered as proof of that lesson?  It is the story of the five rabbis in B’nai Brak who were telling the story all night long until their students came to interrupt them and tell them it was time for the morning prayers. 

On its face, it seems odd that the example of the principle that “the more one talks of the exodus from Egypt, the more one is to be praised” is a story where the rabbis are told to stop talking about the exodus from Egypt. 

One way to understand this is that we earn the merit of telling our story not only by talking about what happened way back when but by continuing to live that story today and actualizing it in our lives in order to bring that story to its ultimate conclusion and the completion of our physical and spiritual redemption. 

Have a wonderful, happy and Kosher Pesach!