Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Blunting Teeth or Savoring??? - A Pesach thought

Pesach is upon us once again, and we look forward to the seder with great anticipation – that is to say,  most of us.

Unfortunately, not all Jews are looking forward to a seder.  I have recently been working as a contract attorney in Manhattan on a project involving a major Israeli corporation, and have gotten to know my co-workers (all of whom are Jewish) somewhat well.  They are all nice and pleasant people, to be sure. Although one usually does not mix religion and work, the conversation gets around to religion and Judaism on occasion, especially when they hear that I am a Rabbi.   There are another two observant fellows on the project.  Unfortunately,  all the others are at various places on the non-observant side, ranging from those who were never exposed to the beauty of Torah to one who calls himself a “Chozer B’She’elah”  (Returned with a question) as opposed to a “Chozer B’Tshuvah”,  what we in America call a Ba’al Teshuvah.   Among the topics of discussion that we have gotten to on occasion is the issue of a Pesach Seder, and whether people are attending one.

Up until quite recently this was not a question.  No matter how far people strayed from normative observance, you could count on two mitzvot remaining.   Male sons were given a Bris Milah, and one attended a Pesach seder.   Granted, this has been watered down some over the years.   In recent times many of the circumcisions were performed by a urologist in a hospital rather than by a Mohel in a traditional ceremony.  As for Pesach Seders, a plethora of non-traditional seders beckon the non-affiliated Jew, including those that are dedicated to feminism, the environment, civil rights, gay rights, or many other liberal causes that are in vogue at any time.   But there was some sort of Seder that was attended by virtually all.

In fact, it is no accident that there is a striking common theme between a Bris Milah and a Seder, and that is the presence of a very distinguished guest.   According to tradition, Eliyahu HaNavi, (Elijah the Prophet), is given a cup of wine at  every Pesach Seder and a chair is put out for him at every Bris Milah. The Midrash comments that the source of this custom is the very striking and troubling story in Chap 19 of Melachim B (Kings II).  In Chap 18 we read of the amazing showdown at Mt. Carmel, where Eliyahu successfully asked for Hashem to show his great power to the people and they all prostrated themselves and exclaimed “Hashem Hu HaElokim! Hashem Hu HaElokim!”, as the prophets of the Baal were conclusively defeated.    In the very next verses the evil Jezebel tells Eliyahu, "You have had your day, but tomorrow you will be killed, and the people will be with me, not you."  Concluding that she was right, Eliyahu  escapes with his life to Mt Sinai, and gives up on the Jewish people.  

Hashem attempts to get Eliyahu to see the good in the people, but he has despaired.  To Hashem's repeated entreaties he responds, “I am zealous against your people, who left your Bris (covenant), destroyed your altar and killed your prophets, and I alone remain."  Finally Hashem said to him, (paraphrasing) ... “No Eliyahu.  That is not the way for a prophet to think.  You're fired!   You will be replaced by your disciple Elisha, who will know how to bring a reconciliation between Hashem and His people.  Furthermore, you will now be required to be present at every Pesach Seder and every Bris Milah, and you will see how even under very adverse circumstances, they will keep the faith."

And so it has been.  In good times and in bad, in Jerusalem, Siberia and even in the concentration camps, there were Pesach Seders and attempts for Bris Milah.  And that remained true until our time; even Jews who were otherwise very far from observance almost always kept Bris Milah and some sort of Seder.  However, most unfortunately,  that has been changing.

There are many reasons for this, too many to go into in this essay.   I would like however to focus on one possible reason that the Seder became a turnoff for all too many.  ( See  this article by our friend Steve Lipman, which someone sent me after reading this essay.)   The reason I would like to focus on is that  too many people took  the message that we give to the Rasha (wicked) son at the Pesach seder personally. How do we respond to a child who asks, "what is this service all for?"  We take a tough stance.   “Blunt his teeth!”  Most understand this to mean, “Give him a punch in the mouth!”  Perhaps not literally, but metaphorically.  Tell him off.  “Oh yeah? With your attitude, you would have been killed in Egypt – we don’t need you!”.  

Perhaps this message was effective in the past.  But too many today have become another version of what Elie Weisel has called “The Fifth Son: The son who isn’t there”.  Whether due to the Holocaust of the previous generation or the Spiritual Holocaust today, they are no longer with us.  Not only not with the Orthodox. Not with anyone at all.

A little known Midrash in Shir Hashirim Rabbah is most helpful.  The Midrash speaks of the awesome night in Egypt, as the Jews sat eating their Pesach Lamb while the Egyptians greatly suffered from  all the blood being spilled in Egypt.  But these former taskmasters and torturers had another twist of the knife in store for them. Hashem caused the aroma of the Pesach lamb to have a hint  of the Garden of Eden, and the Egyptians began salivating for it and desirous of having some, while of course they were excluded.  The word used for desirous in the Midrash is  קוהא 

Space here does not permit a lengthy treatment of this Midrash.  But Rav Tebele Bondi z”l used this Midrash in his Haggadah to refer to the Rasha son.  We see here that if a person smells aromatic food and is then deprived, his teeth begin to hurt קוהא . 

We can use this meaning of קוהא  in a positive context.  Surely  the correct way to deal with the “wicked children” of our time is to realize that most of that are not, in fact. “wicked children”.  They are “deprived  children”, who unfortunately were not brought up to properly appreciate the sweetness of Torah.   The way to deal with them in our time is not by “blunting their teeth”, but by making their teeth desirous.     Not by “blunting teeth” in a hurtful way, but by making our Judaism so attractive, aromatic, and delicious that their teeth will long and desire קוהא , and they will long for it.   It is by showing pleasantness and the beauty of Torah that we hope to once again join us at our collective Seder tables, where together we will sing L’Shana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim

Have a Happy and sweet Pesach!

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