Editor’s note: These essays are reprinted with the permission of the NCSY regional office and Debbie Rubinoff, City Director of the Cincinnati NCSY. Phrases that originally included in Hebrew are printed in translation only.
An introduction from Debbie Rubinoff
Our Jewish tradition could be compared to a beautiful chain link necklace. Each link adding more precious value to the piece of jewelry. Pesach is the time when we firmly connect the past links to the future links. Each link in the chain adds its unique contribution to the collective beauty of Judaism.
What I find fascinating about this necklace is how few links there are. Between this year 5781 and the year of the Exodus 2448 there are between thirty-six to ninety links. I have sat with people from the early 1900’s at the seder. Those people sat with people from the 1800’s and so on. In other words, it would not take that many people to connect us directly to the Exodus. On Pesach we do not reminisce some distant historical episode but rather something that we are separated from with fewer than hundred people.
Working with the NCSYers of Cincinnati affords me the pleasure to watch the future links in the chain thrive in their Judaism. This year has been anything but normal and through it all the teens of Cincinnati have been motivated to continue connecting to Judaism and further discovering the beauty of our heritage.
Please enjoy these ideas brought to you by the initiative of our local teenagers. Wishing you all a Chag Kasher V’Sameach
The Four Sons
Eliana Bramy – Chapter President
“The Torah speaks of four children: one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who does not know how to ask.” These are the words from Haggadah that we read at the Seder. Although it may seem like just four different sons, the ordering of each is actually very important. There are many explanations to the order of the sons, such as why it goes in order of intelligence, or why it does not go in order of how morally good they are. The real question here is why does the wicked come right after the wise?
The wicked and the wise are polar opposites, yet they are written right next to each other in the Haggadah. This is like that to show us that we cannot ignore the wicked son just because he is bad. We cannot ignore other Jews just because they are bad. We are all responsible for each other. The Jews are like letters in a Torah scroll. No matter what letter, if one is missing, the Torah cannot be used. It is the same with Jews. We all need each other.
Another thought is that the wicked is considered to be the reality or the possibility of our yetzer harah coming out, who is ‘neighbors’ to the wise. The wise must always be aware that reality will always be trying to pull them down and they have to be extra vigilant to make sure they stay above it all. There will always be a part of you that wants to do the wrong thing, and that is the wicked part. When the wise part of you overpowers the wicked part by making it do good, you will elevate yourself into a better person.
In short always drive to be your best and don’t let negative influences guide your choices even if they are right next to you.
A Hardened Heart
Through the Ten Plagues, the Egyptians and the Jews were forced to realize that all of nature has another level to it, a spiritual level. Everyone came to understand that G-d runs everything and all of it can change at any moment. We can see that each plague was gradually worse than the next. First the blood that affected the water, Next the frogs that filled the land. Third is the lice which made them itch, Forth the wild animals, fifth the animals died. Sixth are the boils that covered the Egyptians’ skin. Seventh is the hail, eighth the grasshoppers that ate all of their crops. Ninth is the darkness and last is the death of the first born. But why did it take Pharaoh so long to let the Jews go? The reason ַfor this is because he hardened his heart. We see in Parshat Va’eira it says “But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also and he did not let the people go.” Here we see that Pharaoh's heart was hard meaning he was stubborn and wouldn't give up. Pharaoh thought he was able to win this battle with G-d. We can see that G-d gave Pharaoh so many chances to let the Jews go but he refused. A lesson we can learn from this is that G-d gives us so many chances in life to serve Him, we just need to make sure our heart doesn’t get hard like Pharaohs. We should make sure we are on the right path and serving G-d at all times.
The Mitzvot of Pesach
Elisheva Morton - Chapter Board Member
During the Pesach seder, there are 5 mitzvot we have to fulfill- Telling the story of going out of Egypt, eating matzah, drinking 4 cups of wine, eating maror, and singing hallel. The essence of the seder is to feel the journey from slavery to freedom, in memory of the Jews going out from Egypt which changed our nation eternally. Each of these five mitzvot have certain aspects to it that connect with slavery and freedom, and we do these to feel like we were the ones leaving, instead of it being just another story about someone else.
On the night of the seder, the heavens are open, and Hashem releases a heavenly influence that lifts our neshamos. Each of these mitzvot is a vessel to help us fulfill our jobs and connect with God. These mitzvot allow God’s heavenly influence to spread from the heavens to our neshama and then to the rest of the world, making the earth more spiritual.
We tell the story of the Jews leaving Egypt — in order so that the children will ask. Besides the mitzvot that we do at the seder, we do certain things in Judaism so that the kids will ask. Why do we do this? The mitzvah of telling the story and having kids ask is that the parents answer the kids, so we do this in question-and-answer form. In order to fulfill this mitzvah, we want the children to ask questions. We should answer in a way that we feel like we were the ones who left Mitzrayim to help us experience the slavery and freedom, just like the seder is all about. At the Seder, we should try to really connect with this story and think about all the things we have in our lives. We should think about how every decision is up to Hashem, not us, and remember how much we have because of Him.
Elie Frankel - Chapter Board Member
The Passover seder has 15 parts to it, kadesh, urchatz, karpas.... These 15 parts correspond to the 15 steps in the Bes Hamikdash. For example, a table is often compared to the Mizbeach in the Bes Hamikdash, and this is particularly true on Seder night when our family table is a tool to achieve new spiritual heights just like the Mizbeach. Each step of the seder creates a higher and higher level to Hashem. By the end of the seder, we are as close as we will ever be to Hashem and there is a huge Inyan to read Shir HaShirim because we’re at the closest spiritual level to Him. Mefarshim also teach us that the physical world is an expression of the spiritual. The physical steps of the Temple allowed the people to "go up" into the Temple. So too, there are 15 corresponding spiritual steps that allow us to "go up" and "grow up." These are the 15 Steps of the Seder night. They are a way to self-growth. They fulfill our spiritual need to grow.
Lucy Schneider - Chapter Board Member
Oftentimes people misinterpret freedom for the removal of all struggles or work off of a person, but truly, freedom is naturally just man. Passover represents a more extravagant freedom. To begin, the story of Exodus explains the Israelite’s freedom from Egypt, but it is not correct to say that they suddenly were stripped of hard work and inconvenience. This was only the start of their seven-week journey to earning the Torah on Shavuot. But Shavuot was not the final step in earning freedom either. When we were handed the Ten Commandments, we were given an opportunity to choose freedom. We were given an opportunity to follow G-d’s rule. We were not suddenly free. Choosing the Ten Commandments could help result in a new and deeper liberty, but they did not offer concrete freedom. Shavuot itself is a holiday celebrated to commemorate the Ten Commandments. Shavuot is an outgrowth of Passover. That freedom came over a long period of time and it is not just handed. It is earned and requires its own hard work. A lot of the times people end up discussing what freedom is not, rather than what it is. Freedom is not slavery. Freedom is not being locked inside. Freedom is not being able to do what you want whenever you want. Freedom is so much more than just these limitations. The Hebrew word for Egypt means ‘boundaries.’ Egypt was a boundary for the Israelites, but it did not determine their freedom. Freedom is more than the need to escape something uncomfortable because ultimately no matter how physical free one is there are always boundaries set in place preventing someone from being physically free. So rather than looking at freedom as a physical matter, think about freedom as the ‘Passing Over’ of the boundaries one is limited to. Think about freedom as a way to reach one’s full potential and free mind -- not just being able to roam anywhere anytime one would like.
Let Them Ask
Shayna Maravilla Yañez
On Pesach we learn that we have to ask lots of questions, and that it's a mitzvah for us to do so. But what does this teach us about how we teach kids these days? This idea was given by Yitti Freeman, saying that kids don't do much of the asking. We sit in a classroom all day and let the teachers ask us questions. Teachers ask around 300-400 questions a day, while the kids ask around ten to twenty questions a day. Some say this is for kids to be able to learn by asking questions they would never think of. But the Haggadah is teaching us to let them do the asking. So instead of testing their ability to answer questions, we should test their ability to ask those questions. And by seeing the way they ask the questions; we can see the way they see and think of the world and what they are searching for. And once we figure out what it is, they want to discover, we can help them on their journey to figure it out. And this is the reason we make this night different from all other nights, to let the kids ask questions that lead to more questions. So, let's learn from this and let us do the asking.
Observe the World Around Us
Gavi Bernstein – Regional Board Member
The Chsam Sofer brings a mashul about a world-famous sculptor who was asked to make a sculpture that would go in the middle of the city square. After much thought, he decided to make a life-like replica of a horse. The sculptor worked on it for two years putting together all the details and making it beautiful and then they put it in the middle of the square. But as the sculptor watches it be unveiled and waits for everyone's reactions, he sees that no one is even stopping to look at the horse. It didn't seem like anybody cared. The sculptor turned to his friend and asked, “what's going on? I worked so hard on this to make it so real” the friend said, “that's exactly the problem, everybody thinks it's a real horse, it looks too perfect, it's so exact. They don't even notice; they're not paying any attention to it. Here's what you have to do, make a little crack in the sculpture, and then people will realize that it's actually a sculpture and they'll come to see and appreciate the beauty of what it really is.” So that is exactly what the sculptor did and the moment he made that crack, everybody stopped to admire its beauty.
The Chsam Sofer said that this is exactly what happened in the times of Yetzias Mitzrayim (the Exodus). People were used to nature; people were used to the waters flowing and grass growing for so many centuries. But they got too used to it and forgot to recognize that it was all coming from Hashem. It was only when Hashem changed around nature with Yetzias Mitzrayim, Hashem brough the Makos (plagues), Hashem brought Krias YamSuf (splitting of the sea), He turned everything upside down and showed the world that He’s the one really in charge, that's when the entire world noticed that Hashem is really the one running the world.
Sefer Hachinuch tells us that we have so many Mitzvot throughout the year that are Zecher Yetzias Mitzrayim — to remember the Exodus of Egypt, — why? Because this is such a critical holiday for our Emunah, our faith, because Yetzias Mitzrayim was the time when Hashem showed Himself to the entire world, it’s when Hashem said to everybody “I am the one who is in complete control of the world, I’m the one who’s in charge of nature” Hashem is saying and showing that He can change anything. When everybody in the world saw when the water turned into blood, everybody in the world saw the Maca (plague) of Arov that the wild animals came, and some animals who were used to a cold climate had the cold temperature all around them, and the animals used to the warm climate had the warm all around them- something impossible in the course of nature. When it came to the Maca of Barad, the hail, people saw that the ice and the fire were able to coexist together in the same hailstones. And of course, Krias YamSuf - how Hashem was able to split the sea and the Jewish people walking through on the dry land and all of the miracles that took place there. Hashem turned the world and turned nature upside down to show us that He's the one who is in complete control.
This is what silenced every non-believer during that time. This is the foundation of our Emunah- our faith. Yetzias Mitzrayim and the Holiday of Pesach.
As we are getting ready for the holiday, maybe stop and look around at nature, look at the grass that's growing, the water that is flowing, and the rain that is falling and recognize that this is not nature alone, but this is Hashem, this is God, that is running every single step.
The Dipping of the Fingers During Maggid
We all know that we dip our finger into the cup and onto the plate sixteen times during the Seder and some have the custom to spill some out of the cup. Ten of them are for the makkos and six for before and after. Why?
The finger symbolizes that Hashem used his finger to do his makkos, so we use our finger by the mention of each makka. We mentioned that some also have the custom to spill some grape juice or wine out of the cup. The reason people do this is to remember that Hashem teaches us that we should not rejoice when our enemies fall. The cup, which traditionally has wine in it, represents rejoicing and merriment, and at this point at the seder, our enemies are dying, so therefore it is not proper to rejoice fully, despite how cruel they were.
After the makkos there is an abbreviation of the makkos that we also spill wine for. Rabbi Yehudah created this abbreviation so that his students could remember the plagues in order. But why mention these abbreviations in the Haggadah? Rabbi Yehudah gives a reason for this. Each abbreviation teaches a basic principle of our faith. The first three plagues were designed to establish Hashem’s existence. The second group showed Hashem’s divine will, and the third was to show the truth of prophecy.
There is also a second explanation why these plagues are put in groups. The first three plagues were done By Aaron, with the use of Moshe’s staff, the next three were done by Moshe, but without the use of a staff, and the last three were initiated by Moshe with the use of his staff. The last plague was an entirely unique character.
Another unique fact about the three groups is that the first two in each group had a warning to Pharoah, while the third in each group had no warning at all. Also, the first of each group reduced the Egyptians in their own land, the second of each group robbed them of their pride, and the third gave them actual physical suffering. These three things were what the Egyptians had put on the Jews as midda keneged midda. And the last plague was the climax of them all.
So never think that the six dots on your plate before and after the makkos is insignificant, they are an important remembrance to what happened in Mitzrayim, as are everything in the Haggadah.
What Does Pesach Mean to Me?
Natalie Bashari – Chapter Board Member
The Wikipedia definition of Pesach is “a major Jewish holiday that occurs in the spring on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan. One of the biblically ordained Three Pilgrimage Festivals, Passover is traditionally celebrated in the Land of Israel for seven days and for eight days among many Jews in the Diaspora, based on the concept of Yom Tov Sheni shel galuyot.” To me, Pesach means something completely different. Pesach is a time where we can’t eat bread. But why? Some say that we celebrate it because it's a commemoration of Bnei Yisroel leaving Egypt but were in such a rush they didn’t have time to let their bread rise. The thing is each holiday is not just a commemoration of what happened, but it should also be a lesson for today. Bread is a sign for the distractions we have in our day to day lives like technology, food, clothes, and schoolwork, that take us away from Hashem. By taking away the “bread” which hints to the distractions, it allows us to come closer to Hashem and reconnect. It's a reminder for us that for the next 8 days we remove all the physical to connect ourselves more to the spiritual. So, the next time you eat matzah, think about using it as a way to become closer to Hashem.
Finding Our Voices
Ayelet Maravilla Yañez
Why do we encourage children to ask questions on Pesach? Why do we even include the four questions? And why specifically on this holiday?
One answer is that we are celebrating our freedom from slavery. A slave isn’t allowed to have a voice, to think. Slaves cannot question or have opinions. In Mitzrayim, we were slaves for hundreds of years. Hundreds of years of keeping silent and repressing our questions/minds. On this holiday, we celebrate our redemption from slavery. This brings us to encourage questions and opinions on the seder table. We want everyone to think and to ask. Especially on Pesach, we celebrate our freedom by being encouraged to question, thus bringing us to the four questions.