JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review April 15, 2003 / 13 Nissan, 5763

Four More Questions for the Seder

By Rabbi Yisrael Rutman

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | There are traditionally four questions asked at the Passover Seder. But this doesn't mean that those are the only questions we may ask. On the contrary, those questions should be only a beginning. Here are four more questions for the Seder:

At the beginning of the Passover Haggadah, the traditional text runs as follows: "This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in Egypt. Whoever is hungry, come and eat! Whoever is in need, come and join in the Pesach! This year [we are] here; next year in the Land of Israel!"

Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, the Stiepler Gaon, explained that the Sages used Aramaic as a reminder of exile. That is why the use of Aramaic in Jewish tradition extends far beyond these lines in the Haggadah: the Talmud, the most central of all Jewish texts, is in Aramaic; the months of the Jewish calendar have Aramaic names; Kaddish is in Aramaic.

When the Babylonian exile came to an end after seventy years, it was not because the people deserved it. On the contrary, the corruption caused by foreign influence was getting increasingly worse. But it would have been counter-productive to the nation's spiritual health to remain in Babylonia indefinitely. The return to Israel at that time was meant to serve as rest and rehabilitation for the long exile that was to come. Indeed, it was known at the time of the re-building of the Temple that it was not to be permanent; otherwise, the plans revealed by the prophet Ezekiel for the final Temple would have been employed. The exilic tongue was a constant reminder that much spiritual rebuilding would be necessary before the final redemption.

This, however, prompts the next question: For if so, for what are we to be so thankful? The question becomes especially acute in light of current conditions. What relevance does the deliverance from ancient Egypt have when we are today still so beset by our enemies?

This is actually a very old question. Rabbi Moshe Sofer, the spiritual leader of Hungarian Jewry in the 1800's, answered it in the following way: G-d had told Abraham that his descendants would be exiled in a foreign land for 400 years. In Egypt we had no way to hasten the redemption; it was not in our control.

The present exile is different. The prophet Isaiah said that Moshiach (Messiah) will come "in his time, and I will hasten it." The Sages explain this to mean that while there is a hidden, appointed time, beyond which the exile will not extend, it can, however, be ended sooner, if we merit it. Tradition teaches that Moshiach could come this very day. But there is a condition---"if you will listen to His voice." The speedy end to the exile is contingent on our heeding the call of G-d. (Sanhedrin 98a.)

Whereas the biblical deliverance depended on a calculus of suffering beyond our control, it freed us for a future deliverance that would, hopefully, be brought about through the agency of our own acts. Redemption as an ever-present opportunity---that is what we are thankful for.

But, as people often ask, now that millions of Jews have returned to Israel, isn't the exile really over? The answer to that question is, first of all, that the prophesied return of the Jewish people was never meant to be merely a matter of massive emigration, Jewish Agency style; rather, it envisages a spiritual transformation, as well. For the condition of exile is not only estrangement from the Land, but also from our special relationship with G-d. A physical return to the Land of Israel without a concomitant spiritual return is like a body without a soul.

The paradoxical condition of exile within our own land has biblical precedent; witness the bitter experience of Isaac at the hands of the Philistines. Despite Isaac's extraordinary success (the modern Jerusalem neighborhood Meah Sha'arim takes its name from the hundredfold blessing on Isaac's land that is mentioned in the Torah) and his generosity with his non-Jewish neighbors, they stopped up his wells and drove him out of their territory. He was the first Jew to hear the words Lech m'itanu, "Get away from us!" And this took place within the Land of Israel.

This brings us to the connection between the bread of affliction and the longed-for next year in Israel. There are a number of mitzvos -- religious duties -- which are easily available to us, which could swiftly transform the reality we live in. The Talmud states, for example, that "Great is tzedakah (charity) for it brings the redemption close." (Bava Basra 10a.)

This, explains Rabbi Sofer, is what is meant when we recite the words of the Haggadah: "This [matzah] is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in Egypt. Whoever is hungry, come and eat. Now we are here, next year in the land of Israel!" The message is clear: The path to redemption is righteousness. Through offering food to the hungry we can merit that the next year's Seder will be in the Land of Israel. And not just as exiles in our own land, but in a land that is free from hunger and persecution; a homecoming in the fullest sense, one that marks an end to our estrangement both from our land and from our G-d.

Sources: Haggadah Arzei HaLevanon; Drashot HaChatam Sofer; Oznaim L'torah to Genesis 26:15-16.

Enjoy this writer's work? Why not sign-up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.

JWR contributor Rabbi Yisrael Rutman is a Jerusalem-based educator. To comment, please click here.


© Rabbi Yisrael Rutman