By Rabbi Daniel Bortz
Once, just before Passover, a lady approached the great Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik with a strange question. She asked to know whether one could use milk instead of wine for the four cups of the Seder, since she simply could not afford the wine. He responded by giving her a large sum of money. One of the Rabbi’s students asked him, “I understand that you gave her money because she can’t afford the wine, but why so much?” The Rabbi explained, “If she wants to drink milk at the Seder, it is obvious she has no meat for Passover” (since the laws of kashrut forbid the mixing of milk and meat). “So I gave her enough to buy both wine and meat for the entire holiday.”
At the core of the Passover Seder is the Haggadah, which focuses on a discussion of four sons, opening with the question of the wise son. Every aspect of the Haggadah and Seder has deep meaning. What does it mean to be wise? As we see with the Rabbi in the story, it’s not enough to be smart; we have to be perceptive. In yeshiva, I was always taught: “If you want to answer someone, to teach them, don’t focus on only answering their question. That may not be the real issue bothering them. Answer the questioner.” We have to have a sensitive ear to hear what people are saying behind their words. This enables us to perceive the speaker’s true needs and respond accordingly with compassion. This is true wisdom.
Why is there such an emphasis in Judaism on the exodus form Egypt? We mention it throughout our prayers, three times a day, as well as on Kiddush Friday night. What was so momentous and relevant about it that causes us to recount it every day? When the Jewish people left Egypt, this wasn’t only a people leaving a physical location in North Africa. The Mystics explain that the leaving of Egypt effected an eternal spiritual change that forever gave us the ability to leave our inner Egypt. “Egypt” in Hebrew is Mitzrayim; “limitations” in Hebrew is Maytzarim, spelled the same and thus intertwined. Each of us has areas of Egypt—of limitation—that stop us from being the best we can be. For some, it’s sadness, anger and laziness. For others, it’s self esteem, impatience, addiction or a spiritual numbness. The goal is to transcend our internal Egypt every day.
But on Passover, especially during the Seder, a unique energy exists, one that empowers us more than ever before to transcend our personal limitations, leaping over our internal obstacles to reach our incredible potential. Every year we leave our Egypt further behind than before. This is made easier on Passover because of the hametz (leaven) that we have eliminated from our lives, and replaced with matzah. Like bread that is puffed up, hametz represents ego and arrogance. The flat matzah represents humility. What is G-d’s reaction to a self centered, egotistical person? “He and I cannot dwell together in the world” (Talmud Sotah 5a based on Psalms 101:5). We need to make room for G-d and others. Through this elimination of ego and openness to change, let us take advantage of this time to grow spiritually, as we leap to greater levels than ever before. Chag Sameach!