Author’s Note: The title of this piece has nothing whatever to do with D.W. Griffith's inverted portrayal of American history in his 1915 film entitled The Birth of a Nation.
Beginning on the eve of the fifteenth day of Nissan the most stiff-necked of all peoples, the Jewish people, who dwell in all "four corners of the earth" to which the winds of time have blown them, celebrate Pesach (Passover) in one fashion or another.
Preparation for this remembrance takes place not only in one's home and in one's heart but in the Beis Medrash, the House of Study wherein it is customary to learn and relearn the laws of Pesach between the afternoon prayer (Mincha) and the evening prayer (Maariv) followed by a recitation of the Rabbinical Kaddish if a minyan is present.
And while it is incumbent upon each individual to read the text of the Haggadah shel Pesach for himself, it oftentimes falls to the seder leader to lead and assign readings as appropriate. He has an additional obligation, however, to tell over the story of the sojourn and subsequent exodus of B'nai Yisrael from Egyptian slavery in his own words to those gathered around his table.*
There is no exemption for a Jew even should he find himself alone on the first two nights of Pesach. Naturally, it is preferable he celebrate in the company of family and friends, especially where there are children in attendance because the seder nights are meant especially for them.
Questions are the "intellectual centerpiece" of the Pesach table, especially those coming from the mouths of children. Their centrality cannot be overstated; the future of the Jewish people teeters ever so precariously on the fulcrum of the Pesach Seder ("Seder" is singular; "sedarim" is plural.)
The two nights of the two sedarim are different from all other nights. The answer(s) are what really matters in the long term because the delicacy and diplomacy with which a child's question is answered might well determine if that child ever again asks a question.
You've heard the old adage about there being no dumb questions, just dumb answers. It derives from this Jewish tradition.
I began my pre-Pesach search for meaning earlier this evening by recalling something I had heard in shul several days ago. It was just after morning prayers had concluded. Rabbi sat down with a member of the morning minyan to learn a particular Gemara. As is my custom, I listened quietly.
Rabbi raised the topic of the nefarious mazikim and shaydim-otherwise microscopic or invisible agents of evil-who, it is alleged, inhabit the "underworld". Whether one takes such ideas literally or can toy with them without disrespecting them or their place in Jewish tradition is a question for each individual.
Growing up in St. Louis, I often heard the Yiddish word mazik from my stepfather. It was always used, it seemed to me, playfully, to refer to any young boy inclined to mischief, a mischief maker’. Given that definition, as you might expect, there was never a shortage of "mazikim" in my neighborhood. On a less playful note, I have heard it said that Rabbi Aharon Soloveitchik understood "mazikim" as "bacteria".
How one soul of the sort Y.L. Peretz wrote about in his "Three Souls" negates an army of shaydim
I had never before witnessed anything quite as dramatic and heart-wrenching as the funeral for a two-month old baby at which Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik delivered the eulogy.
Incessantly rainy for hours, the kind of rain that comes and goes with such frequency that you want to cry out, "If you're going to rain, then rain already or go and come back some other day." But it had already come enough that day to make the unpaved back "roads" (for want of a better word) of Waldheim Cemetery muddy, very muddy like the slop one might expect to find in a barnyard.
We were late to arrive, but then saw what we hoped we would never see again.
Rabbi, together with a second man unknown to me, carried a tiny box, each man holding on to his end in a way I had never seen before. Hovering over the box while supporting its underside so tenderly as if he were lifting a newborn from its cradle for the first time, Rabbi carried his end into the grave itself while the other man stayed atop, having finally to surrender his portion when the length of his arms ran out. When all you can think of saying is 'Why, O G-d, why do you bring us here to witness this?!'
It became Reb Moshe's job to try to answer that very question.
Everyone's face bespoke the same "words"-that somehow Reb Moshe and only Reb Moshe could set this insane matter aright.
He paced, he struggled, he grasped for anything that might help him explain the inexplicable to the mourners and himself. It had to do with each life whether of short, average or lengthy duration, having its divine mission; once achieved, well ... you know and we thank G-d.
Reb Moshe is a man much sought after for his expertise in all matters Halachic. His cell phone rings quite frequently, especially on Sunday mornings between 9:45 and 11: 00 when he tries his very best to teach us something of his Torah that he received from his father. But it is not his intellect but the manner in which he uses it that I so admire about Him-a man who uses his own gifts NOT to aggrandize himself but to enhance others.
Perhaps you have heard it said that every beginning is holy and so it is with Pesach-the story of "the birthing of a nation” whose greatness dwells within its heart and whose greatest gift of life is its donation of humility.
Chag Pesach Someach
*The author wishes to thank R. Bz. L for his Wednesday night shiur.