Category Archives: Shul magazine articles

Insights into the Seder

With Pesach approaching I wanted to help enhance one of the most central parts of our Pesach celebration – the seder. The purpose of the seder is to convey the story of the exodus from Egypt and connect us to one of the most seminal events in the history of the Jewish people. The fact that Jews have held a seder in their homes on Pesach universally across the world and throughout every generation means that the seder itself links us directly both to our own ancestors and to every other Jew.



The Torah calls Pesach “Chag Hamatzos.” But we call it “Pesach.” Why is this so? Rav Chaim Volozhiner (1749 – 1821) explains the difference that the word Matzos (מַצוֹת) and the word Mitzvos (מִצוֹת) are spelled exactly the same in Hebrew. Therefore, “Chag HaMatzos” can also be read “Chag HaMitzvos.” This means that when the Jews left Egypt and received the Torah, they gained the opportunity to connect with G-d through His commandments and earn great reward through keeping them.


Pesach, on the other hand, means Passover: G-d “passed over” the houses of the Jewish people. By calling it Pesach, we emphasize the good that G-d has done for us. Our Sages teach us not to serve G-d with an eye to the reward; rather we should serve Him out of a sense of love and gratitude. By calling it Pesach we de-emphasize the reward that each Mitzva brings, and instead focus on the good that G-d has done for us.


The second explanation from the Ariz”l,  Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534 – 1572) because the word Pesach (פֶסַח) is a compound word which means Peh (פֶה) mouth, and Sach (סַח) speaks, hinting that on this night we retell the history of the Exodus.


The seder

The Maharal, Rabbi Judah Löwe ben Bezalel, (1520 –1609) known as the Maharal of Prague, explains that the Seder has 15 parts, corresponding to the fifteen steps which led up to the Temple. Our Sages say that our table is like an Altar, and this is particularly true on Seder-night, when our family table is a tool to achieve new spiritual heights. Similarly, just as the Temple helped the Jewish People sense the Divine Order in the world, so too, the Seder, the Hebrew word for order, is a reminder that G-d guides world history.



The Talmud explains that by beginning the Seder meal in an unusual way, with a vegetable instead of with bread, the children will be curious and ask, “Why are we beginning the meal with a vegetable instead of bread?” Once their curiosity is aroused, they will be more attentive to the story of the Exodus.


The Four Cups

The cups parallel the four expressions in the Torah which describe our freedom from Egypt. The first cup which we drink at Kiddush, parallels “I will take you out”. This is the essence of Kiddush sanctification – the realization that the Jewish People play a unique role in this world. The Haggada, the story of our physical exodus from Egypt, is recited over the second cup, symbolizing our physical salvation, which is parallel to “I will save you.” Birkas HaMazon, (Blessings after the meal) remind us that G-d provides for our sustenance, is recited over the third cup, paralleling “I will redeem you” – the goal of the Exodus was the formation of a unique relationship with G-d. Hallel is recited over the fourth cup. Hallel is the praise we bestow on G-d, recognizing that He said “I will take you to be My nation.”

The Four Questions

More so than any other festival, the Seder-night is dedicated to children, because the Torah dictates that we must tell the history of the Exodus to our children on this night. The Haggada directs us to do many unusual things to arouse the children’s curiosity so that they will want to know “why this night is different than all other nights.” Immediately following Kiddush the curiosities begin. We wash hands as on each Shabbos or Festival, but on Seder-night we wash without a blessing because we first eat karpas (a vegetable) and not bread. Just as karpas whets our appetites for the matzah, so too, this unusual procedure interests us in the secrets of this night.


Even adults are naturally inquisitive and like children should not be afraid to ask. The custom of providing treats for the children not only helps keep them awake, but also serves as a stimulus for their questions, and as a reward for their participation.


The Four Sons

The late Rabbi Uziel Millevsky, former Chief Rabbi of Mexico and senior lecturer at Ohr Somayach Yeshiva in Jerusalem explains that the author of the Haggada hints at the danger of a lack of education by his unique order of the Torah’s four sons. He feared degeneration from monotheism to self worship (a form of idol worship), the opposite path from that traversed by our ancestors. A wise child who asks questions demonstrating a basic knowledge of Judaism and is not answered properly may be so bitter that even if he himself is observant, his child (the second generation son) will move away from the practise of Torah and Mitzvos.


This wayward second generation son will refuse to educate his children properly (the third generation son). This relatively ignorant third generation son will never understand his parents’ rejection of Judaism. He will be curious, but not overly interested in his heritage. He will produce a fourth generation son which feels that the Torah could not possibly be intellectually satisfying. He is therefore so far removed from Torah that he has no interest in participating actively, nor does he know how to begin investigating. If he does not unearth the depth of Torah, the fifth generation will not even attend a Pesach Seder.


The Wicked Son

What does he say? “What does this drudgery mean to you!” The wicked son’s question is a quote from the Torah: “When your children will say to you…what does this drudgery mean to you!” The key to his wickedness lies in the word “say.” He doesn’t ask a question at all; rather, he “says. Therefore…You should knock out his teeth and say, “It’s for this that G-d did for me when I left Egypt.” “For me and not for him.”


The word “him” is in the third person. Since the wicked son’s question is rhetorical, it gets no direct response. To whom, then, is the father speaking? To the son who “doesn’t know how to ask a question.” He, like the wicked son, asks no questions. Therefore, he is in danger of developing into a “wicked son” himself. The father looks at this son and warns him, “for me and not for him…Don’t let his sarcastic smirk fool you … Had he been in Egypt, he would have assimilated into Egyptian society, and would not have been redeemed.”


According to Rabbi Yitzchak ben Yehudah Abrabanel, (Lisbon, 1437 – Venice, 1508), the wicked son is also pointing out a contradiction: On the one hand, we recline like free people and dip our food like aristocrats. But, on the other hand, we eat “bread of affliction” and bitter herbs. Are we celebrating freedom here, or are we commemorating the slavery?

The answer is both. “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and G-d, our G-d, took us out from there with a ‘strong hand’…” Tonight we experience the transition from slavery to freedom.


And it is This

“…which has stood for our fathers and for us; for in each and every generation they stand against us to destroy us, and Hakadosh Baruch Hu rescues us from their hand.”

Exactly what “This” refers to is not immediately clear. Is it the promise made to Abraham, mentioned previously? Or that “G-d will ultimately redeem us from our oppressors?” There is another possibility which gives us a unique insight into the phenomenon of anti-Semitism: This, that “in each and every generation they stand against us to exterminate us”This refers to the fact that as hard as we may try to forget our Jewish identity and assimilate the ways of our host nation, sooner or later they rise against us, remind us of our uniqueness, and awaken our commitment to Judaism. It is worth remembering that historically, one of the most established, culturally integrated and assimilated Jewish communities in recent generations was in Germany in the early part of the 20th Century.


Pesach, Matzah and Maror

Today, without the Temple we cannot fulfil the Mitzvah of the Korban Pesach (the Paschal offering), but we symbolically remind ourselves of it by roasting a bone for the Seder-plate. Also, without the Temple, we cannot perform the Mitzvah of maror (bitter herbs) and eating the maror today is of Rabbinical status. Of these three Mitzvos, only one is a Torah commandment today: The eating of the Matzah itself.


The Festive Meal

One of the unique aspects of the Seder is that we interrupt the saying of the Hallel with a meal. Why is that? The Netziv, Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (Mir, Russia, 1816 – Warsaw, Poland, 1893) explains as follows: The purpose of going out of Egypt was to receive the Torah. With the Torah we gain the ability to serve G-d not only through “spiritual” means, such as Torah study and prayer, but through “physical” commandments as well, such as marriage, enjoying Shabbos, eating matzamarror, and the Pesach offering. We eat in the middle of Hallel in order to praise G-d for sanctifying and elevating our physical existence. Even “mundane” things like eating are elevated when we do them in the service of G-d.



In our lowliness, he remembered us…and redeemed us from our oppressors. He gives food to all flesh…Praise G-d of the heavens! These last four phrases of Hallel can be seen as paralleling the four cups we drink tonight. Over the first cup we make kiddush and declare, “You chose us from all the nations.” Why did G-d choose us? The Sages explain that G-d chose the Jewish people because of their humility. “In our lowliness” –  in our humility, “He remembered us” and chose us. The second cup goes together with the Haggadah, where we tell how G-d “redeemed us from our oppressors.” During Bircas Hamazon, the blessings after the meal we recognize that “He gives food to all flesh.” This is said over the third cup. And with the fourth cup we sing Hallel…”Praise G-d of the heavens!

Hungry? Needy? Just you wait…

Some of my happiest childhood memories are of this time of year. I remember the excitement of taking the special Pesach crockery and cutlery out from their dusty boxes and helping to clean them. I remember sitting on the sofa the afternoon before the seder started, nestling into my father’s side as he listened to me practising ma nishtanah. I remember the smell of the special Pesach cooking permeating the house.

I also remember having a lot of questions, especially about the seder. Our Shabbat and Yom Tov mealtimes were always full of questions about religion and philosophy and so the seder was an especially exciting time.

One of the questions that always came up was about the line at the beginning of the seder to invite the poor and needy to come and eat and celebrate with us.

כָּל דִּכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכוֹל. כָּל דִּצְרִיךְ יֵיתֵי וְיִפְסַח.

Let all who are hungry come and eat! Let all who are needy comeand celebrate Pesach!

As we are sitting at the table with our family and friends with the seder plate in front of us and the food cooking away in the kitchen, isn’t it a bit late to be inviting other people to join us? We don’t tend to invite someone to a party after the party has already started (unless we are being disingenuous to say the least). So what is going on?

One way to look at this is that the invitation is not really for outsiders, it’s for those already sitting at the table. Why do we need to invite those sitting round the table? Surely they are already sitting there!

The fact is that it is possible to be physically present at the seder without really being there – without focussing on what is happening. We might be sitting at the table, but our minds might be somewhere else – our work, the football match that we’re missing, or even the state of the food simmering away in the kitchen. If we fail to be ‘in the room’ we may miss out on what should be a transformative journey back in time to ancient Egypt. We could go through the whole seder experience and perform all of the rituals – eating our matza and marror, sitting through the retelling of the plagues, dipping our fingers in wine and schmearing copious amounts of charoses over our lettuce (and commenting on how good it is) – and completely miss the point of it all.

Not only that, but so much of the seder is designed to create wonder and generate questions we mistakenly think that it is entirely designed for the children. In reality the seder it there for all of us: we are all supposed to view ourselves as having left Egypt, we are all obligated to eat matzah and marror and hear the story of our Exodus and redemption being retold and we are all supposed to be invested in the meaning of the seder.

It is less about the seder being an experience for children, and more about adults becoming uninhibited and child-like in their thirst for knowledge by asking good questions. We can only do that if we are hungry to learn.

May we all prepare ourselves for the seder with an appetite for plumbing the depths of Jewish learning and use the experience to relive and understand the redemption of our people, arguably the seminal moment in our shared history.

Planting and Growing

There was a farmer who every winter went to an agricultural convention. At the convention, he explored new methods for improving his crop output. He tried to discover new methods for efficient irrigation, hew hybrids that produced better produce, and new farm machinery. He expended all this effort so that he could be assured that the coming year’s harvest would be successful, if not better than the last year’s.

One year, while attending the convention the farmer decided to unwind by taking an evening off to enjoy the local nightlife. After a heavy night of indulging in the local beer, he became very drunk and unwell. After being hospitalised, the doctors discovered that his drinking had triggered a very serious ailment that would require long term care. He was moved to a hospital near his home, and his lengthy treatment began. Months went by, and the farmer’s health dramatically improved. He was finally discharged from the hospital and returned home.

But what he found at home caused him great anguish. He surveyed the entire acreage of his farm. Here he was, halfway into the growing season, and much of the land remained bare. Apparently, his instructions on when and where to plant had not been followed. Any dreams of a successful harvest were dashed. The farmer knew that he could do nothing by that point in time. Starting to plant now would not help. It was too late for that. All of the new techniques he had learned about and all of the machinery he bought could not help. All of the preparations he had made for this season were for naught.

The period of the Jewish year from the beginning of the Jewish month of Ellul (at the beginning of August) extending all the way through the festivals is dedicated to introspection and self-analysis. What have we done this year? How have we lived our lives? Have we lived up to our own expectations?

This period is a time to plot our course for the rest of the year. It is a time for repentance and assertive action; it is a time that we cannot let slip away.

This is the planting season. If we do not plant our seeds, if we do not make a firm commitment to grow and develop and refine ourselves this Rosh HaShannah, we will have missed out on a great opportunity. We could end up going through the motions, coming to Shul, hearing Shofar, fasting on Yom Kippur and simply miss the point.

So many people go through life on one level, happy just to be who they are. Some talk about ambition and goals, but rarely about self improvement. We can be distracted from true growth and development by the bountiful pleasures the world has to offer. Just as the farmer find comfort at the bar, so too we may often use the physical world as a form of escapism.

Yet when reality hits hard, we see that we have only damaged ourselves. Halfway through the growing season, our fields are bare. By taking advantage, we can hope and pray that we will all be the recipients of a bountiful harvest.

Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzedakah

One of the key prayers of our Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur liturgy is unesaneh tokef. Not only does this prayer have an emotive melody, but the words were written to generate feelings of both remorse and awe: On Rosh HaShannah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die …

At the end, we cry out that teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah will remove the evil of the decree. Many translate the words teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah as repentance, prayer and charity. However, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson z”tl explained in a discourse that those translations were not accurate. In truth, his discourse was about the difficulty and danger of translation as there is often an assumption that for every word in one language, there is an equivalent in another.

The Rebbe explained that when dealing with fundamental ideas such as teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah, we must be very careful to understand each one correctly. Often, when looking for equivalent words in other languages, we may mistakenly equate a Jewish value with an idea from another culture.

Repentance, says the Rebbe, is not teshuvah but charatah. These terms are not only dissimilar but in many ways opposites. Charatah implies remorse for the past and a pledge to not repeat the offence in the future. Teshuvah from the Hebrew root lashuv means to returning to the old, to a person’s nature prior to the sin. Worldly desires and instant gratification may distract him from who he really is – a good, moral and principled person – but his inherent being remains unchanged. Repentance means recognition of past mistakes and starting over, teshuvah – returning means revealing and rediscovering a person’s true holy nature.

Prayer in Hebrew is bakashah, meaning request or beseech. The Rebbe, basing himself on Genesis 30:8 and the explanation of the medieval commentator Rashi, the word tefillah means a connection with G-d. While prayer indicates a movement from above – from G-d to man, granting our wishes – tefillah is a movement from below, from man to G-d. People who have everything they want, may not need to make requests of G-d, but everyone needs to attach themselves and make a connection with him.

Lastly the word charity in Hebrew is chessed not tzedakah. Chessed implies that the recipient has no particular right to receive help and the giver is under no obligation to provide it. Tzedakah however, means righteousness or justice. The implication is that the donor gives out of a sense of duty.

These three acts help us to merit a year that will be written and sealed for good. Teshuvah allows us to return to our innermost self. Tefilah helps us to form a positive relationship with G-d. Tzedakah teaches us to turn outwards and be righteous and just to others.

May we all merit a year of blessing and success together with the rest of the Jewish people.



Choosing Life

We are about to celebrate Rosh HaShannah, the Jewish New Year which begins the ten days of repentance concluding with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. During these ten days, we add many new prayers into our liturgy for example, ‘Remember us for life, King who desires life and write us in the book of life – for your sake, God of life’. Life, it seems, is a critical feature of these additions – write us in the book of life, write us for a good life. It seems that life itself is at stake. What does this request for life mean?

At the heart of Jewish thought, is the assertion that human beings have the ability to choose between right and wrong. This understanding is established in the verse in Deuteronomy 30:19 where God tells the Jewish people, ‘This day, I call upon the heaven and the earth as witnesses: I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. You shall choose life, so that you and your children shall live.’

This verse however, leaves us with a difficult question. What is the purpose of God telling us to ‘choose life’? Surely, if life and death mean either continuing to survive or not, God is not offering any real choice at all. Furthermore, there is certainly no need to tell us to make the obvious choice and choose life. The answers to these questions reveal a very deep principle that contains a deep and enduring relevance today.

The Torah records a very interesting conversation between Jacob and Pharaoh. Shortly after Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, he sends them back to Canaan to fetch Jacob, his father so that they can come and live in Egypt. When Jacob arrives, Joseph introduces his father to Pharaoh. The conversation that follows between Jacob and Pharaoh is very interesting. Pharaoh, seeing an elderly man walk into his palace innocently asks Jacob how old he is, as it says in the Torah (Genesis 47:8) ‘And Pharaoh said to Jacob, “How many are the days of the years of your life?”’

Jacob’s answer is very strange. ‘And Jacob said to Pharaoh, “The days of the years of my dwelling are one hundred thirty years. The days of the years of my life have been few and miserable, and they have not reached the days of the years of the lives of my forefathers in the days of their dwelling.”’ What did Jacob mean when he replied with such a long winded answer?

The Russian commentator Rabbi Meïr Leibush ben Yechiel Michel Weiser (1809 – 1879), also known as Malbim explains that Jacob and Pharaoh were having a discussion about the meaning of life. Pharaoh asked Jacob ‘how many are the days of the years of your life?’ Jacob responded by saying that there are two types of life. On the one hand there is what he refers to as ‘the days of the years of my dwelling’. The Hebrew word for dwelling is לגורla’gur meaning to reside in a temporary sense. In other words Jacob is telling Pharaoh how many years he has physically been alive for 130 years.

However, Jacob continues and adds ‘the days of the years of my life have been few and miserable’ meaning, there is something else called life that is not about simply living. Longevity is very nice but it is not a goal in and of itself. Life is not just a question of survival. Jacob is saying to Pharaoh it is the quality and meaning of my life that I care about, not simply my age.

We know that Rosh HaShannah is our yom HaDin – Day of Judgement. This judgement is an appraisal of how we lived our lives during the previous year. What are we doing with the unique gifts that God has given us?Life is not just a question of survival, but appreciating what we have. In the coming days we pray not only for life itself, but for the gifts of life; for prosperity, health, the welfare of our community and so on. We pray for the things that make our lives meaningful.

In turn however, God tells us to ‘choose life’ meaning, invest your time wisely. Use the gifts that God has given you to live life the way it is supposed to be lived so as the Torah tells us ‘you and your children shall live’. God is not promising that we will simply survive by choosing to live. He is telling us that the secret of Jewish immortality is to invest our time carefully and to live a meaningful Jewish life because our children, and every generation after us will follow in our footsteps. When we care about our relationship with God and fill our time with meaningful activities, we are not simply surviving life; we are living life to our greatest potential and ensuring that our children do the same.

With that, I wish you all a Shana Tova U’Metukah, a good and sweet new year filled with meaning, growth, prosperity and above all life, for you, your families, the Northwood community and the entire Jewish people. May we all be inscribed in the book of life.

Judgement Day

The sages tell us that Rosh HaShannah is the day of judgement and yet, rather than reading a portion from the Torah about judgement, we began with the story of Sarah and the birth of Isaac. At that time Sarah was an elderly woman who had prayed for her own child but remained barren all her years. The Torah tells us that ‘God remembered Sarah’, meaning her prayers were finally answered and she gave birth to Isaac.

Why does the Torah tell us that God ‘remembered’? The idea that God remembered implies that He somehow forgot. This is clearly problematic. It is absurd to believe that an all knowing God could forget anything.

Remembering however, doesn’t necessarily mean that we forget.

On many festivals we say Yizkor – we remember parents and relatives who have died. No one believes that we need Yizkor to remind us of our loved ones who have passed on. We never forget them. That is not the point at all. The point of Yizkor is that during our most holiest seasons of the year we should set aside time to recollect what our parents and relatives gave to us, the affect that they had on our lives and on the lives of others and the imprint that they left here in this world which continues to influence us today.

The same is true when God remembers. God remembered Sarah in the sense that He examined her deeds. He examined the effect she was having on the world and when the time was right, answered her prayers. This forms the connection between remembering and judgement and helps us to understand what judgement means.

I want to illustrate this by the following example. Imagine that you are the head of a department in a large company with many different departments. You are responsible for managing the budget for that department, as well as the staff who work for you. One day, you receive an email from head office saying that in order to calculate the departmental budgets for the coming year, there will be an appraisal of each department to assess its performance and profit margin, compared with the previous budget. Furthermore, as the head of the department you must make a presentation to the board of executives, outlining your business strategy for the coming year and to apply for your budget to carry out that strategy.

You frantically begin putting together your presentation outlining all of the things that you have done, all of your department’s achievements, how you want to take the department forward in the coming year and how you need an even bigger budget to achieve it. On the day of your presentation, you nervously enter the board room, connect your laptop and begin your power point presentation. You begin to outline the need for a faster computer network, better office space, more staff and so on, acutely aware that the board are currently reviewing the results from the appraisal.

When you finish, they thank you and tell you that they will reach their decision in the next few days. In the mean time, they will be keeping a close eye on you while they deliberate. You leave feeling relived but also prepared to work hard over the next few days to impress the board hoping they will rule in your favour.

From Rosh HaShannah through to Yom Kippur we are all heads of departments. Every year God gives us a wide ranging budget – our talents, money, happiness, our family, even life itself. God is our CEO and Rosh HaShannah is the day of our presentation. He wants us to ask him for anything we wish for in the coming year, but to bear in mind that it will depend both on our previous achievements and desires for the year ahead. He gives us time to show just how much the budget we are asking for – life, prosperity, health, happiness and so on – means to us and how it will be utilised.

Nevertheless, if we look back over the year we may find that things don’t always add up. We thought our presentation went well. We thought that our friends and family also put together a good case and yet, inexplicably, we do not always come through the year with everything we ask for and yet others, who don’t seem to pull their weight come away with a greater budget each year!

While it is impossible to fathom, we can take comfort from knowing that our logic is not always God’s logic. As the prophet Isaiah writes (55:8-9):

כִּי לֹא מַחְשְׁבוֹתַי מַחְשְׁבוֹתֵיכֶם וְלֹא דַרְכֵיכֶם דְּרָכָי נְאֻם יְקֹוָק: כִּי גָבְהוּ שָׁמַיִם מֵאָרֶץ כֵּן גָּבְהוּ דְרָכַי מִדַּרְכֵיכֶם וּמַחְשְׁבֹתַי מִמַּחְשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Nonetheless, while our CEO may explain that we could never understand how He apportions our budgets for the year ahead, we must still come to Him and make our presentations and pledge that no matter how hard life seems, we will be grateful for the blessings and gifts we have and do our utmost to merit not only what we have, but to receive the sweetness of an even great bounty for the year to come and declare הוֹדוּ לַיקֹוָק כִּי טוֹב כִּי לְעוֹלָם חַסְדּוֹ – Give thanks to the Lord for He is good; His loving-kindness is eternal.


Shannah Tovah Umetukah