Parashat Pessah: And still we suffer

The last day of Pessah highlights the danger which lay in wait for the Israelites as they approached the Red (Reed) Sea.

seder plate 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
seder plate 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
"On all other nights we don't even dip once but on this night we dip twice: the first time karpas in haroset and the second time bitter herbs in haroset." (Haggada in accordance with Maimonides's interpretation) Despite the fact that Pessah is celebrated as the Festival of Freedom, the last day of the week-long festival highlights the danger which lay in wait for the Israelites as they approached the Red (Reed) Sea. Unfortunately similar dangers awaited throughout their desert experience. On a parallel level, despite the birth of the modern state, and our declaration that it's "the beginning of the sprout of our redemption," we have still gone through wars and attacks which have brought much tragedy. Are we free or aren't we? Is this a period of redemption or isn't it? Let us turn to the Haggada in order to discover what freedom and redemption are really about. The Seder which we celebrate in such a spirited fashion begins with the traditional four questions, the third of which asks about the two times we dip our Pessah hors d'oeuvre. According to Maimonides, haroset is what we dip into - that very tasty mix of apples, dates, nuts and wine. The Jerusalem Talmud suggests that since this mix is red, the haroset symbolizes blood. Karpas is the Greek word for vegetable or herb, and symbolizes the spring (aviv), which is when Pessah always falls. From this perspective, we begin celebrating our spring festival of redemption by remembering the blood of the murdered Hebrew babies. Alternatively, the word karpas is used for striped and colored garments, as in the karpas which decorated Ahasuerus's palace in Persia, and the striped garment Jacob gave to his favorite son, Joseph. That special robe was dipped in blood by Joseph's brothers after they sold him into Egypt; we open the Seder by dipping karpas in haroset to highlight the fact that brotherly strife was responsible for our first exile. Our second dipping is bitter herbs in haroset which, according to many commentaries symbolizes the paschal lamb; the bitter herbs represent the hyssop ("ezov" while "ez" means goat) which was dipped in the blood of the sacrifice and then placed on the doorposts of Hebrew homes in Egypt (Ex.12:22). The paschal lamb is our major symbol of redemption; we are going to eat it at night, after we are filled with other foods, as the crowning sign of having been freed. And so this second dipping tells us in no uncertain terms that even after the beginning of our redemption we must be prepared for more blood and sacrifice. I understand that this message is very difficult, but it's built into the very fabric of our Scriptures. Indeed, when the Almighty entered into the eternal "Covenant between the Pieces," a black fear descended upon Abraham (Gen. 15:12). Apparently even redemption will demand its price in human blood. Why should this be the case? Unfortunately, there is no real answer. When Moses asked the Almighty why it was necessary for the great and holy sage Rabbi Akiva to suffer so much before his death, God tells him, "be quiet, such is my thought." This is similar to a child's response when a parent asks why he or she is acting in such a way and the child replies: "Kacha. That's how it is." And in our daily Ashrei prayer there appears the Hebrew phrase, "Fortunate is the nation that is able to accept the response of kacha" (ashrei ha'am asher kacha lo). But this too requires explanation. I heard in the name of the Lubavitcher Rebbe that the Hebrew word tibul (dipping) is the same word (with switched letters) as bitul (or nullification). Indeed, when we nullify ("mevatel") the hametz we are declaring that deliciously baked pumpernickel or decoratively topped chocolate cheesecake is like the dust of the earth; we are in effect nullifying our will to God's will by accepting the fact that during Passover the usually delectable hametz becomes halachically and therefore nutritionally and aesthetically valueless and tasteless. The relationship of nullification (bitul) to dipping (tibul) therefore becomes clear: when I place a bland vegetable in a spicy dip, I want to nullify the taste of the vegetable. Hence, when the Jew is confronted with the blood of sacrifice even after the beginning of redemption, he must understand the necessity of nullifying himself before the eternal structures of the universe. From this perspective, perhaps we can understand the poignant prayer of Rabbi Levy Yitzhak of Berditchev: "Dear God, I do not ask you not to make me suffer. Nor do I pray not to suffer. I would merely want to know that my suffering is truly for Your sake." The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.