Let My People Know

Five Teachings for Pesach from Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


"Times of crises give us opportunities for a new outlook"

“Passover is the most ancient Jewish festival, and also the most beloved.

Yet beyond the splendor of its antiquity and our own childhood memories, Passover’s message is both universal and contemporary:

Each of us yearns for the move from enslavement to exile.

The heartfelt desire for deliverance — redemption from slavery — is not confined to those in captivity.

One’s personal ‘Egypt’ may be literal, physical bondage.

But others may experience their own ‘Egypt’ as financial ruin, the exile of one’s soul or the relentless heartache within one’s own family.

The defining feature of bondage is not a one-time trauma; it lies in its span, sometimes a whole course of life.

Whether one’s bondage is obvious to all or known only to the sufferer, it is a reality from which the sufferer cannot pull free.

And because the sufferer does not have the tools or the abilities to liberate himself, everyone – both the complete heretic and the sage – yearns, with or without prayer, for a miracle. 

Even the attempt to escape is not a full answer; the straits may be too high, and possibly also too deep.

The Exodus from Egypt is miraculous.

A pit with a ladder in it is a pit, but there is a clear way out of it.

Egypt is a dead-end labyrinth, an abyss with no staircase.

Had ‘Egypt’ been a solvable problem, on either the individual or the national level, surely many would have found a way to leave.

The festival of the Exodus from Egypt therefore carries an important and significant message for every human being – namely, that there is a precedent for the miracle of deliverance, that there even is a memory of such an event.

And thus the story of the Exodus is imprinted in each of us. 

Even those of weak faith can see the Exodus as the symbol of liberation from a difficult and bitter exile.

Unfortunately, there is no formula for reaching the Exodus, neither a five-year plan nor a twelve-step program.

But there is one element that can be identified:

What seems to be the peak of enslavement is, in fact, the beginning of redemption.

Just before the miracle of the Exodus the Torah tells us (Exodus 1:14) ‘and they [the Egyptians] made their [the Israelites'] lives bitter.’

Why so?

Enslavement, in all its forms, is painful, limiting and confining; but because it is not a one-time event, we adapt.

It is not that we like our troubles; it is that we are used to them.

We learn to co-exist, to lead a life in which man and his suffering, external or internal, live side by side.

There is pain, there is distress, but there is also resignation, even if unwilling, to the existing situation.

A reality of this kind is in itself a barrier to liberation.

A person who has been living for a long time behind walls may be unable to step out even when the gate opens.

And such a person will surely not have the courage to make an illogical jump in order to escape his present situation.

However, when people reach a deeper understanding of their distress, when they reach the level of ‘and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried’ (Ibid, 2:23), this in itself is the beginning of the possibility of being redeemed.

Bitterness emerges not only out of the pain, but also from the shattering of the compliance with the state of bondage.

That bitter suffering is not the solution; it is the moment of realization, a more profound understanding of our travail.

Out of this moment comes the opening for a new paradigm, a new reality.

Times of crises, such as our own times, are not only periods of human and social tragedies.

They also give us opportunities for a new outlook and a clearer examination of the past and of the present.

A new perception of reality — one that does not focus on particular details but also sees the broad social, economic and human situation — is in itself the beginning of redemption.

One must want to be redeemed, in order to be redeemed.

Before we eat the matzah (which is both a symbol of redemption and ‘the bread of affliction’) we remove the leaven, bi’ur chametz.

Leaven is bread which is very edible, possibly tastier than matzah, which symbolizes all the more bearable aspects of bondage.

We are called upon to burn, even if only symbolically, the leaven that has accumulated in the past year, perhaps also in the course of a whole generation, so that we can begin to create an atmosphere of redemption. 

On the Seder night we gather for a festive meal, and the festival table in every Jewish home – even if it is neither glamorous nor bountiful – is a reminder of a most important fact: that the Israelites were redeemed not only in the past, and that in the future, too, there is the “Redeemer of Israel.”

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

"The central ceremony of Passover takes place in the home, not in the synagogue"

“The sense of family is an integral part of all Jewish holidays, but it is even stronger during the festival of Passover. 

The central ceremony of Passover is the seder, which takes place in the home, not in the synagogue. 

And the key element of the seder is in telling the story of our (physical and spiritual) enslavement, our (physical) liberation, and the attainment of our (spiritual) destiny at Mount Sinai – that is, the reaffirmation of our identity as the House of Israel.

This Wednesday night, Jewish families throughout the world will come together and read from the Haggadah, the text of the seder. 

They will begin to tell the story by pointing to the matzah, the unleavened bread, and declaring: 

‘This is the bread of affliction, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. 

Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are needy come and celebrate Passover.’

As we look at the matzah and remember our history – when we were hungry and needy, yes, but also when we were all together – we realize that part of the family is missing. 

There are empty chairs in the house, where a son or a daughter or a cousin ought to be.

We issue the invitation and we open the door, but some of them are so far away – from us and from Judaism – that they don’t hear our invitation or see the light from the open door. 

If every Jew who cares about the members of the Jewish family will issue the invitation and open the door, many of these estranged Jews will hear or see, and drop in for a visit – if not to his own house, then to the house of a long-lost cousin.

Let us welcome them back.”

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

"Why is This Generation Different From All Other Generations?"

The seder is a singular event in the Jewish calendar, requiring days, or even weeks, of preparation. 

When we sit down at the table, at last, and coax the youngest participant to ask Ma Nishtana, we know exactly what is different, and how much effort it took to make it different.

The next set of questions — those asked by the Four Sons, or the Four Children — addresses a larger issue. 

According to one perspective, the Four Sons represent four generations of the Jewish people. 

This leads us to the wider question I have posed above. A different night is one thing, but a whole different generation?

The first generation is not only wise, but enthusiastic — or perhaps it is enthusiastic because it is wise. It has received a solid Jewish education and is steeped in Jewish life and Jewish culture. Its members ask questions so as to broaden and deepen their commitment.

The second generation is wicked (the language is harsh, but it’s the text we have): This generation may have learned the “behavioral” part of Judaism, but it has missed the spiritual and the inspirational elements. Lacking a meaningful understanding of Pesach — and, indeed, of Judaism – it rebels.

The third generation asks a question that is almost primitive: “What is this?” This generation is ignorant, too ignorant to be rebellious. Yet the grandchild notices unfamiliar objects and actions, and so he approaches the grandfather with his questions.

The child of the fourth generation, however, is not motivated to ask, and would not even know what or whom to ask. No one in his orbit is Jewishly knowledgeable or Jewishly connected. His grandfather is a member of the second generation, the one who rebelled against the Jewish heritage and rejected it. He has no memories and no context.

Throughout our history, and in almost every country of our dispersion — with the noteworthy exception of the United States — others have tried to destroy us with hate. 

Today, however, the biggest problem — especially in the United States — is that we are being decimated by “love,” as, one by one, Jews are voluntarily surrendering their Judaism on an unprecedented scale.

Our response to this threat must also occur one-to-one. 

At the seder, and every day, we must respond to our children’s curiosity with substance and we must meet their passion with our own. 

We must assure that we live a Judaism that is fresh and vigorous and compelling, so that every generation will be able to establish itself as a first generation that is both wise and enthusiastic.

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

"One may jest, one may ask questions, one may play"

The external framework of the seder, despite it being fixed, is not rigid; it allows, and even encourages, the introduction of changes and innovations.

Not only were new sections added to the text of the Haggadah over the generations from time to time, but the text itself, by its very nature, demands completion.

In each generation parents and children are again asked to think about the enslavement and liberation from Egypt—to discuss them, study them, and to examine the many points at which present-day life meets, identifies with and clashes with the Passover Haggadah.

Essentially, everyone is asked to add to the story, to perfect it and to “relate the Exodus from Egypt” at least for “that entire night.”

For this reason, there is no hard and fast rule as to how one is to read the Haggadah and who is to read it.

If they wish, the members of the household may ask the oldest one to read it and to explain;

if they prefer, they may all read it together;

if they wish to sing the text, fine;

if they prefer it may be read without song and melody.

Whoever wishes to ask questions is invited to ask, whether young or old–the wise child, the wicked one, the stupid one.

And whoever wishes to answer or to discuss the matter is praiseworthy.

The night of the seder expresses that characteristic of Judaism which was succinctly put by one of the Hassidic teachers: “’You shall be a holy people unto Me’–that your holiness shall be human.”

Thus, the atmosphere at the seder may not be one of scorn or joking, but of respect for the sacred—but in a human manner.

One may jest;

one may ask questions;

one may play.

The afikoman is “stolen,” one acts out the Exodus from Egypt, and once again this Jewish family, which is now celebrating the Passover Seder, is connected with the entire Jewish people, in all places and throughout the generations.

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

"We Become Children Once Again"

The whole Passover ritual could be summarized in a single commandment: “You shall tell your son.”

This is why at the beginning of the Haggadah the child asks four questions: “Why is this night different from all other nights? Why do we only eat matzah?” and so forth.

According to the law, if there is no child present, or if an adult celebrates Passover alone, he must ask the questions, even though he is supposed to “know” the answers.

It is customary in certain communities for adults to ask the questions, because on Passover, we should, in a sense, become children.

This is also why in the Bible, Passover is called the “spring holiday.” On Passover, nature as a whole begins to blossom and man’s renewal coincides with that of nature.

The Sages have pointed to the parallel between the word nitsan, “bud,” and Nisan, the month in which Passover takes place.

It is a true renaissance. We become children once again, and all we can do is ask questions.

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz