Due to current circumstances, many people who usually go out to friends or family for the Seder will be making a seder at home. But unfortunately, lots of us don’t know how to make a Seder. We prepare, and follow the instructions in the Haggadah, but will still make mistakes.
But we must remember, and remind each other, that God doesn’t mind the mistakes that we will make. God wants to be at your Seder. If we don’t know how to do it, we still must try. Getting all the rituals exactly right is not what ultimately matters to God. The fact that we’re making a seder and inviting him by doing the Mitzvah is what he enjoys. That’s what he loves.
When we make a Seder, no matter how well or technically correct we do it, it means everything to God.
When we ask the Four Questions, we preface by saying in Yiddish “Tatteh, Ich vil by dir fregen fir kashes” which means “father, I’d like to ask you four questions.” When we say this, even if our fathers have passed away, our fathers listen. No matter how well we do the Seder, the souls of our fathers come down from heaven to hear us ask them the Four Question.
What’s happens on Pesach is an infinite event that takes place in both heaven and earth. Pesach is everywhere. That is why, no matter what, God will be at your Seder. Elijah The Prophet will come to your Seder. Your parents and grandparents who have passed will descend from their heavenly paradise to come to the Seder and be there with you so that you are not alone, and they will get immense pleasure hearing us ask the Four Questions.
God doesn’t expect perfection. Trying to make a seder alone is perfect to him. To God, if you follow the instructions to the best of your ability because you want to do his Mitzvah, that is perfect. That is so infinite that if you forget a word, or if you mix up the order of things, it doesn’t detract from the pleasure that it gives him.
Even one person sitting in a little apartment trying to make a seder, and all they know is that there’s Matzah and there’s wine, it is perfect to God.
The past year has been very difficult. We have struggled with loneliness, sickness, and the loss of loved ones, and due to safety restrictions, most of us couldn’t even say Kaddish for those who have passed before a Minyan. But from the teachings of the Torah we know that if we cannot do a Mitzvah, then God is telling us that it is not necessary. Usually, a soul that passes needs it’s children on earth to say Kaddish to bring it to heaven. But the people who have passed during this pandemic were special souls. These souls went straight to heaven. The Kaddish was not necessary.
If this year we can’t have a seder like we used to, and can’t follow all the customs and traditions perfectly, then God is telling us that it is not necessary this year. All God wants is our presence at the seder. That’s what he asked for and that’s what we will do to the best of our abilities.
Raising children means taking them from where they are and raising them up a step in what gives them pleasure.
Every child is born with pleasure in something. To raise a child means to introduce the next level of pleasure. Not take away pleasure, but introduce a higher pleasure.
For example, children are born with pleasure in touch and taste, so we sing to our children and teach them to enjoy music because the pleasure in music is a higher pleasure.
After we introduce music, we teach our children the pleasure of good character.
When we read a book to our children about somebody who did something special and heroic and the child’s eyes light up and they enjoy hearing about it, that is the pleasure that comes from appreciating good character. It is a greater, deeper, and more intense pleasure than eating and touching and it’s also higher than music.
The next step up is intelligence. When a child figures out a puzzle or a riddle or you ask a question and the child knows the answer, and you see the pleasure that it gives the child, that is the pleasure of intelligence.
Raising children means helping them up the ladder of pleasures, and that is how we help children become good and decent people.
One of the greatest stories ever told is the story of Jonah and the whale. Let’s explore the story and find out the full meaning:
God comes to the prophet Jonah, and he says: go to the city of Nineveh and prophesize. Tell them that if they don’t repent in 40 days, the city will be destroyed.
The next thing we know, Jonah is on a ship sailing off to Tarshish. A storm breaks out, and the ship is floundering. The people cry out to their gods, but it doesn’t help. They throw their equipment overboard to lighten the load, but that doesn’t help. And then they find Jonah sleeping below deck, and they say: why are you sleeping? call out to your God! Pray! But Jonah says to them: if you want to save yourselves, throw me overboard. And so, they asked God for forgiveness for what they were about to do, and they throw him overboard. Sure enough, the storm abates.
Then, God arranges for a large fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah is in the bowels of this fish for three days, until the fish spits Jonah out, and Jonah goes to Nineveh to deliver the prophecy. He comes there, and he says to the people: If you don’t repent within 40 days, Nineveh is finished. The King proclaimed a fast day for all, including even the animals, and commands everyone to change their ways and become good and do what’s right in the eyes of God, and the city was saved. Jonah was severely uncomfortable and very stressed about the whole thing. But God says to him: with the number of people, the population of Nineveh, and their cattle, people who don’t know right from left or up from down, should I not have compassion on them?
Now let’s figure out what was really going on.
God told Jonah to deliver this prophecy and demand that the people of Nineveh repent. But Jonah knew that when he would deliver the prophecy, the people will heed his call and indeed repent. That distressed him terribly because the Jews also had sinned, and they had prophets warning them and telling them to repent, but they didn’t listen. Now, if the non-Jewish city of Nineveh is going to repent after one prophecy from one prophet, how is that going to make the Jews look in their eyes? And so, Jonah decided that he could not do something that would make the Jews look bad. Jonah essentially resigned as a prophet. He got on a ship and left the land of Israel because outside of Israel prophecy would be impossible.
Jonah knew that a prophet who does not deliver God’s message is punishable by death, but decided it was worth giving up his life to protect his people. When the storm hits, Jonah is calm. He knows it is the hand of God punishing him for ignoring the prophecy and is ready to meet his fate. He is ready to die. But he didn’t want his fellow passengers to suffer for his sins, and so he tells them to kill him to satisfy God’s punishment.
But God appreciates Jonah’s devotion to his people. Jonah’s sacrifice makes him a real leader. So God does not kill him. God saves him. God says: come on, it’s not too late, you can still deliver the prophecy.
Jonah does go on to deliver the prophecy, but he is dismayed at what he had done. And so, God assures him that it will never be held against the Jewish people.
But God said to him – and this is the main punchline of the story: – how could I not have compassion for such a large number of people and their cattle, when they don’t even know up from down – they don’t know right from wrong? How can I not have compassion for them and guide them with a prophecy to a better way of life?
Here’s what God is saying: You don’t want to deliver the prophecy because it’ll reflect badly on the Jewish people. I appreciate that, and I promise you that it will not be held against the people. But in the name of justice, when people are innocent of their sins because of ignorance, and yet their sin will devastate them, we should not ask ourselves how this affects other people in the future. That’s not justice. Look at the people themselves and judge them for who they are. That’s called pursuing justice.
God was telling Jonah that his reasoning of not wanting to help them because it’ll cause problems for the Jews was not right. When somebody is in trouble, you help them, not bring in other considerations that are irrelevant to them. So do the right thing in each case. First, make sure that they don’t suffer because they really don’t know what they’re doing. The ramifications on how that will affect other people in the future are your second project, not your first. The first project is how can you not have compassion for these people? That’s what’s on the agenda today.
Around Pesach time during this past year of the pandemic, there was one man who lived alone.
On the night of the Seder, he was sitting in his apartment and it dawned on him that it’s Pesach. He hadn’t thought about it at all before, he doesn’t really observe most holidays, but it bothered him that it was the night of the Seder and he was doing nothing. So, he went into the pantry and looked for what he could use to make a Seder. He had no Matzah, but he did find some round rice cakes that looked similar to Matzah. And so he took three rice cakes, some wine, dug up his grandmother’s old Haggadah, and made a Seder.
After the holiday he called me and told me what happened. He said,
“I decided to make a Seder thinking that it would be a disaster and not much of a Seder because I didn’t know what I was doing, it’s so weird to ask yourself the four questions, and i used rice cakes for the Matzah. I was expecting to feel nothing, but I was surprised. It felt significant. It felt like somebody was listening.”
Since that phone call, I’ve been thinking about it, and I was wondering what my very “religious” friends would say if I told them about this Seder. A guy made a Seder using three rice cakes instead of Matzah, wine that probably was not kosher, and he was fumbling his way through the Haggadah and making all sorts of mistakes. If I asked my “religious” friends, it’s pretty predictable what they would say. They would say “it was blasphemous! It was a mockery of the holiday!”
My religious friends would not be impressed.
Now, if I would ask my secular friends what they thought, they would probably say “he really didn’t have to bother! It was completely unnecessary! He’s not religious, it’s not his thing, it was a waste of time!”
But if we were to ask the Baal Shel Tov or the Rebbe, what would they say?
I’m sure the Rebbe would say “of all the Seders that night, this one brought God to tears of joy and love!”
People all over the world are marveling, “How can Chabad continue to grow after 20 years – or even after one year – without the Rebbe!?” All the experts predicted that without the Rebbe, Chabad would decline. “Give it a few years and they’ll disappear.” Now they’re wondering, “What is the secret?”
The prevailing conventional wisdom is that Chabad is so successful because they are so accepting and inclusive.
But think about that: are we are more tolerant than Reform? If anyone is tolerant and accepting and almost completely indiscriminate, it’s the Reform!
So it’s not that we are indiscriminate; it’s not that Chabad is non-judgmental. In fact, we are very judgmental. Every move you make, there’s a judgment! “That’s not Shabbos’dik, that’s not Kosher, that’s Milchig, that’s Fleishig.” You can’t breathe without making a judgment.
We are very judgmental. And in our best judgment, we find every Jew to be absolutely Divine. It’s a judgment, but it’s a good judgment. We are not simply open and accepting. Anyone can do that, by simply lowering their values. No, we are not simply open and accepting. Chabad feels absolutely obligated and responsible to be of service to every Jew whether they’re in the mood or not!
It’s quite different.
Here is the real question. These are ordinary people – Yeshiva boys, Yeshiva girls – without any special training, without any special selection of the finest, the brightest, the cutest, the funniest. Every student who volunteers to represent the Rebbe, represent Judaism and represent Chabad is given a position. From where do such ordinary people get such extraordinary commitment? From where do they get such extraordinary conviction?
Dennis Prager says that wherever he goes he sees Chabad, and they’re all happy! It makes him suspicious: how could they all be happy? He jokes, “I’m starting to suspect that they kill off the depressed ones. They thin the herd; only the happy survive.”
But seriously, where is this enthusiasm coming from?
The answer is simply that the Rebbe located the truth, and wouldn’t budge. In every area, in every subject and in every community, the Rebbe looked for the kernel of truth and then would not budge on it. The success of the Rebbe’s project, of the Rebbe’s world-altering philosophy, can be summed up with these words: If it’s true, it will work. It can’t not work; it’s true.
So here are some simple truths that the Rebbe championed.
The Rebbe believed in the truth of the fact that every Jew without exception is trying to be a good Jew. Help him! Help her!
Now, if this isn’t true, if this simply was not the fact, then Chabad is finished. Because if you base your life, your philosophy, and your program on a falsehood – how long can it really last?
So that’s the first truth: every Jew – every Jew – wants to be a better Jew.
You may have heard this story. A rabbi in Israel invited a professor to come to his Talmud class, and the professor said, “I don’t belong at a Talmud class.”
The rabbi asked, “Why not?” And the professor replied, “Because you and I have nothing in common.”
The rabbi responded, “How can you say such a thing?”
The professor replied, “Oh, you don’t know me. I eat pork on Shabbos!”
The rabbi asked, “Only on Shabbos?”
The professor: “Specifically on Shabbos. Ever since I came to Israel, out of spite I eat pork every Shabbos.”
The rabbi said, “Aha, you see! We do have something in common! We both observe Shabbos.”
The professor started coming to the class. But he explained to his colleagues that it wasn’t just the joke that got him to come, it was the powerful truth behind those words. “You’re keeping Shabbos by eating pork on Shabbos.”
Deep down inside he was angry at G-d over the Holocaust and he decided that he is going to rebel. What can you do that is the most unJewish thing in the world? Eat pork. So he was eating pork, but it didn’t feel satisfying, it didn’t feel rebellious enough. So he figured instead of eating pork on Tuesday or Wednesday, he was going to eat it on Shabbos.
That’s like adding insult to injury. That felt good.
So the rabbi said to him, “You’re keeping Shabbos! If you think about it, you believe in G-d, otherwise who are you angry at? You believe that He runs the world and that’s why it’s His responsibility. You believe in the Torah, otherwise how do you know that pork isn’t Kosher? And you believe that Shabbos is special, otherwise why does it feel better to eat pork on Shabbos? So you believe in G-d, you believe He runs the world, that the Torah is true, that pork is really not Kosher and that Shabbos is really holy – you’re practically orthodox! Borderline fanatic! And you claim we have nothing in common?”
This is the Rebbe’s innovation. This Jew who was eating pork specifically on Shabbos was trying to be a better Jew. It’s complex, but its true! He was objecting to Jewish suffering, what’s more Jewish than that??
The second truth is that the Rebbe believed that the world is ready to be good. He really believed it. And so he encouraged Chassidim to take responsibility for the morality of non-Jews, to teach the world the seven Noahide Laws and to see to it the world live by these laws, the laws that the Torah gave to all of humanity.
How do we possibly do this? On what grounds do we undertake such a responsibility? Because the world is ready to be good. But there’s confusion: what is good? How do you know? What are the details? The Rebbe saw the world was ready to be good.
So the Rebbe believed that every Jew wants to be a better Jew, and that every human being wants to be a good human being.
In religion, much is made of going to Heaven. To many, death is the ultimate joy, because then we go to that wonderful place.
But in truth, desiring Heaven may not be that smart,
God, who is in Heaven, wants to come down to earth, so why should we want to go to Heaven?
God created the world because he wants to live on earth, not in Heaven. It is our mission to make the world a place where God feels comfortable.
To spend our lives looking to Heaven is missing the point. The Souls of our ancestors who now sit there in Heaven are waiting for us to fulfill our mission so that they too can come back to earth.
The Souls in Heaven envy us because we can do, while they can only live a pleasure filled but passive existence. Heaven has all the pleasure, but we have all the action. We have a divine mission. We have a purpose. And since we are fulfilling God’s ultimate desire, we have God!
Religion makes much of this concept, but what is it?
The holy books describe all kinds of painful things that happen to the soul in Hell. But when a soul passes away, it goes to a purely spiritual place. This means that it cannot be burned, or cut, or tortured. You cannot burn a soul.
The gory details are metaphors.
The main pain of Hell is the heat and the “burning.” This is a metaphor for shame. Just like when we are ashamed, we blush and heat up, the soul too “burns” with shame. After spending a lifetime on earth, the soul is ashamed of many things it has done.
But this shame has a purpose. The shame burns away any attachments to earth that may be preventing the soul from experiencing Heaven. After 11 months at most, the soul is cleansed and can bask in the pleasure of heaven.
Hell is not a place. It is a process. Getting to Heaven can be hell.
This all applies only to someone who truly has reason for shame. But a child, for example, has nothing to be ashamed of and goes straight to Heaven. And people who have already suffered, and tasted Hell while still on earth, like anyone who died from COVID, goes straight to Heaven too.
If we define Religion as a program of gaining spiritual reward, then it is not.
Everyone is trying to sell us something by telling us we need it. Whether it’s a car, a vacation, or a toaster, the pitch is the same: you need this for you. Religion has been given the same pitch; they say “be religious” because you need salvation, or enlightenment, or inner peace. They tell you to be religious for your personal gain.
When everyone is looking for personal gain, bad things happen.
But then there is Judaism. In Judaism, it’s not about what we need, it’s about what God needs. It’s about what’s needed of us, not by us.
This is a much people way of thinking. Not “what do I need?” but “What is needed of me?”
Many a father has told his daughter “don’t you go out dressed like that!” and it certainly is important that dads continue to do so.
But we need to remember our priorities.
There’s an old saying that “familiarity breeds contempt,” and there certainly is a lot of truth to that. Many times when someone starting living together with a close friend in the same room, their friendship gets ruined. There’s something about being too close that is bad for a relationship. When we get used to seeing someone at their sloppiest, we lose respect for them. Familiarity, indeed, breads contempt.
How then can a family, and especial a husband and wife, protect themselves from that contempt?
The answer is dignity.
We need to live in a dignified manner that is respectful to each other and doesn’t make it too difficult to be respected by them. This means speaking, eating, and dressing in a respectful and dignified manner.
So perhaps, if someone’s daughter is dressed in a less than dignified manner, they should say “don’t you be in the house dressed like that, if you want to dress like that, go out.”
The most important thing is to protect the dignity and harmony of the home and those living in it. They deserve more respect, not less, than the strangers outside.