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Something New, Something Old | Shabbat HaGadol

April 4, 2020

Another year has passed, another spring has come, and it's time to prepare for one of the hallmark experiences of Jewish life: the Pesach seder.  Usually, there is something comforting when the moment finally comes and one sits down at the seder table; there is something fondly familiar when one takes the first bite of matzah, and a unique, fulfilling exhaustion that can only be felt while pushing through those final songs.  But this year, of course, feels different.  We may not have our usual company, be in our expected place, or even feel the same feelings of excitement.  Things are different this year.  

The truth is, no two sedarim are exactly the same.  From year to year, our minds change, our experiences change, and the world changes.  But that’s part of what the seder is. 

R. Meir Leibush, the great scholar, commentator, and grammarian, best known as the Malbim, explains, in his commentary to Tehillim 19:2, that there are two Hebrew words that mean to tell or to recount: לספור (lisaper) and להגיד (lihagid).  But in לשון הקדש, the holy language of Hebrew, no two words are exactly the same.  So what’s the difference between לספר and להגיד? לספר, explains the Malbim, means to remind or repeat something to another person who already knows this information. להגיד means to tell a person something new, something that he hadn't known previously.  This distinction leads to a profound insight regarding the essence of the seder.

During the recounting of the ten plagues in Egypt, the Torah mentions that when the exodus is ultimately complete, it will be incumbent upon us to share the whole story of leaving Egypt with our children.  “ולמען תספר באזני בנך ובן בנך, and so that you may relate in the ears of your child and your child’s child (Shemot 10:2).”  There, the Torah uses the root word of לספר.  However, when on our way out of Egypt, the Torah commands us to educate our children in the following way: “והגדת לבנך ביום ההוא לאמר, and you shall tell your child on that day saying (Shemot 13:8).”  It uses a form of the word להגיד.  Based on the Malbim’s analysis of these two words, there seems to be a contradiction!  Are we obligated to recount the story to our children in the exact same way every year, following the theme of לספר, to repeat something that is already known and has already been told?  Or are we supposed to search for new ideas, understandings, and angles to the story, following the theme of להגיד, to make sure that we are teaching something new?  Is the seder a review of the known, or a discovery of the new?

The solution is that we must do both, and these are the two critical aspects of the seder.  On one han, there is beauty in teaching and hearing the same story each year.  It's a spiritual checkpoint, a reaffirmation of our place in the history and destiny of our nation.  The mitzvah of telling the story through the mode of סיפור demands that we tell the same story, eat the same foods, and sing the same songs that we did last year, as best as they can all be replicated.  

In fact, during Temple times, failing to offer the קרבן פסח, the Pascal lamb sacrifice, was one of only two positive commandments that resulted in the punishment of כרת for those who neglected it.  The Talmud debates what exactly the punishment of כרת entails, but the literal meaning of the word is "cut off," in that one who fails to participate in this central mitzvah of Pesach has chosen to cut himself off from the nation.  A teacher of mine referred to the Pascal lamb metaphorically as our national spiritual identification card.  Membership needs to be renewed each year, and a key component of the renewal process is retelling the old story of how we left Egypt and became a people. 

On the other hand, there is an equally integral piece of the seder.  We have to learn something novel and apply the Pesach story in a new way.  The story of leaving Egypt is not just one for the history books and for story-telling.  It is the tale of the Jewish people.  It's the story of a small people threatened, abused, and enslaved by a world power.  It's the story of the Jewish people's trust in G-d and His chosen leaders.  It's the story of G-d's justice and mercy manifesting simultaneously.  And it's the story of light from darkness, freedom from slavery, and redemption from exile.  The Pesach story is not just the Jews in Egypt; it's the Jews in every generation.  בכל דוד ודור עומדים עלינו לכלותינו, we recite in the haggadah, that in every generation they stand against us to destroy us.  And it's our job to not just recall the Pesach story as it once was, but to understand it in the context of what is. להגיד demands of us to not only repeat what we said at the seder last year, but to rethink and relearn what the haggadah is trying to teach us and how it applies to our lives in a new way this year.

A colleague noted that this year he has a whole new understanding of what it was like for B’nai Yisrael on the night of מכת בכורות, the plague of the death of the firstborn.  They were sequestered in their homes as the משחית, the angel of destruction, was set free on Egypt to punish the Egyptians.  This year, can’t we all identify a bit more with what that must have been like? 

Or perhaps דיינו will take on new meaning.  This year, when perhaps we feel like there is so much we lack and miss at our personal sedarim, maybe taking a moment to appreciate that which we do have, and say דיינו for them, can be even more meaningful.  For example, Hashem, you gave me friends, parents, or children, and though they cannot be with me this year on Pesach like we had planned, דיינו.

Even better, think of your own way to make this seder new, and yet… the same.  We’ll be saying the same words, eating the same foods, and singing the same songs.  But if something feels different, confusing, or upsetting, find a way to make that a part of your seder too.  לספר and להגיד can happen simultaneously, as we read the same words, but understand and explain them in a way that we never have before. 

Certainly, we will all sing, pray, and shout louder than ever before, לשנה הבאה בירושלים!  Next year, may we be in Yerushalayim, celebrating together in good health and happiness!

חג כשר ושמח, may it be a joyous Pesach for everyone!

Rabbi Daniel Fox

Tue, August 3 2021 25 Av 5781