Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Acharei Mot: We Need the Absurd


"In Emperor Julian's mind the myths that shock the vulgar are noble allegories to the wise and reverent. Purge religion from dross if you like; but remember that you do so at your peril. One false step, one self-confident rejection of a thing which is merely too high for you to grasp, and you are darkening the Sun, casting God out of the world.” - Five Stages of Greek Religion, Gilbert Murray

The quotation could apply to nearly any aspect of religious life and certainly to many things in Judaism.  The idea that during Sukkot would be a bad time to bring a friend to synagogue, it being hard to explain the meaning behind a bunch of people wrapped in leather straps and capes, holding leaves and a lemon, marching in a circle and mumbling, is just one example. 

The lesson of Murray’s analysis of the Apostate’s thinking is of course that there is value in a ritual like hakkafot.  And that carelessly dispensing with anything in religion because it might seem absurd is a great sin.  We don’t complain about our food for not being magnetic, and we shouldn’t complain about religious practices for being illogical. 

In our parshah, the example on which I’d like to focus is that of the scapegoat, the goral echad l’Azazel.  The High Priest conducts a ritual with two goats.  One to be offered to God and the other sent to Azazel.  This goat would carry with it the sins of all the people freeing them in a tangible and dramatic way and finalizing their efforts to atone. 

It's weird, there are no two ways about it.  Hertz in his commentary derides those who would say Azazel is a demon, noting that in the next chapter we are commanded, v’lo yizb’chu od et zivcheihem l’si’irim, as Hertz translates, “no more sacrifice their sacrifices to satyrs.” He quotes Gesenius in saying Azazel can only mean “dismissal.”

Even with all that, Hertz doesn’t make it any less weird.  Okay, so it’s not an appeal to a demon, it’s still kind of crazy.

That, though, is the point.  Our ancestors took sin seriously.  It was a real thing.  It was a palpable thing.  No doubt some were themselves led astray by believing the ritual alone, and no change in behavior, would suffice to make atonement.  But for many, it must have been a great relief to know that in addition to their sacrifices and their fasting and all other efforts to atone, that their sins had been carried away to not tempt them again, had to have provided a strong sense that life could start anew, that a new path could be taken to quite literally, go forward. 

Would that we took sin so seriously.  For us, I think the ritual is as preposterous because it requires us to “believe” in sin as much as it requires us to accept Azazel as whatever person, place or thing it might be.  

We just don’t believe in sin.  And not just sin.  We don’t want to have anything to do with sin, suffering, sickness, catastrophe, evil, any of it. 

And when you seek to live life avoiding all those things, what does it do for you?  Nothing good.  Just to focus on one example, the pandemic.  As if the dangers of illness, hospitalization, and death, weren’t bad enough, at least with those there was some idea of how we might help people.  But the greater host of dangers – of isolation, of meaninglessness, of sorrow, depression, and anxiety, those our society is woefully ill-equipped to address.  People just don’t know what the remedy is for those sorts of things.  They don’t know because even on a “good day” people don’t understand.  If a thing doesn’t have a financial value that can be measured, or it isn’t a medical condition that can be seen and touched, people lack even a vocabulary for describing such things.  They’ve forgotten the value of community, of not just the one or two good friends, but a larger network of people who care about each other.  They don’t know about having a purpose in life beyond finding pleasure and fulfilling one’s basic needs.  And despite how widespread such things are, mental and emotional conditions all too often are enigmas society would rather hide away than meet with love and a desire to understand.

That is because the ineffable, the poetic, the spiritual, even the absurd, these things lack in all value.  And hence the parts of human life they are precisely meant to address become terrible problems.  How do you deal with sin and guilt?  You have to change, atone, forgive… and you have to put your sins on a goat.

You have to have stories and songs and dances and foods and clothes that bind you to others and that in sharing with them you find meaning and purpose.  You can express joy and process pain – because there are huge parts of being human that are ridiculous, are absurd. 

So, tie on the red string and head into the wilderness.  Leave the metal with its imperfections.   Shake the palm branch in all directions.  Let the Sun’s light shine forth and even burn.  We need all that.  Being alive requires it.  And if you have it, if you find it here and in other parts of your life, cherish and nurture it so others may find the same blessings, too. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Defending Putin


Putin Isn’t Amalek

I want to defend Vladimir Putin.  We just read Parshat Zachor this past Shabbat.  It describes how a wicked villain, Amalek, the ancestor of Haman, attacked innocent and defenseless people in an unprovoked way and how we must always remember to fight against and utterly defeat Amalek because of this.

Sounds just like Putin, I can hear you saying.  Nope, sorry, but it’s just not fair to say Putin is Amalek.

The passage we read, from Deuteronomy, says “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way, upon your departure from Egypt’… ‘You shall erase the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens, you shall not forget.”

The mitzvah is to remember, erase, and not forget, and is fulfilled in the following manner:

1.  “Remember,” we read this passage on Shabbat Zachor, right before Purim, to fulfill the mitzvah, not just when it shows up in context in Ki Tetsei.

2.    “You shall not forget,” in your heart, we must also reflect on it ourselves.

3.    “You shall erase” - the mitzvah is in force until the day comes when Amalek is totally destroyed from the world.

4.    Additionally, others would say fighting and killing Amalekites, is required as well.

Still sounds like it could apply to Putin, so consider definitions offered in our tradition regarding just who Amalek is: 

Okay so why not? We need to look at who Amalek is or is today:

1.    Rabbi J. D. Soloveitchik says, “anyone who hates the Jewish people is from the seed of Amalek. “

2.    Some rabbis think Amalek doesn’t exist anymore and that we are only required to remember what happened, but not to act against anyone.

3.    Amalek is allegorical. The Zohar says he represents the forces of demons in the world and many Hasidic interpretations say he is the Yetzer Ra, the Evil Inclination.

None of them have Putin on that list.  His actions against Ukraine aren’t aimed at Jews (remember he’s “denazifying” Ukraine, after all) and so in that regard the appellation, “Amalek” doesn’t fit. 

Certainly, if Amalek doesn’t exist, or is Satan, or the Evil Inclination, then the title cannot apply to Putin either.  

But – just because Putin isn’t Amalek doesn’t make Putin not evil.  He, his world outlook, and his crimes in Ukraine and his disregard for his own people are all evil. 

Evil abounds in the world. And we are called upon to fight it.  The Psalms tell us, “Lovers of God hate evil.” 

The potential for evil is nearer at hand to each of us than we’d like to admit.  We learned a few weeks ago in the Daf Yomi, the daily Talmud study, that the Evil Inclination can be an untrustworthy companion who can lead a person astray, “for the heart of the human being is evil.”

No, no, no. If anything, Putin not being Amalek, the points to how seriously we must take evil.  It dims and dulls our concern for it if we lump all evil and evildoers together.  Who we must rescue, who we must defend, and who we must defeat all change depending on the threat evil offers and we need to name the evil plainly.  

Furthermore, associating Putin with the mitzvah about Amalek may lull us into thinking simply reading the passage in the Torah discharges us from the duty to do more against him. 

Can one really believe that would do anything to combat Putin? To help Ukrainians, or Russians, for that matter? 

Non-Jews, America, our Allies, must help Ukrainians now! We must help regular Russians now! We must do whatever will stop Putin’s aggression even including stopping Putin himself if it comes to that.

That is a very different Mitzvah. Many in fact. To help those in need. To be concerned with the suffering of the world because we Jews have to show we aren’t just about ourselves. To not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. To not allow murder.

God’s world is a complicated place. We must take seriously each and every wicked and evil person or deed, so we know how to overcome them.  So we can restore God’s peace and God’s safety to those who need it and make this a world in which God’s justice prevails. 



Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Commanded to Love? A Schmooze, Pray, Learn Lesson

 Commanded to Love?

You can't legislate morality, can you?  Would you want to marry someone first and then fall in love with them?

The Shema prayer is, as we will discuss at this Friday's Schmooze, Pray, Learn Shabbat, not only central to our Friday evening service, it is at the very heart of Judaism.  The Jew is to recite it morning and evening, on going to bed, even as one is about to pass on from this world.  

And after proclaiming, "Hear O Israel, the Lord is Our God, the Lord is One," we proceed to the V'ahavta, "and you shall love the Lord thy God..."

This line seems to be saying that as a result of acknowledging God's sovereignty, you are then compelled to love God.

But love can't be commanded, can it?  I would say no, it cannot be.  Elsewhere in Judaism we find this to be implied.  For example, it doesn't matter nearly as much the motivation or emotion behind your doing a mitzvah, as your actually doing it.  

Love can't be commanded.  It is greater than a commandment.  The commentator Sforno explains it best, "you shall rejoice to do what is good in God's eyes once you discern there is no nobler goal than this."

Until one falls in love the experience can't truly be explained.  Until you have that grandchild, you can't imagine loving someone so much (or so I am told).

This doesn't mean no work is required.  The love a couple might feel after years of marriage will be greater than that first "stomach butterflies" love, but only because of the commitment and responsibility the years have brought to strengthen it.

So to with God.  The V'ahavta is encouraging us to believe.  To believe that accepting a life in which God plays a role, guides us and teaches us and even obligates us, will ultimately be realized as a life of love.  Love for the Creator of All, who gave us the blessing to experience love as the trait which ennobles our lives and relationships, our choices and duties, giving them the greatest purpose and meaning.  

If you can join us this Friday evening, we'll learn some more about the Shema.  In the meantime, think of those things and people you love deeply and truly.  And then see if you can't begin to bring some of that emotion into the other parts of your life.

With love,

Rabbi Benson

Monday, February 28, 2022

Remarks on Ukraine from 2/25/22 & Ways to Help


My Remarks on Ukraine from Friday, February 25th:

“If you see your enemy’s ass sagging under its burden, you shall not pass by. You shall surely release it with him.” Exodus 23:5

In World War II, 250,000 Ukrainians served Nazi Germany; SS employed Ukrainians at a rate of 16 to 1 with Germans in the East. 

The Ukrainian Auxiliary Police, U People’s Militia, U National Army all served to persecute Jews and served in the massacre at Babi Yar and in many other parts of the country.

And while Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the U President is Jewish, his popularity before the invasion was on the decline. Now, of course, he is seen, rightly, as a hero, not just in Ukraine but around the world.

The Jewish community in Ukraine numbers around 40,000 “active” members of Jewish communities with as many as 200,000 people with “Jewish roots.” By and large, Jews are Russian speaking even in Western Ukrainian cities such as Kiev and Lvov (Kyiv and Lviv) where you have more Ukrainian speakers and ethnic Ukrainians than in the east where there are more Russian speaking, ethnic Russian Ukrainians. 

My fears as this conflict unfolds and escalates, as we see the brutal images and reports of the Russian assault –  are that even while Jews in the country are defending their homeland and suffering and dying with their fellow citizens, the risks that both an occupying Russian army might single out Jews as “conspirators” and that similarly Ukrainians could well do the same, seeing Jews as a “fifth column” and giving vent to historical tendencies of antisemitism - neither are fanciful possibilities.

Yet - when we see the bravery of the Ukrainians, when we see their recent history since the fall of the Soviet Union and their acts of civil unrest to bring democratic government prevail, when they have chosen the West over Russia in numerous ways these last thirty years, even as other former Soviet states have gone with Putin – see Byelorussia as just one example – then we must rethink our preconceived opinions. Or at least I must. 

The current situation arises out of several sources. Putin’s megalomania and desire to recreate a Russian Empire, another USSR. Out of the fact that Ukraine, the name of the country meaning “border,” would serve as a buffer state between Russian and the West. Ukraine’s sea ports and rich agriculture. And the fact that there are historical ties between the two countries. Russia’s origins were in Kiev with the state of Kievan Rus. 
Yet none of that excuses the current Russian aggression. Nor does any of that, nor even a past containing the antisemitism that Ukraine’s has, mean we should want to see Ukraine destroyed as is now the case. 

In fact, if anything, we Jews should be the ones who can most sympathize with the history and the current plight of Ukraine.

Going back to our opening verse. The Targum, the Aramaic translation and commentary on the Torah, interprets that famous verse as, “You shall surely let go of the hate you have in your heart towards him.”

And as Maimonides further explains:
You shall blot [any offences against you] out of your mind and not bear a grudge. For as long as one nurses a grievance and keeps it in mind, one may come to take vengeance. The Torah therefore emphatically warns us not to bear a grudge, so that the impression of the wrong should be completely obliterated and no longer remembered. This is the right principle. It alone makes civilized life and social interaction possible. Hilchot Deot 7:8

We as Jews cannot be imprisoned by our past, even as we are commanded to learn from it. 

We must help our brothers and sister in danger, we must help the innocent, AND we must even help those who would not help us! 

We must stand up against violence and intolerance and murder and hate because we know all too well what these things are. We must show ourselves ready, more than ready but willing and able to help those in need whoever they are. 

And even if in doing so NOBODY changes their opinions about Jews. Even if people still hate us. 

If nothing else, God has not made it our fate to win many beauty or popularity contests. That is precisely the point. We do what is right even if it means scorn and cynicism. 

Because right is right. And because we never give up hope that just possibly, as the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote: 
The Hebrew Bible is not a code for Utopia. That is a prophetic dream, not a present-tense reality. In the here-and-now, however, the Torah tells us something not without its moral grandeur, namely that small gestures of mutual assistance can in the long run transform the human situation. At the heart of the law of the overladen ass is one of Judaism’s most beautiful axioms (Avot de-Rabbi Natan, 23): ‘Who is a hero? One who turns an enemy into a friend.’

If want a world of peace and understanding, even if we want a world only slightly better than it is at present, then someone, somewhere, must be the first to step forward and do what is right and help those in need. Perhaps to make them friends and even if they remain our enemies, because it is the Godly thing to do. 
And why shouldn’t we Jews be the ones in this situation and all others, to lead the way?

Right now, your gift will help enable UJA to support the critical work that we and our partners on the ground are doing to meet the urgent and mounting humanitarian needs in all of Ukraine – including food, shelter, transport, and emergency medical units for all citizens. https://www.ujafedny.org/

As conflict erupts across the country, Ukraine’s most vulnerable Jews are in distress and JDC has launched an emergency campaign to meet their spiking humanitarian needs.
In more than 1,000 locations across Ukraine, JDC provides a lifeline for an estimated 40,000 Jewish elderly and 2,500 poor Jewish children and their families through its network of care services, Jewish community programs, and Jewish leaders — and today, they need our help. https://www.jdc.org/
The international community of Conservative Judaism calls upon all of our friends and supporters worldwide to give generously to our emergency campaign for the Masorti/Conservative communities in Ukraine. We are in close contact with our communities in Kyiv, Chernivtsi, Odessa, Kharkov and Dnipro who report that they are currently safe and at home but are worried about the future and are in a state of uncertainty, not sure when an invasion could occur or how it would play out. They have conveyed to us their current fears and needs, and we have created this campaign, calling on the assistance of our supporters around the world, to help them.  https://masortiolami.org/one-time-donation/

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Angels and America’s Broken Glass: the George Floyd Case

 Angels and America’s Broken Glass: the George Floyd Case

“The creations of My hands are drowning in the sea and you wish to sing songs?” - Talmud, Megillah 10b

Even if you’ve never been to a Jewish wedding you know that a glass is broken to complete the ceremony. This is done to remind us that others are suffering even when we are at ease, even when we are rejoicing. And because we are all tied to each other, seeing as we are all alive at the same time on this absurd little speck in the cosmos, we cannot act as if deep down we don’t know that the conditional and temporary joy I may feel at any given point negates my obligation to those still in need.

With the defendant found guilty on all counts over the killing of George Perry Floyd, today such a glass was shattered in America.

When a great wrong has been committed and the evildoer brought to justice, that is right. It is even good. But it is not a time for rejoicing. Not when we remember all the suffering that even justice does not alleviate.

The racial tensions and civil unrest in our country which must be addressed are far from quelled tonight and that is no source for joy.

Neither does the conviction of one wrongdoer here mean that now no other in a place of authority will transgress in the future.

Nor can we be glad knowing that for all those who do faithfully concern themselves with the law and with our protection, even at the risk of their own lives, that their duty to us is now made any easier.

But most of all, George Floyd is still dead. Is still murdered. Justice does not bring him back and rejoicing certainly cannot either.

When the Israelites crossed the Red Sea and the Egyptian army was drowned in their pursuit of them, the Jews broke into song upon being saved from their clutches.

Yet when the angels did as well, God stopped them. Could they not see it? God does not rejoice when evildoers are punished, when humans die. God finds no pleasure in it. And neither should we. Achieving justice and peace in a society all too often means precious things like the glass at the wedding, like a man’s life, are shattered in the process. All our joy is tempered in this way.

So why then were the Israelites allowed to sing at the deaths of the Egyptians? And if they could, why couldn’t we? Or if not us, somebody today must surely be like the Israelites, right?

The Israelites were the ones whose lives were in danger, and the drowning of the Egyptians saved them. The only person in the analogous place here was killed. So there is no one who can sing today.

And furthermore, even if there were today, like the Israelites, someone who could rightly sing, that would not be the conclusion of the story. On the other shore of the Red Sea, the Jews still had forty years and a wilderness to cross before they reached the promised land.

In our own community here, there are civic, faith, and law enforcement partners with whom we must continue to work.

We have it in our power to bring about the more perfect union our country can be. We Jews can live and teach the rule not to do to others what we wouldn’t want done to ourselves. We can see to it that our county’s laws and law enforcement, which every democratic country seeking to create a fair and just society emulated, that they function for all the people of this land as they were intended to do.

But doing so means we have no time for singing. The journey is far from over and we must get on our way.

Rabbi Aaron Benson

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Demons & Passover – You Really Need to Drink Four Cups!

 Demons & Passover – You Really Need to Drink Four Cups!

We wrap up with a discussion from the Talmud, Pesachim 109-110, about drinking the four cups of wine at Passover and the dangers related to drinking (or doing anything) in even amounts.

While our ancestors’ beliefs about demons (and witches, I couldn’t resist including that one), the lesson for us comes from how the rabbis explain the drinking of the four cups.  Their interpretations of the four cups’ meanings can apply to our sedarim now. 

Pesachim 109b:  We learned in the mishnah that even regarding the poorest of Jews, the charity distributors should not give him less than four cups of wine.

The Gemara asks: How could the Sages establish a matter through which one will come to expose himself to danger [from demons, who attack you when you do things in pairs]?  Wasn’t it taught in a baraita: A person should not eat pairs, i.e., an even number of food items; and he should not drink pairs of cups; and he should not wipe himself with pairs; etc.? 

Looking ahead a page in the Talmud, we learn more about demons and “evens.”

Pesachim 110a:  אָמַר רַב יוֹסֵף, אָמַר לִי יוֹסֵף שֵׁידָא: אַשְׁמְדַאי מַלְכָּא דְשֵׁידֵי — מְמוּנֶּה הוּא אַכּוּלְּהוּ זוּגֵי, וּמַלְכָּא לָא אִיקְּרִי מַזִּיק. אִיכָּא דְּאָמְרִי לַהּ לְהַאי גִּיסָא: אַדְּרַבָּה, מַלְכָּא [רַתְחָנָא הוּא], מַאי דְּבָעֵי עָבֵיד, שֶׁהַמֶּלֶךְ פּוֹרֵץ גָּדֵר לַעֲשׂוֹת לוֹ דֶּרֶךְ וְאֵין מוֹחִין בְּיָדוֹ.

Rav Yosef said: Yosef the Demon said to me: Ashmedai, the king of the demons, is appointed over all who perform actions in pairs.  Can you call a king a harmful spirit?  Would he cause harm?  Rather, some say this statement in this manner: On the contrary, he is an angry king who does what he wants, as the halakha is that a king may breach the fence of an individual in order to form a path for himself, and none may protest his action. Similarly, the king of demons has full license to harm people who perform actions in pairs.

Rav Pappa said: Yosef the Demon said to me: If one drinks two cups, we demons kill him; if he drinks four, we do not kill him. But this person who drank four, we harm him. There is another difference between two and four: Regarding one who drinks two, whether he did so unwittingly or intentionally, we harm him. About one who drinks four, if he does so intentionally, yes, he is harmed; if he does so unwittingly, no, he will not be harmed.

The Gemara asks: And if one forgets and it happens that he goes outside after having drunk an even number of cups, what is his solution? The Gemara answers: He should take his right thumb in his left hand, and his left thumb in his right hand, and say as follows: You, my thumbs, and I are three, which is not a pair. And if he hears a voice that says: You and I are four, which makes a pair, he should say to it: You and I are five. And if he hears it say: You and I are six, he should say to it: You and I are seven. The Gemara relates that there was an incident in which someone kept counting after the demon until he reached a hundred and one, and the demon burst in anger.

Ameimar said: The chief of witches said to me: One who encounters witches should say this incantation: May hot feces and dates be in your mouth, witch, and may your hairs fall out, and may your crumbs be scattered to the wind. 

Now that we’ve seen the dangers one might encounter from demons when doing things in pairs or in even combinations, let us consider how this applies to our four cups of wine on Passover – seeing as four is a dangerous number of cups to drink, what do the rabbis say we should do?

Rav Naman said the verse: “It was a night of watching to the Lord” (Exodus 12:42), which indicates that Passover night is a night that remains guarded from demons and harmful spirits of all kinds. Therefore, there is no cause for concern about this form of danger on this night.   אָמַר רַב נַחְמָן, אָמַר קְרָא: ״לֵיל שִׁמּוּרִים״ — לַיִל הַמְשׁוּמָּר וּבָא מִן הַמַּזִּיקִין

Rava said a different answer: The cup of blessing for Grace after Meals on Passover night is used in the performance of an additional mitzvah and is not simply an expression of freedom. Therefore, it combines with the other cups for the good, i.e., to fulfill the mitzvah to drink four cups, and it does not combine for the bad [blessing a cup of wine as part of grace after meals is an “extra” mitzvah that when joined to the others for Passover makes a “good” set of four].

[And/or] About the danger of drinking pairs of cups, it is as though one drinks only three cups. [Rava adds another thought which could be another interpretation on its own, namely that the third cup drunk as part of Grace after Meals, only occurs since you’re eating anyway, so it is like an “extension” and so it doesn’t count as a totally separate cup.]

Ravina said: The Sages instituted four separate cups, each of which is consumed in a manner that demonstrates freedom. Therefore, each one (110a) is a distinct mitzvah in its own right. In other words, each cup is treated separately, and one is not considered to be drinking in pairs.

Think about the four positions presented by the three rabbis here.  Is there one that speaks to you about the meaning of your seder?  Is Passover mainly about the miracle of the Exodus as Rav Nahman suggests?  Does Passover augment and enhance our regular Jewish observances and practices as Rava seems to be saying?  Or is there something to Ravina’s view that each cup, like each mitzvah we do at any time, has its own meaning and deserves its own attention?  

Demons and Elijah – Cups, Doors and Curses


Demons and Elijah – Cups, Doors and Curses


Even if you don’t come back after dinner to finish up all of the seder, one post meal ritual that is likely to take place is opening the door for Elijah.  Actually, it’s not just one ritual, it’s two, pouring a glass for Elijah is, as we’ll see, a ritual unto itself.  And then there is a third, the recitation of the prayer, shefoch chamatcha or “pour out Your wrath.”  It’s a harsh passage that might seem at odds with the messages of freedom and concern for the stranger and the other which fill the Haggadah, but it is yet another piece, though combined with the other two Elijah rituals, add yet another piece to this portion of the Seder. 


Three Separate Rituals:

As we’ll see, the cup is there to welcome Elijah, and maybe even to encourage him to come, so that he will bring the Messiah.

Opening the door is a demonstration, as we will see, that Passover night is a leil shimurim a protected night, and we Jews show that we are safe from the evils and dangers of the world with this act.

Doing so while mentioning Elijah and then reading shefoch take full advantage of the protection the Seder night offers – we curse the demons and dangers of the world on this night when God’s power is all the more potent.  This way, we should not suffer at their evil hands in the future. 

These rituals were not there in the Torah’s description of Passover.  They weren’t even there as the basic structure of the seder was laid out in Roman times.  Reciting the prayer as the door is opened is a custom only about 500 years old and the others seem to date to the Middle Ages. 

Yet these customs are not just odd add-ons but superstitious ancestors.  They were ways to ritualize and to gain power over a world in which Jews all too often suffered at the hands of unseen demons like plague and famine, and demons personified by those who sought to kill them.  Praying the night of freedom, the protected night of the Exodus would be their night of rescue was a brave act of faith and defiance.  An act that can still have meaning for us today. 


Leil Shimurim:

Exodus 12:42 introduces us to this concept, using the term twice, it is a night that is guarded by God to take Israel out of Egypt, this night is to God a night that is guarded throughout the generations.

God guarded the Jews that original Passover night in two ways, just like the verse alludes to:  the Jews were protected from losing their first-born and the Jews were protected from the interference of the Egyptians in carrying out the night’s ceremonies. 

Additionally, we are taught that the two references mean for that time and place and for all other Passover nights everywhere else through time. 

Examples of this are that Esther and Mordecai overcome Haman on Passover night (see the dates mentioned in the Book of Esther), and the Messiah and Elijah are meant to come on Passover night (as referred to in the midrash, Exodus Rabbah).  And of course, Moses and Aaron and the original Passover.  It is interesting to note that in each case, a pair of heroes with a Mem name and Aleph name will be the ones to bring about God’s redemption. 


A Cup for Elijah:

Freedom from slavery is the key idea of the Seder.  Furthermore, telling the story every year undoubtedly leads us to think about the ways in which others in our history have been enslaved, how we and/or others may be or may feel enslaved today, and how the threats of various forms of slavery loom over the future.  Invoking Elijah’s name and praying that he and then the Messiah should come on this night is the natural evolution of these thoughts about slavery and freedom. 

Rabbi Israel Drazin teaches that if the Seder participants actually opened the door for Elijah and even poured him a cup of wine, and if they stood to welcome him and say words of greeting, their behavior would not be for naught; on the contrary, our ancestors would magically cause Elijah to appear. 


Opening the Door:

No doubt you are punctilious about reciting all three paragraphs of the Shema before you go to be each night.  Well, you get a break on Passover night.  The Shulchan Aruch tells us you need only say the v’ahavta paragraph – the other two aren’t needed because it is Leil Shimurim.  The “Bedtime Shema” as it is sometimes called makes overt reference to “the evil forces that surround us.”  Clearly a connection exists between the danger of demons on any other night and the fact that on this night, you have freedom from their influence. In fact, if you wanted, you could even unlock your door and fling it open, because you would be safe – and so we do!

The commentator Magen Avraham notes that while we can and should unlock our doors on this night to show our faith in God and our belief we cannot be harmed, we needn’t overdo it – if you live in a place or have some reason to fear a true threat, unlocking your door but not opening it is okay. 

Leaving our doors unlocked or opening them altogether allows us to get out to welcome the Messiah quickly as well.

And, another bonus that comes with all the extra protection, we can drink (Pesachim 109b) four cups of wine on this night, even though normally that might get you into trouble, it doesn’t at the Seder.


Shefoch Hamatcha:

The actual text of the prayer/curse is, “Pour out your fury on the nations that do not know you, upon the kingdoms that do not invoke your name, they have devoured Jacob and desolated his home.” (Ps. 79:6,7)

“Pour out your wrath on them; may your blazing anger overtake them.” (Ps. 69.25)

“Pursue them in wrath and destroy them from under the heavens of the Lord!” (Lam. 3:66)

As we’ve seen, the ritual regarding the door and mentioning Elijah had to do with scaring away demons.  It would seem then, that this prayer is not so much about God destroying non-Jews, but rather a use of biblical quotations to scare away “the nation of demons.”



We may not believe in demons at all, yet there is still meaning in these three separate yet related rituals for us.  For the goal of the seder is to feel as if we are there in Egypt preparing to leave with Moses.  Calling to mind those threats to our own lives and in our own times help us to achieve that bond with the past and help us realize that like the Israelites, while God may send a prophetic messenger to guide us, we are still the ones who have to get up and open the door.