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The Service of Pesach
The author of the Haggadah states: "In each and every generation, everyone is obligated to see himself as if he himself proceeded from Egypt as it says (Shemos 13:8), 'And you shall tell your child on that day: It is because of this that Hashem acted for me when I left Egypt.' Not our ancestors alone did the Holy One, Blessed is He, redeem, but, rather, He redeemed us with them as well…."
This is an extremely difficult mitzvah to fulfill. It is not enough to mention or even discuss the Exodus from Egypt. Rather, one must actually experience it by feeling as if he himself were a slave in Egypt who was freed from his own bondage by the Almighty. How are we to accomplish this?
I once went to visit the great gaon and tzaddik, Reb Chaim Brim, ztvk"l right before Pesach. During the discussion, he told me, "If you want to learn how to actually experience the Exodus, go and visit the Mashgiach, Harav Shlomo Volbe, shlita. Several years ago, I heard him explain how to do this properly and I was extremely impressed. I don't remember exactly what he said, but I know that I was surprised to realize that in our humble generation there is someone who really knows how to do it right."
I was very intrigued by what I had heard and I was contemplating going to search for Rav Volbe to ask him for instructions. However, I knew that it would be quite difficult to track him down on such a busy day and I didn't really have so much time available. By means of tremendous Hashgachah Peratis (Divine Intervention), I drove out of the shtiblech in Meah Shearim, where Reb Chaim lived, and who did I see standing at the bus stop? Harav Volbe himself! He seemed very deep in thought as I interrupted him and asked where he was headed for. He told me that he was going to his home in Giv'at Shaul. I asked him if I could drive him there and he accepted the offer.
Once he was in the car, I asked the Mashgiach how one can possibly feel as if he were a slave in Egypt who had been redeemed on Pesach. To my amazement, he responded that this was exactly what he was working on at the moment. Excitedly, I asked him what he had concluded. To my great disappointment, he replied that he had not yet finished thinking it through and that, consequently, he had nothing to tell me yet. I didn't want to push the issue but I wondered to myself why couldn't he tell me what he had come up with in previous years if this year's approach wasn't complete yet? This question bothered me for many years.
Last year, my oldest son, Yussie, told me about his preparations for his communal seder in Marlboro, New Jersey. During the conversation, he told me a fantastic story about someone who had a unique way of performing his own seder with his family. Being a Holocaust survivor, he would don the clothing he had worn in the Concentration Camps, and envision, once again, how he had felt as a forced laborer there. In this way, he could relate to the Jewish slaves in Egypt, feel their bitter bondage and experience the sweet taste of their redemption.
Before this fellow died, he instructed his children to forego the usual custom of burying the dead in a white shroud. Instead, he requested that they bury him in his Concentration Camp uniform since he was convinced that they would serve as an automatic entrance pass into the Garden of Eden. The children turned to their Rabbi for advice. First of all, they asked, how could they ignore a Jewish tradition, thousands of years old, to bury the dead in a white shroud? And second of all, they argued, they wanted to have those very clothes to don themselves when they would celebrate the seder, on Pesach night, with their own children so that they could pass down the tradition they had received from their father to their own children.
The Rabbi ruled that the usual tradition could not be overruled, and that the father should be buried in a white shroud like everyone else. However, he said, the man's request should be honored by placing the uniform in the coffin beside him and burying them together with him.
As far as the children's desire to wear them themselves, the Rabbi rejected that notion completely and explained, "When your father wore those clothes, he actually felt what it means to be a slave. You, however, would merely be mimicking his actions. It would be nothing more than a performance for your children. That is not what the author of the Haggadah had in mind. Everyone must find his own way to actually experience the bondage; not just to imitate others."
I told Yussie that I had once heard that fundamental rule on a much deeper level.
It was Purim in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and the joy in the Chassidic community of Satmar penetrated the walls. Chassidim sang and danced as their illustrious Rebbe brought them to a spiritual high at his tish (lit. table; the customary place where Chassidic Rabbis congregate with their followers to eat with them and teach them). In the midst of the gromen (satiric poetry), a chassid got up and began to impersonate the Rebbe, ztvk"l. Everyone was delighted as he imitated the Rebbe flawlessly, mimicking his voice and his every movement exactly as they had seen him do it thousands of times over the years that they were privileged to learn by him. All the Chassidim were laughing until they noticed that the Rebbe was crying. The impersonator felt terrible for apparently upsetting their Master, and he fell to the Rebbe's feet and begged his forgiveness for being impudent. The Satmar Rebbe tisked him aside and assured him that, in the spirit of Purim, he had done nothing wrong. On the contrary, his impersonation was impeccable. The Chassid was relieved but puzzled. "Why, then, was the Rebbe crying?" he asked. "That has nothing to do with you," the Rabbi replied. However, the student persisted; eager to learn the exalted ways of one of the greatest leaders of the generation. Finally, the Rebbe explained his feelings to him. "When I saw what a flawless job you did of mimicking me, which, of course was not real, merely an impersonation, I began to think to myself that perhaps when I do those things, they are not real either, merely an impersonation of myself! If so," the modest Rebbe concluded with tears in his eyes, "then my service of Hashem is not real either; just a simple performance."
We see from this that not only should one not imitate someone else's service of Hashem but he should not even copy himself. What this means is that sometimes one has a real feeling of devotion. At that moment, he performs certain actions in certain ways. If at another time he does not feel that religious fervor but simply goes through the motions again then he is merely mimicking himself; not serving Hashem from his heart and soul.
As I spoke to my son, I realized that I finally understood why Rav Volbe, shlita, would not tell me what he had felt in previous years while he was in the midst of working on feeling the Exodus on some other level. To tell me his thoughts of the past would have been a meaningless exercise in repetition. The Mashgiach serves Hashem with a freshness which is real. He would not give me stale commodities from years past. Had I been smart enough to return to him later or the next day, perhaps I would have learned some innovative way to fulfill this very difficult mitzvah properly.
Let us try to be honest and original in serving Hashem with true devotion. Then we will truly be happy, in this world and in the World-to-Come.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network