Sunday, April 17, 2011

Our Fathers Were Idolaters

One of the most written about subjects in Jewish literature is the Hagadah Shel Pesach. This should not be surprising for several reasons. Pesach is our quintessential holiday. It virtually defines us as a people. The central theme of Pesach is Yitzias Mitzraim – the Exodus from Egypt.

The Exodus is so central to Judaism that we mention it every single day in our prayers several times. Pesach is the anniversary of that Exodus and the Haggadah is the book we use at the Seder to re-tell that story. Magid – the Halachic requirement to re-tell the Exodus story on the night of Pesach is fulfilled by reading the Haggadah out loud.

The Hagadah is rich with material to comment upon and as I indicated there is indeed much commentary out there on it written over the centuries in spades with insights galore. This is as true today as it ever was. A few years ago ArtScroll published an English translation of the Arzei HaLevanon Haggadah – the Ceders of Lebanon Haggadah by Rabbi Asher Bergman. Rabbi Bergman is the grandson of Rav Eliezer Shach. He compiled a Haggadah that contained the customs and insights of various Gedolim of the previous generation.

As for the customs I found it fascinating to see how different each of Gedolim were from each other. Just to cite a few of the many examples, R’ Aharon Kotler used onions for Karpas and iceberg lettuce instead of romaine lettuce because of the problem with bugs. Rav Isser Zalmen Meltzer used potatoes for Karpas and horseradish for Maror. R’ Yaakov Kaminetsky used radishes for Karpas and romaine lettuce stalks for Maror. R’ Moshe Feinstein used potatoes for Karpas and later in life changed it to celery; and horseradish for Maror later in life changing it to lettuce.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the Hagadah are the insights of these great Gedolim. One of which is the following commentary on the portion og the Hagadah that tells of our idolatrous ancestral beginnings; “MeThichla Ovdei Avodah Zara Hayu Avosienu’ - in the beginning our ancestors were idol worshippers.

Chazal tell us that the requirement of Sipur Yitzius Mitzrayim should begin with our inglorious ancestral past and end with our glorious exit from Egypt. There is a debate about which point in our history we begin - whether it should be as slaves in Egypt as idol worshippers in pre- patriarchal times. The Hagadah tries to satisfy both opinions.

Either way, Rav Moshe Feinstein saw an important lesson in this requirement. He sees it as a lesson for those who contemplate making a life changing decision to become a religious Jew.

Those who have led an irreligious lifestyle that included practices and habits that are anathematic to Torah, have a tendency to try and forget about their past which they now consider embarrassing. They in fact probably desire to cut themselves off from it completely severing all connections.

This says Rav Moshe is incorrect. We are supposed to remember where we came from and maintain a connection to it. The reason for that is that if someone were to cut themselves off completely from their past they have no place to ‘land’ if they needed to back pedal a bit as they move forward.

The path to personal improvement is a long and difficult one that is full of setbacks and occasional lapses says Rav Moshe. He quotes from Mishlei (Proverbs 24:16): ‘A righteous person falls seven times and he always rises up again’. Chazal tell us (Gittin 43a), ‘A person cannot fully understand the words of Torah unless he first errs in them’.

If one does not recall his previous state at all he has nothing to fall back on during one of those lapses. On the other hand by constantly keeping his past in mind they can measure their progress by it. Retaining a connection to the past it enables the survival of any relapse until the motivation to become religious returns. This says Rav Moshe is the reason that the Hagadah requires us to begin with our inglorious past.

I believe he is absolutely right and for more than those reasons. Cutting off one’s past sometimes means severing all relationships with irreligious parents and siblings. That - in my view - is a disaster. Unless parents or siblings are actively trying to undermine your life decisions, not only should one retain those connections but in fact not doing so violates the Halachic requirement of honoring them. Not to mention the emotional upheaval this often creates and the lifelong feelings of animosity and resentment that results between the Baal Teshuva and his irreligious family.

If on the other hand one has good relations with irreligious parents one cannot help but to make a positive impression with their newly achieved commitment to observance and thereby a Kiddush HaShem. In the process this has the added benefit of perhaps improving their family’s own religious observances.

At the very least even if parents and siblings do not want to be religious themselves they will see the positive results of a religious lifestyle and the improved character that should be the hallmark of the religious persona.

If on the other hand there is an air of animosity towards one’s past one’s irreligious family - a Chilul HaShem can result. And that kind of fallout should be avoided at all cost.