SHABBAT MARCH 31, 2001: It’s beginning to look a lot like Pesach! Next week at this time we will be just hours away from the long awaited and anticipated Pesach seder. Pesach is just around the corner, and these are tough times for us men. The time has come for our homes to cleaned, dishes and silverware changed over . . . all of our chometz (lit. leaven) disposed of. The time has come to start the cooking and shopping, the scrubbing and scouring . . . all part of the preparations for Pesach. These are tough times for us men; tough having to watch our wives go through all this! I know one man who told me that it’s so painful for him watching his wife having to work so hard during these days before Pesach that he literally has to leave the house.
Yes, these are tough times for us men . . . and I guess for women as well. But the fact of the matter is, for all of us as Jews, these days before Pesach are not as tough as they used to be. Indeed, Pesach itself just isn’t what it used to be. As we enter the 21st century, Pesach is different in so many ways than ever before; different in the foods we eat, the songs we sing, the Hagaddahs we use, and the location of the seder.
It wasn’t too long ago that most all of us celebrated the Pesach seder in our own homes, or perhaps one seder was held in a synagogue. In recent years, Pesach sedarim have been celebrated at the Caribe Hilton Hotel and Casino in Puerto Rico and the Noga Hilton on the French Riviera. At the Buenos Vista Palace in Orlando to the Marinda Hotel in Barcelona, from the St. James Club in Antigua to the Taj Mahal Hotel in Atlantic City. That’s where Jews find themselves saying, “Kol dichfin yesei v’yachol – let all who are hungry come and eat.” How do you think I, as an Orthodox rabbi raised in a home that stressed tradition, feel about this?
And what about the foods that we now eat on Pesach? I remember when I grew up, for breakfast if you had a plain piece of matzoh and hard boiled egg and a cup of black coffee, you couldn’t complain. There wasn’t much else you could eat. For lunch and dinner you had to be content with some variation of matzoh: matzoh brei, matzoh latkes, matzoh balls, matzoh stuffing, matzoh kugel . . . that used to be the totality of our Pesach menu. Today it seems as if everything is kosher for Pesach. Streits and Manischewitz put out griddle cake mixes on which you can pour Festive or Season pancake syrup. There’s muffin mixes – regular or blueberry. Crispy O’s and Frosty Flakes cereals! You can even lose weight on Pesach! Your salads can be covered by kosher for Pesach low salt, low calorie French, Thousand Island, Italian, Garlic Ranch dressings. No salt added tuna, low sodium sardines, low cal pancake syrup, water packed fruit, dietetic egg kichel and cookies, no sugar added prune and fruit compote, diet borscht . . . it’s all available for Pesach. As are potato chips, BBQ potato chips and Bazooka bubblegum. And for those who are really weird and don’t care what they put into their systems – you can try Goodman’s Pina Colada macaroons. They now even have a boxed frozen seder plate! You just take the frozen shank bone, egg and bitter herb and all the rest right out of the box – and there you have it – advertised as being for “G-d’s frozen people!” How do you think I, as an Orthodox rabbi raised in a truly traditional home, feel about all this? Or about our people’s obsession with Italian food that carries over into Pesach, where you can now get a Passover pizza mix, and linguine also advertised as “pasta l’Pesach.” I guess in commemoration of the exodus of our ancestors from the land of Sicily! How do you think that rubs me?
And what about today’s Hagaddahs? When I grew up it didn’t matter if you were rich or poor, observant or non-observant, for all practical purposes we all would use the same Hagaddah: the word of G-d as given down to Maxwell House coffee. Truth to tell, there were hundred of different editions of the Hagaddah but the text was the same. And with some variations the tunes were the same as well. But times have changed and in recent years the Hagaddah has changed. Now there’s one to meet each individuals needs. There’s a cyberspace Hagaddah, a Feminist Hagaddah, a Lesbian Hagaddah, a Buddhist Hagaddah, a vegetarian Hagaddah.
And even for those who may not go to these extremes, the truth of the matter is, in many American Jewish homes, their singing a new song at the seder. (Our Cantor has graciously agreed to help me with this.) How about starting your seder with something like this: “There’s no seder like our seder,” sung to the tune of “There no business like show business.” When its time for the Afikomen, you get the chance to sing, “Don’t sit on the Afikomen,” to the tune of “Glory Glory Hallelujah.” And for the coming of Elijah, a song to the tune of “Maria” from West Side Story. And to rap it all up in a nice mellow mood, where you might have sung “L’shana habaah b’Yerushalim – Next year in Jerusalem” – now you can sing “Same time next year” to the tune of “Making Whoopee.”
I don’t know about you, but as for me, there’s only one word I can think of in reaction to all this. I, a rabbi – an Orthodox rabbi, a Jew, I who from my earliest childhood until this very day is the one in the family who every erev Pesach cries my heart out as I grate the morror, I who can still remember the eyeball of the carp looking at me right before my mother cut its head off and put the rest of it into the grinder to make her gefilte fish. I, who can remember when we didn’t have a piece of cheese or most any dairy product on our table for Pesach because none were available. And now, we have pasta l’Pesach in Hawaii and Hagaddah with songs to the tune of “Glory Glory Hallelujah” – for me there’s only one word that comes to mind in regard to all this. And the word is “TERRIFIC!”
That’s right – TERRIFIC! And to understand why, let me teach you one law in regard to Pesach that so many Jews violate. This is the law in the exact words as expressed in the Shulchan Aruch – the Code of Jewish Law: “Chayev adam l’hiyot sameach v’tov lev b’moed – a person is obligated to be happy and feel good on the festival.” That’s the law in the words of the Shulchan Aruch. And on those words, the Mishneh Berura, the greatest Jewish law book of the 20th century, adds the words: “v’hu mitzvat aseh min ha-torah . . . gom b’nashim – this is a positive commandment from the Torah, even for women!” Talk about equality! Even women are obligated to be happy and to enjoy the festival of Pesach. Pesach was never meant to be a drudgery, it was never meant for women to be slaves in their kitchens and in their homes. It was never meant to be a holiday that was to be dreaded. Yes, we kid when we say Pesach is tough times for us men, but it is no joke in regard to Jewish women. So any products which come along which make their lives easier, which makes the preparations for the holiday less time consuming . . . indeed, for all of us, any Hagaddah that comes along that makes the Pesach seder more enlightening, and any songs that can be added that makes the whole experience more enjoyable . . . I say “Terrific!”
The fact of the matter is, Pesach is referred to as the Zeman Chereisenu – the time of our freedom – – not of our slavery. And down through the ages, the attempt was always made to make the Pesach observance easier, not harder. More enjoyable, not a drag. The idea of selling our chometz so that we needn’t throw away all of our leftover chometz, or even to clean the cabinets in which they’re kept, the concept of machine made matzot – which made unlimited amounts of matzoh available to the masses, the introduction of the countless dairy products which weren’t available until the mid-20th century. Indeed, its not even necessary to grate that horseradish anymore. Romaine lettuce, according to most authorities, is what the real morror is all about – like our enslavement, it starts off tasting sweet and turns bitter – but previous generations didn’t use it because they didn’t have it. All of these innovations were denounced when they were first introduced to the public, with strict traditionalists crying out. “It robs Pesach of all its flavor; it tramples on tradition.”
I remember when I was growing up in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, a new store opening that caused an uproar. The store was “Meal Mart,” similar in some ways to Baltimore’s Knish Shop or Fishel’s. You could go there and buy your entire Shabbos meal. All the salads and kugels and soups and chollent and especially their delicious bar-b-que chickens. At the time, the rabbis in Borough Park sought to issue a statement denouncing the store and prohibiting any Jews from buying in it. They claimed that this radical innovation would lead to the destruction of the Jewish home, with women no longer performing the tasks that they had so meritoriously fulfilled down through the ages. Indeed, the whole “geshmak” (flavor) of Shabbos would disappear. My father, of blessed memory, a rabbi of one of the prominent synagogues in Borough Park, refused to sign the statement. To his dying day he denied the claim of his children that he didn’t sign the prohibition because he liked Meal Mart’s chicken better than my mother’s! But perhaps he also didn’t sign the prohibition because my mother, at the time, worked as a public school teacher in the very difficult Bedford-Styvesent section of Brooklyn. She worked hard to help make ends meet, and I guess my father must have felt that anything that could be done that would make life a little easier for her was fine with him.
Believe me, my father was a traditionalist, but he understood. And believe me, I am a traditionalist, and I understand. Just because things aren’t being done “the old way,” does not mean that they are being done the wrong way. I know that not everybody sees it that way. I know that there are some who will always proclaim “Give me that old time religion!” There are some who will think that any thing new, any change, is sacrilegious. But believe me, that attitude does not make them more religious. The fact that some rabbis still insist on using cholov Yisroel – milk that is produced by a Jew, despite that fact that the reason for that law is no longer applicable in America – did not stop some of those rabbis’ followers from milking the U.S. government of millions of dollars in falsified educational grants! And the fact that Robert Hanson, the CIA counter-intelligence agent, was such a pious Catholic that he not only went to church every week, but he would only go to a church that conducted the service in the traditional Latin, did not stop him from selling our country’s most secret intelligence to the Russians, and the FBI now charging him with treason.
No, the old way is not necessarily the best way. But here let me add a word of caution. It is equally important for us to remember that the modern way is not necessarily the best way either. If some people are so narrow-minded that they think nothing should change, there are, unfortunately, all too many people who are so narrow minded that they think everything should change! Indeed, for some being modern is not enough. I keep reading more articles on being “post-modern.” The fact of the matter is: we’re in a new millennium and we’ve made the greatest breakthroughs in science, medicine and technology. But no one will tell you that we’re happier than ever before. There are more two income homes but there are also more broken homes. More cures, but more diseases. More conveniences, but less time. More experts but seemingly more problems. We’re connected to the world, but so disconnected in our homes. The “new” morality is not really very moral! Because something is new does not necessarily make it good.
We Jews have always had difficulty in striking the proper balance between the “old” and the “new.” At the beginning of the 20th century, Orthodox Judaism refused to consider any changes. The attitude being that chadash is ossur min ha-torah – anything new is forbidden by the Torah. We lost a whole generation of Jews with that attitude. We learned from that mistake and introduced lots of new things: English sermons and English readings and Bat Mitzvahs – all of which has strengthened us. Similarly, as we entered the 20th century, the Reform movement rejected so much that was part of the age- old traditions of our people, removing Hebrew from the prayer book and rituals from every day life, and expressing the belief that America was the new Jerusalem. Now the Reform movement has come back to many of our traditions: from the yarmelka (skullcap) to the love of Zion to the performance of mitzvot, thus strengthening itself.
The Jews in Israel should learn this lesson. Recent changes were made in Israeli textbooks. Changes that are attributed to what many call the “post-Zionism.” Suddenly, a new perspective is given on Israel’s war of liberation. It’s no longer so black and white, the Israelis are not all innocent and the Arabs are not all guilty. And there’s nothing wrong in making changes, in giving a truer picture. But there’s something very wrong when, in order to do this, that same Israeli history book has a picture of FDR and Hitler, but none of Ben Gurion. Chaim Weitzman is not mentioned and the Warsaw ghetto uprising gets just a passing comment.
The challenge for the people of Israel, the challenge for all of us as Jews, is to find that proper balance between the new and the modern and what Tevye called “tradition, tradition.”
We are one week away from the performance of one of the oldest and most popular traditions of our people. These are tough times for men and certainly for women. Tough getting it all together, blending the old and the new. These are the days to remind ourselves of what a great rabbi taught: no license can replace the law, no symphony the psalms, no chandelier the Sabbath candles, no country club the synagogue, no mansion the home, no car a child, no impulse the joy of doing a mitzvah, no banquet the Pesach seder.
So yes, anything that comes out on the market that makes it easier to prepare for Pesach, any song that comes along that might make the seder more enjoyable . . . that’s terrific. But at the same time, let’s make sure that the new does not replace the old. Let the seder have contemporary readings that speak to us individually, but let’s not forget to turn back to that “old” Hagaddah to re-tell that monumental story of the exodus from Egypt that speaks to us collectively! Let us sing the new songs that will put a smile on our faces, but lets not leave out those old ones like “V’hi Sh-amda” and “Adir Hu” and all the others that bring a tear to our eyes. Let us include the new cup of Miriam, reminding us of the important role women played in the exodus from Egypt and the important role they play in the Jewish community today.
But let us also fill the cup of Elijah, which contains within it dreams of our Messianic redemption.
It is beginning to look a lot like Pesach! Let us get ready to enjoy it, to feel good about it. Let us – women and men – prepare properly for it. Remember it only comes once a year. Let it be the joyous experience it is meant to be. Let us do in the coming week what our parents and grandparents did down through the ages: the women preparing the house for Pesach and the men preparing for how to conduct the seder. But in our day and age, let our preparations be marked not only by new products and songs and Hagaddahs, but also by a new attitude. An attitude of women and men joining together to clean for Pesach, and for men and women joining together to conduct the Pesach seder. I think that would not only cause us to rejoice, but cause God to rejoice as well. In keeping with the fulfillment of our festival prayer, “Bestow upon us oh Lord, our God, the blessing of Your festivals for light and for peace, for gladness and for joy.” Amen.
© copyright 2001 by Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg. All rights reserved. Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg’s March 31, 2001 Shabbat sermon is also available, complete with the lyrics to the new songs mentioned in it, on the Beth Tfiloh website at