“The Jews’ Passover”-facsimile of a miniature from a 15th century missal, ornamented with paintings of the School of Van Eyck
by Rabbi Benjamin Blech
What insights does Passover provide into our current financial crisis that can help alleviate our collective pain?
A fresh look at the Seder’s traditional four questions offers much food for thought around your Seder table.
1. Why is it that in all other years we eat bread and matzah, but this year we eat only matzah?
Bread is the staff of life. Matzah is the symbol of poverty. To make money, in slang, is to “make some bread.” To be blessed with much is to “have a lot of dough.” But this year as we look at our bank accounts, our retirement plans and our depleted wallets, we are all too often reminded of the “bread of affliction” our ancestors subsisted on in the land of Egypt.
Why did this happen to us? Perhaps it’s because God wants us to understand a biblical truth that we seem to have forgotten. “Man does not live by bread alone” the Torah teaches. We dare not confine the strivings of our lives solely to accumulating money. We must not make material gain our sole priority. There comes a time when we have to learn to negate our overriding emphasis on “making more bread.” While society stresses wealth as the primary measure of personal worth, Judaism insists that once a year on Passover, we demonstrate the moral courage to renounce the power of bread as the ultimate ruler of our lives. Surrounded by our families we declare we can survive without the trappings of luxury.
It’s ironic that one of the wealthiest men in the world didn’t learn this lesson until it was too late. Sam Walton was the multibillionaire CEO of Wal-Mart, the fourth largest US Corporation. As he was lying on his deathbed, he struggled to get out his last three words on earth. He had given his life for his business. In that area, he succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Yet, it was at a price. He hardly spent any time with his wife, his children, and his grandchildren. He didn’t allow himself the moments of loving interaction, of playing and laughing with his loved ones. His final three words? “I blew it!” He had the billions, but by his own admission he had failed. Maybe we now should be thinking about and thanking God on Passover for this important reminder.
2. Why is it that in all other years we eat all kinds of vegetables, but this year we eat only bitter herbs?
Why does a good God sometimes make our lives not better, but bitter? The Jews asked it in Egypt with regard to their servitude. We ask it today with regard to our dwindling financial assets. It is a problem that every believer has to face in one form or another.
We can learn a great deal from a story that is told about the saintly rabbi, the Chafetz Chaim. Meeting a former student after many years, the rabbi asked about his welfare. The student, in difficult straits, responded, “Unfortunately things are very bad.”
The rabbi immediately shot back, “God forbid, you are not permitted to say that. Do not ever declare that things are bad. Say instead they are bitter.”
Perplexed, the student asked, “Bad, bitter – what’s the difference? My life is terrible.”
“No, my son,” the rabbi answered, “there is all the difference in the world between them. A medicine may be bitter but it isn’t bad.”
True faith requires an understanding that life often presents us with challenges – bitter moments that temporarily leave us with an acrid taste, but help us to grow, to mature and to eventually become better human beings.
God planned the Egyptian experience for a purpose. In Deuteronomy He refers to it as “a fiery furnace” – the way in which precious metals were purified. As harsh as it seemed at the time, it was all for a reason. The Torah tells us that the Jews who had endured and survived were all the better for it. And that too must be our hope as we confront our contemporary crisis. Yes, it is bitter – just like a medicine that will make us better.
3. Why in all other years do we not dip even once, but in this year dip two times?
The past led many of us to believe that we could expect no dips in the economy. The good times would always roll without interruption.
It was in 1929, just before the Great Depression, that many of the brilliant economists of the time predicted that the “age of cycles” was over. The rules that limited human progress were no longer applicable. The stock market could now only go up and up. They claimed unlimited wealth was inevitable. The hubris of man clearly needed to be humbled. The crash of the 30s silenced those who had previously put all their trust in “my might and my power.”
The prognosticators of our new millennium proved to be just as blind as their predecessors. They, too, assured us the old rules no longer applied, that we could spend without regard to the future, that we need not save because the value of our homes would only keep rising, that in short we were invincible and almighty.
In a striking passage, the Talmud explains why Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel were all barren from birth, requiring divine intervention in order to conceive. It was, the rabbis teach us, because “God desires the prayers of his beloved.” When things come too easily to us we fall victim to a sense of entitlement. We think we no longer have to pray for blessings to come to us if they arrive even without being asked for. Prayers answered before they are spoken deny us the need and the opportunity to express them. Blessings too freely granted can also make us lose sight of our requirement for gratitude.
So we have dips in our fortunes. The good news is that they need not be permanent if we learn from them. All they ask of us is that when times are once again good we don’t forget the source of our blessings.
4. Why is it that in all other years we eat either sitting or reclining, but in this year we eat only reclining?
To recline is to lean. And this year there are many who are forced to lean on others for assistance. The demands placed this year on charitable organizations are unprecedented. No one can simply sit back comfortably in his or her own chair, insensitive to the suffering of those around them.
That, in fact, is the very reason God tells us he forced our ancestors to spend all that time in Egypt before he brought them back to the Promised Land. “Be kind to the poor and to the stranger,” He commands us, “because you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The purpose of Egyptian slavery was meant to teach us to empathize with the oppressed in every generation. We know what it means to be poor, to be hungry, to be mistreated. We were schooled in misery precisely so that we would not fail in our mission to be a light to the world, teaching compassion and kindness.
“This is the bread of affliction – let all those who are hungry come and eat with us, let all those who are needy come and share our festive meal with our family.” This is the way we begin our Passover Seder. It is the most fitting introduction to the holiday whose very story took place in order to teach us this lesson.
We all strive to be happy. We search for different ways to achieve this goal. What is the best way to secure it? We have tried so many different ways unsuccessfully. Social scientists have recently come to a remarkable conclusion. A recent issue of the prestigious Science magazine reveals that studies prove helping others is perhaps the most surefire way to gain personal happiness.
Strange then, isn’t it, that we spend so much of our days dedicated to getting, when we would be so much better off if we put more of our efforts into giving. We could all learn much from Michael Bloomberg, the self-made billionaire founder of the Bloomberg financial information firm and New York Mayor, who donated $235 million in 2008, making him the leading individual living donor in the United States, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy. In explaining his philosophy, he said he intends to give away most of his fortune, because “the best measure of a philanthropist is that the check he leaves to the undertaker bounces.” And that will insure that he dies a very happy man.
These explanations may not resolve our pressing contemporary problems, but they do permit us to realize that there are profound issues implicit in the divine reaction to our difficulties that transcend our understanding. Our struggle for meaning must always be matched with our firm belief that the God who cared enough for us to perform miracles in days of old continues to love us in the same measure to help us overcome our present crises. That is, after all, why we celebrate Passover.
About the author: Rabbi Benjamin Blech is the author of 12 highly acclaimed books, including Understanding Judaism: The basics of Deed and Creed. He is a professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University and the Rabbi Emeritus of Young Israel of Oceanside which he served for 37 years and from which he retired to pursue his interests in writing and lecturing around the globe. He is also the author of If God Is Good, Why Is The World So Bad?
Reprinted with kindly permission of Aish HaTorah International.