The humble-natured sheep symbolic of Nissan (Aries), the first month of the year, recognizes the shepherd to be its guide, just as the Jewish people place their faith in their Shepherd, the Creator of the universe.
With humility of spirit and purity of soul, we celebrate the birth of our nation and the awesome miracles by which we were redeemed from the abyss of bitter enslavement. The historic epic of our Exodus from Egypt is most significant in that it defines our identity as a people. Yetzias Mitzrayim is our insignia, the stamp that proves our special link with our Creator – a remembrance that we evoke every Shabbos and holiday.
Children are encouraged to stay awake and play an active role in the Seder – a night when all heavenly barriers dissolve to allow a splendiferous divine light to shine down upon God’s beloved nation. The young ones who remain alert and awake reap the enormous benefit of this supernal light that connects us to our Father above.
The elaborate system that guides the Seder (literally “order”) in its magnificence is geared as a lesson in living color – mainly for children – that has been handed down from generation to generation.
Why are children inspired by the Pesach service to ask Mah Nishtanah (“Why is this night different “)? Shouldn’t they be at least as curious of our Sukkos holiday, when we leave the comfort of our homes to feast in a makeshift abode that strong winds threaten to blow asunder at any time – and yet no questions are asked?
Simply, our children are acclimated to our daily struggles. What most are not accustomed to viewing in our midst is a lavishly bedecked table glittering with our best silverware, the comfortable chaise laid out for the patriarch – the king at our soiree – and the pervading atmosphere of luxurious liberty. Hence, the four questions.
It is a mitzvah for children to ask the Mah Nishtanah of their father and for him to answer their questions. The heads of households repeat the Mah Nishtanah, likewise performing the mitzvah of asking their Father the four questions, equally anticipating His answer.
Once at the Belzer Rebbe’s Seder table the youngest child had fallen asleep. When little Yehoshua awoke much later, he began to wail inconsolably. His father, the Sar Shalom, took the sobbing child in his lap. Contemplating his son’s sad demeanor, he commented, “The child is right to be upset. He was not awake for Eliyahu HaNavi’s visit.” The Belzer Rebbe called on those at the table to return to the verse recited to welcome the prophet – after which the child promptly calmed down and ceased his crying.
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Those born under the sign of Aries are stubborn and often reluctant to accept defeat. Lucky for them, they have a way of coming out on top in most situations.
The Aries nature is a lively and playful one and harbors a natural optimism.
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Reb Pesach, the father of the eminent Reb Zvi Elimelech of Dinov, would leave his family for the winter in order to earn a livelihood by hiring himself out as a melamed (children’s teacher) to another family in a distant hamlet. He would work until erev Pesach, at which time he would receive his accumulated wages before returning home in time for the holiday.
It so happened that R. Pesach once worked for a miser who would turn away anyone appearing at his door seeking alms. Unable to bear watching this scene repeatedly unfold, R. Pesach offered his employer money from his own earnings, to be deducted on payday. When the day of reckoning arrived, a calculation revealed that the teacher had forfeited his entire earnings and then some.
The kindly melamed hardly looked forward to facing his wife with the news since she had struggled all winter to make ends meet and feed their children. His young son Zvi Elimelech eagerly ran ahead to meet his father. The two greeted one another warmly and walked together until R. Pesach informed the child that since he would be heading to the synagogue to pray, the youngster should run on home and inform his mother of his arrival.
A man in the vicinity happened to notice some money lying on the ground where R. Pesach had just been walking. Assuming the coins had fallen from his pocket, the finder rushed to perform the mitzvah of returning lost belongings. R. Pesach’s grateful wife was relieved that her husband’s return now meant she was able to procure the necessary provisions for the holiday.
On erev Pesach Zvi Elimelech was dispatched to the marketplace to purchase some greens for the Seder. Arriving at his destination, the boy noticed other youngsters frolicking in a large wagon that had been left sitting idle. A mere child himself, Zvi Elimelech was enticed to join in the fun. But as luck would have it, the wagon driver soon returned, brandishing his whip and landing a thwack on the poor flinching boy who cried out in bewilderment, “Why are you hitting me? Have I been any naughtier than the other children?”
The driver meekly replied that if the lad would not report him to his parents, he would be handsomely rewarded. At that, he retrieved a packet from his wagon, handed it to the boy and told him to take it home.
Zvi Elimelech did as the driver bid – and what a surprise awaited them all when the package was revealed to contain numerous gold coins!
The family of R. Pesach sat around a resplendent table, along with the needy who were invited to join them. When the door was unlatched to the tune of Shefoch Chamascha, little Zvi Elimelech’s voice rang out, “Father! There is the man who gave me the packet of money!”
A glowing R. Pesach replied, “That, my son, is Eliyahu HaNavi – and as you have merited to behold him this year, you will be granted the privilege every year.”
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Jewish children well versed in the custom of afikoman that concludes the Seder meal tend to have grand expectations as to how high they can reach in their bartering. Only after the “pickpocket” is assured he or she will get the coveted prize is the afikoman retrieved from its hiding place.
On one such occasion, the child who would later become the tzaddik R. Yonosson Eibeshutz stole the afikoman and informed his father that he would produce it on condition that his father buy him a new satin bekeshe (the shiny robe worn by chassidim).
With no alternative in sight, the father agreed and the afikoman was presented and distributed among the Seder participants – except for young Yonosson who was skipped over.
“Father, where is my piece of the afikoman?” asked the perplexed youngster, to which his father replied, “Ahh! When you will free me of my obligation to buy you the bekeshe, you will receive a part of the afikoman.” As they all prepared to bite into their last morsel of matzah for the night, Yonosson reached into his pocket and extracted his own piece of afikoman.
His surprised father asked him where he had procured his portion. The son answered, “I anticipated your reaction beforehand and provided for my need by breaking off a piece of the afikoman before returning it. Now, hopefully, I have both ”
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The honest, forthright and intellectual Aries native tackles problems head-on and is not inclined to see a situation as untenable.
The amiable and quick-minded Aries has the ability to size up a situation with lightning speed and to make a determination accordingly.
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A grandson of R. Shimon Sofer, the son of the Chasam Sofer, once asked his grandfather at the Seder table why the custom of afikoman was instituted as the means to keep children from falling asleep. Couldn’t the Sages have thought of a different tactic that did not involve an act of “stealing”?
R. Shimon did not immediately address the child’s curiosity but later stated that the reason for his delayed response was to teach that age-old customs must be adhered to even when their rationale is beyond our comprehension.
R. Shimon went on to explain that the Seder ritual is rife with symbolism such as that of the charoses, representing the lime mixture the Jews used to bond the bricks at the behest of the Egyptian slave drivers, and the marror, which hints at our bitter exile. And yet, though it is written that when the Jews departed Mitzrayim en masse the dogs held their tongues and not one was heard to bark, there is no allusion to that remarkable phenomenon.
“The Talmud,” expounded Reb Shimon, “advises us to inhabit a place where there are dogs, for their barking serves to deter thieves from carrying out their dishonest trade. It seems the afikoman may be the hint to the chesed that allowed us to ‘steal’ our way out of Mitzrayim unhindered.”
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On the seventh day of Pesach, the loyal disciples of the Brisker Rav, the Maharil Diskin, were accompanying their rebbe home from shul.
A young girl ran up to the rav and breathlessly proclaimed that her mother had sent her to ask him a question. At the rebbe’s encouraging nod, she continued.
“My mother had asked me to add three eggs to the grated potatoes she had prepared for latkes, and by mistake I added four,” explained the child, as members of the rebbe’s entourage stifled their laughter. In answer to her question as to whether the pancakes would be edible, the Brisker Rav gently advised the girl to let her mother know the family would be able to consume the latkes “tomorrow, on acharon shel Pesach.”
The Rav explained to the puzzled onlookers that in this girl’s home there had been only three eggs until today when their chicken had laid another, which became muktza (prohibited from being used) due to the fact that it was “born” on Yom Tov. The little girl’s use of it in the mixture would render the latkes forbidden from being consumed on the holiday, but the Rambam’s ruling that the last day of Pesach is considered to be a separate order of kedusha (holiness) from the rest of the holiday allowed for the food to be eaten on the second day (of the last days).
The disciples were astonished at the Brisker’s insight, especially when they went to the trouble of verifying the circumstances that prompted the little girl’s concern and found the rav’s rendering of the incident had indeed been accurate.
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The Maharal of Prague was born on the first night of Pesach. In fact, the family had been sitting at their Seder table when R. Betzalel’s wife began to feel the first stirrings of labor. Family members rushing out the door to fetch a doctor spotted a man approaching, carrying a bundle over his shoulder.
Their sudden appearance startled the person who, it turned out, was carrying a dead Christian child and had been planning to dump the body on Jewish property. Taking flight, he drew the attention of the police, who suspected him of being a thief and stopped him in his tracks. Thus the Maharal of Prague was already a savior of his people on the night he was born.
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A story from the Midrash: When Pharaoh enacted his decree to have all Jewish newborn males tossed into the river, Jewish women were forced to carry their babies out into the fields in order to avert the unspeakable alternative. With desolation in their hearts and a prayer on their lips, they would leave their newborns behind – at which point angels descended to care for the young ones.
Each baby was washed and swathed in a satin cloth, a small stone placed in each of their hands from which the infants would suckle honey and milk alternately.
When the Egyptian taskmasters approached, the earth opened up to swallow the infants, who remained out of sight to be miraculously reared and nurtured until they were grown. At that time, they would emerge to be shepherded like sheep into the city by guiding angels who escorted each to his respective family’s home where they would identify themselves by name to their parents.
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The Torah commandment to relate the wondrous details of our departure from Egypt – Sipur Yetzias Mitzrayim – is the only one without limitation or boundary; the more time we spend recounting the spectacular narrative, the more praiseworthy our lot.
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This year, as we prepared for Seder night and the Pesach holiday, we were also privileged to take part in another observance. Birkas HaChamah (the blessing of the sun), a once-in-every-28-years event commemorating God’s superb and precise formation of the sun that had first been set in place, along with the other celestial luminaries, on the eve of the fourth day of the week of Creation.
Celebrating our Creator’s craftsmanship serves – as does the Pesach Seder – to teach our children to recognize His presence in every facet of our lives, to acknowledge and appreciate His creative works and to recognize our obligation to serve Him.
Our mandate is to impress upon our children the purpose of our earthly sojourn and to emblazon in their hearts and minds the absolute power of Hashem, whose astounding miracles in Nissan established that all of nature is divinely ruled – a fundamental message of both the Seder and Birkas HaChamah.
Rachel Weiss is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press.