Title: A Breathtaking Panorama
Rabbi Yonah Sklare
I will admit; I am a Haggadah junkie. I try to learn at least a couple of new Haggadahs each year as I prepare for my seder. Over the years, I’ve collected, read, and learned diligently many different types of Haggadahs. English, Hebrew, a few in Spanish and German; text-based, psychologically or personal growth oriented, political, whatever the style, I’m interested. Yet some stand out as perennial favorites that I will review over and over prior to Pesach. I happen to love “deep” Torah and when we can see how seemingly disparate ideas can form a beautiful whole.
I met Rabbi Sklare about a decade ago when he visited my community as a guest Rabbi and lecturer. Rabbi Sklare is a Rosh Kollel and a maggid shiur (resident lecturer) at Congregation Shomrai Emunah in Baltimore. He received smicha and obtained a PhD in Talmudic Law from Ner Israel Yeshiva. To say that I (and really the entire synagogue) was blown away by the breadth of his Torah would be an understatement. I have been a fan of his shiurim that are posted on various podcasts and websites, and have tried to read anything that may have been published by him or written based on his Torah.
I was very excited to see and review his new sefer on Pesach called “A Breathtaking Panorama.” He has haskama from some very prominent Roshei Yeshiva, including Rav Aharon Feldman, Rav Nachum Lansky, Rav Sholom Kaminetsky, and Rav Ahron Lopiansky. While not a peirush/commentary of the Haggadah per se, he develops the entire Passover story from various thematic perspectives, all of which are very useful when preparing of the Pesach seder, but also helpful in understand the depth of our slavery and redemption from Mitzrayim. I have personally found over the years, with various ages and types of children, relatives and guests of varying religious degrees, having a “theme” for the seder evening can help focus and stimulate discussion regardless of background.
In the afterword, he describes his methodology to Torah analysis which he calls a “panoramic approach.” “D’rash”, one of the 4 primary methodologies of Torah study, is defined as seeking a deeper understanding of the text using textual anomalies such as “unusual phrases, unanticipated expressions, or words with evocative undertones.” Connecting these anomalies with other places in the Torah where these words appear can help create a pattern or bigger picture that will help decipher that more hidden meaning. With a presupposition of the unity of Torah, the text is not random, and one can take an approach not unlike a detective trying to solve a mystery. Ultimately, this non-linear and creative approach will reveal the deeper message the Torah and Chazal are giving us.
As one reads the book, this panoramic methodology becomes clearer. He divides the book into 3 parts based on the most prominent ideas of Pesach and perhaps the goals of the seder: family, faith, and freedom. The first section deals with the concept of family, and while each chapter in the section could stand on its own, there is a buildup of ideas that peaks in the final chapter. What is amazing is how he can take some of the same proof texts that express one idea and show how they also can support others. There were a number of times when I would laugh in bewilderment due to the chiddushim being presented. Rabbi Sklare draws from textual clues within the Torah account, connects this with other verses in the chumash or in the Prophets, and then provides additional context from midrashim and Talmudic passages.
As an example, he begins by framing Pharoah’s plan for slavery as primarily destroying the family life of the Jews by preventing both a physical and spiritual continuity. Within this idea, he discusses how the Jewish women were responsible in preventing its fruition, how Hashem turned the tables on the Egyptians by causing the disruption of their family life, and then how various parts of the seder express this idea. He further develops this idea by expounding on the concept of the bayis (house), both philosophically, but also through textual analysis. For example, the Torah discusses the “house of bondage,”, the houses the midwives received as rewards for their faith and mesiras nefesh, the fact that the korban pesach is brought as a household, the mitzvah or removing chametz is specifically mentioned in the context of a house, and how only in sefer Shmos are the Jewish people referred to as the “house of Israel.” Thus, the house is the essential conduit for transmission of our mesorah and chazal highlight this through the Pesach seder. Ultimately, he shows how this entire story can connect back to the creation of the world and is a tikkun for the sin of Adam and Chava. Another example is weaving Avraham’s questioning of G-d “b’mah eidah” at the bris bein habesarim (covenant of the parts) with our children’s questions at the seder (mah nishtana), and ultimately, our questions of G-d later in the seder (Pesach, maror, matza, al shum mah). The relationship of parent to child requires this openness, ability to question, and help to find answers.
Rabbi Sklare continues this process over the next two sections. But even more fascinatingly, he shows how each of these seemingly independent themes builds on and is connected to each other. Without spoiling the “clincher,” he brings a famous philosophical dictum of the Maharal to show how these three themes are really just 3 parts of a whole that is present in all 3-part lists (common in pirkei avos, for example). This results in a remarkable unity that will change your perspective to the story of yetzias mitzrayim. For the discerning reader, student of machshava, or anyone that loves delving into the deeper, midrashic, or more mystical aspects of the Torah, this is a sefer that should be high on the list for study.
A word of caution to the reader: this is somewhat of a long sefer and written in a more conversational style. It is not an “easy” read nor a collection of vortlach that one could easily give over to others. Additionally, he broaches topics that are definitely more sensitive in nature, but they are written with a clarity and carefulness necessary for a broader readership. This sefer is meant to be learnt and contemplated, with time spent thinking about the connections and ideas. It is also likely one could begin to formulate their own connections with other aspects of Torah that he does not cite. This will be book that I continue to go back to year after year and one that should surely enhance anyone’s Pesach experience.