Reb Tzadok’s Seder
There is a panorama to the Seder. All of Jewish history is replayed before our eyes and we suffer and rejoice once more. Reb Tzadok HaCohen of Lublin teaches us how to enter
that dimension and relive the events through the dialectic power of paradox:
Derech she’eilah u’teshuvah – The Seder is conducted in question and answer form. Why? What is the purpose of soliciting a question? The reason is that one who asks is involved. Listening is passive; inquiring is interactive. To fulfill the edict of imagining ourselves as leaving Egypt, we need to be jolted out of stagnation. Probing, analyzing, evaluating leads to new energy levels and freshness. Of course, there is a danger in encouraging questions. Some of them raise difficult theological issues. But the process itself, even before the answers become clear, is invigorating and rejuvenating, and catapults us into the reality of the events, instead of merely into the catacombs of memory.
Why do we review the history of the Avos at the Seder? What is the specifically Pesach-related purpose? How does it relate to our obligations and aspirations on this special night?
The answer is that the travails of the Avos are what allowed B’nai Yisrael to survive the Bondage, and reliving the Exodus means reliving the Patriarchs’ struggles as well. Reb Tzadok reminds us of the utter despair (yeiush) Avraham and Sarah must have felt during the decades when they were childless. What was the purpose and result of such tribulation? It was to create a people utterly immune to spiritual capitulation. “God wanted to build the nation out of the most profound despair because this is the essence of the Jewish spirit, to know that one should never despair.”
The transition from the quintessentially Avrahamic approach to that of Yitzchak is a somewhat puzzling one. Avraham, the embodiment of chesed – loving-kindness at the highest of levels – gives birth to Yitzchak, the pillar of pachad – the spirit of awe and rigor. Why and how did Yitzchak’s midah become so drastically different from that of his father? Reb Tzadok teaches us that, in fact, the two are not so far apart by pointing to a fascinating midrash: “Yitzchak was crowned with Avraham and Avraham was crowned with Yitzchak.” (Tanchumah, Toldos) This means that the midos of the first two of the Avos were complementary and mutually necessary. The pinnacle of love results in the rigor vital to self-sacrifice and the ultimate offering is that made with consummate love. The meaning and message of that enigma open a window into the secret of the bondage-redemption cycle itself. It is Avraham’s chesed which allows Yitzchak’s pachad to triumph at the moment of the akeidah and it is their combination which brought us through the afflictions of Egypt.
The final refinement of the Abrahamic line before there can be a consecrated Family of Israel is the rejection of Esav. This renunciation is the most difficult one of all because of the surface similarity. Yaakov and Esav are born of the same parents and indeed Esav, in his guile, at times appears the more pious of the two. Esav’s hypocrisy (Bereshis Rabbah 65:1) can only be counteracted by Yaakov’s truth (Michah 7:20). It is Esav who personifies the perennial canard that we are “just like the other nations” (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 4). To successfully leave Egypt both behind and outside of us, we must efface any vestige of his venom from our collective bloodstream. Esav’s poison is his lie that he is the legitimate bechor (first-born son), that he is the pious one, that he has been wronged. At the Seder, however, we point with pride to the exclusivity of our suffering. We declare with the dignity born of pain that we went down to Egypt to fulfill our covenantal obligations. Esav, by contrast, went to Mount Se’ir in tranquility and endured none of the anguish of exile and slavery. Thus, while Esav will continue to claim the Abrahamic legacy through the ages, at the Seder we triumphantly hold aloft his repudiation so that the annual process of taking “a nation from the midst of another nation” (Devarim 4:34) can begin. One goal of the Seder is the demonstration of our uniqueness and singularity. This begins with our absolute rejection of our would-be imitator