Yachatz – Crisis, Conversation and Catharsis

Early on during the Seder, just before we start with מגיד – “Maggid” – the telling of the story of the exodus – we perform the ritual of יחץ – “Yachatz” – “halfing”, where we take the middle Matzah, and break it into two halves. The smaller part is eaten after “Maggid”, to fullfil the Mitzwah of אחילת מצה – “Achilat Matzah” and the larger part is hidden away as the אפיקומן – “Afikoman”, which is eaten at the conclusion of the meal.

Matzah is the most fundamental Mitzwah on Pessach. It is the antitheses to חמץ – “Chametz” which must be completely banned from our environment. The main difference between Matzah and bread is that the latter contains lots of empty space in the form of tiny bubbles which are a byproduct of the process of fermentation. Matzah is bread reduced to its core ingredients. It represents our innermost selves. Our most vulnerable, most authentic selves. Whereas bread is flexible, Matzah breaks easily: when we open up our innermost selves, we make ourselves vulnerable. Every word can hurt us. Therefore we guard ourselves with cynicism and pragmatism. We avoid exposing our innermost selves.

So when during “Yachatz”, we take the innermost Matzah and break it through the middle, we are symbolically performing a tragic rupture of our most vulnerable, innermost selves. We are left devastated. The larger part is hidden away. How can we know who we truly are? How can we ever hope to recover?

This then is the mood that sets the tone for the beginning of the seder: crisis. In fact, the first statement after “Yachatz” spells out the crisis in unambiguous words – we lift up the lesser part of the middle Matzah and proclaim:

הא לחמא עניא די אכלו אבהתנא בארעא דמצרים – “This is the bread of affliction, which our fathers ate in the land of Egypt.”

There is no gentle introduction. We are immediately confronted with the terrible truth – what is left of your innermost self is essentially: affliction. Why does the seder begin with this radical confrontation with trauma and crisis? The Kotzker Rebbe famously says:

אין דבר שלם מלב שבור – “Nothing is as whole as a broken heart”

In order to become whole, we need to be able to grief. In order to grief we have to confront our trauma, our fear and shame, face on.

Oftentimes it is so painful to be confronted with the truth that most of us never let it happen. The Kotzker Rebbe says:

People are accustomed to look at the heavens and to wonder what happens there. It would be better if they would look within themselves, to see what happens there.

Paraphrased today we would say that: “People are accustomed to look at facebook and to wonder what happens there…” It is too easy to occupy ourselves with anything but ourselves. This is why we need to be confronted with our shame in such a radical manner.

Regarding our innermost selves, here is how the Midrash relates to the contents of the innermost sanctuary: The first set of tablets, the broken ones were put into the ark of the covenant together with the second, whole tablets. The holiest of holies contains the ultimate expression of brokenness and loss!

Just before the meal we take another piece of Matzah, break it and eat it with Maror. In fact, we stuff the Maror in between two pieces of Matzah and eat it as a sandwich. Again we admit to the bitter reality of our innermost fears and shame and are commanded to – literally – internalize it through our mouths.

The central command of the seder is והגדת לבנך – “and you shall tell your son” – to tell our children about how we left Mitzrayim. The whole seder is codified in the הגדה – “Haggada” – literally the “to be told” and Chazal read the word פסח – “Pessach” as פה סח – “Peh Sach” – the talking mouth.

The first instance in the story of the exodus – as told by the Haggada – of initiating a conversation, happens as a reaction to the deepest trauma:

“…וירעו אתנו המצרים ויענונו ויתנו עלינו עבודה קשה. ונצעק” – “And the Mitzrim did evil to us and tormented us and imposed hard labor upon us. And we cried out…”

Reb Shlomo Carlebach comments on the word ונצעק:

You know why we’re never really happy nowadays? Because when we have to cry, we don’t really cry. We’re living in a world where, from a certain age on, you don’t cry. What’s wrong with crying?
We don’t know how to cry. We don’t know how to laugh. We don’t laugh out of joy any more. Children, when they cry, they cry, and when they laugh, they laugh. Friends, I can only tell you: whenever you want to cry, cry with all your heart.

Immediatly after Yachatz and “Ha Lachma Anya”, the seder continues with the “Ma Nishtana”, a series of questions asked by the children and answered by the parents. This is such an important part of the Seder that Jewish law requires an individual who celebrates alone to ask the questions to himself and to answer them himself.

The Kotzker Rebbe says:

דברים היוצאים מן הלב, נכנסים אל הלב. גם ללב ממנו יצאו הדברים – “Words that come from the heart – enter the heart. Even the heart they came from.”

At Yachatz, the larger part of the Matzah is hidden away until after the meal. The Haggada refers to this as צפון – “Tsafun” – the last dish we are permitted to consume. The word צפון – “Tsafun” has the same root as צפון – “Tsafon” and מצפן – “Matspen”, “North” and “Compass” respectively. When we are lost, the compass shows us the direction. In the same way, “Tsafun” – the larger part of ourselves – lies beyond the present. It shows us that even though we need to confront our traumas, there lies hope beyond. Another word with the same root is: מצפון – “Matspun” – “Conscience”. Our conscience is the part of us that tells us how things ought to be, our super-ego. It is an integral part of our identity and it serves as our guidance in times of crisis.

Do we ever reach the point where our self is in complete harmony with itself? Where our id, ego and super-ego are aligned? אין מפטירין אחרי הפסח אפיקומן – “One may not eat desert (Afikoman) after the Pessach offering” – The Afikoman is what actually is never eaten. Rather, we project it into the future. We hide it and let our children search for it as an expression of our hope that the next generation will continue the quest. It is our eternal duty to proclaim that “next year we will be in Jerusalem”.

Another peculiar fact emphasizes this point: We have three holidays – Pessach, Shavuoth and Sukkoth – that celebrate the exodus and the wandering in the desert. When do we celebrate the arrival of the people of Israel to the promised land? There is no such Chag. In fact, the original generation, including Moshe, never made it into Eretz Israel. They just paved the way by continuing the journey. A long, messy and difficult journey. 40 years in the desert, the מידבר – “Midbar” which has the same root as מדבר – “Medaber” – talking. The Haggada itself tells the story of the rabbis that continued their conversation until dawn – a never-ending story.

This then seems to be the remedy to the initial trauma: no quick fix, but enduring, honest conversation. We are commanded to enter a never-ending dialog with our selves and our future selves: the children – the only ones who are truly capable of showing us how to open up our innermost selves without inhibitions. It is this ongoing, interactive story telling: asking/listening to difficult questions, and giving/receiving honest answers that allows us to express and share our grief and eventually get back on the path of hope. It may be that this is why we read in the Haftarah on Shabbat Hagadol (the Shabbat before Pessach) the famous last words in the book of Malachi – the last of the biblical prophets:

 וְהֵשִׁיב לֵב אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים וְלֵב בָּנִים עַל אֲבוֹתָם – “And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers.”

Prof. Aviezer Ravitzky said that the Seder transforms history into biography. It is our duty to honestly grief over the traumas of the past, to confront the crises of the present, to believe in and work for a better future and to pass that memory of tragedy and hope on to the next generation as part of their very own experience. Only reliving the exodus in every generation will bring us closer to catharsis.

The Kotzker Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Morgensztern, was born 1787 and died 1859. Ca. 30 years later, around 1890 a child was born in Kotzk who was named Menachem Bunim Tashemka, likely in memory of the chassidic Master Menachem Mendel of Kotzk and his famous teacher Simcha Bunim of Pshis’cha. The boy was orphaned by the age of 14. He found shelter in the local Beit Midrash and was raised and nurtured by the Chassidim who studied there.

Soon the boy became a local Torah scholar and married the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Nevertheless they continued to live in extreme poverty.

As the Bolsheviks took over Poland, the family moved to Lublin. The couple had five children, the youngest one was a boy named Moishele who was born in 1918. As the war broke out in 1939, the young Moishele decided – on his own – to cross the border between Poland and Russia and flee eastwards. After he went through a few Russian POW camps he settled in a refugee camp in the eastern part of Kirgistan at the town of Jamboul. There he married another Polish refugee girl named Luba and they had two children, Shlomo and Binyamin, the second one named after his father Bunem who had been shot as soon as the Nazis entered Lublin.

After the war ended, they went back to Lublin only to discover that of his family nobody had survived. Devastated they traveled westwards to Germany in the hope to start a new life in the US or in Palestine. After three years in a displaced persons camp near the city of Zeilsheim, two siblings of Luba had gone to the US and another niece had gone to Palestine.

But Moishe decided to stay in Germany where he had forged connections and where he understood the language. The young family settled in Frankfurt am Main where a third son was born.

In 1964, at the age of 21, Shlomo (Salomon) got married to Marusha Rawicky – a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto – and they had three children. I am the youngest of their children.

And this is how History becomes Biography.

Memory and Integrity

After writing a few days ago about Purim as a time when we confront our multifaceted, layered selves and are called to experiment with and explore our own personalities, I would like to raise another, similarly important aspect of Purim, which on some level directs us in the opposite direction.

Two days ago, on Shabbat Zachor, we read aloud the Torah portion containing the commandment never to forget, what Amalek did to us and to make sure to wipe out all memory of Amalek (DEU, 25:17-19):

זָכוֹר, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק, בַּדֶּרֶךְ, בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם. אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ, וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל-הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ–וְאַתָּה, עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ; וְלֹא יָרֵא, אֱלֹהִים. וְהָיָה בְּהָנִיחַ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ מִכָּל-אֹיְבֶיךָ מִסָּבִיב, בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה-אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ–תִּמְחֶה אֶת-זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק, מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם; לֹא, תִּשְׁכָּח.

Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.

Besides the ethical problem of commanding genocide, this short passage contains a logical contradiction in that it asks us to make sure to remember and not forget to wipe out the memory of Amalek. If we are commanded to remember a thing, how can we be made to wipe out the memory of that same thing?

In addition to the Torah portion, we also read about Amalek in the Haftorah (Shmuel 1, 15):

The prophet Shmuel receives the divine command to anoint Sha’ul as king over Israel in order to wipe out the Amalekites, including all men, women, children and possession. Sha’ul then goes to battle and triumphs over Amalek, but spares the king Agag and takes the cattle as spoil. G-D then instructs Shmuel to relate to Sha’ul that he has taken the crown from him.

So far so good. Again, morally outragous, but let’s for the moment ignore this.

What follows then is an unusually long and prosaic dialog between Shmuel and Sha’ul, in which Shmuel tries to make Sha’ul admit that he has sinned. What is interesting is that the author of the Tanakh seems to be much more interested in conveying the subtleties of Sha’ul’s reaction to Shmuel’s criticism than in the actual story line. So this is how the dialog progresses (in summary):

Shmuel goes looking for Sha’ul, only to find out that he is busy building a monument for himself:

  • And Samuel came to Saul, and Saul said to him: “Blessed be you to the Lord. I have performed the commandment of the Lord.”
  • And Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears and the lowing of the oxen that I hear?”
  • Saul said, “They have brought them from the Amalekites, for the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen to sacrifice to the Lord your God, and the rest we have devoted to destruction.”
  • Then Samuel said to Saul, “Stop! I will tell you what the Lord said to me this night.” And he said to him, “Speak.”
  • And Samuel said, “Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel.
    And the Lord sent you on a mission and said, ‘Go, devote to destruction the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are consumed.’
    Why then did you not obey the voice of the Lord? Why did you pounce on the spoil and do what was evil in the sight of the Lord?”
  • And Saul said to Samuel, “I have obeyed the voice of the Lord. I have gone on the mission on which the Lord sent me. I have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and I have devoted the Amalekites to destruction.
    But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the best of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the Lord your God in Gilgal.”
  • And Samuel said, “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? … Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king.”
  • Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. Now therefore, please pardon my sin and return with me that I may bow before the Lord.”
  • And Samuel said to Saul, “I will not return with you. For you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel.” As Samuel turned to go away, Saul seized the skirt of his robe, and it tore. And Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you. …”
  • Then he said, “I have sinned; …”

In my eyes, this is one of the most brilliant lessons of failed leadership that I have ever heard. We know that Shmuel loved  Sha’ul very much. When he came to look for him, Sha’ul sensed immediatly that something was wrong – and he knew exactly what it was. But instead of owning up for it, he pretends everything is fine. In German you call this “Flucht nach vorne”, or “Flight forwards”, meaning: instead of admitting a mistake, you make it seem as if it is a virtue.

Shmuel knows exactly what is going on, but he wants Sha’ul to admit it himself. Therefore he asks seemingly innocently: “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears…?” – expecting Sha’ul to own up for his mistake.

Instead Sha’ul blames the people. At this point Shmuel can’t take it anymore and yells “Stop! I will tell you what the Lord said to me this night.” – You have done wrong!”

How does Sha’ul react? “I have obeyed the voice of the Lord…. But the people took of the spoil…” – Still trying to blame the people!

After Shmuel relays to him that the crown will be taken from him, Sha’ul reluctantly admits: “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice.” – he still does not own up to his responsibility. It takes another round of rebuke from Shmuel until he finally says “I have sinned” without further assigning blame to anyone else.

To me, Sha’ul’s statement: “because I feared the people and obeyed their voice.” is the crux. He was more concerned with the people’s opinion of him than doing what he was supposed to do. This is why his leadership failed. This is why his crown was “Sha’ul” (שאול) – borrowed. If you borrow something, you pretend to have it, but you don’t own it.

To me, one lesson of Sha’ul and Amalek, which relates to Purim is the following:

As elaborated in my last post, on the one hand we should recognize our layered characters and explore our complex personalities. We should be careful not to draw easy conclusions about ourselves and other people based on prejudices and oversimplifications.

But at the same time, we have to own up to our behavior. We have to reject moral relativism, where everything goes. There must be personal responsibility to perform our duties to society despite and because of our acceptance that everyone is different and unique. Just because the people demand something does not make it necessarily the right thing to do.

There is a certain contradiction here: Accept each others differences, but still hold each other responsible. Somehow this reminds me of the weird contradiction to simultaneously remember and forget. To me, the deeper lesson is to recognize that we always find ourselves suspended between two extremes:

Remember but also forget!

Own up to your duties, take responsibility and hold each other responsible, but also be forgiving, kind, tolerant and understanding of each other!

It is this dynamic, oscillating and almost uncomfortable movement between these extremes that Purim leaves us in. The important thing is to be aware of it. We must actively remember to forget and actively forget to remember. We must actively strive to make this world better and to wipe out evil where necessary, and simultaneously strive to be kind, tolerant and understanding.

The way to achieve this is to try and be honest with ourselves. On Purim, when we get to let loose of our rigid perceptions of our personalities, we get the opportunity to re-calibrate our lives according to standards that go beyond our everyday routines. We get to glimpse at ourselves from above and focus not on externals (what “the people” are thinking), but inwards. We ridicule external appearances, mask ourselves and get drunk, so we can focus on what lies beyond our routines and reevaluate all aspects of our lives: ourselves, family, friends, community, society and our respective responsibilities, rights and duties. It’s like a moral reset button.

Oftentimes David HaMelech is brought as a counterexample to Sha’ul’s failure. But I want to mention another, more recent leader who inspired me with her ethical determinism not to give in to the will of “the people”. A few weeks ago Angela Merkel gave a press conference on German TV where she explained and justified her decision to let many hundreds of thousands of refugees, mostly from the middle east, enter Germany. Among other things, one statement in particular caused a lot of commotion in the German press:

Ich muss ganz ehrlich sagen: Wenn wir jetzt anfangen, uns noch entschuldigen zu müssen dafür, dass wir in Notsituationen ein freundliches Gesicht zeigen, dann ist das nicht mein Land!

I have to say it in all honesty: If we now have to start apologizing for presenting a kind face in situations of emergency [plight/distress], then this is not my country!

Whether or not her policies are wise, time will tell. But in my book, this is a statement made by a real leader. Someone who did not lose her moral compass in the political jungle. Someone who is able to stay true to her calling even if it is widely unpopular and will almost certainly cost her politically.

May we be blessed with leaders that make their humanity their guiding principle. And may we and they be blessed with passion and compassion to make things better. זכור – Merke(l)!

Purim Sameach,


Be an onion!

About a week ago, I went to the monthly Farbrengen at my friend’s house. I enjoy going there every month for multiple reasons: First, it gives me an opportunity to get together with people that I like a lot, but don’t usually get to see. Second, they usually serve fantastic herring and kigel and some decent whiskey too. Third, I like listening to the rabbi and singing chassidic melodies.

The whole nostalgic experience brings me back to a time, when learning and living Torah was an essential part of my everyday life. Since for quite some years this has not been the case, I enjoy being transported to this world once a month even more so. Of course, some of the things the rabbi says sound strange, or just plain wrong to my modern and liberal ears, but there are almost always some ideas that work their way up into my fed-up, busy brain, start festering there and get a life of their own. One such idea – connected to Purim and the month of Adar – I would like to share with you.

The rabbi told a story of the Lubvitcher’s “Mitteler Rebbe”, son of the “Alter Rebbe”, the Ba’al haTanya. The story likely takes place at the beginning of the 19th century in the rebbe’s home town Liubavichi, in modern day Belarus.

At the time, the Rebbe had already established himself as a major chassidic leader of great spiritual statue. Since he left town only rarely, some of his talmidim were appointed to travel to the surrounding towns and communities in order to spread the rebbe’s torah. One of these disciples was a chassid, who was an exceptionally great speaker. Whenever he came to a town, people would gather around him immediately, to listen to the rebbe’s teachings. And he would convey them so brilliantly and with so much passion, as if they were his own ideas. Soon, people began to view him as big talmid chacham, a genius of Torah and chassidut.

One day, the chassid came back to Liubavich and requested to speak to the rebbe in private. As he came in to the rebbe’s chambers, the man looked very distressed. He said: “Rebbe, all the time I travel through this country and spread your words. But recently people started to view me as a brilliant teacher and I have begun to enjoy the honor they give me. I am beginning to view myself as important, even though we both know that really I am no more than a messenger of your words. Tell me rebbe, how can I overcome these feelings and become the humble man that I am supposed to be?”

The rebbe thought for a while, then looked the chassid straight in the eye and said: “Be an onion and continue to teach chassidut!” The chassid understood and continued to spread the rebbe’s torah until the end of his life.

As every good chassidic story, the rebbe’s advice leaves us perplexed and uncomfortable. What does it mean, to be an onion? Should the man stop washing himself in order to start smelling, so other people would not honor him anymore? This sounds hardly like great advice.

The rabbi at the Farbrengen suggested a different interpretation:

The chassid was bothered by how full of himself he had become. He was troubled by the thought that he was appearing to others and himself as something he really wasn’t. He felt like he was pretending to be like the rebbe and that the mask he was wearing was about to conceal his true self – and even fool himself into believing it.

Now, continued the rabbi, if we look at an onion, we see a full, round fruit. But if we start peeling it we are left just with another layer. And if we continue peeling away, there seems to be always another deeper layer. Layers within layers – this is the essence of the onion.

He went on: Each one of us wears many masks on many layers. More often than not we pretend to be someone that we are not, say things we do not mean and act in ways that we regret. But, he said, not all pretenses are equal. Lying to your spouse about having an affair is obviously a terrible betrayal. But if you come home after a long day of work, tired and exhausted and your children demand you to play with them, hug them and give them attention, should you decline because you don’t feel like it or pretend to be patient and relate to your children with kindness and love?

One difference between these two types of dishonesty is that one is purely selfish while the other one is considered selfless. But this is not all. The selfless act of pretending to be caring and loving even though you are not in the mood, is really not denying your self, but acknowledging that there are different and conflicting selves within you. Freud categorizes them in “id”, “ego” and “super-ego”, but this is by no means a complete picture. Each of us is an ensemble of personas that we develop over our lifetimes. Some live in harmony, some are conflicted. Some we try to suppress, others we aspire to become. Some we are aware of, others are hidden deep within our sub-consciousness and are mostly out of our control.

It it is one of the fundamental aspects of Purim, to acknowledge our own multifacetedness. To realize that we, our friends, family and all human beings are not to be taken on face value, but that we are complex beings, each one consisting of layers upon layers of masks and personalities. On Purim, we are supposed to wear masks, to dress up, to get drunk “עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי” – until we cannot discern anymore between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai”. I understand this to mean that we need to break through our simple preconceptions of “cursed” and “blessed” and realize on a deeper level that the world, more often than not, is “ונהפוך הוא” – an “upside-down” place, that defies over-simplistic worldviews.

On Purim we get the opportunity to be in a “what if” kind of world. We get to experiment with alternative versions of ourselves. Nowhere is this more apparent as in Megillat Esther. Each and every major character in this book, pretends to be someone else. Mordechai pretends to be an important statesman in Ahashverosh’s court, even though he is a leader of the exiled Jewish community and longs for their redemption from an oppressive regime. Queen Esther (whose name means “hidden”) is really the Jewish girl Hadassa. According to the tradition, the mighty king Ahashverosh is really an usurper who married the daughter of a Babylonian (not persian) king. Vashti, who actually does have a valid claim to the throne gets herself killed for not wanting to play the game of thrones in an upside-down world. Haman believes himself to be closest to the throne, just before he discovers that he is about to get hanged on the very same tree that he prepared for Mordechai. This is a book full of deceit, intrigue and irony.

But the most pretending character of all is G-D himself, who claims to be present in this world, but hides himself so well, that he is not mentioned in the entire book of Esther even once. The fate of 127 Jewish communities of is sealed by the casting of the lot, the פור – completely at random, while G-D makes himself completely absent.

For me personally, this may be one of the deepest aspects of Purim. When I consider the arguments of modern atheists about the improbability of G-D’s existence I must admit, that they sound quite convincing to me. On a rational basis I would be hard-pressed to find any valid counter arguments to their claims. But if on Purim G-D himself can put on a mask and pretend not to be present, then – עד דלא ידע – I too can put on a mask and pretend that he is.

For one day, let’s all be onions!

Purim Sameach