A Joyous Pesach Message from the President of the Orthodox Union

06 Apr 2020

Simcha (joy and happiness) is always essential to the service of God, but never more so than when celebrating Yomim Tovim (holidays) like Pesach. This year, as we approach our seder enveloped in a worldwide pandemic, we struggle to infuse our homes with joy amidst pain and confusion. The challenge will be compounded by our seder table missing many, if not all, beloved family and friends.

While this year we may be denied many of the seder’s most beloved and eagerly anticipated accoutrements, we may also be enjoying the opportunity of a lifetime to access the depth and beauty of two of the seder’s most profound intended experiences; opening our minds to asking why, and making real and genuine the anticipation of a return to past communal grandeur. Actualizing these extraordinary opportunities at this year’s seder may produce a very special kind of joy.

Asking why. The seder narrative is a celebration of questioning. Beginning with the traditional four questions, we continue with the questions of the four sons, and of course the numerous devices, like karpas, introduced solely to induce further questioning. By forcing us into a questioning mindset, the seder prods and broadens our exploration of “why.”

Why did God create the world, take the Jews out of Egypt and then give us the Torah? Why was I born Jewish and what are the resulting responsibilities and opportunities? Why have I been making the choices I make, and why is my life heading in its current direction? By asking why, we grow, we evolve and perhaps we even soar.

The demands and pressures of daily life form contours of consciousness, leaving us little time, energy or will to explore the “why” of life. Moreover, over the years many of us have allowed the seder narrative to become stale and the Hagaddah’s questions become less provocative. The anticipation of, and then participation in, the groove of our seder’s annual traditions and melodies may have become a source of invaluable security and comfort. But our seder itself has thereby become a linchpin of the ebb and flow of our normal lives, rather than as a catalyst for introspection and exploration. We may have many years ago stopped leaving the seder asking “why?”

But this year is different, and dramatically so. Our life routine has been upset. There is currently no dominating “normal” consuming our consciousness. Even the cornerstone of family and communal norms and tradition, our seder, will be like none before. These disruptions have stopped us in our tracks and, though disruptive and distressing, have thereby opened gates of opportunity to ask why. And a questioning mindset is all the more accessible this year by virtue of having spent the past few weeks with so many reasons to ask why.

Anticipating A Communal Return To Grandeur. There are two distinct exalted parts of Jewish history being emphasized in the Haggadah; Yetzias Mitzrayim (exodus from Egypt) and the Beis HaMikdash (the Holy Temple). The dominant theme, of course, is recounting in glorious detail the events of Yetzias Mitzrayim. But, the Haggadah also repeatedly focuses on the Bais HaMikdash experience; from the opening paragraph of Ha Lachma Anya to the concluding celebration of the soon to be rebuilt Bais HaMikdash, and most explicitly, Hillel’s maror and matza sandwiched in between.

These two focuses on history are, however, quite different. One ties a past national experience to the present, while the other ties a past national experience to the future. The retelling of the events of Yetzias Mitzrayim strives to create a current re-experience of that spiritual and theological exaltation. The repeated focus on the Bais HaMikdash, by contrast, strives to not only recapture this earlier experience, but also to encourage our anticipation of its very real and impending reoccurrence. We may strive to feel “as if” we ourselves exited from Egypt, but we are encouraged to actually anticipate the forthcoming rejoicing and reconnecting to God once again in a tangible, genuine Bais HaMikdash.

It is difficult, however, to conceive of the return to a holiness then denied. Once a national experience is lost it is difficult to imagine its recapture. Though sincere when declaring “next year in a rebuilt Bais HaMikdash in Yerushalayim,” these words often reflect a conceptual aspiration rather than the acknowledgement of an imminent reality. This year, however, may be different since we have now been introduced to these very real expectations.

Approaching this year’s Pesach, we fully expect next year to be a return to a more glorious past. We anticipate returning shortly to our shuls and battei medrash, rejoining our community, shoulder to shoulder, in study, in prayer and in songs of praise. We sincerely believe that the banishment we currently suffer is temporary and that the many mitzvos and practices we are currently being denied will shortly be embraced once more.

Our current, very authentic and confident expectation regarding the cessation of the pandemic and the imminent return to our communal holy places is the very experience that we strive to achieve regarding a rebuilt Bais HaMikdash.

Unfortunately, we do not know when God will introduce the Geulah (redemption) and when the Bais HaMikdash will be rebuilt. In fact, it is ill-advised for us to even speculate. But, anticipation and emunah (belief) must always be at the forefront of our minds and hearts, and perhaps we can embrace such emunah with greater clarity and familiarity this year.

Moishe Bane