Parashat Bo: Not Your Friendly Pulpit Rabbi and a Seder In a Foxhole

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Soldier in Fox Hole

Parshat Bo 5767

Part One: Virtual Reality

In last week’s parsha, Shemot, Moshe Rabbeinu bursts onto the stage of Jewish history from out of “nowhere”.

Moshe is correct in his assessment at the burning bush; that the Jewish leadership and people have no reason to believe that he was sent by Hashem to free them, because he was unknown – a total stranger.

Moshe did not go to cheder with the others of his age, nor did he carry on his back 100 kilo stones – he was firmly entrenched in the palace with the nobility of Egypt.

And now just one week later in this week’s parsha, we find ourselves preparing for the demise of the great Moshe. For Chazal teach us that on the first of the month of Shevat Moshe Rabbeinu began his parting soliloquy, which ended 37 days later on the 7th of Adar; that soliloquy being the content of the Book of Devarim.

And in the forty years between Moshe’s arrival and his death on Mount Nevo, he continued to remain “unknown”. When appearing before the people he wore a mask to cover the rays of light which emerged from his face; he moved his tent outside the area of the general camp and even distanced himself from his immediate family.

Moshe was not your “friendly” pulpit rabbi which every congregation loves. He was, as stated in the Gemara Sanhedrin 6b, a man of the law who opposed compromise among litigants, preferring the strict decisions of Halacha.

Why did Hashem choose this personality to be the law-giver to Am Yisrael?

I suggest that herein lays a fundamental fact in who we Jews are vis a vis the world.

Moshe was distant from the nation; so too is the Torah he brought from the heavens not part of man’s design in this world; and so too is Am Yisrael not part of the 6 billion people who make up humanity.

Our survival and destiny have no equal in the saga of history. After 2000 years of exile, we have returned to our biblical-historic homeland, after 80 generations of Jews have succeeded in keeping the dream alive and passing it on from the inferno of the Temple’s destruction to beyond the inferno of the death camps of Europe.

We are indeed a mysterious entity whose existence defies all understanding.

Many non-Jews are beginning to catch on to this; now we just have to persuade some of our leaders of this truism!

Part Two: Uneven Distribution of Historic Responsibility

Our parsha lays down the rules concerning the Seder night of Pesach. A lamb or goat under one year old is shechted (ritually slaughtered) and roasted as the korban Pesach, and eaten by people who previously had subscribed to form a “group” which will be “registered” with this particular korban Pesach. It is to be eaten by all in the same room and a bone may not be broken, and a Jew who does not conform to the Torah laws may not partake of its meat. And there are more details.

Chazal liken the Seder meal to the feast Hashem will prepare in the future for the righteous. The Gemara in Pesachim informs us that the menu will include “yayin ha’meshumar” – wine made of grapes preserved from Gan Eden, and meat of the “Shor ha’bar” – the “wild ox”. And, of course, flesh of the “livyatan” fish will be an option for those who do not rely on the shechita of the Creator.

The Gemara in Pesachim also relates what will happen at the end of the great feast. A cup of wine will be passed to Avraham Avinu to recite the Birkat HaZimun. Avraham will refuse on the grounds that he is not worthy because he brought the evil Yishmael into the world,.

The cup will be passed to Yitzchak. He too will refuse because he begot the evil Esav.

Yaakov will receive the cup; he too will refuse because he married two sisters, which was destined to be prohibited by the Torah.

The cup will then be passed to Moshe Rabbeinu. Moshe will declare that he does not merit the honor because he did not enter Eretz Yisrael.

It will then be passed to Yehoshua, who will decline because he did not merit to have a male offspring to whom he could convey the mesora (tradition) of the Torah.

Finally, the cup of the mitzva will be passed to King David, who will welcome it and declare that he is worthy of the mitzvah of leading Birkat HaMazon (grace after meals).

Let’s return to the Pesach Seder.

Picture a frum family living in any one of the great Torah centers in the galut; they could even be your next door neighbors!

The home of Reb Sender and Mrs. Rayza is impeccable; the result of the great time and energy, not to speak of the money, which the expeditious and skillful ba’alat ha’bayit (woman of the house) has devoted to it.

The sofas and arm chairs in the sitting room, which look so inviting if not for the thick plastic covers which insure that the upholstery retains its “new” look.

The five meter long dining table is covered with the finest Irish linen table cloth. In the middle of the table stands the imposing sterling silver candlesticks handed down from mother to daughter for generations. The china is the finest Rosenthal, with each plate delicately rounded off with a band of gold. The silverware has been put away in favor of goldware in honor of the great night.

On the table, under a hand embroidered silk cloth lay the matzot. On the insistence of the two sons learning in the recently opened Yeshiva Taharas Ha’Torah in Las Vegas (in order to bring the voice of Torah even to the entrance of Gehennom) the matzas are from the first 18 minute batch, guaranteeing that no naughty piece of dough would be hiding in any of the rollers. The hand matzot were personally chosen by the Rebbe of the shtiebel where the family davens after leaving the central shul which was costing too much. The Rebbe assured the boys that the matzahs were bubble free with no overturned edges.

The wall to wall carpet is as deep as the grass in the beautiful garden. Above the table hangs the family’s pride and joy – a many faceted crystal chandelier, personally chosen by Rayza on the family’s last visit to Prague.

Reb Sender is wearing his new bekeshe, the one with the swirls of blue with a gold buckled gartel. Rayza has just said the Shehechiyanu blessing over the $3000 dress imported from Paris. The boys are handsome in their wide brimmed black hats and the two girls will make beautiful kallahs when the time comes, dressed in their very expensive dresses.

The seder goes better than expected. Words of Torah, beginning with an invitation to the hungry to join with them in the meal, despite the fact that there is not a needy person within 50 miles. A lively discussion develops on the characters of the “four sons”. The Afikomen is “stolen”: by the youngest daughter who for its return has succeeded in extorting from abba a vacation in Hawaii.

Songs of thanks to Hashem for freeing the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt are recited. For it is a mitzva on this night for each person to consider himself as if he and she where slaves in Mitzrayim.

Birkat HaMazon is said, as is the second part of Hallel. Chad Gadya puts the final touch on the mitzvot of the night. Now, just as the Hashem destroys the “Angel of Death in the song, father jumps up and gathering the family in a circle they all break out in a frenzy of song – “Leshana ha’ba’a Be’Yerushalayim” – next year in Jerusalem. Again and again around the table “Leshana ha’ba’a Be’Yerushalayim” is sounded. Louder and louder until their song merges with the same melody resounding from the neighbors’ homes, cutting a path into the highest realms of heaven.

Suddenly Mama collapses into a chair crying hysterically. The singing stops. Father runs over and asks why she is crying just now at the apex of the beautiful sacred night?

“What do you mean next year in Yerushalayim? What about the table, the chandelier, the deep carpet, the Rosenthal China! How can we leave all this?”

Father approaches Mama. And taking her hand while gently dabbing her tears away, in a voice full of compassion says to his beloved wife, “Darling, don’t cry, IT’S ONLY A SONG!”

Ten thousand kilometers to the east, in Eretz Yisrael, lives Reb Sender’s brother Kalman.

Kalman had moved to Eretz Yisrael many years ago, and was blessed with a beautiful family and an adequate apartment. His son, Yossi, will not be home for the Seder night since he is doing his army service within the Hesder yeshiva system.

But the parents are not overly worried, because Yossi himself told them that he is in a safe place in the north, and that next year they will all be together for the seder.

At 12 noon, on the 14th of Nisan, erev Pesach, Yossi and three other soldiers from the same yeshiva, were called to the company commander’s room, where he informed them that they have been chosen to fill an assignment that evening, on the Seder night. They were to cross the border into Hezbollah territory in Southern Lebanon and man the out-post bunker on hill 432.

Yossi knew the hill well; he had been there several times in the past year. It was sarcastically called a “bunker”, but in reality it was a fox hole large enough for four soldiers. Their assignment was to track terrorist movements and destroy them on contact. It was tolerable except when it rained, which caused the bottom of the hole to be soggy and muddy. But today the four hoped that it would rain, even though chances were small since it was late in the season. On the 14th of every Hebrew month the moon is full, which presents a greater danger when crossing into enemy territory; so rain would be a mixed blessing.

At 5 PM, they were given the necessary arms and ammunition. In addition, the army rabbinate had provided them with 4 plastic containers each holding 3 matzot and all the ingredients necessary for a seder, as well as 4 plastic bottles of wine, sufficient for 4 cups, and of course a Haggadah.

At 6 PM they waited at the fence for the electricity to be turned off, in order to cross into hostile territory. Yossi held in his hand a map of the mine field they would have to cross. “It was so strange,” Yossi thought, “this is the area assigned to the tribe of Naftali, and we have to enter it crawling on our stomachs.”

At 6:15 PM the small aperture in the gate opened and they passed through. As they had hoped, it was raining and the thick fog was to their advantage.

At that moment, ten thousand kilometers to the west, it was 12 noon and Yossi’s two cousins in New York were just entering the mikva to prepare for the Pesach holiday.

The 4 soldiers reached hill 432 after walking double time for 5 kilometers. They removed the camouflage and settled in, pulled the grassy cover over them.

Each soldier was assigned a direction. Talking was forbidden. If any murderers were sighted, a light tap on the shoulder would bring them all to the proper direction. After settling in, they prayed Maariv and began the seder. In was finished within a half hour, and not unexpectedly, the four cups of “wine” had no detrimental effect on their senses.

At 6 PM in NY, the family returned from shul to begin their seder. It was then 12 midnight in Eretz Yisrael and the four soldiers were waging a heroic battle against boredom and sleep. The minutes crawled by and at the first approach of light they exited their outpost and returned through the mine field and electric fence to the base. After reporting to the officer in charge, the four entered their tent, and collapsed on their cots without removing clothing or shoes, because in an hour they would have to begin the Shacharit service.

Let’s return to the feast which the Gemara in Pesachim describes.

Avraham and Yitzchak would be denied the honor of beginning the blessing because they had sons who were not worthy of being called “Jews”.

Yaakov could not bless because he had a problematic marital situation.

Moshe could not because he did not enter Eretz Yisrael, and Yehoshua because he was not blessed with a son.

The one who Hashem would choose to lead the seudah blessing would be King David.

How strange! David suffered from all the maladies of those who were denied the privileged of Blessing. He had three sons whose conduct was condemned – Amnon, Avshalom and Adoniyahu.

David too had a problematic marital situation with Batsheva; yet he was the chosen of the Chosen.

What did David have that granted him the greatest honor?

David HaMelech was the king of Israel who fought for the Jewish nation in Eretz Yisrael. He reached the Biblical borders of the Promised Land as set down in the Torah.

So at the coming Pesach Seder, let us raise up our cups to Yossi and his comrades in arms, as they tread in the footsteps of the King of Israel, the Moshiach of Israel, chosen by Hashem to lead the Jewish nation in the land in which the Creator resides and commands His nation to dwell within.

Shabbat Shalom, Nachman Kahana

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.