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Home » Passover, Politics, Questions of Ethics

Passover: The Secret Path To A Moral Society

Submitted by on April 5, 2009 – 9:05 pmNo Comment | 6,330 views

Just Because

When was the last time you did the right thing just because? In a Capitalist society we are taught to ask, “What’s in it for me” before making an investment. Even our charitable contributions come with strings attached. We insist that our dollars be used for causes that serve our interests and often that our name be prominently displayed.

Might there be something to be said for the austere societies of the Muslim world? The quiet, poverty stricken streets of Muslim villages that strike a noble cord in its disdain for Western opulence. There is something elegant in their poor, but simple attire. Something wholesome in a culture that rejects modernity. Something meaningful about a society that views religion as the highest calling in life.

When comparing the two societies it possible to lose patience with Western values that celebrate initiative and personal success over obedience and personal discipline. Why must every cause be so self serving? Are we so corrupt as to leave no room for true altruism?

The Wise Son

This is precisely the frustration of the wise son, when he cries, “What of the testimonials, edicts and laws that G-d our Lord has commanded you?” (1) According to at least one commentator the Wise Son objects to the Haggada’s contention that the exodus is fundamental to our ethos because it demonstrates that good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds are punished. He further objects to the notion that we eat Matza at the Seder to remember that our ancestors were liberated from Egypt in reward for eating Matza. (2)

Did our ancestors eat Matzah for purposes of reward, asks the Wise son? “What of the testimonials, edicts and laws that G-d our Lord has commanded you?” G-d’s commandments should be obeyed simply because G-d our Lord has commanded them; not for purposes of self gain. (3)

Our response is succinct: “You instruct him on the laws of the Paschal Lamb: We do not serve dessert after the Paschal Lamb.” The Paschal Lamb was eaten as an after dinner dessert, not as the main course. If the Paschal Lamb were served as the main dish, while the assembled were still hungry it would be difficult for them to eat it purely for the sake of the Mitzvah; it would be ravenously consumed by InnerStream.ca Torah Insights into Life and Jewish Observancehungry stomachs intent on satiating their appetite. Eating the Paschal Lamb after their hunger had been satisfied ensured that this Mitzvah was performed purely for the sake of fulfilling G-d’s will. (4)

Indeed, we tell the Wise Son, you correctly insist that a Mitzvah should be performed purely for the sake of heaven, but not everyone is able to reach that high spiritual state at the beginning of the meal. This state can only be developed through patience and loving nurture. Give your guests a chance, guide them and mentor them, when we reach the end of the meal they will join you in your devotion.

The Process

We begin the meal with Matza, which our sages described as bread for the poor. At the beginning of the Seder we are spiritually impoverished. We cannot be expected to perform the Mtizvah purely for the sake of heaven when we are hungry for all manner of self serving needs. We are hungry for validation and recognition. We desire prosperity and independence. We are starved for love and attention. We bring all these needs to the Seder table; we cannot be expected to leave them at the door.

We therefore begin with Matza, the bread for the spiritually impoverished. We are assured that eating Matza is worth our while because it will reward us with the blessings we crave. Once we are motivated to eat the Matza our spirits begin to flourish. We reflect on the Matza’s message of humility and discuss these thoughts around the table. We then eat the Bitter Herbs, reflect on the suffering of our ancestors, and launch into further discussion around the table. Slowly under the tutelage of the Wise Son and the guidance of our mentors we realize a higher state of spiritual devotion whereby we appreciate the beauty of performing a Mitzvah simply because we are commanded to. We are now conditioned to eat the Paschal Lamb not for reasons of self gain, but for the pure sake of Divine worship. (5)

At the beginning of the Seder, when the Wise Son expressed his frustration with his tablemates we counseled him to be patient. Several hours later his patience pays off when he sees his coreligionists enjoying the rich aroma and deep flavors of the roasted lamb purely for the sake of heaven; without a thought to personal benefit.

The Patient Path

Judaism does not believe that this high state of devotion can be enforced by fiat. Rejection and disparagement does not elicit this quality, but a helping hand and an encouraging word might. Because our spirits only flourish when we are patiently taught and lovingly nurtured.

Totalitarian regimes often compare themselves to the decadence of western capitalism and claim that their austere societies function at a higher moral level. Let such rhetoric not fool you. Whether it is a military dictatorship, a communist government or a radical Islamic country, totalitarian societies are not any more selfless than capitalistic ones. Selflessness cannot be achieved by oppression. Oppressed people are deprived, not devout. Their rulers rule for self gain, not in selfless service.

Capitalism espouses a sad truth about society, but a truth nonetheless. Most people are not prepared to live a life of selfless devotion; we are by nature invested in our own wellbeing. Is this a truth that should be celebrated? No; the Wise Son’s disappointment echoes clearly in our ears. But it is a truth nonetheless.

What should be done about this sad reflection on human nature? Act as if it does not exist by clamping down on the average citizen and denying them the comforts and luxuries for which they yearn? No! You can’t browbeat society into selflessness. That is the message we send to the Wise Son. We have to accept the realities of the average person, including our own, and work with what we have to slowly climb the ladder of spiritual pursuit.


  1. First of the four sons enumerated in the Haggadah.
  2. This is based on the answer given to the fourth son, “It is because of this that G-d did for me upon my exodus from Egypt.” This refers to the Matza and bitter Herbs that we are commanded to eat at the Seder. This teaches us that our ancestors were granted their freedom in reward for performing the commandment of eating the Matza and bitter Herbs. See commentary of Kesav Sofer on the Haggadah.
  3. The Wise Son amplifies his question by contrasting the testimonials and laws against the decrees. There are three kinds of Mitzvot: Laws that make perfect logical sense, such as the Mitvah of charity, testimonials such as the Mitzvah of Shabbat that testifies to G-d’s creation of the Universe and edicts that transcend all human logic such as the Mitzvah of the Red Heifer.In truth, the Divine reasons behind all Mitzvot, including the logical laws and testimonials transcend human understanding. However, G-d allowed us the illusion of understanding because it is difficult to be overly enthusiastic about a mitzvah we do not understand and G-d wanted us to be fully invested in our fulfillment of the Mitzvos.  Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the true import of every  Mitzvah lies beyond the envelope of human understanding. Thus every Mitzvah should be performed out of obedience to the Divine will, which transcends our understanding.All three categories thus enjoy a symbiotic relationship. We are meant to fulfill the edicts that transcend our understanding with the same enthusiasm that we muster for the testimonials and laws that we do understand. On the other hand, we must fulfill the laws that we do understand with the same humility and discipline that we muster for the edicts that we cannot understand.Matzah is a testimonial Mitzvah; it testifies to our liberation from Egypt.  The Wise Son demands, though Matzah is a testimonial, why do you insist on eating it for reasons that fit into the framework of your understanding, should you not perform this Mitzvah solely because it is G-d’s will?
  4. I once heard a similar concept about Shabbos from a Chossid from Breslev: Friday Night when one is tired and hungry it is very difficult to eat in honor of Shabbos, most jews eat in honor of their apperite. Shabbat morning, after a long night of rest and a full morning of prayers we are hungry again. Once again we eat to sevice our apetite. In the afternoon we take a long nap, study some Torah and Pray so by the time we reach the third meal we are hungry again. It is only after Shabbat departs, when we eat the meal of Melava Malkah, that we can honor Shabbat properly.
  5. If Matza is bread of the poor, the paschal Lamb is food for the wealthy. Its deep aroma and rich flavors represents those who truly enjoy spiritual worship. There are those at the Seder table, such as Wise Sons who begin their evening with spiritual wealth and are able to devote their entire Seder experience to the service of G-d. By the time we reach dessert we have all reached the spiritually wealthy state of the Wise Son and are all able to partake of the rich Paschal Lamb.

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