By: Rabbi Ari Weiss
When the seder meal was originally ordered in late Antiquity, we washed our hands at rachtzah to purify them, so that the matzah bread would not become ritually impure. Although these purity laws are no longer current, the deep symbolic force of the purifying power of water still resonates within Jewish life. One example is the phrase "I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities," which we recite during the yamim noraim [Yechezkel 36:25].
In the case of the eglah arufah, water not only purifies but absolves. To recall: A murdered corpse is found in the field, and the murderer is unknown. The elders of the nearest town are identified, a cow is brought, and its neck is broken. The elders wash their hands over the broken animal and declare, "Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it" [Devarim 21:1-9].
The mishnah [Sotah 9:6] that comments on this passage is incredulous: "Could it be that the elders of a Court were shedders of blood?" Rather, the mishnah (as cited in the Talmud Bavli [Sotah 46b-47a]), interprets the elders as saying, "'He came into our hands that we should have dismissed him without sustenance, and we did not see him and leave him without an escort.'" The mishnah, then, according to the Bavli's reading, obligates the elders, i.e., those with the capacity to act, with a set of specific and concrete responsibilities. They must feed and protect people who pass through their town. If they fail this test, they are morally responsible; if they constantly meet this obligation, then the elders can literally wash their hands of culpability in a specific case that escapes their notice.
If, as Thomas Friedman famously announced, the world is flat in a globalized and interconnected age, can we legitimately continue to proclaim our innocence and wash our hands of all responsibility when we constantly encounter victims of injustice? I believe that just as the elders of the town must invest in the protection of life of everyone they encounter by sustaining and escorting visitors, we must do the same even if they are only encountered virtually. We can no longer say, "Never again," only to see and read about victims of genocide again (in Cambodia) and again (in Rwanda) and again (in the former Republics of Yugoslavia) and again (in Darfur) and again (in Democratic Republic of Congo).
Only after we have acted to the limits of our capacity to fight against the loss of life, can we, like the elders of the town, wash our hands in good conscience and enjoy the upcoming meal.
By: Rabbi David Jaffe
In Talmud Bavli Pesachim 115b, Rava teaches, "[One who] swallows the matzah [without chewing] has fulfilled the obligation [of eating matzah]. [However, one who] swallows the maror [without chewing] does not fulfill the obligation [of eating maror]." Rashbam explains that even though ideally one should taste the matzah, after the fact, even swallowing without tasting is a form of eating and thus one has fulfilled the mitzvah. Maror is different. Actually tasting the maror, and not just eating it, is the essence of the mitzvah because the maror should remind us of how our lives were embittered by the oppression of the mitzrim. (See also Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayyim 475:3; Mishnah Berurah 475: 29, 30.)
We need to slowly chew our horseradish or romaine lettuce, letting the burning juices sink into our tongues and open our sinuses! We live in a fast food culture. Except on Shabbat, our meals are often rushed; an efficient meal is something we can finish in under five minutes or eat while doing something else. The ba'alei mussar teach that the yetzer harah's main strategy is to keep us busy, moving so fast that we absorb neither our own reality nor the reality of the world around us.
There is so much suffering in the world, both our own and others', such as the migrant workers who harvest our food, exposing themselves to dangerous pesticides while being paid less than a living wage. They contract illnesses and do not have the health insurance needed to heal. Subsistence farmers in Central and South America are forced by economic need to produce only one type of crop and no longer have the ability to feed their own families. Or, closer to home, a relative may be silently suffering health problems, family strife, or economic vulnerability. This halachah is teaching us that suffering is something to be absorbed and felt if it is to have a cathartic and motivating impact. Our business urges us not to look, not to dwell, not to really feel. However, it is that bitter taste of suffering that makes it impossible for us to accept things the way they are. We must act, we must reach out, we must make change!
1. William H. Gass, "The Stylization of Desire," The New York Review of Books, February 25, 1971. 2. Emmanuel Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings, trans. Annette Aronowicz (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990), p. 97.
By: Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo
Judaism lives in constant tension. Between reality and dream. Hope and disappointment. It longs for the day when the wolf will live with the lamb and the messianic era will finally be ushered in. But it knows that day has not yet come. There is still an enormous gap between what is and what ought to be. Judaism is the art of the possible. Of the doable. The road is long and the bumps are many, but the dream is alive and well. Until one has arrived, there is a heavy price to pay. Still, one must not give up and should even enjoy the ride. At least make a sincere attempt.
What does one do when his arch enemies are drowned in the Reed Sea? Should he dance on the rooftops when he sees the enemy crushed, or should he thank God for the victory but go home with a heavy heart, shedding a sincere tear for human life that was lost? Even if it is the life of his arch enemy?
Judaism chooses the latter. It has no option but to be sad even in times of joy. And its sadness is so great that it spills over. Despite the enemy's cruelty, the Jew takes his cup of wine on the day of his liberation and spills a bit to demonstrate sorrow for his enemy's loss of life. He does so in spite of the prohibition against wasting even a drop. His sadness is so intense that he cannot hold back from transgressing the law for the sake of allowing his emotions to have their way. He diminishes his simchah by removing a tiny bit from the cup of his glorious victory. The dip of a finger. Nothing more. It takes only a second, but the act is of infinite value. Compassion for those who fell so low that they turned into Jew haters and lost all dignity. How distressing that human beings are able to compromise themselves to that extent. How is it possible not to mourn? Ten mini dips for ten plagues that befell the Egyptians. The totality of the Jewish neshamah is reflected in this tiny gesture. Tiny, but of enormous moral strength.
But can a man really live with ten mournful dips in the face of an arch enemy's cruelty? Is it possible for the Jew to simply dip and forget about the pain inflicted by the enemy for thousands of years? Where will this pain go? Does one just swallow it? Forget what happened? Or shall the Jew, after all, call for revenge, take the law in his own hands and initiate a jihad (holy war)? And if so, how then will he live with the drops of wine he just wasted? The Jew is caught between a sorrowful dip and an inner need for revenge. He is tossed from left to right and back again. And he ultimately decides for the dip. No revenge, no jihad.
But what about the pain? How can one vent his frustrations, fed by thousands of years of cruel anti-Semitism? Is violence not often the result of such frustrations that were denied an outlet? What does one do when the drop of wine stands in the way and does not allow his vexation and pain any escape? At whose feet can one throw his resentment and be assured that it will be handled with the greatest sensitivity but simultaneously not lead to more trouble?
Only in the privacy of one's home, where one knows he can call for revenge and be confident that he will be taken seriously but not so seriously that it will be turned into reality. Where one can say what he means, let off steam, get it out of his system and be sure that in spite of it all, he would not hurt a fly.
Only with God, the ultimate home, can we unburden our feelings. Only He knows how to deal with human frustrations, and not get carried away. He will know what we really have in mind and whether or not to take action.
Far from what one may think, shefoch chamatcha is not a prayer of incitement. It is a prayer born out of pain, in which we ask God to redeem us from all the hate which we Jews have experienced over thousands of years. To this very day. We just have to let off steam. It is up to Him to decide how to respond. It is not our business to assist Him in this. In fact, it is forbidden to be of any support.
Judaism does not allow any waste. Only in a few instances is one allowed to spill. And just a tiny bit. To teach a fundamental lesson on how to approach life. To learn not to waste our souls or risk our stake in God. Why, after all, is it forbidden to waste? So that we may recognize the overflow of the beauty of life.
Shefoch chamatcha is a prayer spoken at the moment of great intimacy between God and us. A prayer in which we try to master what is inferior in us and grow beyond its words.
May this prayer soon disappear from the Haggadah. When hate will cease to exist and there will no longer be need of an outlet for our frustrations. When we will be able to live and let live in pure love. When we will dwell on a word in our prayers and transform it into the realization of our ultimate dream-from feelings of frustration into emotions of love.
One way to work in solidarity with the 50.2 million people that live in food-insecure homes is to support changes to the Farm Bill.
The Farm Bill, which comes up for renewal in Congress every 5-7 years, funds much of the production of food in America. Contact your local member of Congress with these asks for the Bill's next iteration:
1. Increase hunger relief programs.
2. Support new programs like Access to Local Foods and school garden programs that encourage public institutions to purchase local produce.
3. Expand innovative pilot programs like the Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program and the Farmers' Market Nutrition Program that support healthy eating for low-income citizens.