By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Vehi she’omda la’avoseinu velonu.
I say these words every year at the Seder, as you do, and as all those who came before us did.
There are more than 3,300 years separating us from the most glorious night the world has ever known, the night illuminated as day, when a new nation was born.
Not long after we left Mitzrayim, Amaleik pounced and sought to destroy us. We withstood that attack and the many attacks that have followed it. Since that time, the parade has never stopped. Shelo echod bilvod. One after another, they’ve come with clubs and sticks, with dogs and guns, with trains and poison gasses wire, and often with wide smiles and sweet words.
They have never stopped trying.
From the hidden rooms in Spain and broken-down huts in Eastern Europe, –our grandfathers intoned the eternal words.
V’Hakadosh Boruch Hu matzileinu miyodom.
It is a story that takes a million shapes, told in any number of accents against so many various backdrops.
Here is one, I recently heard from a Holocaust survivor. Rabbi Nissen Mangel recalled being a child in the relatively unknown Melk work camp in Austria. The cursed Nazis would awake their captives at 4 a.m., and by 5 a.m. the poor Jews were back at their backbreaking work, digging in iron ore and coal mines. If an inmate slacked off in any way, he was punished with instant death.
The camp was surrounded by an electrified fence, and, Rabbi Mangel recalled, each day the inmates would return from work to see another dozen victims hanging from the fence, killed for minor infractions. A real infraction was punished by being hanged by the feet.
“We never knew what day it was,” said Rabbi Mangel. “We inhabited a dimension where getting through the day was the only real thought, not much more. One day, as we dragged ourselves back to camp, someone called out, ‘Tonight is Pesach.’ There were 1,200 tired, hungry, exhausted people in the barracks, jammed together like sardines, but everyone jumped up on their cots to celebrate. Derech cheirus. Everyone offered the words they remembered from home, half-sentences and phrases, a jumble of Mah Nishtana and other familiar phrases. The voices rose and fell for several hours. Sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim.
“All of a sudden, an SS man came into the barracks and beheld the unnatural sight of people in such depraved conditions singing and happy. He barked at us to go to sleep and then he left. As soon as he stepped out, everyone jumped up again for another half hour. Then he came back with his gun and warned that if we didn’t go to sleep, he would start shooting.
“Jewish life was meaningless to them, and he said that it would be a badge of honor for him to kill us. Though we knew that he meant it, all the inmates sat up on their beds and continued celebrating Pesach.
“The third time the SS came was at 1:25. He was so overcome by our tenacity and spirit, that he left us alone. We celebrated all night until it was time to go to work.
“This was a barracks comprised of all types of Jews, religious and non-religious, from all sorts of backgrounds, yet everyone joined in the celebration. Not one person complained that we were putting our lives in jeopardy.”
Rabbi Mangel concluded the story: “There was more oppression there than in Egypt, yet there we were, celebrating the festival of freedom.”
Rabbi Mangel recounted that when he arrived in Auschwitz in 1944, there were no children. Everyone was forced to change into the infamous striped clothing given out by the Nazis. Everyone removed their clothes and threw them into a pile, then moved to the area where they put on their camp uniforms. But there was no uniform for little Nissen. The SS guard sent him back to where the pile of clothing was and told him to find the clothes he came in and put them on.
When he found his clothing, he noticed that those of his father were right next to his in the pile, so he searched the pockets. In one pocket was a can of sardines, worth their weight in gold in that awful place. In the other was a pair of tefillin. He put the treasures in his pockets and returned to where everyone was standing.
When they were led into their barracks, he gave his father what he found. Word spread that his father had tefillin, and hundreds of people took turns putting on the tefillin every night until his father was transferred to a different camp, never to be heard from again.
Where do people get the strength to line up under the penalty of death after a grueling day’s work to put on tefillin?
Where do emaciated people barely hanging on to life get the strength to sit up on their beds and sing about freedom under the penalty of death?
One of the more fundamental differentiations between Yahadus and other religions is that the actions that formed our belief took place in front of hundreds of thousands of people and have been passed down from parent to child ever since. Yahadus is not based on one person’s fantasies or fanciful tales. Kabbolas HaTorah took place in front of the entire nation. Yetzias Mitzrayim was witnessed by every Jew. The miraculous deliverance from enslavement to freedom took place in front of every Jewish person and affected each one. It is not something someone invented or plagiarized.
It is fact.
It is obvious that the world did not come into being by itself, giving forth the animal kingdom and all the plants, which then figured out how to grow into different shapes and sizes, displaying myriad colors, giving forth fruit and offspring, and behaving differently, with varying appetites and needs. Any thinking person must conclude that there is no way the intricate world could have formed itself. There had to have been a Creator. Moshe Rabbeinu transcribed from the Creator the book in which He describes why the world was created and how we are to conduct ourselves in His world.
The Ramban writes in his peirush haTorah at the end of Parshas Bo that the belief in Hashgocha Protis, that everything that happens is from Hashem, is primary to being a Torah Jew. It is obvious that the Creator has not lost interest in our world. A cursory study of Jewish history indicates that Hashem has been guiding and watching over us since our formation. Looking back and contemplating our own personal lives indicates the same thing. It could not have been random.
Look at the recent history of the Jewish people and the many miracles we have experienced, and you will have to admit that there is a Hand above guiding us. Think about how we have survived since Har Sinai, which brought “sinah la’olam.” It is impossible for a small despised group such as ours to have endured thousands of years of concerted efforts by the strongest nations – and many religions – of the world to wipe us out.
All of this has been given over from parents to children throughout the centuries. Every Jewish child raised al pi derech haTorah grows up with the stories and facts that have been transmitted from one generation to the next since time immemorial.
That is our secret. That is our strength. People of truth cannot be broken. People of spirit cannot be deterred. Eternal people cannot be shaken by temporal powers. A nation focused on a time and place so much bigger than this little world can’t be thrown off course by its allure.
The Torah provides us with four different responses for fathers to utilize to explain to their children matters pertaining to Yetzias Mitzrayim and ikkrei emunah. There is an answer for every type of child and a way to get through to them. Proper chinuch and child-rearing skills are vital to producing a wholesome generation of Torah Jews. Communication is key. Communication skills are important for us to properly perform our duties as parents and Jews.
This is why the Seder is a major production, ensuring that it relates to every member of the family, from the most engaged scholars to the youngest children. Questions are asked and answered on every level, as families relive the redemption until it becomes personal. We feel as if we have been freed. We think about our lives and the things that enslave us and realize that Hashem redeems us as well if we call out to Him and show ourselves to be interested in His leadership.
The Vilna Gaon explains the reason we discuss at the Seder how Lovon treated Yaakov, stating, “Tzei ulemad mah bikeish Lovon ha’Arami la’asos leYaakov Avinu.” Go learn from what Lovon tried doing to Yaakov, the Haggadah tells us, and despite Lovon’s attempts, Yaakov became a strong and plentiful great nation.
We know that “maaseh avos siman labonim,” what happened to our forefathers is a hint of what will happen to the children. Thus, we say that just as Yaakov had to flee into exile, where he was forced to work hard for Lovon, who tried to rob everything from him, only to eventually flee with his wives, children and possessions, he was preparing the geulah for his grandchildren, who would have the same experience in Mitzrayim.
The travails of Yaakov have followed us through the generations, and just as he was saved and went on to achieve great success, so too, the Jewish people, though driven into exile and tormented, ultimately survived to rise once again.
A Jew in any situation remembers that and is comforted as he awaits his freedom. Wherever he may be, every year he recites at the Seder the same words his parents, grandparents and all of the Jewish people have been reciting for as long as there has been a Seder. In the barracks of Auschwitz, in the Soviet gulag, in the frozen tundra of Siberia, during the Spanish Inquisition and during the Roman occupation, these same words were said. The first Jews to enter Eretz Yisroel, and those driven out, the Ga’onim and Rishonim in Babylonia, France and Germany, the Rambam, the Ramban, the Rosh, the fathers of our people, the Acharonim across western and eastern Europe, as well as those in Egypt, Morocco and Syria, no matter what was going on, celebrated Pesach the same way, reciting, “Arami oveid ovi.”
Hence the potency of that passage: Vehi she’omda la’avoseinu. In every generation, we face attempts at our destruction, from which Hashem saves us. Vehi she’omda la’avoseinu. These words are as relevant today as they were when they were recited throughout the millennia around the world.
Our mesorah is what ensures that we remain faithful to the same values as our forefathers. We follow the same customs, repeat the same stories to the next generation, and maintain the chain that stretches back to Sinai and beyond. People who deviate from the mesorah, lie about our traditions, falsify them, and fictionalize our history to conform with their wishes and agendas cause people to deviate from that which makes us great.
The Torah defines and guides us, but mesorah strengthens us and helps make us what we are. When we think we are smarter than those who came before us, when we falsify that which has held us through the golus, we place ourselves and future generations in jeopardy.
A Jew going through difficult times in Auschwitz, or Otisville, or anywhere else is strengthened and joyful when the Seder arrives, bringing back so many personal memories and the collective memory of Jews throughout the ages. Every word takes on mystical significance. Every matzah is a special treat. Not only are the daled kosos treasured, but the maror is, too. The words of the Haggadah jump off the page and kindle the soul, just as they have been doing for thousands of years. They remind us who we are, what we are all about, and who watches over us, orchestrating life.
There’s another resounding message in the story we retell.
If He, the Source of all life, felt it important to change the order of creation, turning water to blood and repeating similar feats again and again, in order to pluck one nation out from amidst another, to lift us up as we sunk deeper into the quicksand of impurity, then it means that we are a people worthy of being chosen.
The message of the Seder isn’t just who He is, but who we are.
Each evening, following the recitation of Krias Shema during Maariv, we say, “Emes ve’emunah,” stating that we firmly and truthfully acknowledge that “ki Hu Hashem Elokeinu,” Hashem is our G-d.
Rav Moshe Shapiro would point out that following those words, we add “va’anachnu Yisroel amo.” We acknowledge that we are His chosen people. He leads and protects us, and we are worthy of His love.
We see it again and again.
Opening the daily mail is not a glorious process. The pile includes some bills, perhaps a simcha invitation, a few letters from mosdos, the usual.
One day, a small box was in the pile, and it was quite heavy. I opened it and shook out a letter, along with some jewelry, sent by a woman in a faraway small town.
A bracelet, a necklace, a ring and a pocket watch came along with the letter, which contained a precise accounting of exactly what each piece weighed and its worth. The handwritten letter humbly asked that we sell the items and use the money for the Klal Yisroel Fund to help another Jew.
The collection of ornaments sat on my desk, and I couldn’t bring myself to move them.
Each item no doubt had a story: The gift of a devoted husband or loving parents? A token of friendship or appreciation? Yet a woman parted with them and all they represented in order to help a good Jew who is imprisoned.
I thought of the passion of the people at the time the Eigel who gave up their jewelry to fashion the infamous golden calf, the source of many of our problems until this day.
A Jewish woman living in a small town demonstrated that our people have sinned, but we have come a long way and remain devoted to each other and good causes. She showed that wherever we find ourselves and whatever our position in life is, we know that we live for a higher purpose and have a higher calling. We rise above pettiness and selfishness, for we are chosen.
Vehi she’omda. We know that we are singled out for hatred and attack, and we know that Hashem ultimately protects us. The knowledge that we are chosen for protection holds us together and reminds us to be strong and carry ourselves differently, as we are the nation of “rachmonim, baishonim and gomlei chassodim” (Yevamos 78, et al).
Vehi she’omda. Hashem sees us and the condition we are in, and plucks us from difficult situations, even when we don’t appear worthy, for He appreciates our inherent goodness.
Rav Chaim Volozhiner asked the Vilna Gaon to whom Moshiach would come. With the steady decrease in quality of avodah and the dimming of neshamos with each passing year, he wondered if Moshiach could come to a pathetic generation.
The Gaon replied that the question was already asked and answered by the Medrash. Rav Chaim’s brilliant brother, Rav Zalmele, was part of the conversation. The master of Chazal quickly reviewed all the Medrashim in his vast memory and told the Gaon that he could not find that Medrash. The Gaon responded that it is found in Tanna Devei Eliyohu. Rav Zalmele deliberated for a while and told the Gaon that he was not able to find it.
The Gaon responded that it is on the very first page of Tanna Devei Eliyohu. It is there that many attributes of Hakadosh Boruch Hu are described. Listed among them is that Hashem is referred to as a “somei’ach bechelko, happy with His lot.”
“What type of praise is that?” the Gaon asked. “He owns everything and is Master of the Universe. What does it mean that He is content with His lot?”
“When it says that Hakadosh Boruch Hu rejoices with His ‘cheilek,’” explained the Gaon, “it means that he is satisfied with His nation, and derives the very same pleasure and delight from the avodah of simple people as He did from their ancestors, men of great learning and saintliness.”
Said the Gaon, “He will bring Moshiach to a generation that serves Him on their level, facing their challenges, doing their best, rejoicing in their hard work just as He did with the avos hakdoshim, the Dor Deiah, the avodas kohanim, and the Gaonim and Rishonim.”
Hopefully, that is us and our generation. We endeavor to be a nation of people who find ways to tap into the middos bequeathed to us by our holy ancestors and show who we are, in our own humble way.
We are the same nation that went out of Mitzrayim. The world has changed so many times in so many ways, yet we are still here. “Shebechol dor vador omdim aleinu” is still fact. “Ki lo merubchem choshak Hashem bachem, ki atem hame’at,” Hashem’s statement that He chose us not because we are the largest but because we are incredibly small, is still true.
May we eat the Korban Pesach, as families spanning centuries join together in celebration, singing shirah al geulaseinu ve’al pedus nafsheinu.