The Sassoon Family Tragedy – Why, Oh Why?


rav-moshe-meir-weissBy Rabbi Moshe Meir Weiss

The entire world was gripped with horror by the terrible fire that took away the pure, precious lives of seven of the Sassoon family’s children this past month.  Anyone who has seen the pictures of these children can’t help but be captivated by the ethereal purity of these beautiful souls.  The vision of their seven small bodies wrapped in shrouds before being laid to rest on Har HaMenuchos sears itself into one’s minds.  Since it happened, wherever I go I’m stopped by strangers.  Rav Weiss, How could this happen?  What does God want from us?  In an unprecedented way, even more than about a senseless plane crash, people are begging for answers.  Almost an entire family wiped out!  How can this be?

This reaction triggered an equation in my mind for it is one of the duties of the head of the family at the seder to pique the curiosity of the children.  From the very beginning of the seder, we deviate from the norm in order that the children should remain awake and ask questions.  Thus the Chasam Sofer would give out snacks to the little children before Kiddush in fulfillment of the Gemora of Pesachim [109] that they used to give toasted grain and nuts to the children in order to stimulate their interest.  So too, we raise the seder plate by Ha Lachma Anya, we remove the egg and the shank bone, we have an appetizer before we wash, we wash for a vegetable, we break a matzah instead of keeping it whole, we wear a kittel which is a shroud on the night of joy, all to get the children to ask.

In the Court of Belz, as recorded in the Marbeh Lisaper, the Rebbe would do yet other innovations.  The first kos of wine was placed on the shoulder of a grandson, the Rebbetzin herself would lift the karah before Ha Lachma Anya, the Rebbe would take one hand and clap the other, then alternate with the other hand, before saying the Mah Nishtana.  Perhaps another time we will go into the reasons for these customs.  For now, it will suffice that it was done to engage the children so that they should ask, What’s up?  Why are we doing this?

Especially today with the media stunting everyone’s attention span, a good educator will tell you that more than half the battle is to get the children to listen in the first place.  If we can get them to ask on their own then we know that we have their attention.  Therefore, on the night of the seder, when we have the all-important mission of passing to our descendants our heritage, forging another link in the chain of the mesorah, it is oh so important to make sure that they are connected.  Indeed, in the Hagaddah we applaud the chocham, the wise child, not for what he knows but for his ability to ask.  Ma haeidos v’hachukim v’hamishpotim, what are the testimonials, statures and laws of our Holy Torah?  This is the definition of the chocham in Pirkei Avos who is lomeid mikol adam, he learns from everyone.  He has the interest to ask and is not ashamed to inquire.

It therefore struck me how this terrible event, this awful catastrophe generated everyone to ask questions.  In an unparalleled way, normally apathetic people were asking questions.  So many people are not interested in hearing the drasha or complain it’s too long, many baby-boomers are too tired to come out to shiurim and are satisfied with the status quo.  Hashem did something that got us engaged.

But then comes the follow-up, the billion dollar question:  If Hashem wanted us to ask, then what’s the answer?

Rav Moshe Wolfson, Shlit”a, points out a fascinating thing.  The Gemora says that we dip the karpas in order that the children should notice and ask.  But, nowhere does the Gemora give us the answer.  Throughout the ages the answer has been debated.  Is it a symbol that tonight we are free men and therefore we dip like royalty or is it, to the contrary like the Chasam Sofer says, a reminder of slavery when we were stuck in the fields and all we had to eat was vegetables?  This controversy has halachic ramifications.  If it’s a sign of freedom, then we should do it while reclining, as was Rav Moshe’s custom.  If it’s a sign of slavery, then we should do it without reclining, as is the practice of many.  Rav Wolfson proposes that the Gemora deliberately does not offer us an answer to this question so that we should tell the children that we don’t have an answer and yet we still have our faith intact.  This is one of the reasons why we cover our eyes while saying Shema, to convey the message that we have blind faith in Hashem Echad even when we don’t understand the reasons why.

Rav Gelbwachs asks, when we raise the cup of wine by V’hi She’omdah, the paragraph that depicts Jewish survival throughout the ages, why do we raise the wine?  Perhaps we should raise the matzah, the symbol of emancipation.  He suggests that we don’t know why we raise the wine but the very fact that we continue to do it, although we don’t know why, is the secret to Jewish survival throughout the ages.

Rav Wolfson wonders why we keep the afikomen between the pillow and our chair and lean on it.  Isn’t that disrespectful to the afikomen which symbolizes the korban Pesach?  He answers that the Zohar calls matzah michla d’hemenusa, bread of faith, and when leaning on the afikomen, we are portraying that what we have to rely upon is our emunah peshuta, our simple faith, even when we don’t understand why.

Mishpotecha t’hom rabbah, Hashem’s judgment is very deep and we cannot possibly fathom with our mortal minds the complexity of Hashem’s ways but our pure faith knows that Hashem has a good reason for all that He does.  May the souls of brothers David,  Yehoshua, Moshe, Yaakov, and sisters Eliane, Rivka, and Sarah, bask in the glory of Hashem’s Shechinah in Gan Eden, and may we know from no more tragedies but be blessed with long life, good health and everything wonderful.

Sheldon Zeitlin takes dictation of, and edits, Rabbi Weiss’ articles.

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