Tzay – Go Out of Your Comfort Zone – Ulemad –and Learn

This week Ashkenazim read the Shir Hashirim.  Within the Shir Hashirim there is an interesting dialogue between G-d and the Jews in the analogy of a husband and wife.  The husband comes to the wife and finds she has locked Him out.  The Husband, standing outside pleads for entry.  The wife’s reply is one of creature comfort, “I’ve washed my feet, put my feet up, how can I get out of bed and open the door for You.”

Spiritually becoming connected and close to the Creator of all is hard work.  Oft enough, we are so comfortable in our habits, in our latitude to ourselves, that we just don’t want to bother.

In the Haggadah we read, Tzay U’lemad, which means “go out and learn”.  Why the go out?  Because in order to learn, you MUST go out of your comfort zone.  There is no easy pass for knowledge and spirituality.

Imagine being born in a cave, dark and smelly, dank and moldy.  You sit there, thinking that it is all that there is in life, an existence in the bowels of the earth.  You learn to make life comfortable for yourself, when you hear an urging to venture to the mouth of the cave.  “Ugh, why would I do that, venture into the unknown, rise up from my all fours that I’ve gotten used to ambulating about on? I’m comfortable here in this familiar place.”  Ah, my friend, but the dazzle of sun and the vibrancy of growth, the smell of fresh air, the possibilities of endless horizons are there beckoning to you, if you just go out of your comfort zone.

This Pesach, Tzay, go beyond your limits and your comfort zone.  U’lemad – and learn how great and vast the world is, how beautifully shimmering it is with hidden nuances, see the hidden dimensions and hear the trills of spirituality. The possibilities that will unfold are too many to be told.

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Fifteen Step Program for the Seder – mapping out growth

There are fifteen segments to the Pesach Seder.  These correspond to the fifteen steps that led into the Ezras Yisroel, the part of the Temple where a ritually prepared person would be allowed to enter.

The fifteen stairs leading up to the Temple were unique in that one didn’t just run up those steps.  Each one of these steps had its own song.  Tehillim [Psalms] 120-134 are the fifteen Shir Hama’alos, songs of the steps.  Each step up toward the Temple had a different song and thought associated with  it.

The vision of Yaakov, our ancestor, was of a ladder heading from earth to heaven.  A ladder has rungs.  No one makes a leap from earth to heaven, no one can go from spiritual emptiness to understanding the greatest depths of spirituality in a split second moment.  There are steps leading one to greatness.

In fact, the moon mirrors that concept, too.  It doesn’t go from nil to full-size right away.  Rather, the moon builds up its image, day by day, until the fifteenth day of the month it displays itself in its fullness.

The word Kavannah is often used to refer to concentration in prayer and in following Torah commandments.  The root of the word Kavannah is Kivun, direction.  In order to get the maximum out of our prayer or out of our lives, we have to live it with direction.

As we head to Pesach, if we want the full effect of Pesach to hit us and penetrate our souls, we have to prepare for it.  We have to have “kivun” direction where we want to head.  And then, we must set up rungs to ascend.  Map out how we can progress in do-able steps.

That is one of the messages of the Seder.  We want to get from slavery, from being (in the words of Henry Higgins) “squashed cabbage leaves” to royalty, to the high point of the Seder which is Nirtzah, which means wanted/beloved by G-d.  How to get there?  Not by trying to do a rocket launch into spiritual orbit.  But by taking it step by step, enhancing our knowledge bit by bit, increasing our observance day by day, growing and gaining another rung on the ladder of spirituality.

That is the secret of the fifteen-step Seder, to teach us that there are steps we can take to get to great heights.  If we are willing to do it, step by step.

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Take a Fiddle When You Are Eating the Maror — for joy is just around the corner

We are heading to Seder nights, folks.  A time hinting of promises of redemption.  At that Seder, the crux of the night is to remember to talk about PESACH, MATZAH and MAROR.  If you don’t, you haven’t fulfilled your obligations of the night.  Pesach is about G-d saving us.  Matzah is the speed in which the miracles unfolded to get us out of that situation.  And Maror?!  What is that doing here with those two – Maror is a symbol of the bitterness and suffering.  Why is that lumped together with Pesach and Matzah…and why does it come last in the order of things?

Well, my friend, it is hard to know that at the time of suffering, but when we get past a crisis, we often do not regret having had to go through that pain.  We often feel that the pain and challenges have made us better people, deeper emotional creatures, and able to appreciate the good times that much more.  Therefore, after all is said and done, after the redemption of our people, we are thankful for the Maror, too.

Which brings me to this delightful old Yiddish song (sung by a Russian singer) that talks about a lesson a Zeide taught his Jewish grandchild.  (Yes, I know, it always goes back to song and dance with me!)  The song, (in a nutshell but not an exact translation), says, ‘My grandfather Reb Yisroel told me…they kicked out the Jew from land to land and he took along his fiddle.  When the heart hurts he takes “the Yidde’le, his fiddel’le, and plays a liddele/song with a lot of feeling.  The fiddel’le tells that life is but a play.” And the fiddle goes on to tell him, “that Simchos [happy occasions] will yet be by the Jews and that the Jews will never disappear.”

“From here to there,” the fiddle goes on speaking from place to place, he carries the song, the Jew in every location.

That is the message, my folks, of the Maror, that even in the bitterest times, we carry the song, knowing we will rejoice again, someday, no matter what.  As the song says, “let all our enemies know, Am Yisrael Chai!”  We are alive, grateful for all our past challenges, for that is what has forged us into a beautiful people.

Here is the link to the song:


Also, if you want to see this concept explored in modern-day psychology, there is a growing recognition that there is positive growth that comes from trauma.  Here is an article that talks about it:

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Kosher Your Kitchen for Pesach

In our home, growing up, Easy-Off and Bleach were the nullifiers before Koshering the kitchen. Every plate, utensil, appliance, table, counters and chairs was slathered with the stuff, making any crumb left behind (as if there could be any!) completely inedible and, therefore, nullified. Then came the boiling waters, heated rocks and blowtorches. And then, came out the special just-for-Pesach dishes and appliances, as the Koshered old ones got put away as Chametz.

OCD doesn’t come close to Pesach-mania in a Hungarian home. My mother remembers her mom whitewashing the outside walls of the home. Bukharian kids told me that back in Bukhara there was the same intensity – there were actually separate Pesach homes for some of them. C’mon, why the intensity, if you can just do a cursory sweep-out, wash, Kasher and enjoy approach? And the answer, my friend, is that the more you put into something, the more you get out of it.

The more time I spend on the cleaning of my home, the more I have to reflect about the inside, emotional cleaning I must do. The more I scour and nullify my cabinets and gadgets, the more I have to force myself to ask if I’ve nullified my pride and evil inclination. The more I slave away at trying to ensure my home is ready to accept G-d’s commandment of absolutely no Chametz, the more connected and crazy-with-love for G-d I will be.

So, my friends, yes, you can do it the easy way. Yet, the extra effort does deepen the experience. Trust me, as I wave my bleach-scented hands in emphasis.

Here is a clever and fun way of explaining how to Kasher a kitchen, put together by the Ayelet HaShachar organization:

And, for a truly spiritual insight into obligations, listen to Rabbi Tatz discuss slavery and freedom here:


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What’s the Pshat on Seder Night?

We are told that Torah learning is a Pardes, a beautiful orchard.  The letters of Pardes hint to the dimensions of each verse of Torah.  There is the Pay which refers to Pshat – literal translation.  Every verse in Torah has a literal translation.  So, if it says, “and Avraham journeyed,” we know that literally Avraham journeyed.  Then there is the next layer, the Raysh which alludes to Remez, the hints in the Torah.  Torah verses hint at the Oral Law and, at times, at events in history waiting to unfold.  The next layer in Torah meaning is Daled – Drash, the deeper emotional and spiritual understandings in the verse.  And the last layer is Samech which indicates Sod, the Kabbalah, hidden abstract/mystical meaning to the verse.

The word Seder incorporates three of those letters, but leaves one out.  There is the Samech indicating Sod –telling us our Pesach Seder is redolent with high mystical meaning.  There is the Daled signifying Drash that tells us that every step of the Seder night has deep emotional and spiritual understandings.  There is the also the Raysh for Remez which alerts us there are hints and innuendos to future events yet to come for our people.  But where is the Pshat – where is the literal aspect to the Seder?

The answer, my worthy friends, is WE are the Pshat on Seder night.  We go through literal motions to set all the other things into place.  We literally eat the Matzah.  We literally drink the wine.  We are the actual verse in its simple translation.

This Seder (and onward in our life) we must never forget it is we who often are asked to put the literal into being by doing the commandments.  And through our being so literal, we put into motion real significant deep and mystical forces.  Never shirk your duty of doing the actual literal — for, through it, so much more is put into play.

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Nisan: Royal Stature Recognized

There’s a story Reb Nachman of Breslov used to tell his Chassidim.

Once upon a time, a prince thought he was a turkey.  He took off all his clothing, sat himself down under a table and said, “Gobble, Gobble, Gobble”.  The king, horrified by this behavior,called in doctor after doctor, psychiatrist after psychologist.  All shook their heads, baffled by the case.  Expensive medications, shock treatments, hours of therapy, nothing helped the prince realize he was not a turkey.

One day, a wise old man showed up at the palace with an offer. “Would you like me to cure the prince?”

“Bless you,” replied the king.  “Can you really cure him?”

“I think I can.  Just let me try.”

No time was wasted on further discussion.  The wise old man was brought into the palace dining room where the prince sat making turkey sounds.  After watching quietly for a few moments, the old man took off his own clothing.  “Gobble, Gobble,” said he, as he crawled under the table to join the disturbed prince.

There was a long silence as the prince looked up in shock.   “What do you think you’re doing?” he asked the old man.

“What are you doing?”

“What am I doing?  Why, I,” said the prince, “I’m a turkey.”

“Well, then so am I,” replied the wise man.

The prince seemed to accept this new turkey, and the two sat there in pleasant companionship.  A few days passed.  One day the old man put on a pair of pants.  “What are you doing?” protested the prince. “You’re a turkey!  Why are you putting on pants?”

“I might be a turkey,” said the man, “but who said turkeys can’t wear pants?”

The prince was soon convinced to put a pair of pants on himself.

A few more days passed.  Then the prince noticed his fellow “turkey” putting on a shirt.  Once more he protested.  “You’re a turkey.  You can’t wear a shirt.”

“Who said shirts don’t go on turkeys?  I can be a turkey and still wear a shirt,” answered the old man.

“Makes sense,” thought the prince.  “Why shouldn’t I be able to wear a shirt and still be a turkey?  I’ll just be a dressed up turkey.”  So the prince put on a shirt.

The wise old man continued each few days, adding a bit more of human behavior into the life of the prince.  Soon he had the prince sitting at a table (“Who said turkeys can’t sit at a table?”) and eating with fork and knife (“Who said turkeys can’t eat politely?”)

The king was overjoyed to see his son “cured” of his turkey sickness.  The prince, once again, acted like all other humans in the kingdom.  He had been convinced he could be a turkey and still act like a proper mentsch.  Sad, he never realized he was a prince.  He still considered himself a turkey…just a turkey doing the same motions as a prince.

Once, there was a time when we were proud to live like royalty, with dignity and lives of full meaning.  Hoping to change us, other cultures told us to turn away from the focus on G-d and to become “cultured” like them.  They promised to respect us and intermingle with us, if only we became like them.

There was a time when our answer to the world around us was a proud no.    In Egypt, even in the midst of our slavery, no Jew dressed like an Egyptian, no Jewish fashion imitated the Egyptian one and no Jewish child was given a name that did not have a hint at that child’s soul source.  They knew it would be tragic for princes to become turkeys.  It is a travesty against the design of the world to decide to live without meaning.

Each holiday in the Jewish calendar has a spiritual force to it, a deeper abstract idea that can be grasped through that moment in time.  We are told that beginning Pesach and for a full month thereafter, a person who focuses his concentration well, can grasp the idea of Malchus – G-d’s kingship.   A person who then “gets it”, understands that G-d is the Ruler of rulers, the King beyond kings, is then annointed as part of the royal family.

Many of us go through motions in our life.  Yes, we’re observant, but do we do it like the prince who went through motions of humans whilst still thinking he was a turkey?  Or do we do it with full spiritual awareness that accessing G-d creates a designation of royalty upon man?

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Rosh Chodesh Nisan

Rosh Chodesh Nissan arrives tonight.   Nisan’s astrological sign is the lamb.  For the Egyptians this symbol was wealth and power.   For the Jews, this sign was what they would sacrifice for G-d.  All our possessions can be used either way – as something to worship or as something we can use in our service of G-d.

Take stock of all you own and possess.  Are we worshipping our possessions…or using it as a tool to serve the Creator of the world?

We are told, ““B’Nisan Nigalu…” In Nisan we were redeemed and in the future the redemption will also be in Nisan.   One step toward redemption is a sense of unity, which leads me to the next topic to learn about, which is:

KIMCHA D’PISCHAPesach tax season – we give a donation (most common to do it through our rabbi at our shul) so that the poor people will have food for Pesach, too.  Kimcha means flour and d’pischa means of Pesach — we ensure Matzos can be served on every Jewish table.  The story of how Meah Shearim began is tied into this.  When the pioneers who decided to begin settling land outside the Old City Walls first bought the plot of earth to build on, the powerhouse behind the construction project, Rabbi Rivlin, decided to start with a Mitzva.  That first year, before they had funds to build, he planted wheat for Matzos and used the proceeds to marry off an orphan.  Opening a project with kindness gets it off to its proper start, and from that get-go of being used to produce Pesach wheat which funded the marriage of an orphan, Meah Shearim became a nucleus of Torah and Chesed.

We should always start our planning with thinking of the less fortunate – and in this month we do the same by beginning the month of Nissan by giving charity to cover the holiday expenses of the poor.  Being part of a community means responsibility to community.  Same applies for working within a community.  Kimcha D’Pischa you had a choice:  either give or take.  No one was exempt of either one or the other.     

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