Rabbi Yaakov Bender is perhaps one of the premier Jewish educators in our community today, both here on Long Island and nationwide. Thus, the publication of his take on the Pesach Haggadah, The Chinuch Haggadah (Artscroll/Mesorah, 2019), should come as no surprise. The Haggadah is the premier education text of our faith, teaching us how to talk to our youth about the holy meaning of the Exodus experience as the foundation of our sacred faith.
In his introduction, Rabbi Bender informs us that this Haggadah is “an attempt to share with others the values, insights, and inspiration that shaped our world. The timeless emunah of our parents, the indomitable spirit of the people I knew in my youth, the tangible sense of ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu, the knowledge that we were the most fortunate people in the world.”
In that stated goal this work is a success that will surely inspire you to experience the Seder with greater passion, as well as gain a deeper understanding of both the theological and historical meaning of the exodus experience leading up to Sinai and the land of Israel.
Below I present to you in Rabbi Bender’s own eloquence and passion in his introduction to this Haggadah. Hopefully you will come to an even better understanding of what the Haggadah, and its authors of so long ago, tried to teach and inspire us with: a better appreciation of G-d’s liberation of our people from the slavery of Egypt.
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“Some books have dedications at the beginning, a note of thanks to one of the people who inspired or helped the author. This isn’t a book, and I’m not the author: it’s the Haggadah shel Pesach, our shared story, and I offer only some small he’aros — yet I’d like to open with a dedication just the same.
“If there’s a word so central to this evening, a key component in the glorious avodah that lies ahead, it’s this one: father. From both sides of the table, eyes are turned to the father, the one charged with leading, transmitting, sharing and inspiring. So what happens when that seat is empty?
“What if there is no father? What if the people surrounding the table are orphans?
“And it’s not only orphans who feel a lack on this night. There are children whose parents have divorced, and the line of connection with the father has been severed.
“We are a generation blessed with so many determined souls who’ve come back to the faith of their ancestors on their own, without the father to lead them at the seder. Who will tell them the story?
“One of the last shmuessen my father gave at Yeshivah Torah Voda’as, just days before his sudden passing, centered on the pesukim in Parshas Mishpatim.
“‘You shall not oppress any widow or orphan. Im aneh te’aneh oso, ki im tza’ok yitz’ak eilai, shamoa eshma tza’akaso … If you cause him pain, beware, for if he will cry out to Me, I will surely hear his cry’ (Shemos 22:21-22).
“The words are all doubled, aneh te’aneh, tza’ok yitz’ak and shamoa eshma. The Kotzker Rebbe explained the significance of this: when a person has an open wound and someone else strikes them on that very spot, the pain is doubled, compounded. Not just the pain of being hit, but the pain of the original wound, which is always there.
“The almanah and yasom carry a constant ache: any additional ache affects them doubly, because they experience that slap right on the spot of the first wound. ‘It’s because I have no father that you insult me,’ thinks the orphan. ‘If I had a husband, you wouldn’t ignore me,’ thinks the widow. Pain on top of pain.
“This was the vort my father told his talmidim. Days later, I understood it in the depths of my being. Because yasmus isn’t a word, but an identity: I had become an orphan…
“The shivah was a surreal experience, piercing pain, longing for my father, worry about the future … and then came Shabbos.
“Rav Yosef Dovid Epstein and his wife, my parents’ mechutanim, joined us for Shabbos: we came in for Kiddush, and the chair at the head of the table remained empty. That emptiness still remains, a void in my heart that 53 years haven’t filled.
“Six months after my father’s passing came the Pesach seder: if any healing had begun, it all slipped away and we started mourning anew. Who could feel free or happy when the pain was so excruciating and raw?
“My father was gone. I would never return to the yeshivah in Philadelphia, where I had been learning, since it was decided that it would be good for my mother if I was home, near her. I joined the Mirrer Yeshivah, where each lonely day during that winter reminded me of the truth of Chazal’s words — all beginnings are difficult.
“I was beginning a new life as an orphan, a new reality, in a new yeshivah. And it was so, so hard. It was a winter of tears.
“But then something interesting happened. The tears didn’t stop, but I learned to cry at night, under my covers. My mother taught me that once the sun comes up, we smile. We would learn to live.
“We wouldn’t deny the pain, but we would find a place for it — not a block, preventing us from moving forward, but as a step to climb higher…”
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“To you, who come to the Seder with that void at the head of your table, that emptiness in your heart, know this: the words you will read in the Haggadah teach us that what appears to be so painful is but a blip in time, a nightmare that fades with morning.
“At the end, it all becomes clear, the bitterness itself is the catalyst for the redemption. The great deeds of your fathers remain with you, as your actions will accompany your children. That’s the message of the Seder.
“May the simchah and clarity of this night give us the strength to meet the challenges ahead with confidence and pride.
“Maschil b’gnus, we begin by recalling the shame of our humble origins. And mesayem b’shvach, we close with celebration and praise for how far we’ve come.
“May we never forget from where we come, and never lose sight of where we are going. May it be speedily, in our days.”