Kosher Bookworm

The depth and passion of Pesach’s Haggadah


Pesach commemorates events that clearly defined our people’s history and purpose. So, when I happened upon a commentary on a Haggadah whose author’s name brings to mind events in my past, a personal comment is in order as preface to this review.

“From Despair to Destiny” (Halpern Center Press, 2015) by Rabbi Aharon Marcus is a unique and comprehensive commentary on the Haggadah. The author is the grandson of Rabbi Joseph Marcus z”l, a neighbor of ours on the Lower East Side, first on Tompkins Square, and then in Co-op Village, who was particularly skilled in teaching and lecturing to senior citizens.

Most memorable to me was the casual friendship he struck up with me, during my pre-teen years, an experience that influenced my later deep appreciation for Jewish liturgy and nusach, Jewish music and culture, and the importance of giving communal service to our senior citizens. All these served to inform my communal activities for the rest of my life, for which I am forever grateful. The Haggadah under review is dedicated, in part, to his everlasting memory.

This week’s essay is based on my email interview with Rabbi Aharon Marcus.

Rabbi Marcus was born in Far Rockaway and raised on Staten Island. He made aliyah years later and together with his brothers founded Yeshivat Reishis Yerushalayim in 1994, where would teach Talmud, and Jewish thought and law. In the early 1990s he published the works of his mentor, Rav Aharon Soloveichik, “Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind” and “The Warmth and the Light.”

I began by asking him why did he decide to write a Haggadah commentary when there already are so many available.

“G-d has given me the opportunity to teach the Haggadah every year since the summer — yes the summer — of 1990, generally as intensive two-week-long information seminars. For nearly two decades, many of my students have impressed upon me to publish these shiurim, but my response had always been the same: there are many Haggadah commentaries; do we really need another one?”

“While teaching the Haggadah in 2014, though, I realized that many of the ideas of the shiurim were actually unavailable in English, and that I had often failed to give them over as comprehensively as I would have prepared. It was then that I decided to take the time to more fully develop the ideas and publish them in book form.”

Rabbi Marcus then explained the commentary’s purpose:

“The goal of this work is to help clarify the entire Haggadah, to explore ideas that are unique to Pesach — exile, redemption, freedom, the significance of the Exodus — and notions crucial to Judaism in general, such as the definition of holiness, the efficacy of prayer, and the love of G-d. This work was not intended as a book on Jewish law, nor, an anthology of divrei Torah to share at the seder. Rather, I see this intended to be a work on machshavah, Jewish thought.

“To be sure, the commentary does contain instructions on ritual. However, its primary aim is to weave together different schools of thought and the citations of great scholars representing variant schools of thought in order to engage, enlighten, and inspire.

“I have tried to craft a commentary in which everyone could find his or her place in the depth and beauty of our rich tradition. All this was generated by the reality that different people find religious truths and meanings in different Torah thoughts and teachings.”

I asked Rabbi Marcus why, unlike most other English commentaries this Haggadah, his reads from left to right.

“The guiding principle for the layout of this work is one word: clarity. Since it is designed for English readers and the overwhelming majority of the text is in English, I thought that it would flow better, and more easily, if it read from left to right.

“To compensate for this, though, all the actual Haggadah text — both in Hebrew and English, is always to be easily found on the odd numbered pages, located on the readers’ right side. Also, the many stages of the seder are clearly labeled at the bottom of each page, thus making the place of particular passages and segments easier to locate.”

A personal note: As a teacher I was taken by Rabbi Marcus’ treatment of the segment dealing with the fourth of the four sons. The author’s human treatment of this ‘’son’’ is touching. He graphically caps this segment with the following sentences:

“The first stage of education is pouring on chessed — warmth, love, and compassion. Stimulate his interest so that he asks questions and actively participates.

“An educator must believe in his students and their potential. The silent son needs us to mend his tools, to make him whole.”

When one considers the title given to the fourth son, “The One Not Knowing to Ask,” we better appreciate the humanity of the author of this gifted commentary, and of the teachings that he learned from his gifted grandfather, Rabbi Joseph Marcus.

Originally published in 2016.