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Believe in Your Own Seder

Rabbi Judah Mischel

Hashem is satisfied when we do our best

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

It was around 2 a.m., after a beautiful Seder at my in-laws in Beit Shemesh. A magical night, lively and animated. Everyone was long asleep, and the cleanup, followed by Shir Hashirim, was done. With no option, after the afikomen, of another coffee and some nosh, staying up all night to learn was not so simple. But Pesach night! Leil HaSeder! I couldn’t let such a special night just fizzle out. I wanted more. So, I walked to my rebbi’s house.

As expected, he was still sitting at the table, surrounded by his family and guests. There’s nothing like getting a warm welcome and smile from one’s rebbi, especially on this most exalted of nights. After being greeted with a hartzig “Good Yom Tov, I’m so happy to see you,” I sat down to bask in the spiritually charged atmosphere and participate in the conversation relating to Yetzias Mitzrayim.

After some time, as I stood to take my leave, my rebbi took my hand in his, smiled, and said: “I’m so glad you’re here. But next year, please don’t come back. I bless you shetaamin baSeder shelcha — that you should believe in your own Seder!”

With all the holiday expenses, cleaning and cooking, zillions of Haggadah vertlach, plastic frogs, Chol Hamoed plans, macaroons, pre–Yom Tov pressure, and focus on all the details of the mitzvos of the night, it’s easy to be distracted from the actual goal and purpose of Pesach, which is to draw close to the Ribbono shel Olam in the most personal way. “B’chol dor vador chayav adam liros es atzmo k’ilu hu yatzah miMitzrayim — In every generation, a person is obligated to view himself as though he left Egypt.”

Feeling the joy of Yetzias Mitzrayim in recounting the story of our origin is the essence of Pesach. This Seder experience is so central to Yiddishkeit and to our identity and practice as faithful Jews, because it refocuses us on that which is absolutely core to our emunah: the awareness that Hashem redeemed us when we were at the nadir of constriction and slavery and the recognition that we are able to relive that redemption today.

Not that it’s easy. We try so, so hard to get Pesach right; it’s the biggest night of the year. The Seder is the cherished moment of transmission, a night centered around v’higadeta l’vincha. There is so much opportunity, kedushah, anticipation, preparation, expectations and… pressure.  We want so desperately to make it special, majestic, and unforgettable. To “get it right,” and ignite the souls of our children and families.

To be ovdei Hashem.

Ironically, while the evening purports to be about “order,” rarely does the Seder go according to script, the way we envisioned and hoped it would. After we sweep up the matzah crumbs, no matter how beautiful the Seder was, it can seem as if it just wasn’t enough.

The Rasha asks: Mah ha’avodah hazos lachem, what is this service to you? “To you,” repeats the Haggadah, “and not to himself. And because he removes himself from the klal, he is kofer b’ikar.” The kefirah referred to here, it seems, is taking ourselves out of the picture and not believing that our best is enough for Hashem. The perspective of the Rasha is that someone else’s Seder, someone else’s “avodah” is the real thing, “but not mine.”

In our days, there is a proliferation of amazing Torah content all around us. Everywhere we turn there are more insightful Haggados, countless new seforim, and hundreds of hours of uplifting shiurim uploaded online every day. More than any other time of year, around Pesach we read of the hanhagos of tzaddikim and gedolim: their impressive chumras and hiddurim and their awe-inspiring dveikus; how they felt the bitterness of exile while eating maror, how they were po’el yeshuos during Yachatz, and how they perhaps even saw Eliyahu Hanavi. Learning about them can be wonderfully enriching and uplifting. Or not. There is a downside and a danger to she’ifah, which is the exhaustion and despair that result from chasing unattainable goals and setting expectations that are not in line with the reality of our own homes and abilities. Leil HaSeder can feel like the “headquarters” of unfulfilled aspirations.

Idealizing the avodah of others, noble and holy it may seem, can distract us from the actual experience of Geulah, of “seeing ourselves” as being redeemed.

Seder night is our time to experience Yiddishkeit in the most alive and vital way, by celebrating the question of “What is this avodah to me?” It’s a time to be our best, to connect from the vantage point of where we actually are in our own lives, and to cultivate the emunah and awareness that we ourselves are leaving Mitzrayim.

Reb Nosson of Breslov explains that our thorough search for every morsel of chometz should call our attention to the reality that every little thing we do matters. By focusing on every speck of chometz in our possession, we learn to honor a “mashehu” and recognize that every unit of spiritual effort we make is truly important and precious. Regarding bedikas chometz, Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch instruct us to search and clean to the best of our ability: “ad makom sheyado magaas,” to the point one’s hand reaches. “V’hashe’ar, mevatel belibo” — anything that remains, that is beyond our reach, is to be nullified in our hearts.

What the Ribbono shel Olam expects and wants of us is us.

However our Seder turns out — if (when!) the kneidlach don’t turn out to be as fluffy as they appear in Family First, if the pictures of Pesach programs and hotels in exotic locations look much better than wherever we are, if the little ones fall asleep even before Mah Nishtanah, if we don’t have the chance to say our big chiddush, and the scene at our Seder is not quite as it looks in Malchus Wachsberger — in the end, we all conclude with Nirtzah: we are “ratzui,” accepted, just as we are.

It has been a couple of years since I walked to my rebbi’s house on Seder night. Since then, instead of visiting him, after cleaning up I try to offer a few words of personal prayer and spend this special time talking with Hashem: to express gratitude, to celebrate the miracles and chesed of Yetzias Mitzrayim, and to bask in the joy of Nirtzah, knowing that Hashem is satisfied when we do our best.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 757. Rabbi Judah Mischel, a talmid of Rav Avraham Zvi Kluger, is executive director of Camp HASC and Mashpiah at OU-NCSY. He founded Tzama Nafshi, an organization dedicated to Jewish education, and lives with his family in Ramat Beit Shemesh


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