Seder Reflections: Where are you coming from?

Rabbi Mordechai Rhine – Torah Links of Cherry Hill

The Pesach seder revolves around one simple phrase. “Start with the negative, and conclude with the positive.” The Talmud records two views as to how this should be done, both of which are implemented in our hagadah. One view focuses on physical salvation and says, “We were once slaves to Pharoh in Egypt…but G-d set us free.” The second view focuses on spiritual ascent. “Our family before Avraham were idol worshipers…but now G-d has brought us close to Him through Torah.” In these two ways the hagadah reminds us of who we once were so that we can properly celebrate who we are today.

The Dubno Maggid describes the structure of the hagadah by way of analogy. He describes a man who was once very poor and then experienced good fortune and became a wealthy man. Once a year he would take out the rags that he wore in his poverty and would wear them to remind himself and his family how it used to be. This, the Dubno Maggid says, is the point of the seder. We strive to remember where we come from, both physically and spiritually, in order to fully appreciate who we are today.

Although the analogy is meant to explain the Pesach seder, it also serves as an important lesson for life. Often people experience good fortune and go “from rags to riches,” only to forget how it used to be. In most cases they mean no harm. They just get used to the good fortune. But the structure of the seder teaches us that at least once a year, a person should remember where he is coming from.

The Kotzker Rebbe used to ask his students, “Who is higher? The person on the bottom of a ladder, or the person near the top?” When the students looked at their mentor is puzzlement, the Kotzker explained, “Who is higher? It depends in which way they are climbing. If the person on top is going down, but the person on bottom is climbing up, then I maintain that the person on bottom is considered higher.”

For a person to properly gauge where he is up to, it is not sufficient to know which rung on the ladder they are standing. Where you are coming from is also a critical piece of information. This helps to appreciate one’s mission in life and assess one’s achievements.

I once read an account of a man who grew up in a city in southern United States in the 1950s. When he graduated from high school his family took a trip to Israel to celebrate, and through a series of events they began their journey towards observance.

This man describes how he excelled in his studies and in observance until there was only one area of observance in which he did not participate. He describes how in his teenage years it was very “in” to get tattooed. When he was seventeen he had gotten a series of tattoos on his back that went from one shoulder to the other. True to the environment he was then in he had chosen the most provocative “I’m doing my own thing” tattoos imaginable. Now as an observant Jew there was only one area of observance he could not bring himself to participate in. The custom of going to Mikvah before the High Holidays was unthinkable. He could not bear the thought of having people see him without his shirt.

Eventually he decided that he would have to figure out a solution. He was observant in every area of life. Every law and custom in Jewish tradition had become the norm of his life. He was a beloved member of the community and was blessed with a delightful family. He decided that he would have to figure out a way to go to Mikvah before the Holidays.

After much deliberation he decided that it could be done. He would simply take off his shirt in a corner and then cover himself with a towel until he was in the Mikvah. No one would see his back, and he would be able to fulfill the sacred custom.

But somehow things don’t always go as planned.

As he walked across the wet tile floor he slipped slightly and reached for the railing to regain his balance. In doing so, however, he lost hold of the towel that was covering his back. In his account he describes the “roaring silence” that he perceived as the towel slipped off and people saw the tattoos for the first time.

The milliseconds felt like hours as he stood frozen to his spot not knowing what to do. Then, he describes, how the gentle hand of a sixty year old man touched him. He looked down at the man’s hand and saw that the man was pointing to the numbers that were etched on his own arm. The older man said, “I also have tattoos. My tattoos remind me of what they wanted to do me. I must never forget. Your tattoos should do the same. You should never forget where you are coming from. We’ve both come a very long way.”

Often, as we climb our own personal ladder of life we wonder if there is any point of remembering the past. Our sages taught that at least once a year there is purpose in appreciating the uniqueness of where we are coming from.

Sometimes we mistakenly think of people as clones of one another. The reality is that we are all very different and unique. Consider, for example, the difference between handmade articles and those that are made by machines. When an item is made by machine the manufacturer will take pride that every item is made the same. But when an item is handmade the craftsman takes pride that each item is unique.

Every human being is handmade by G-d. Each of us is unique in circumstances and in qualities. Appreciating one’s past is critical in order to climb one’s ladder properly.

May all the rungs on your ladder be blessed ones.

3 comments on “Seder Reflections: Where are you coming from?

  1. In the spirit of open dialogue I am honored by Tzvi’s comments and would like to respond directly.
    Although we all strive to reach the same point on the ladder, our starting point and they way grow from there give us unique differences of depth in the way we serve Hashem. The Altar of Slabodka, for example, analyzes the difference between Avraham who had to arrive at his belief on his own, and Yitzchak who had the benefit of being raised with Torah values. Each life journey has its own unique qualities.

    Often we think that the past was merely a means to the end. In reality, the past colors the sensitivities and sophistication with which we perceive the world.
    As Rabbi A.J. Twerski perceptively writes regarding failures, “When you fall, by all means pick yourself up and brush yourself off. But as you do, think if you are now better equipped to understand the struggles of another person.”

    This concept is true both in physical challenges and in spiritual challenges. The past causes much more than just hakoras hatov. It forges the sophistication of each person’s personality based on his experiences. To borrow from the wisdom of Shlomo: The type of “Light” that I experience today, is a direct result of the type of “darkness” that I experienced in the past.

    The Talmud describes the ultimate revelation as righteous people sitting in a circle around Hashem. The commentaries observe that we are not intended to be clones of one another, vying for the exact same location. Instead each of us climbs the mountain from a different starting point. When we reach the top we form a devoted ring around Hashem pointing and saying, “This is Hashem for whom we yearned, let us rejoice together in the salvation.”

    Respectfully and with best wishes,
    Rabbi Mordechai Rhine

  2. I don’t understand what is to be gained by remembering “the uniqueness of where you are coming from.” Also, what does it mean when the holocaust survivor says “We’ve both come a very long way?” I would think that the only thing to be gained is by contrast to have more hakoras haTov for the current, better situation .. but the article seems to imply that there is an additional implication for avodas haShem (“Appreciating one’s past is critical in order to climb one’s ladder properly.”) Please help … I’m confused.

  3. On the eve of Yom HaShoah we should remember that there are many Jews with us today who didn’t have the choice whether to be tatooed.

Comments are closed.