Shabbat Shalom: Pesach 5780

By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin 

Efrat, Israel – That Moses’ name is not mentioned even once in the Haggadah is one of the fascinating paradoxes in our tradition – the person who dedicated his entire life towards redeeming people is removed from the limelight on the one night when we focus all our attention on our enslavement in Egypt.  As far as paradoxes go, this one is rich in irony; a text about redemption without the name of the redeemer.

But why doesn’t Joseph’s name appear?  Not only are the names of the patriarchs present in the Haggadah, but the entire Exodus from Egypt can be traced back to the sale of Joseph by his brothers, and Joseph’s subsequent appointment as Viceroy, which paved the way for the Israelites’ eventual settlement in Goshen, the 70 descendants of Jacob multiplying over the course of the next 210 years into a nation that would suffer under the whip of the Egyptian taskmasters.

Now its true that Joseph’s name is not mentioned explicitly in the text, but his presence does hover over the seder’s procedings.  Early sources deal with how Joseph’s life permeates the Seder, albeit in a subtle form, and we don’t have to go any further than the karpas right there on the seder plate.

In Greek the word for vegetation or vegetable is akin to karpas, and it’s generally assumed that since Passover falls in the spring we include karpas in the Seder as a reminder of Passover’s spring identity.

Besides this Greek source of the word, there are those Sages who link the word karpas to the story of Joseph.

Rashi does it linguistically.  In his commentary on the verse in which Joseph’s coat of many colors is mentioned (k’tonet Pasim in Gen. 37:31), Rashi writes that the word passim,  “…denotes a cloak of fine wool…” and he goes on to quote a verse from Megillat Esther in which the text describes the wealthy and rich embroidery of King Ahashveraus’ palace:  “There were hangings of white, fine cotton (Karpas)…” (Esther 1:6)  Note the presence of ‘pas’ in both words.

What Rashi did linguistically, Rabenu Menoah (of Narbonne, late 13th century) in his commentary on certain sections of Mishne Torah (Laws of Chametz and Matzah, CH. 12, Hal. 8) expresses directly by explaining that the karpas we take at the beginning of the seder, “recalls for us the coat of many colors, which Jacob our Father made for Joseph and which was the crucial factor in the Jews’ enslavement in Egypt.”  This idea is also discussed by Rabbi Solomon Kluger, (1785fi1869) in Yeriot Shlomo, his commentary on the Haggadah as well as other special prayers, that the only reason we ever got to Egypt was the result of Joseph being sold by his brothers.

But the connection between Joseph and aspects of the Passover seder is already hinted at in the Talmud.  After the lamb was sacrificed in the Holy Temple, it was then brought to the place where it was going to be eaten.  A Braita at the end of the fifth chapter of B.T. Pesachim discusses how the animal was slung over one’s shoulder in its skin.  To this discussion, R. Ilish adds one word, “Tayot,” (B.T. Pesachim 65b) which Rashi explains is a reference to the manner in which Ishmaelite traders transport animals.

Although we know very little today about their techniques, R. Ilish’s additional comment (as interpreted by Rashi) steers our mind back to another group of Ishmaelite traders who appeared on the horizon at a crucial moment in Joseph’s life, providing Judah with the opportunity to declare:  “What profit is it if we slay our brother and conceal his blood.  Come let us sell him to the Ishmaelites…”(Gen. 37:26-27) without the Ishmaelites, Joseph would have never ended up in Egypt.

The connection between aspect of the haggadah to the Joseph story is also evident in the charoset, featured on the Seder plate.  According to the Yerushalmi, the blend of apples, date and wine into which we dip the maror (bitter herb) symbolizes the heinous act of the brothers when they dipped Joseph’s coat – the k’tonet passim – into goat’s blood, compounding their evil by allowing their father to believe that Joseph had been devoured by a wild beast.

The Joseph story involved two areas of mishaps.  The first was the havoc that resulted from Jacob favoring Joseph over the other brothers.  (Gen. 37:31) Jacob may have been justified in his love simply because Joseph was the child of his beloved Rachel.  He may well have been the most talented, the most brilliant, the most obedient of all the sons, nevertheless the sibling rivalry Jacob put into play opened up a can of worms which we are suffering to this very day!  Our lack of unity –and recent three elections – has its origins in the divided house of Jacob-Israel.

But on this night of the Seder, each and every father is given the opportunity to begin to turn things around.  With the entire family gathered around the table, all the preparation and hard work creating an atmosphere of intense awareness, the Pesach haggadah allows the father to put certain ideas into practice – aspiring to achieve a desired equality and love between the children.  This may not be an easy task, but it is of immeasurable importance.  Our children did not ask to be born, and every child deserves to be loved and accepted unconditionally!

On a simple level, the youngest child, often the most overlooked, is given a measure of affirmative action this night, starting with the honor of asking the Four Questions.  Soon after the theme of the night moves to the issues raised by the Four Children, but just as important as the issues they raise are their unique differences.  What becomes clear to us – particularly in our generation – is the fact that they are all there, lovingly included in the seder, including the wicked child, whose cynical questions must be softened by familial affection.  This means that we, the parents, have a chance to look at our children around the table and finally give each one the love that he or she needs and deserves!

The Talmud declares that it’s forbidden for a father to single out one child over the others, citing Jacob as an example. (B.T. Shabbat 10b)  Indeed, failure to do so leads toward broken families, brothers and sisters who don’t speak to each other, resentment, pain, disgrace, and all kinds of emotions that fracture the unity of a family.

On the night of the Seder every parent becomes a teacher, and on this night every father has to remember Jacob’s mistake.  This is the first ‘dipping’.  And the second ‘dipping’ is that the fundamental sin of the Jewish people results from causeless hatred, demonstrated by the brothers’ hatred toward Joseph, resulting in exile and slavery.  Only if we overcome this other aspect of our lives – which we usually blame on all sorts of factors, like Jacob’s choice of Joseph over the other brothers – do we have a chance to begin mending the rips and cracks in out national fabric.

The Seder not only looks backwards but it looks forward as well.  The family heads have to be sensitive to sibling rivalry, finding ways to acknowledge the uniqueness of each child.  And if we succeed on this level, implanting family structures which are loving and sharing and protective and caring, then the ground is being paved for the coming of the next redemption.


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