Sweet Charoses

(Embellished with thoughts from my daughter Noa’s recent bas mitzvah speech. Yay, Noa!)

If you think about it, charoses is quite strange.

On the one hand, as we learn in preschool and the Rambam writes, “The charoses is a mitzvah from the Soferim, as a commemoration of the mortar that they worked in in Egypt.” (Laws of Chameitz and Matzah 7:11). Charoses represents mortar, slavery.

On the other hand, contemporary recipes for charoses are to make it sweet. Ashkenazi and Italian customs use sweet wine and apples, in Spain the custom is to use apples and raisins. Jews from the Middle East include dates. World recipes may have few ingredients in common, yet we make sure the mixture is sweet mixture.

Even in the gemara (Pesachim 115b), Rav Papa warns against losing the bitterness of the maror under the sweetness of the charoses).

So which is it — is charoses a symbol of slavery, or of the sweetness of freedom?

Thinking about it, though, matzah presents a similar ambiguity. We open Magid by describing matzah as “the bread of suffering which we ate in Egypt”. Yet, later on, when we repeat Rabban Gamliel’s three things that must be said to fulfill the obligation of the seder, we say we eat matzah “because there was not enough [time] for our ancestors dough to rise”.

Again, which is it — is matzah a symbol of slavery, or that Hashem can always save us, in the blink of an eye?

What is interesting is that we see the same duality in the very concept of mitzvah. On the one hand, the root of the word is \צוה\, to command. This is the idea we convey before taking out the Torah, in “Berikh Shemei” (from the Zohar). “I am a servant of the Holy One, blessed be He”. We keep mitzvos for a simple reason. G-d told us to.

However, the word for “commandment” is “tzivui“. Mitzvah is built from the passive form, a less probable conjugation, “that which was commanded”. The late Lubavitcher Rebbezt”l opined that this is an allusion to a second root, \מצצ\ or \מצו\, to connect for nourishment or aim. Mitzvah can be read as the feminization of this root. Which gives us a second definition of “mitzvah” — not only are they “what G-d commanded” but also they provide a focus to our lives, a way to connect to Him. And so the selfsame Zohar we cited in the previous paragraph occasionally refers to the mitzvos as the “Taryag itin — the 613 eitzos, ideas / pieces of advice”.

In a shi’ur on the berakhah before netilas Yadayim, I suggested that this is the reason for the phrasing of berakhos on mitzvos, “asher qidishanu bemitzvosav vetzivanu — Who sanctified us with His mitzvos and commanded us…”

ואומר: “וְהַ֨לֻּחֹ֔ת מַעֲשֵׂ֥ה אֱלֹקים הֵ֑מָּה וְהַמִּכְתָּ֗ב מִכְתַּ֤ב אֱלֹקים֙ ה֔וּא חָר֖וּת עַל־הַלֻּחֹֽת” — אַל תִּקְרָא “חָרוּת” אֶלָּא “חֵרוּת”, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ בֶּן חוֹרִין אֶלָּא מִי שֶׁעוֹסֵק בְּתַלְמוּד תּוֹרָה.

“The tablets were engraved (charus) by G-d, and the writing was the writing of G-d.” (Shemos 32:2) Don’t read ‘charus‘, but ‘cheirus‘ (freedom). For no one is more free than one is busy with Torah study.
— Pirkei Avos 6:2

Yet again we see that seeming contradiction. Mitzvos are to be viewed both as an opportunity to draw qedushah and as a straightforward act of submitting to His command.

Mitzvah operates on two levels. Servitude, simple obedience to G-d. Freedom, doing what is in our best interest. And here is where the two ideas we’ve been looking at converge.

“וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם֮ אֶת־הַמַּצּוֹת֒” — שלא יבאו לידי חמוץ… רבי יאשיה אומר: אל תהי קורא את המצות אלא את המצוות כדרך שאין מחמיצין את המצות כך אין מחמיצין את המצוות אלא אם באה לידך עשה אותה מיד.

“You will guard the matzos” — that they shall not come to leaven…. R. Avohu says, “It should not be read ‘matzos‘ but rather ‘mitzvos‘. Just as we don’t let matzos leaven, we similarly don’t let mitzvos ‘leaven’. Rather, if one comes to your hands, do it immediately.”
— Mekhilta, Sh’mos 12:17, quoted by Rashi

Matzos, in the guise of “there was not enough time”, teaches us about the proper way to do mitzvos. They parallel because they both share the same dual nature. On the first level, one would assume they are unpleasant, something one would want to avoid. But by the time we’ve explored the subject, toward the end of “Magid“, you can feel how they represent the path to freedom.

The mitzvah is a yoke we accept upon ourselves because we know that Hashem commanded (\צוה\) it to nourish us (\מצצ\). On the surface layer, it is “the bread of affliction” but we eat it by choice, because we trust the G-d gave them to us to help us.

This is a major theme in the Exodus story and why remembering it is so central to Yahadus. As we say in Sh’ma “אֲנִ֞י ה֣׳ אֱלֹֽקֵיכֶ֗ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר הוֹצֵ֤אתִי אֶתְכֶם֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם לִהְי֥וֹת לָכֶ֖ם לֵאלֹקִ֑ים — I am Hashem your G-d who took you out of the land of Egypt to be for you a G-d/Legislator.”

And in general, this idea is central to redemption. The megillah writes, “לַיְּהוּדִ֕ים הָֽיְתָ֥ה אוֹרָ֖ה וְשִׂמְחָ֑ה וְשָׂשֹׂ֖ן וִיקָֽר — For the Jews there was light, happiness, joy and preciousness.” (Esther 8:16) The gemara explains:

אמר רב יהודה אורה זו תורה וכן הוא אומר (משלי ו, כג) כי נר מצוה ותורה אור שמחה זה יום טוב וכן הוא אומר (דברים טז, יד) ושמחת בחגך ששון זו מילה וכן הוא אומר (תהלים קיט, קסב) שש אנכי על אמרתך ויקר אלו תפלין וכן הוא אומר (דברים כח, י) וראו כל עמי הארץ כי שם ה’ נקרא עליך ויראו ממך

Rav Yehuda said: “Light” is Torah, as it also says… “Happiness” is Yom Tov… “Joy” is [beris] milah… “Preciousness” is tefillin.
– Megillah 16b

If that really was the intent, though, why didn’t the megillah just say, “For the Jews there was Torah, holidays, beris milah and tefillin” rather than all these code words?

The truth is, before we had Torah, but could not experience its light. We observed the laws of Yom Tov, but found no happiness in it. We kept milah and wore tefillin, but with no joy or sense of preciousness. This was a basic flaw that Purim ended. Halakhah was fulfilled as a duty, not a love, was what made the leadership unable to direct the masses. But now “קִיְּמוּ וקבל [וְקִבְּלוּ] הַיְּהוּדִים עֲלֵיהֶם — The Jews established and accepted upon themselves” (Esther 9:17) As Rava explains (Shabbos 88a) “קיימו מה שקיבלו כבר — they established what they had already accepted” at Sinai. Leqayeim, to establish or make permanent, to allow the mitzvah to be more than an command, but something that lives on in how it shapes the soul. (More on this idea at the blog post “Purim“.)

This is the message of matzah. Redemption is in the conversion of a bread of affliction into the bread around which we united in groups to eat our Pesach offerings.

We also have a key to understanding the apparently oxymoronic symbolism of charoses. It doesn’t represent the bitter servitude of Par’oh, but the sweet work that goes into a pursuit of meaning. We eat it with maror, which does represent the bitterness of true slavery. The contrast of Egypt’s “avodas parech — work to break the body” (c.f. Shemos 1:14) with the ol mitzvos — a “yoke” of mitzvos that allows us to toil productively.

Charoses, like being a “servant of the Holy One” has a surface layer, an appearance of the mortar of slavery. But experientially, it’s very different. Or, as King David wrote, “טַֽעֲמ֣וּ וּ֭רְאוּ כִּי־ט֣וֹב יְהוָ֑ה, אַֽשְׁרֵ֥י הַ֝גֶּ֗בֶר יֶֽחֱסֶה־בּֽוֹ׃ — Taste and see that the Hashem is good; happy is the man who takes refuge in Him. ” (Tehillim 35:9, said in Shabbos and holiday Shacharis)

Na’aseh viNishmah — we will do, and we will hear.” Doing comes first because only through the first-hand experience can we hear the beauty, the depth, of the Torah.

Simchah and Oneg

Simchah is related to wanting and having, because Ben Zoma defines the wealthy person as “sameiach bechelqo — happy with his lot”.

The Tanya speaks about how each aspect of the soul lives in tension between “ratzon – desire/will” and ta’anug. Thus we see that “oneg” too is related to wanting and having.

However, the mitzvah on Yom Tov is deemed simchas Yom Tov, whereas for Shabbos we speak of oneg Shabbos.
Simchah has codified requirements: for men, meat (some rishonim say that deOraisa it’s only the meat of the shelamim sacrice, but all agree that including derabbanan, it also calls for meat in general) and wine, for women, new clothing and jewelry, for children, sweets. The two differ.

Perhaps we can explain this in light of my previous entry which suggested that

… I think ben Zoma’s notion of my lot in life is the path Hashem placed before me to travel. Not where I stand now physically, socially, psychologically or spiritually. Not even where G-d is leading me. My lot is the trip along the way. The whole roller coaster ride, the peaks and the dips. … The job for which G-d created me as I am, when I live and where I live, with the people I know, the responsibilities I face, and the challenges He throws at me, solely because this is something His great plan required that required his having a Micha Berger to do it.

But in light of an Avodah discussion, I noticed that my notion also implies a possible distinction between simchah and oneg. The Tanya defines oneg as the satisfaction of a desire, the achievement of something one willed to accomplish. If simchah is satisfaction with one’s general life as a process, oneg is enjoyment of where I stand at the current point.

Rabbi Nachman Cohen, my principal as a Junior in High School, once defined Shabbos for us as “Shabbos is the island in time which is the eternal present.” Taking a break in the process to assess where one is going. Thus the greater cessation from melakhah, creative activities on Shabbos than on Yom Tov. (And even greater on Yom Kippur, where stopping to assess is even more critical.) It makes no sense to hurry up the ladder to get to the top of the wall only to afterwards realize the ladder was leaning against the wrong wall! Someone who looks back on their life with regret that they traded their role as parent to be a “success” at their career simply never kept Shabbos. And they never found oneg. Enjoyment of the accomplishments of the moment. Pausing.

All of this would imply that simchah requires more indoctrination than oneg. It is easier to take joy in what’s before you than in the more abstract concept of the path your life takes — including both triumphs and challenges. This would justify why halakhah defines exercises with which to express / internalize simchas Yom Tov in a way that it does not for Shabbos.

Perhaps this too can be explained in light of a point R’ JB Soloveitchik draws from Qabbalah. In Qabbalah there are two concepts: is’arusa delesata — the awakening [of holiness] from below, and is’arusa dele’eilah — the awakening from above. Shabbos happens every 7th day, G-d set it in motion, He is reaching down to us. It is is’arusa del’eila. Yamim Tovim depend on beis din setting the months. Thus, they are is’arusa delesata, from us up to Hashem. This is why the berakhah in the Amidah for Yom Tov is meqadeish Yisrael vehazmanim — who Sanctifies Israel and the [special] times”. The times’ holiness comes from Israel’s. For Shabbos, we simply say “meqadeish haShabbos“, no dependency on Israel.

Rabbi Soloveitchik explains this idea using the metaphor of visiting. On Shabbos, we come to visit the A-lmighty. Is’arusa dele’eila — He invites us. On Yom Tov, we invite Hashem to join us. Shabbos involves oneg because when you’re the guest, the Host provides things as per your desires. When you are the host, things are patterned around the Guest’s instructions — the more structured simchah.

I think this ties in. On Shabbos, Hashem invites us to take time to be “in the moment” to check the ladder rather than climb it. Thus, the mitzvah is oneg, happiness with the moment, and the more tangible kind of enjoyment. We are His guests, enjoying what He provides us. Thus, “sheishes yamim ta’avod — strive for six days”, and then take the time for oneg — to acknowledge what needs were satisfied. On Yom Tov, the focus is on His “happiness” (so to speak), and thus is about our role in His greater plan. It’s simchah.

Nishmas, part II

This week’s shiur picks up from “HaKel besa’atzumos uzekha”, the point where the Chazan begins on Yamim Tovim.Some of the key topics raised:
  • The impossibility of understanding Hashem, and the resulting consequence of tending to describe Him in conflicting dialectics. Immanence — Hashem is everywhere; Trancendence — Hashem is in shamayim. The impersonal G-d of nature, and the G-d of miracles. Etc…
  • How are we permitted to praise Hashem in just four words?
  • Gevurah and nitzchon (eternal in time). Man’s ability to bring nitzachon to Hashem’s will because Hashem’s gevurah gives “room” for us to act. The creative partnership in history and in halakhah.
  • What is means to be a Melekh (king) as opposed to a Mosheil (dictator). What is Hashem’s “Throne”?
  • Idealism and happiness: The concepts of simkhah, yesharim, tehillah (hallel), avodas Hashem (serving Hashem), aveilus and even humor according to Rav Saadia Gaon.
We then started discussing Barekhu, discussing the source for needing a minyan for devarim shebiqdushah (declarations of His sanctity, including Barekhu, Qaddish and Qedushah.

Nishmas. part I

This week’s shiur skips to Nishmas, under the assumption that davening in shul runs too quickly for slow and careful recitation, and it would be more practical to skip to around the point where we switch Chazanim and assume a more contemplative pace.Just some of the discussed subjects:

  • Who wrote Nishmas? The Peter connection and what it says about the content of Nishmas.
  • Why do we speak of Nishmas kol chai, veru’ach kol basar, but say nothing about the nefesh? (see previous three weeks’ shiurim for discussion of these three aspects of the soul.)
  • The symbology of Shabbos, tefillin and tzitzis according to the Maharal and R’ Samson Raphael Hirch.
  • The moral duty to praise Hashem, and the mention of those things for which we must say Birkhos haGomeil. Being saved in and of itself vs being saved by reexperiencing an aspect of yetzi’as Mitzrayim.
  • The need to thank Hashem for giving us challenges in measures that we can handle, and moreso, from which to grow.
  • The impossibility of expressing His praise and therefore of the need to praise Hashem implicitly through action and ontologically, since we embodying His Wisdom.

We concluded at the beginning of haKeil, and should pick up at that point.

Yismach Moshe II

As an example for explaining the idea of tefillah behispa’alus, I raised a number of questions about the meaning of the phrase “Yismach Mosheh“. I wrote:

Yismach Mosheh — Moses will be happy bematenas chelqo — with the giving of his portion,
ki eved ne’eman — because a reliable servant
qaraso lo — You have called to him.

The line looks simple enough, however riches lie underneath, with a little concentration. Rather than spell out what they are, and my opinion on what they mean, I am going to list some questions to think about and give you a chance to find your own chiddushim, your own relationship to the text.

Well, some time went by, and during the intervening nine months, we raised a number of issues that shed some light on one of many kavanos possible when saying these words. But there is one last piece.

Why is Sukkos called in our tefillos “zeman simchaseinu“? Why is simchah associated more with Sukkos than with Pesach or Shavu’os? If anything, I would have thought the reverse: we still have the peoplehood granted us on Pesach, and the Torah given on Shavu’os. But the mun is gone, the cloud of glory that protected us have dissipated, Hashem’s guiding pillar no longer shows us the way. Yes, we can still get food, shelter and guidance from the natural means He gave us — but the same was true before the desert! What is so special about the things celebrated by Sukkos?

This past yom tov, R’ Ron Yitzchak Eisenman repeated an idea he saw in two very disparate sources: the Satmar Rav, and R’ Avraham Yitzchak haCohein Kook, a cousin of the more famous Rav Kook who is of this generation, but also of the same school of thought. (As Rabbi Eisenman put it — if the Satmar Rav and a Rav Kook agree, it must be true!)

As we say in the Yom Tov Amidah, “Atah bachartanu mikol ha’amim — You chose us from all the nations, you loved us and desired us…” Being the chosen people required national identity and freedom from servitude to Egypt. It required the Torah, the articles of our mission. However, it did not require being cared for during the trek through the desert. What did we get on Sukkos that was so special? We got the giving itself; the manifestation of Hashem’s Love and Desire. “It’s the thought that counts”, the act of giving is itself more precious than the thing being given. Especially when we find no other motive.

What then causes Moshe’s joy in our quote? Not only the portion Hashem gave him. Yes, “Who is wealthy? One who is happy with his portion.” But even greater was that Moshe was happy with the pure fact that Hashem gave him something. We analyzed ahavah using Rav Shimon Shkop’s idea that love is the unity between I and Thou, and extension of the idea of “me” to the realization that you and I are parts of one whole. The act of giving is the bridge across the wall between us. Giving is therefore both the embodiment of and the cause of love.

Yismach Mosheh. In the entry on Hebrew grammar, I presented the notion that the future tense in Hebrew is actually derived. The more primary idea is the imperfect tense. The “yi-” prefix is more about the fact that the simchah is not yet finished than when it began. Moshe’s joy is continuous.

Why? Because man is not a static entity. On parashas Mas’ei, we looked at “the journey as the name of G-d” and the existential idea that man has the ability to change his essence. The ideal is becoming, not being. See also the contrast between people, who walk, and angels, which are portrayed as only having one foot. Or, to again paraphrase the Kotzker Rebbe put it, man’s measure it not the height of the rung on which he stands, but whether he is climbing the ladder or descending it.

What is Moshe’s happiness? It’s the emotion we more specifically call simchah. In looking at idealism, joy and mourning, our focus was on Rav Saadia Gaon’s definition of simchah. To him, it’s related to laughter, which in turn is a sudden perception of the deeper truth. Simchah comes from a focus on ones ideals, on knowing that there is a reason why one has what one has, and a purpose to living through what one has to endure. In a different entry, we looked at how this focus provides a connection between one’s heart and one’s observance of halakhah.

We also looked at the burning bush, and why this moment was what marked Moshe as Moshe Rabbeinu. The anavah that it took to see Hashem similarly “constraining Himself”, an act of tzimtzum, to the center of the bush. That this anavah is what it took to hear the voice within rather than the original flashy image of a bush totally aflame.

When you combine anavah, a tzimtzum-like constriction of oneself to make room for another, with that notion of life as a journey, one gets avdus, a life of service.

How then can we say these words this Shabbos morning?

Yismach Mosheh — The ultimate humble one, who moves himself aside to hear the Divine calling, is continuously joyous, in a happiness that will continue into the future. That calling is the only true source of simchah, because it alone gives our lives meaning.

What causes this joy?

Bematenas chelqo — Hashem expressed his love of Moshe in giving him his portion in this world. Not only in the fact that we have lives that are scripted to fit that meaning and calling, but also in that Hashem Himself gives it to us.

Why?

ki ‘eved ne’eman’ qarasa lo — Hashem called Moshe His “reliable servant”. One who takes that continuous simchah and anavah and combine them into reliable and continuous service. But again, not only in the opportunity to have such a life, but also that Hashem called him such.

As such, the opening words of the berakhah are a very powerful statement. They are a realization that happiness only comes from a meaningful life. That a meaningful life comes from both anavah, which makes room to live for a higher purpose rather than the self, and simchah from a full awareness of that meaning. That such a life is one of constant progress and growth — and therefore of constant happiness, even through the struggles that growth often requires. And last, that such a life is lived in a partnership with the A-lmighty. Moshe is His eved in a relationship of Love and giving.