Walking The Walk And Talking The Talk

Rosh HaShanah 5767

At this time of the year, rabbis often encourage their flock to live good lives, study Torah a little, come to Shul more frequently and generally commit to becoming exemplary members of the community. To support this, all kinds of Jewish sources are mustered to bend the congregants’ ears into submission. What does Jewish tradition really promise those who actually succeed in living a purposeful and righteous life? The Talmud offers us a brief insight:

In the ultimate future, God will make a dance-circle for the righteous and He will sit in the middle of them in the Garden of Eden. Everyone will point to God with his finger.

<o:p></o:p>So after a life of righteousness, self control and altruism, what happens to our budding tzaddik when he reaches the afterlife? He gets to dance round and round and point to God, presumably for all eternity. A dance! Is that all? After an entire life dedicated to spiritual pursuits, is that the best we can hope for?

Of course, the Talmud is actually conveying a profound message in the form of an image. Regrettably, we often assume that the parables of the sages are simple fairy-tales, but if we are prepared to dig beneath the surface, we will always uncover the most uplifting concepts. As such, the dance-circle is a sophisticated image that may be understood as follows.

While it is not always apparent, there are many manifestations of Judaism – different styles of observance, degrees of engagement with the outside world and outlooks. Of course, all must be predicated on the belief in the historical truth of the revelation and the eternal imperative of Jewish law (devoid of these, of course, we don’t have Judaism at all). But part from these indispensables, there is considerable flexibility within the system. One of the wonderful things about Judaism is that, within certain parameters, there are a range of possibilities. This idea is expressed beautifully by the great mediaeval thinker Ritva:

When Moses went up to receive the Torah, for every subject he was shown forty-nine ways to prohibit it, and forty-nine ways to permit it.

God Himself presented us with a religious system that recognises that we aren’t all the same and that we each need some degree of individual expression in our religious lives. Interestingly, as this flexibility is God-given, the truth (or if we like, validity) of each manifestation is not compromised, as they are each a version of the Divine will. It’s an amazing idea – rather than there being one right or wrong way to live, we need to function within parameters. As an aside, this idea should not be considered licence to consider anyone’s personal preference a legitimate expression of Judaism, as there are clearly boundaries beyond which one may not go.

In this lies a challenge, perhaps one of the most important that we will face in our lives - recognising (always within the parameters) the validity of other peoples’ views. This can be immensely difficult; we all feel comfortable with those who share our particular world-view and perspective on Judaism; less so with those with whom we differ. We are often especially poor at respecting those people whose life-style seems very alien to ours; they quite probably feel the same about us!

Yet to profit from the flexibility of the system, we must authenticate the religious expressions of others. This takes a great deal of maturity, but it is extremely rewarding. Through doing so one gains a breadth of perception, and understanding of others, a sense of love and tolerance for those with whom we disagree.

This is the meaning of the dance-circle of our original source. Note that the righteous dance in a circle, not a conga! The centre of the circle is equidistant from every part on its circumference. (As a mathematician, I can tell you that this defines a circle!) Each person on the circumference has a slightly different angle on life, a different form of traditional Judaism, yet is equidistant from God. No one is closer than any other and each can point to God and perceive Him from their perspective. But here’s the really exciting bit – as they dance round the circle, they experience the world from the viewpoint of each of the others in the circle. This is the greatest reward on offer – a direct perception of God with the maturity to appreciate the world through the eyes of others.

It would seem to take a lifetime to righteousness to reach this level of personal maturity. This Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is a great time to start working on this aspect of personal growth. It is common in all parts of the community to view anyone to the ‘left’ of oneself as a dropout and any to the ‘right’ as a lunatic. Even the nomenclature ‘left’ /‘right’ is unhelpful in this quest. We are poor at tolerating difference within the observant community and mistakenly expect our children to all turn out the same way as each other. When one thinks about the extent of this problem in our families and communities, one quickly realises just how elusive the dance-circle really is. But one must try to take those first faltering steps along it: try by listening carefully to the viewpoint of a member of the Jewish community with whom one usually disagrees, consider, at least for a moment, that a man dressed in Chassidic clothes may lead a rich and sophisticated Jewish life, recognise that a child may need encouragement to express Judaism in a way different from his or her parents.

The Last Tisha B'Av

Events in Israel and beyond

The Jewish people are having a pretty rough time at the moment. The disturbing events in Israel are compounded by the lack of balance and what one can only reasonably call hatred in much of the media. I believe that history has carved a role for us as victims and when we step out of this, even by defending ourselves, the world finds us inexplicable. That every one of the hundreds of Hezbollah rockets fired on Northern Israel has been deliberately aimed at civilian targets seems to have escaped the attention of the press, as has the fact that Hezbollah locates its weapons in civilian areas, with the obvious consequences. We are damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

But we shouldn’t really expect any different; these problems are just part of the harsh reality of galut – exile, of living in an unredeemed world. Some years, relating to the horrible reality of exile at Tisha B’Av has been difficult, but this year I suspect it may be easier.

We may accuse the media of bias, holding us to standards of behaviour it expects of no other people, but when we think about it, it can be no other way. Either we are God’s people, or we are not. Either we have a ‘special’ covenantal relationship with Him, or we do not. Either we are the ‘am segulah’ – the treasured nation of God, or we are not. We are, indeed, all of these things and by calling us to higher standards than those demanded of others, the nations of the world corroborate our special status. They may not admit it, or even be aware if it, but by expecting far more from us than they expect of themselves, they unwittingly uphold our unique place in the family of Mankind.

As we dip our bread in ash at the pre-Tisha B’Av meal, let us think also of the many people whose lives have been reduced to ash in Israel and in Lebanon.

As we sit on the floor to mourn for the Temple, let us think also of those sitting on the floor in shelters in Northern Israel.

As we mourn our beloved Temple, let us think also of those who have lost loved ones in the conflict.

As we cry the bitter tears of exile, let us think also of the tears of suffering of adults and children who have lost their livelihood and homes.

As we read Eichah and the Kinnot, let us also lament Mankind, our failures, moral weakness and inability to get on with one another.

But Tisha B’Av is also about hope and the future. It may be a day of mourning, but it is a kind of ‘festival’ of hope for a better world.

As we read the final line of Eichah, let us really believe that God will finally ‘restore our days as of old’ this year.

As we read Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi’s ‘Tzion’ poem, let us reflect on the beauty of Israel, its inimitable spiritual character and our ongoing responsibility to ‘inquire about the welfare’ of its prisoners, which is so apt this year.

As we sing the dirge ‘Eli Tzion’, let us remember that the whole, inscrutable process of history is ‘like a woman in her labour pains’; there will be a happy ending to the saga.

Wishing all readers a meaningful and redemptive day, the last Tisha B’Av.

Nine Men And A Boy?

Do we still need one?

It is a tense moment. Nine men are waiting for a ‘tzenter’ – a tenth man to make up the Minyan. Will one turn up, or will the regulars and the man who came to say Kaddish go home disappointed?

From Talmudic times, the rabbis have attempted creative solutions to this problem.. In the Talmud (Berachot), Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi indicates that one may add a pre-Bar Mitzvah boy to nine men to make the Minyan. As a matter of interest, the same section of the Talmud records that Rebbi Eliezer once arrived at a Shul to discover that it was one man short of a Minyan. Apparently, he manumitted his gentile servant (thus completing his conversion to Judaism) in order to make up the Minyan! While it is unlikely that the second case will ever be germane in the 21st century, the first proposal could be useful.

Actually, the Talmud discusses whether or not these suggestions were ever intended to be viewed as legally valid. This debate continued into the mediaeval halachic literature. While Rabbenu Tam (a grandson of Rashi) rules that in principle, one could include a boy in a Minyan, a number of major early halachists, including the Rosh and the Mordechai, contend that he never actually allowed it in practice. In fact, the Rosh himself disputes the halachic validity of including a boy at all.

The Tosafists mention the practice of including a boy who is holding a ‘chumash’. The ‘chumash’ mentioned is actually a scroll, not the type of printed book that we know today by the same name. Rabbenu Tam views this as nonsense; he asks, ‘is a chumash a man?’ Nonetheless, the idea appears to be based in a passage in the Jerusalem Talmud, and despite Rabbenu Tam’s disapproval, is cited by a number of later sources.

The Shulchan Aruch, published in the 16th century, mentions the practice of including a boy, but points out that it is incorrect, as demonstrated by the fact that is rejected by many significant halachists. However, the Rema (Ashkenazi gloss) adds that while in principle he agrees with the Shulchan Aruch, there are those who are lenient and will include a boy in an emergency, even without a ‘chumash’ in his hand.

Later sources qualify what is already a limited application of this leniency: the boy should be at least of an age when he understands that the prayers are directed to God and only strictly obligatory prayers should be recited.

The possibilities that there will be no Minyan, perhaps no Torah reading and that eventually the Minyan may fold are considered by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein to be ‘emergencies.’ Based on a careful study of the sources, he allows his respondent to rely on a boy to make a Minyan. He prefers that the boy be 12 years old (almost an adult) and while acknowledging that the ‘chumash’ trick is not really necessary, favours ‘giving him a Sefer Torah’ to hold. And of course, one may only use one boy in this way; no source will allow a small group of men to include two or more boys!

The Tools Of War

Football and its folibles

The World Cup has just ended, bringing the planet’s greatest football tournament to another nail-biting finish. It’s no secret that I’m not a football fan, but I observe, albeit with incredulity, the enjoyment that so many people get from watching it. Relaxation is most important in a pressured world and the show that has just come to an end has given millions of people a pleasurable diversion from real life for a few weeks.

But while there is much to admire about the skill of the footballers themselves, as well as the dedication of their fans, there is also a great deal wrong. The fact that the captain of the losing team could be sent off for assaulting another player during the final match and yet still be declared the best player of the contest, speaks volumes. The minor matter of the arrests of numerous England fans in Germany following their team’s defeat by Portugal and the disturbances in Jersey (whose population is 10% Portuguese) around the same time also bear mention. The fervour with which the fans approached the contest and the extent to which the media focused its attention on what is, after all, just a game, is quite remarkable. And fortunate is the country whose time zone is such that the matches fall out of work hours; when play is on during work-time, the number of ‘sickies’ mysteriously sky-rockets.

The number of football headlines may be extraordinary, but the nature of the coverage is no less remarkable. Each match is subject to the most intense analysis imaginable; it goes without saying that every possible aspect of the game is scrutinised. Before kick-off, we are treated to analysis of the selection of players for a team and how their morale is affected by the weather, the behaviour of their fans and a host of other factors. Once the match is in progress, we can read or watch a blow-by-blow account of the game so far, in depth critique of the captain’s strategy and share the pundits’ predictions for the remainder of the game. The slightest irregularity is subject to intense consideration; was the referee justified in castigating a particular player, was a tackle motivated by malice, the likely prognosis following a player’s injury, according to four different experts. On this theme, in the weeks leading up to the contest, the extent of interest in Rooney’s damaged foot was quite obsessive. When the match is over, the recriminations against the losing side begin; resignations, similar to those following lost elections (vis Beckham’s tearful exit), are not unknown. And of course, every moment of the game can be replayed in excruciating slow motion as we are encouraged to consider the long-term significance of a team’s victory or defeat for a national team and its supporters. When a team wins, the reports of the huge celebrations remain prominent for nearly as long as the parties themselves.

These are, quite frankly, the journalistic tools of war, for the only other human endeavour subjected to so much media scrutiny is war itself. When nations are at war, every detail of strategy and shot fired may affect the destiny of an entire people. As such, healthy media reserve the most penetrating tools of analysis for war, yet they are used, de rigueur, to describe the fortunes of 22 men kicking a ball around a field. The conclusion of this is inescapable – football is considered by a significant section of the populace to be of immense importance; the result of a big match really matters to people. It shapes their self-image, their pride in their country and their attitude to other nations. The celebrations of victory, often involving parading the champions as though they are war heroes, reflect the pride and sense of nationhood conveyed by success in a major tournament.

While many will pass all this off as harmless fun, I’m not convinced at all. When the emotions raised by merely observing a game are on a par with those engendered by war, we have lost something vital to the wellbeing of society. Many people really believe that supporters of other teams are baddies; how could they not be, as they are on the ‘wrong’ side. This leads to violence and to occasionally disturbing incidents of xenophobia. While (à la 1970’s cult film ‘Rollerball’) there are those who argue that containing these sorts of feelings within a sporting environment prevents them from spilling into the streets, it is obvious that societal sanction of such sentiments increases, rather than reduces, their nefarious influence. And blurring the distinction between those things that are truly life-significant and those that are actually just fun diversions from reality, has far-reaching consequences in all aspects of life.

Most troubling, though, is what the supremacy of football reveals about those people who believe in it - a profound lack of exposure to what we might term ‘real experiences.’ Whether the intense fervour of Man’s yearning for God, the challenge and meaning in developing a successful monogamous relationship, from a Jewish perspective: the celebration of a family Shabbat or the emotionally draining cycle of Tishrey festivals – so many in our disconnected world are denied ‘real experiences.’ Much of modern life consists of shallow, synthetic encounters; watered down emotions, superficial relationships and phoney ideology. In fact, the Western World almost completely fails to cater for what may be the most basic human necessity, the need to sense meaning and purpose in life. But the desire to identify with a cause and to experience meaning through it does not disappear because a society denies its existence. It will, automatically, find another expression. So profound is this human need that the media, conmen and others who recognise it will exploit it for their own disreputable ends.

The application of the tools of war to football matches is a symptom of an ailing society, one in which Man’s yearning for meaningful existence finds its expression itself through a game, but not in reality. And as society becomes more fragmented and superficial, the significance of events like the World Cup will surely grow; for those living in the UK, the spectre of the 2012 Olympics seems not all that far away…..

Thoughts On 17th Tammuz

Alan Senitt

This year, the start of the Three Weeks comes at a time when tragedy is in the air. The horrific bombings in India and the appalling murder in Washington of Alan Senitt, a prominent Anglo-Jewish activist, have hit the headlines in the last few days. The disturbing escalation of the conflict in our beloved Israel, however, is probably where much of our attention is focused.

From time to time, I get asked whether in the modern world we really need the Three Weeks of mourning for the Temple in Jerusalem, which begin today with the Fast of Tammuz. This year, that question seems entirely redundant, as there is so much obviously wrong with our world. The imperfections, lack of harmony and hatred seem to more evident than ever; this year, we have a lot to think about between now and Tisha B’Av.

Our prayers and thoughts are with the people of Israel, the family of Alan Senitt and the victims of the Mumbai carnage. We will add a chapter of psalms to the synagogue service once more in the coming weeks, as a prayer for peace, but our main responsibilities lie within our own lives. The elimination of conflict in our world starts on a small and personal scale – improving our relationships with our spouses and children, treating those who are unlike us with more respect, evincing greater tolerance for those of other beliefs. Judaism believes that the micro-act has macro-ramifications. If small-scale quarrelling leads to global conflict, then achieving small-scale harmony is the starting point for healing our world. The Sages tell us that the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred, yet use small personal, examples of dissent to illustrate their point.

May there be a rapid end to the conflict in Israel and harmony between peoples everywhere.


Three Jews who eat together...

Two Jews may have three opinions, but three Jews who have eaten together form a zimun – a group who may jointly say the birkat hamazon, grace after meals using a special formula, also called a zimun.

Deriving the idea from the Torah itself, the Talmud in Brachot understands that there is special significance in one person calling others to join him in praising God; it seems that when recited in response to the invitation, the grace is viewed as a collective, and therefore, more powerful form of thanksgiving.

In its Mishnaic form, zimun is simply the word nevarech – let’s bentsch! However, this has expanded over time. The leader starts with rabbotay nevarech – my gentlemen let’s bentsch, to which the others respond by praising God’s name. (In Yiddish-speaking circles, this is often said in the vernacular – rabbosay mir villen bentschen.) The leader then invites the others to ‘praise the One from whose food we have eaten.’ Before starting the grace proper, the others respond with a similar formula. When a Minyan is present, God’s name is mentioned (praise our God, etc.); when mentioning it, one rises slightly from one’s seat in deference.

The Mishnah offers increasingly superlative versions of the zimun, dependent on the number of diners present. At a feast attended by at least 10000 people, one should apparently say, ‘Let us bless our God our Lord, Lord of Israel, Lord of hosts who dwells among the cherubs, for the food we have eaten.’ Sadly, this text is never used, not even at the most lavish Simchah. There are, however, longer forms of zimun recited following a wedding or brit milah banquet, containing poetic additions apposite for the occasion.

It is considered an honour to lead the zimun; there is a system of priority as to how to select the leader. It is usual to ask a guest to lead; when there is no guest present, the wisest diner is prioritised; it is also appropriate to offer the honour to a Kohen, although the host is entitled to lead whenever he wishes. As such, when inviting the others to respond to his call to bentsch, the leader asks permission of anyone present whom he believes to take halachic precedence. This is achieved by saying birshut – with the permission of – then mentioning the host, Kohanim, etc., before proceeding.

Although the formula is written in the masculine, a group of three women who eat together have the option of forming their own zimun, with an appropriately adapted introduction, such as gevirotay or chavrotay – my women or friends. Some authorities rule that this zimun is actually obligatory; others note that women eating with men may choose to form their own separate zimun, rather than respond to the men’s one. And while not widely practiced, this possibility seems particularly worthy of consideration when three or more women dine with one or two men, when otherwise there would be no zimun at all. Whether men and women may answer to each other’s zimun remains a matter of halachic debate.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.

I Wish You Long Life

Greetings for sad times

Sadly, the most frequently heard Anglo-Jewish greeting is ‘I wish you long life,’ offered to a mourner in the week following a bereavement and on the anniversary of the death (known as the ‘yahrzeit’).

The Hebrew original of this greeting is ‘arichat yamim’ – length of days or ‘chayim aruchim’ – long life. Among Jews of German extraction, the phrase ‘ad bi’at hago’el’ is added on the yahrzeit, blessing its subject with long life ‘until coming of the Messiah.’ Although it may seem incongruous, this greeting is even offered to an elderly person. Judaism attaches such a high premium to every moment of life that we wish everyone, young or old, length of days to carry out their sacred purpose in this world. The greatest blessing we can receive is the promise of long life, one especially dear in the face of a recent bereavement or when recalling a family tragedy on its anniversary.

There are other traditional phrases associated with death and mourning. Immediately following a funeral, a longer greeting is used. The mourners walk through two parallel lines of funeral attendees, who recite the sentence, ‘May the Almighty comfort you among the mourners for Zion and Jerusalem.’ This text is also used by visitors to the Shiva; it creates a sense of solidarity, of shared loss and comfort.

When one hears of a death, one says, ‘baruch dayan haemet’ – blessed is the true judge. Upon the death of a close relative, this takes the form of a full blessing, recognising God’s righteousness, even at the harshest of times. The blessing is often actually recited just before the funeral commences.

When referring to a deceased person, it is common to append the phrase ‘alav/alehah hashalom’ – may peace be upon him/her. This is rather confusingly contracted by some people into ‘Oliversholom.’ However, during the first year of mourning for a parent, the correct form is ‘hareni kaparat mishkavo/mishkavah’ – behold I (the child) am atonement for his/her resting place. This acknowledges the Jewish tradition that departed souls may spend up to a year being disciplined in the afterlife before proceeding to their eternal reward. During the first year, the child expresses the hope that he or she can be an atonement for the deceased parent, but after the year has ended, one either opts for ‘may peace be on him/her,’ or the Halachically recommended ‘zichrono/ah livrachah’ – of blessed memory. The Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish law) suggests one should also follow this practice when mentioning the name of one’s deceased teacher.

Some sources suggest that a longer form should follow the name of a deceased relative, ‘of blessed memory for the life of the World to Come,’ where presumably the person now resides. There are even longer versions of this: the winning entry, commonly used with reference to deceased Chassidic Rebbes, being, ‘may the memory of the righteous and holy man be for a blessing for the life of the World to Come, may his merit serve as a protection for us, Amen!’

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished with permission.

Karpas And The Wait For Dinner

When's Dinner?

And now the fifth question – when do we eat? This question, a joke of course, should actually help us to focus on a vital Pesach theme: the extent of our ability to delay gratification for a higher purpose.

More than just a commemoration, every festival is intended to help us recapture a major event of Jewish history and internalise its message. As the Exodus was the moment of the founding of the Jewish people, Pesach is an opportunity to consider what it means to be a member of the Jewish nation. What character traits are we to inculcate and which areas of personal growth are we to spotlight at this time of year? What will we have gained from all the intense preparations, from the Sedarim, the vast expense and effort? If all we will be left with after Pesach is exhaustion and a few extra pounds to shed, will it be worthwhile?

The ability to delay gratification is a key determinant of adult human behaviour; it distinguishes us from everything else in the world. Animals are driven by irrepressible needs; hunger, fear, the urge to reproduce. Once a need arises, its fulfilment becomes paramount; all energies are channelled into its realisation. Babies are scarcely different; when little Jimmy is hungry, tired, cold or has a dirty diaper, nothing will divert him from screaming until he gets what he wants.

In contrast, adults have a sense of higher meaning and value, which can often be strong enough to enable us to delay realising our immediate personal needs in lieu of achieving something of greater overall significance. There are dozens of examples of this phenomenon, ranging from the simple decision not to eat another piece of chocolate, to complex life-choices in which personal needs are completely marginalised in favour of national or even world improvement. This is, of course, a function of the struggle between the physical and spiritual drives; while Judaism prioritises the harmonisation of the two, there are occasions in life when the higher, spiritual yearnings must overcome and sublimate the lower, physical needs. The extent to which we are capable of doing this determines just how successful we really are as human beings.

As popular psychologist M. Scott Peck puts is. ‘Delaying gratification is a process of scheduling the pain and pleasure of life in such a way as to enhance the pleasure by meeting and experiencing the pain first and getting it over with.’ (The Road Less Traveled) I think that Jewish sources would view it quite differently. While initially there may be a sense that one is scheduling the pain before the pleasure, the capacity to do so is one of the most profound human achievements, one that transforms the ‘pain’ into purpose and possibly a higher form of pleasure itself.

While central to meaningful human experience, the ability to delay gratification doesn’t come easily. We don’t naturally graduate from childhood into mature and disciplined altruists. What we gain at adulthood is the capacity to control ourselves, but development in this area is a lifetime’s work. One need look only at advertising and the media to see that immediate gratification with no consideration for the consequences is very much in vogue. High-risk sports, sexual exploration and many other activities that focus solely on immediate gratification are as popular as ever. The descent into instant fun and the consequential move away from the development of quintessential human sensitivities is all too easy. And we have all experienced people consumed with physical needs of one sort or another – they are unstoppable until they have what they want. In position as major leaders, such people can quite literally destroy the world; they nearly have on a number of occasions.

The Jewish people are expected to be the world experts in the field of delaying gratification, when necessary, to achieve higher goals. All humanity was originally destined to be proficient in this area, as evidenced by the prohibition of eating from the fruit in the Garden of Eden. Seen through Kabbalistic eyes, God did not demand that Adam and Eve forever deny themselves the fruit, only that they wait to eat it until after the first Shabbat. Had they demonstrated their ability to postpone their desire to eat it in order to fulfil God’s will, they could have enjoyed the fruit legitimately. Instead, they were expelled from the Garden, forever changing the course of history.

As the nation of the Torah, the Jewish people are charged with the task of restoring, by example, this capacity to the whole of humanity. This began at the Exodus, the birth of our people. Our ancestors clearly demonstrated the capacity to wait for redemption, to tolerate the backbreaking Egyptian slavery, to put their dearest yearnings for salvation on hold until the right moment. Some members of the tribe of Ephraim had not been able to wait and had escaped before the appointed time; the Talmud records that they sadly died in the desert. Even when the time for deliverance seemed to be at hand, the Israelites’ ability to wait enslaved until God was ready for them was tested to the limits. No sooner had Moshe introduced himself to Pharaoh than the slavery deepened; the Jews were no longer given straw, yet were expected to maintain the same level of brick production. Just when they thought the end of the slavery was in sight, they discovered that they had to wait a little longer. When the Exodus finally occurred, the nascent Jewish people were already well-trained in the art of waiting.

Each Pesach, and especially on Seder night, we are afforded a unique opportunity to relive those crucial final moments in Egypt. The lessons learned there were so central to our national and personal mission that we must revisit them every year to ensure that we are attuned to our key Jewish responsibilities.

This message is most obviously expressed in the structure of the Seder. We begin the evening in much the same way that we would commence any Shabbat or Yom Tov. Kiddush is followed by hand-washing, in preparation for the meal. But instead of eating the matzah and commencing the delicious Yom Tov feast, there is disappointment in store. Each person gets a small piece of vegetable dipped in salt-water (known as Karpas), then the matzah is broken, as if to eat it, but then hidden away and the plate containing the Seder foods is removed from the table, to be replaced with story books! We are tempted into thinking that the meal is coming (the fifth question – when do we eat?); we are taken to the point when the food is almost in our mouths and then told that we will have to read the story of our ancestors’ miraculous escape from Egypt before we can actually have the meal. The Karpas makes matters worse, for it is a salty hors d’oeuvres; not only do we prepare for the meal and then take the food away before eating it, but we make the participants extra-hungry before doing so!

This is all part of a genius plan to ensure that the annual re-enactment of our redemption inculcates within us the same sense of priorities as the original Exodus experience. We have waited all day to start the Seder, we are hungry, delicious food odours are wafting from the kitchen and all the ‘let’s eat now’ switches have been thrown (Kiddush, hand-washing, hors d’oeuvres, breaking matzah). Pavlov would have been proud. Yet something much more important than food must happen first – recounting the story of the Exodus. Understanding our roots, the very fibre of our national being, the unfolding Divine plan for Mankind, God’s miraculous intervention in human history and the very concept of purposeful freedom – all of these must be achieved before we may begin our meal.

On Seder night, we sacrifice our need for immediate gratification (having rather cruelly stimulated it) to the noblest ideal; transmitting the wonders of Jewish history and our unique relationship with God to the next generation. This should inform our sense of priority in all our endeavours, throughout the year. We have seen that developing the capacity to delay gratification is central to the Jewish understanding of real achievement, defines us as a nation and contributes to rectifying the primeval sin of the Garden of Eden. If we finish this Pesach having learned, even a little, to delay our immediate needs long enough to pursue some of the majestic goals of Judaism, then it will all have been worthwhile.

Have a kosher, joyful Yom Tov and meaningful and uplifting Sedarim.

Based on a sermon for the first day of Pesach at Golders Green Synagogue, a version of this article first appeared on Jewish World Review.