Vayelech: Leading the words

Moses went and spoke these things to all Israel (Devarim 31:1)

I hold the book before me,
reciting prayers by rote,
my mind afloat far off.
The power of the words
might yet invite me, guide me back.

But sometimes, focused,
I hope that I might find within
a vessel, to hold the ancient words.
I might then lift them up
and set them free.

The opening words of Parashat Vayelech “Moses went and spoke these things to all Israel”  (Devarim 31:1) elicit the immediate question “Where did Moses go to speak these things?” He was already in front of the assembled people, as we know from the last parasha.
Surprisingly, Rashi has no comment on this, but other exegetes offer their suggestions: the Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman Girondi, 1194–1270) teaches that after Moses finishes his address to the people (in Parashat Nitzavim), the people disperse to their tents. Moses desires to bid them all farewell before he dies, but he wishes it to be a personal leave-taking – he wants to deliver his message himself. So this is the meaning of “he went” – from the Levite camp where he lives, to the tribal areas where the people live, and speaks to them all in turn.
Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Abraham Ben Meir Ibn Ezra, 1089–1167) makes a further suggestion of where Moses goes: he submits that Moses wants to comfort and encourage the people in the face of his imminent death. He assures them that God will guide them, through the agency of Joshua. Ibn Ezra surmises that it is now, when he visits individually with each tribe, that Moses bestows his final blessings, as we read later in Parashat Vezot Ha’berachah.

The Chasidic Masters also have suggestions concerning the nature of Moses’s “going”. The Noam Megadim (Rabbi Eliezer HaLevi Horowitz of Tarnigrad, d. 1806) teaches: “Moses, even after he went, after he died and passed from the world – “He spoke these things”, he is still speaking and making the voice of his Torah heard – “to all Israel”, because anything a learned pupil might suggest in the future, has already been said to Moses…”
The Mishmeret Itamar (R. Itamar ben Israel Wohlgelerenter of Konskowola, d. 1831) teaches “The steps [literally “goings”] of his life and his behavior throughout his days and years – Moses spoke these things to all Israel – he discussed and taught to all of Israel.”
The Devash veChalav’s teaching, (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Krengel of Krakow, 1847-1930) suggests that the people knew that Moses was to deliver all 613 mitsvot to them before his death. Until he gathered them together, as we read in last week’s parasha Nitsavim, they had only received 611 (the last two yet to be given were “Hakhel” – concerning the mandatory assembly of all Jewish men, women and children, as well as “strangers” to hear the reading of the Torah by the king of Israel once every seven years; and the instruction to “Write down this poem [and teach it to the people of Israel…]” (the commandment for each Jew to write a personal copy of the Torah – nowadays, helping towards the purchase of a Sefer Torah and having a scribe fill in a letter on one’s behalf at its completion is considered fulfillment of this mitsva). So the Devash veChalav brings the notion that the people did not assemble again to receive these last two, thus delaying the bitter moment of Moses’s death. Once he realised, “Moses went” himself to instruct them about these last commandments, as he did not want their entry into the land to be delayed on his account.
The Me’aynah shel Torah (Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman 1897 – 1943 (incarcerated in the Warsaw Ghetto and murdered in Trawnicki)) notes “It is not written where [to which place] Moses went, but the end of the phrase clarifies its beginning. “Moses went – to all Israel” – he entered the heart and spirit of all Israel. In the innermost recesses of every person in Israel, in his blood and his soul, in all the times and eras, there can be found a spark of Moses our Teacher.”
From the Toledot Yitschak (Rabbi Yitschak Karo 1458-1535) we learn: “And it is not written to where Moses went – because wherever he went, he spoke these words: in the street, during negotiations, at work, in private and communal undertakings – everywhere he introduced the word of God.”
Chasidic writings add “This phraseology has not been used elsewhere in the Torah. Everywhere it says: he said, he spoke, he gathered – and here – he went. So we learn that according to the sages (in Berachot 31) “Before taking leave of his fellow a man should always finish with a matter of halachah, so that he should remember him thereby” thus when Moses was about to take leave of the world, he died with a matter of Halachah – the laws of repentance and the commandment to reprove one another [a loving rebuke intended as constructive not destructive criticism]…”

However, the Chasidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, has a different idea for this enigmatic phrase. In his book A Partner in Holiness* vol 2 Rabbi Jonathan Slater cites the commentary on Parashat Vayelech from the Kedushat Levi – the teachings of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak. The Berditchever suggests that we interpret this verse in the light of the idioms which the Talmudic sages employ in speaking of someone leading the congregation in prayer. They use two idioms, one found in Shabbat 24b “[shaliach tsibbur ha’yored lifnei ha’teivah] – a prayer leader who goes down before the ark” (here we can visualize an ancient amphitheater-like synagogue), and the other in Berachot 34a “[ha’over lifnei ha’teivah] – one who passes before the ark.”
Rabbi Slater quotes Rabbi Levi Yitschak “When a righteous person prays before God, he must attach himself to the words (teivot) that he is praying [a play on words – teivah means both word and ark]. Those holy words direct him in prayer. But there are those who are at a higher spiritual degree and they direct the words of prayer.” This, he tells us, is the level of Moses, as we learn in the Zohar. Rabbi Slater continues with Rabbi Levi Yitschak’s teaching, “So someone who “goes down before the ark” is led by the words, and he is below the words (teivah). But there is a righteous one who “goes before the ark,” and she leads the words (teivah, she stands above them. Here we are at the end of Moses’s life when the wellsprings of wisdom were stopped up from him (cf Sotah 13b), and so instead, the first quality applied to him and the words led him. This is the sense of our verse “Moses went and spoke” – he went toward Speech, and the word was above him.”
Rabbi Levi Yitschak then suggests an explanation why Moses’s prophecy in Ha’azinu (next week’s parasha) is quite enigmatic, unlike anything else in the Torah. He says that until then, Moses’s prophecy had been as through a clear glass, whereas all other prophets’ prophecies had been as through unclear glass (Yevamot 49b). Thus Moses was able to express his words exactly as he had received them from God, with no “garment” or use of riddles or parables. The other prophets had to “dress” their words with parables and thus their prophesies are frequently enigmatic. However, before Moses died, the channel of wisdom was transferred to Joshua. Hence the poem Ha’azinu is obscure and “covered in garments.”
Rabbi Slater extrapolates Rabbi Levi Yitschak’s teaching to modern times. He says that today we might have a different explanation for the obvious contrast between the language used in Ha’azinu and elsewhere in the Torah. But the Berditchever, he says, is always seeking to “connect Torah to lived experience, to help us apply it to our own lives.”  So he frames the experience for us, not in terms of prophecy, but of prayer.
Rabbi Slater says, “The experience of (Moses’s) prophecy is likened to the experience of one who prays with such concentration that authentic words of prayer issue forth with clarity and intention. We can assume that this sort of prayer is grounded in the siddur [prayer book] but extends beyond it. The words of the prayer book may be the start of prayer but no longer lead the person in his or her devotion. This is, in Levi Yitschak’s eyes, a higher form of prayer. The lower form – “going down before the ark (word – teivah),” being led by the words of the siddur – is still that of a righteous person (a tzaddik), and so laudable. But the challenge to us, perhaps, is to investigate how we pray, how we pray the words of the siddur, and how we express ourselves through those words and beyond in our prayers.”

*A Partner in Holiness: Deepening Mindfulness, Practicing Compassion and Enriching Our Lives through the Wisdom of R. Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev’s Kedushat Levi


Devarim: Words (Three Haikus)

These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel (Devarim 1:1)

Words (1)
Once my speech was lame –
words congealed behind stiff lips –
now my words sing forth.

Words (2)
Words unsaid resound
in deafening silence, as
duty is betrayed.

Words (3)
Trembling, here I stand,
filled with love and fear for you:
will you hear my words?

Words (1)
In a commentary on Parashat Devarim from 2009, Rabbi David Hoffman notes that the first four books of the Torah, Bereishit, Shemot, Vayikra and B’midbar, all relate the story as it occurs, and the characters are described experiencing the events in “real time.” However, in Devarim, we see a different approach: Moses recalls events through which his current listeners never lived, as, except for Joshua and Caleb, this is the new generation of the children of Israel. No-one here stood at Sinai. The covenant entered into there was with their ancestors who were redeemed slaves. The challenges facing the new generation differ hugely from those with which their ancestors had to contend. This new generation will have to enter the land and build a society vastly different from that of their wandering predecessors.
Rabbi Hoffman comments that Moses initially demurs from taking on the leadership of the people, telling God “…Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words [devarim], either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” (Shemot 4:10) And now, this final book opens with the words he speaks: “These are the words [devarim] that Moses addressed to all Israel…” (Devarim 1:1). As Rabbi Hoffman notes, “Indeed, the entire book constitutes one powerful and sustained verbal presentation.”
He suggests that Moses’s objectives now are still our religious challenges today. He asks “How do you render a story that happened to other people and make it your story, as meaningful to you as the day it occurred? How do you tell the story of our people’s relationship with God and move a new generation to willfully and passionately enter into this sacred Covenant? How do you make the argument to a generation of Jews that the Jewish community and Torah provide a rich and compelling framework to pursue ultimate questions of meaning?”
And he suggests that in Devarim, a new approach for the renewal of the covenant is forged. He notes that the Hebrew root l-m-d which in its different conjugations means to learn or teach, appears nowhere else in the Torah except for in this book, where it appears 17 times in twice as many chapters. So he says that he believes that learning and teaching form the essence of Devarim. We see this verb used in the context of God teaching the people; Moses teaching them, and, he says, perhaps most importantly, the people themselves teaching Torah: “Impress My words upon your heart . . . and teach them to your children — reciting them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up.” (Devarim 11:18–19)
Rabbi Hoffman continues “Limud (learning) constitutes the process through which we Jews connect with our history and make these historical stories our personal narratives. Understood in these terms, learning is not simply a means to acquire information. Rather, for the Jew, learning is an active process that is primarily about making meaning. The book of Devarim makes very clear that if we – in our generation – are to develop a personal, rich, and nurturing relationship with God, we must learn and study God’s Torah that reveals God’s aspirations for the world. Study is the means by which we make meaning in our own lives and it is activity whereby the Jew responds thoughtfully to the challenges of our particular age.”
He adds that at the conclusion of the book of Devarim, Moses, who once asserted that he was not a man of words, bows out, singing words of poetry:
Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;
let the earth hear the words I utter!
May my discourse come down as the rain,
My speech distill as the dew . . .
Give glory to our God!

(Devarim 32:1–3)
Rabbi Hoffman concludes “I submit that Moshe’s strength and newfound confidence emerged from his deep belief that he had finally found the path for real religious awakening. The thunder and direct experience of God at Sinai did not work even for the generation of the desert.
The book of Devarim creates the possibility that if God’s Presence is to be made manifest in our world, it will be in the words (devarim) of those who pursue with love the Will of the living God.”

Words (2)
In a commentary from 2010,, Rabbi Gail Labovitz says that as she looked through the parasha, preparing to write the commentary on it, one particular verse caught her eye. She notes that Moses does not recount the history of the people in their wanderings in an entirely chronological fashion. In the first chapter he relates the episode of the twelve spies, their negative report, and the people’s subsequent lack of faith which led to God’s anger and His decision to let that generation wander and die in the wilderness over 40 years (B’midbar 13, 14). Then Moses says the following “The Lord was incensed at me too because of you, saying you too shall not enter there.” (Devarim 1:37)
Rabbi Labovitz is troubled by two issues here. The first, more obvious problem is that Moses seems to be condensing two episodes: after the incident of the spies, the people were condemned to die in the wilderness but Moses was not punished. He was denied entry to the Land because of another incident in which he hit the rock rather than speaking to it as instructed at Merivah.
However, Rabbi Labovitz detects a deeper problem: it sounds like Moses is blaming the people for his punishment rather than shouldering the responsibility himself! And he makes similar statements subsequently. (Devarim 3:26, 4:21) She asks “What are we to make of this picture of Moses, of all people – the person considered to be the greatest leader in our history! – attempting to pass the buck?”
She says that among the commentaries addressing both these issues, she is drawn to that offered by the Ramban who says, “For the anger against Moses and against Aaron was because they struck the rock twice before the people and did not do as they were commanded, and the people reflected on the matter. And this is what it says [Devarim 32:51] “for you did not sanctify Me among the children of Israel” – that the punishment was only because the matter took place among the children of Israel, such that the Glory was not sanctified in their eyes.
So the Ramban is teaching that Moses is not saying that his punishment is their fault not his, rather that it was because of what he did in their presence that aggravated his misdeed. In effect, it was because he failed to set the appropriate example as a leader in the presence of his people, that led to such severe punishment. Rabbi Labovitz says “What a leader does or does not do, especially when it is done publicly and will influence others, can be of ultimate significance.”
Rabbi Labovitz continues with the story told in the Gemara (Gittin 55b,56a) concerning the events preceding the destruction of the Second Temple (the razing of both Temples and other catastrophes that devastated the Jewish people are commemorated on the upcoming fast of Tisha be’Av). The Gemara says “R. Yochanan said…The destruction of Jerusalem came through a Kamza and a Bar Kamza in this way. A certain man had a friend Kamza and an enemy Bar Kamza. He once made a party and said to his servant, Go and bring Kamza. The man went and brought Bar Kamza. When the man [who gave the party] found him there he said, See, you tell tales about me; what are you doing here? Get out. Said the other: Since I am here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink. He said, I won’t. Then let me give you half the cost of the party. No, said the other. Then let me pay for the whole party. He still said, No, and he took him by the hand and put him out. Said the other, Since the Rabbis were sitting there and did not stop him, this shows that they agreed with him. I will go and inform against them, to the Government. He went and said to the Emperor, The Jews are rebelling against you…”
Rabbi Labovitz notes that Bar Kamza did not only hold the host responsible for his humiliation, but also the rabbis who sat silently and thus passively colluded with the host. She says “How leaders respond, especially before others, matters…while the people (such as the host of the party or Bar Qamtza) may act sinfully, leaders bear an extra level of responsibility for how they respond. And, moreover, failure begets new, increasingly difficult choices. What people see from their leaders, or fail to see, has cosmic consequences.”

Words (3)
In a commentary from 2009,, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson notes that we learn in Midrash Sifrei Devarim that whenever the text uses the root DiBeR the speech is of a rebuking nature, whereas the root AMaR indicates praise. [Further, in Midrash Devarim Rabbah 1:6 an etymological link is suggested between devarim (words) and devorim (bees). Just as a bee stings before it dies, so did Moses offer a stinging rebuke of the people before his own death.]
So Rabbi Shavit Artson wonders why Moses is speaking harshly to the people when they are on the cusp of entry to a new life. Why are his parting words a chastisement, a reminder of how far they have moved from the ideals enumerated in the Torah? And he asks, too, “And did the people resent Moses’ apparent harshness, as most of us would? Did people say, “He never gives us a break,” or note that even at the end, he was still haranguing them, unable to focus, even for a moment, on their virtues and better natures?” Rabbi Shavit Artson concludes that the people seemingly were not resentful, as they mourned his death and he is still referred to as “Moses our teacher.”
Rabbi Shavit Artson continues “Can you imagine what it would be like if a Rabbi, at a dinner honoring 25 years of service with a particular synagogue, rather than dwelling on warm memories, started to list all of the congregants’ flaws over the past two-and-a-half decades? Can you imagine how resentful and bitter most of us would feel?”
He cites Rabbi Tarfon, a great sage of the Mishnah, who comments on the rebuke Moses delivers in this parasha “I swear by the Temple service, I doubt if there is anyone in this generation who is fit to rebuke others. For if one says to another, ‘Remove the mote from between your eyes,’ the reply invariably is, ‘Remove the beam from between your eyes.’ ” It seems that at that time, there was no-one worthy of being a role model to others.
Rabbi Shavit Artson continues with Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah’s comment “I swear by the Temple service, I doubt if there is anyone in this generation who is able to receive rebuke.” Rabbi Shavit Artson says “Rabbi Eleazar observed that people no longer accepted criticism as an act of love. Instead of listening openly to a description of how they had acted inappropriately and then working to modify their behavior to remove that flaw, the object of rebuke would respond defensively by either ignoring or insulting the person who had highlighted the error.”
Finally he notes that Rabbi Akiva, a contemporary of Rabbi Tarfon, adds his lament to those of his colleagues. “I swear by the Temple service, I doubt if there is anyone in this generation who knows how to rebuke.” Rabbi Shavit Artson concludes “Pointing out someone’s shortcoming or error should not be a chance for insults or a sense of superiority. It should not become an opportunity to humiliate or gloat. Instead, a rebuke, if properly intended and given, becomes an act of affirmation and love, an affirmation that the person is worth the effort in the first place, and a faith that he or she remains capable of improvement. Offered with love and a sense of humility, a rebuke is a gift and a challenge. Without our friends, colleagues and families willing to point out our own errors of judgment or action, we all blind ourselves to our own faults and to those aspects of reality we don’t want to see. Each of us depends on the caring of others, their courage to articulate disappointment in our action, as the indispensable prerequisite to self-improvement and refinement.
“We cannot afford to wait for the perfect, loving hero to point out our flaws. Instead, we rely on those around us, family and friends, to act as our early warning system, pointing out moral failure and ethical obtuseness before it is too late to improve. But when they do, we must be able to really listen.”


These three poems are based on the structure of an English language Haiku which is a very short poem following, to a greater or lesser extent, the form and style of the Japanese haiku. Traditional haiku consist of 17 syllables in three phrases of 5, 7 and 5 respectively. Japanese Haiku are often written on one line, while English Haiku are frequently written in three lines.
Haiku has become a term sometimes loosely applied to any short, impressionistic poem, but there are certain characteristics that are commonly associated with the genre. The first English Haiku is considered to have been written in the early 20th century while Japanese Haiku date back to the 17th century.

Bo: Marking time

This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.” (Shemot 12:1-2)

Is this how you eat?
No time together
for questions
and answers
no time to recline
dip twice and savor;
in haste to move on
eyes on the cell phone
awaiting the call
the master controls
the slave is not free.

Rashi, the medieval French commentator (1040-1105), in the very first comment he makes on the Torah, asks why the Torah in Bereishit opens with an account of creation. He quotes Rabbi Isaac who said, “The Torah, which is the law book of Israel, should have commenced with the verse, “This month will be the first of months to you,” (Shemot 12:1) which is the first commandment given to Israel.” So we wonder, what is the unusual significance of this particular mitzvah, which appears in this week’s  parasha, Bo, of marking the beginning of months from Nisan, the month of redemption; why was it suggested that it be chosen as the first commandment out of the 613 mitzvot enumerated in the Torah?

The Etz Hayim commentary notes, “One of the first steps in the process of liberation was for the Israelites to have their own calendar, their own way of keeping track of time and recalling the most important days of their people’s history. A slave does not control his or her own time; it belongs to someone else. [Rabbi Samson Raphael] Hirsch (1808-1888) wrote that “the Jewish calendar is the Jewish catechism,” for it is the most concise summary of what we remember and what we stand for.”

In a commentary on Parashat Bo,, Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz cites Ovadia ben Yaakov Sforno, (c.1475-1550) on this same verse, “From this point on, the coming months will be your months, to do with them as you wish — according to your desires. In contrast, during the many days of your enslavement, “your” days were not your days. For those days were devoted to the work of others and according to their will. Therefore, this is the first of the months of the year for you. For from this very point begins your new reality of free choice.” Rabbi Berkowitz notes “Sforno distills the import of the first commandment gifted to the Israelites. Far from simply being a new counting of the months for this nascent nation, it is a command that speaks to the heart of identity, time, and freedom. With their newly found redemption, the Israelites must now live according to their precepts, their rhythm, and their festivals. The rules and regulations of their Egyptian taskmasters are now irrelevant — part of an oppressive past that has opened itself to new possibilities. With the gift of freedom and ownership, however, also comes the burden of responsibility. The Israelites must now learn to sanctify themselves and their time. It is a task that is easier said than done. As Ahad Ha’Am famously said, “The real task, the most difficult task, has still to be commenced. Pharaoh is gone, but the work remains; the master has ceased to be master, but the slaves have not ceased to be slaves.” (Contemporary Jewish Thought: A Reader [1963], 42).”

In a commentary on Parashat Bo from 2003,, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson points out that the parasha contains the last set of plagues with which God afflicts the Egyptians, culminating in the Exodus from Egypt. He notes that between the first nine plagues and the last one, the Torah suddenly digresses with a declaration about Pesach which starts with God telling Moses that this month will mark the beginning of the months for the Children of Israel.
Rabbi Shavit Artson asks, “What does God tell us by identifying this as the beginning of the months? And what does the phrase “for you” add? If it’s the first month, isn’t it the first month for everyone? In fact, this verse invites us to contemplate the nature of time itself, and how we mark the passage of time.”
He points out that aside from the objective passage of time, the sages teach that the words “for you” suggest that specifically as a people, we are called upon to remember constantly the significance of this month which marks the beginning of our redemption from enslavement and our covenant with God Who wrought our liberation.
He cites the Midrash, the Mechilta, “When the moon renews itself, it will be the beginning of the month for you,” which he says is teaching us that “we do possess the power and vision to redirect our energies, to refocus our goals. Learning to recognize the present as an opportunity for new beginnings is essential to a life well lived. We need not be trapped by our past.”
He brings a teaching by the Ramban (1194-c1270) who reminds us “we remember the exodus from Egypt in our counting.” Rabbi Shavit Artson points out that throughout the year, on Sabbaths and Festivals, mention is made of the Exodus from Egypt, not just as a historical reference, but “as a living reality at the core of Jewish life.” The Exodus is the beginning, not because of chronology only, but because redemption is at the the heart of the Jewish story.
He adds, “Time passes with or without reflection. But a life of wisdom is the result of attending to time, of uncovering the significance of the passing ages. By drawing our attention to the miracle of freedom, by identifying that freedom as the essential core of Jewish identity and human heritage, the Torah bids us to live the lives of free women and men, rejoicing in God’s gift of liberty and spreading that light to others as well.”
Rabbi Shavit Aronson continues, “Personal renewal and national character come together in this recognition that time passes for all people, but how we experience that passage is shaped by what we bring to it, and the attention we pay. Jewish time is always measured by how far we have come from our time of enslavement, by how far we have moved toward the freedom that is ours as a gift. Synthesizing the personal and the communal, Judaism offers a tool for paying attention to the unique promise of each moment.”

In a commentary on Parashat Bo,, from 2004, Rabbi Joshua Heller notes that the eve of the Exodus, as depicted in Parashat Bo and as we reenact it on the night of the Pesach Seder, contains a seemingly contradictory mix of labor and leisure. On the one hand, as the Mishnah (Pesachim 10:1) teaches, on the seder night, “even the poorest in Israel should not eat until he reclines, ” – for then, reclining signified leisure. And yet, we eat matzah, the bread of poverty and affliction. He notes, “In ancient times, having more than one “tavlin” (dipping sauce), was a sign of luxury, and yet even as we dip twice, one of the things that we dip is bitter herb, and one of the sauces is salt water. This contradiction has its beginnings in this week’s parashah, Bo, which describes the Paschal sacrifice (the true first seder) and carries through to a central paradox in modern life.”
Rabbi Heller notes that on the eve of the Exodus, the Children of Israel are instructed to offer a sacrifice and sit and eat together in families while outside, the Angel of Death moves through Egypt. “This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste.” (Shemot 12:11) He points out that the word for haste, “hipazon” has undertones of distress or panic, as in Devarim 20:3 and II Samuel 4:4. The picture, says Rabbi Heller, is far from one of a relaxed family meal. But, he adds, “the same chapter sends mixed signals. Just a verse earlier (12:10), God had commanded the Jewish people, “You shall not leave any of it over until morning.” Those who are poor and hungry and don’t know where their next meals will come from will try to defy instinct and save a bit for next time. It’s only the wealthy and comfortable who can afford to throw food away and not bother with the leftovers. Furthermore, a bit later in the same parashah, (12:45) after the description of the Israelites’ departure from Egypt, God issues a further commandment that the bones of the Paschal lamb must not be broken. Leaving the bones intact is also described by many commentators as a sign of luxury. If you’ve got plenty, you don’t have to rush to suck the marrow out of life. You can, as it were, just order another rack of lamb. Even as the Israelites depart, they bring with them all manner of luxury goods borrowed from their neighbors.”
Rabbi Heller suggests that the Rabbis who enacted the Seder played down this contrast by dispensing with the elements of haste and panic. He cites two examples from the Talmud. The first is from Pesachim 96b, on the command to eat in haste, “You shall eat this one in haste, but not in the future.” The second from Pesachim 116a discusses the concept of “lechem oni” which is generally translated “the bread of poverty and affliction” but here the Rabbis denote it as “lechem she’onim alav“- meaning “the bread over which one answers questions.” He says, “Indeed, the seder in its rabbinic conception took as its template the Greek symposium, a philosophical talk-feast where the wealthy would spend an evening reclining on couches, drinking wine and eating a multi-course meal while discussing a topic of intellectual interest.”
Rabbi Heller adds, “The tension between labor and leisure is not reserved only for the Israelites who huddled in their huts on the eve of redemption, or even only for those who will rise from reclining to check the brisket at this year’s seder. It is not even reserved solely for Jews. Rather, it is one of the hallmarks of our modern society. America is probably the wealthiest nation in the history of humankind, with comforts and conveniences today that our grandparents could never have imagined. We live in a country of cellphones and satellite TV, but we have found that comfort only through haste, hipazon.”
He traces the hours a laborer might have worked throughout the ages, noting that according to the Talmud, a contemporary worker 1800 years ago might have worked seventy-two hours a week: dawn to dusk, twelve hours, six days a week. He compares this with the situation at the turn of the twentieth century, when the regular workweek was about sixty hours, and over the next hundred years  was reduced to about forty. He notes, though, “Over the past decade, the decline has reversed itself, and not just for those at the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. The once-wide plateau between wealth and poverty has become a more slippery slope, so that at many levels of the scale, it now takes two incomes or more, or longer work hours, to support a family in a lifestyle that includes most modern conveniences. ”
However, the ongoing rise in bankruptcies indicates that many people are aspiring to a lifestyle that is increasingly difficult to maintain. He quotes the research of Elizabeth Warren, a former Harvard Law School professor specializing in bankruptcy law, which suggests that for various reasons, multi-income families may, paradoxically, find themselves in situations more precarious than those with a single income. Rabbi Heller says, “Whatever the other societal advantages and disadvantages of two-career families, adding another job doubles, rather than halves, the instability of uncertain times. Even for those who succeed, the boundaries between home and work are evaporating, thanks to innovations like pagers, cellphones and e-mail, and the increase in round-the-clock commerce.
“So, we may finish everything put before us at the seder, but the rest of the year, dinner may mean grabbing leftovers at odd hours rather than sitting down to a family meal. We may have no Paschal sacrifice whose bones must remain unbroken, but other factors may still prevent us from sucking the marrow out of life. The characteristic of the eved, the slave, as opposed to the free man, is that he is always available to his master. In fact, the lowest point of avdut Mitzraim, the Egyptian oppression, says the Talmud (Sotah 11a), was when Pharoah found ways to make work interfere with the family lives of the Israelites.
Rabbi Heller cautions against viewing the past as idyllic, compared with today. He points out that in next week’s parasha, we will read how the Children of Israel, out in the wilderness, have apparently forgotten the misery and bitterness of slavery and look back yearningly on their life in Egypt, “…we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread!” (Shemot 16:3)
He concludes, “Perhaps, in mixing feelings of luxury and slavery on that very first seder night, God sought to remind the Israelites that it is possible to be surrounded by the signs of physical comfort, but still be enslaved. Perhaps, too, the story of the Exodus, and its retelling in this week’s parashah and at the seder several months hence, can remind us, too, to rethink our definitions of slavery and luxury. Slavery is living one’s life in hipazon, in hurry, in concern, even though one might be living well, surrounded by the financial spoils of Egypt. Luxury, and freedom, is being able to sit back at a meal, even if it is made of leftovers, even if it is Lehem Oni.”