Oz Torah: The tug of war – a Pesach prelude



The Midrash compares birth with death. It says that when we are born our hands are clenched: we start life wanting to grasp things. When we die our fingers open: we can no longer grab or grasp anything; our seizing days are over.

The message is that human beings have an instinct to get hold of things. Desire and acquisition are part of our nature. That is, our original nature.

Our social, moral and educational training teach us the opposite lesson, namely control. Not only in regard to possessions, where we find that we can’t have everything, especially if it isn’t ours, but also in regard to experiences.

Control tells us that though many things are attractive, we can’t always have them, or else our health and balance are at risk. Shakespeare said, “To be or not to be – that is the question”. The Torah message is, “To have or not to have – that is the question”.

Pesach symbolises the dilemma. We want chametz but can’t always have it. Does that curtail our freedom? It does, but the only way to have freedom is to control it.


The seder pulls us in two directions at once. It’s a tug of war between Exodus and enslavement.

One minute we groan beneath the weight of oppression, the next we are exultant at being free. One minute we eat the bread of affliction, the next we drink the wine of joy. One minute it is Avadim Hayinu, the next Chad Gadya.

There is a conflict of emotions – anger at the Egyptians, gratitude to the Divine Redeemer.

A kaleidoscope of personal memories – Pesach when Grandpa was alive, bitterness at his passing; seder when the childish voice said its first Mah Nishtanah, excitement to see how the baby has blossomed.

We are led this way and that, forward and back, to pleasure and pain – it can’t be Pesach without the tug of war and the tug of warmth.

On one thing we are all united, at one: no human being has the right to degrade or demonise another, no human being should ever have to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”.


There are many explanations as to what makes the rasha a “wicked” son. Most focus on his words,

“What does this service mean to you?”

People think he is mocking old-fashioned rituals that have long since lost their point. What the interpreters often fail to recognise, however, is that the wicked son is not a hundred per cent wicked. When he mocks the traditional ritual, he is not necessarily saying that it never had a point. His view can be taken as saying,

“I can see that it had meaning in the past, but surely we have outgrown such things”.

He is also saying,

“Some people can’t manage without rituals, but aren’t we more advanced intellectually these days, perfectly capable of handling ideas without tokens, totems and traditions?”

The Haggadah’s response is a verse that says the Pesach ritual was ordained by God, not just for the post-Exodus generation, but as a permanent feature of Judaism.

The implication? Not only is the ritual the word of God, but it answers a permanent need in human psychology, to have symbols of abstract concept and not to imagine that man can live on ideas without analogies and active reminders.


The usual explanation of the four cups of wine is that there are four promises of salvation in Ex. 6, each cup being a toast to the fulfilment of one of the promises. There is a fifth promise,

“I will bring you in (to the Promised Land)”,

which has only partly been fulfilled, so some say that a fifth cup should be placed on the table but not (yet) drunk.

Yet matzah is the chief food at the seder, so why not have four matzot for the four promises?

Matzah would be inappropriate because it is the bread of affliction; the three matzot are for other reasons.

To toast the fulfilment of promises of redemption we need something which symbolises joy, and that, according to Psalm 104:15, is wine: “Wine rejoices the heart of man”.


All chametz must be removed before Pesach: the rule is,

“No leaven shall be found in your house” (Ex. 13:19), i.e. “in your possession”.

A thorough search for chametz is carried out by night – the Mishnah says, “by the light of a lamp”.

By this stage our spring cleaning has been done, but there is always a chance of finding chametz in a nook or cranny. The search is valid even if nothing is found, but to help it along there is a custom of taking ten hard pieces of chametz and placing them around the house where they can be discovered, though the search is valid without them.

The custom is referred to in Isserles’ glosses to the Shulchan Aruch (OC 432:2) and is said to allude to the ten sons of Haman, who were their father’s henchmen and had to be removed. The link between Purim and Pesach symbolises the chain that binds the whole Jewish year. The ten pieces ensure that there will be some chametz to destroy.

The search is done by the light of a lamp because of the verse,

“The spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord, searching all the inward parts” (Prov. 20:27).

Just as the soul lights up the body and identifies the failings in a person’s life, so the Lamp of the Lord peruses every corner of the Creation, with nothing escaping its scrutiny; likewise, every home must check to see if anything untoward is present.

Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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One comment

  1. In my family we use an idiosyncratic “Family” Hagadah. The project was begun by my father z”l and I have tinkered with it, myself, over the years. It serves as the spine for our seder. We go round the table reading either from this basic text supplemented with additional readings taken from the multiple other haggadot always to hand. Lots of singing and lots of discussion.

    The modern iterations of the arbah banim are always in attendance. Remarkable how these texts remain “Permanently True”; irrespective of whether or not they are literally true.

    Prompted by one such Rasha, I added this to our family’s version.

    “The second child is mentioned in Exodus 12:26. This child says: “What does this holiday mean to you”? This child says: “. . .to you.” as though it had nothing to do with him. He denies his connection to his heritage. For this reason the Rabbis called this child “Wicked”.
    But , perhaps they are mistaken. This child’s question can also be understood as a challenge. “Why do your actions not rise to the level of your speech?”
    He should hear this story so that he knows that he is one with all Jews everywhere; past as well as present. In his lifetime he will yet learn that their sufferings were his sufferings and that their joys and ideals are his as well. He should be shown that reminding ourselves or our ideals, and their connection to our heritage, is the only hope we have of ever attaining them.”

    A zissen un koshern Pesach to all.