Who Walks In? Thoughts on Pesach in Memory of Niot Watzman z”l

From the Tzav-Pesach 2017 issue of Shabbat Shalom, the weekly Torah portion sheet published by Oz Veshalom. The Hebrew version can be foundon the Oz Veshalom website

Haim Watzman

Each Seder night, at the beginning of the Maggid, the telling of the story of the Exodus, we declare “Ha lahma anya,” “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.” We then make another declaration: “Kol dikhfin,” “Let all come eat, all who are needy come and partake of our Pesach offering.” The first mention of matzah is followed immediately by an invitation to anyone who may be passing by to join us, not just for the holiday meal but also to participate in fulfilling the commandment of telling the story of the Exodus and eating the Pesach sacrifice. The “all” of “kol dikhfin” are at poor people who do not have the means to conduct a Seder themselves. (While most English translations render “Let all who are hungry come eat,” the “who are hungry” is an interpretive gloss not present in the Aramaic.)

A question immediately arises: why do we make this declaration on Pesach, as part of the ritual? After all, on every holiday, indeed every day, we are subject to the commandments of charity and hospitality.

This invitation to the hungry to sit down at our Seder table caused a measure of discomfort among commentators on the Haggadah. According to the laws of the Pesach sacrifice, a person cannot simply be asked to partake of a particular Paschal lamb. The Torah commands: “But if the household is too small for a lamb, let him share one with a neighbor who dwells nearby, in proportion to the number of persons: you shall contribute for the lamb according to what each household will eat” (Exodus 12:4, New JPS). The Sages learned from this verse that the Pesach sacrifice “is not eaten except by those subscribed to it” (Mishnah Zevahim 5:8). A person needs to have been included in a company of people who have subscribed to the same lamb before it is sacrificed; if he has not, he many not eat its meat at the Seder in fulfillment of the laws of Pesach. If that is the case, how can a person be brought into our Seder at the last minute, after the sacrifice has been made and we are sitting and reading the Haggadah?

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The Missing Center — Thoughts on the Seder in Memory of My Son Niot

niot pictures 226Haim Watzman
My annual meditation on Pesach and the Seder, in memory of my son Niot on the fifth anniversary of his death, written for Shabbat Shalom, the weekly Torah sheet published by the religious peace group Oz VeShalom–Netivot Shalom.
לגרסת המקור בעברית

A void yawns at the heart of the Haggadah, at the very center of the Seder. All we speak of on this long night leads to the central ritual precept—the eating of the Pesach sacrifice. We tell the story of the Exodus, sing “Dayenu” and, in obedience to Rabban Gamiliel, cite the three items that, if unmentioned, prevent us from having fulfilled the obligations of the Seder. Then we move from speech into action—we eat matzah, we eat maror. But there is no Pesach sacrifice to for them to be eaten with.

At the time of the twentieth-century return to Zion, there were calls to resume the Pesach sacrifice. A halakhic polemic ensued. Rabbis and scholars traded fine distinctions regarding the laws of sacrifices, of the Temple, of the priests, but very few of them spoke explicitly about what it would mean to turn the great nullity of the Seder night into a manifest presence.

Sefer HaAggadah offers a surprising midrash about Pharaoh on the night of the smiting of the first-born. The source is Midrash Tanhuma, but Bialik’s and Ravnitzky’s version offers a more potent vision: “Pharaoh went among his servants, from door to door, placing each one in his retinue, and walked with them that night down every street and called out ‘Where is Moses? Where does he live?’”

I want to focus on that picture, not on the story as a whole. The picture has two elements: first, just prior to the Exodus from Egypt—that is, on the first Seder night—Pharaoh leaves his home. He goes from door to door like a beggar seeking bread and the warmth of a home and a family.

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The Question of Questions

Haim Watzman

Seder night four years ago was my last night with my younger son, Niot, who died in a diving accident a few days later. Each year I write a dvar Torah for “Shabbat Shalom,” the weekly Torah portion sheet published by Oz VeShalom-Netivot Shalom. The Hebrew version can be found here.

The Four Questions appear in the Hagadah as a preface to the Maggid, the telling of the Pesach story. They stand as prototypes of the questions that are meant to be asked during the entire Seder night. The evening’s unusual observances are intended, in part, to elicit questions, especially from the young people sitting around the table.

Some two decades ago, when my children were small, I was able to observe any number of times how effective this strategy is. One year we decided to adopt a custom with its source in the Talmud—to clear the table of the Pesach plate and matzot immediately after yahatz, the breaking of the middle matzah. The source of the custom comes from the school of Rabbi Yanai: “Why is the table cleared? Said the school of Rabbi Yanai: so that the children will see it and ask [why].” At that Seder, my younger son, Niot, who was preoccupied with his own affairs during the previous stages of Kadesh, Urhatz, Karpas, and Yahatz, suddenly noticed that something was happening and asked in a loud voice: “Why are you doing that?” By asking a spontaneous question, he had fulfilled his duty and we thus did not require him to chant the official Four Questions, an honor he happily passed on to someone else.

Niot’s question is, in fact, the question of questions, and is a much harder one to answer than the prescribed kushiyot.

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A Him to him — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

My Dear Herr Kapellmeister,

It’s spring here in Jerusalem. Fields, yards, and the few vacant lots that remain in this increasingly overbuilt city are burgeoning with blood-red anemones. Two weeks ago, Ilana and I visited a hill not too far away that is carpeted with purple lupines, growing over the ruins of an ancient city. The flowers perfume the air and after each of the rainy season’s final drizzles the soil itself smells alive.

     illustration by Pepe Fainberg

     illustration by Pepe Fainberg

Perhaps spring came late in Leipzig in 1727. How else to explain the sorrow of that opening chord in the organ and strings, the melody that rises, then falls as if it can go on no longer, only to rise again? Why, if your Redeemer died for your sins, did you sigh rather than celebrate? Why, if the equinox had passed and the day was already longer than the night, did you have the choir, entering just as the instrumental melody comes to rest, stun me with a wail of helplessness, of hopelessness, “Come ye daughters, share my lament—see him!”

Yes, I know, “Him,” with a capital H. A big Him for you, a little him for me.

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Other Nights — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

illustration by Avi Katz

“This night is no different from other nights,” says Pharaoh, “True, on previous nights I have had a son, and on this night I do not. But this is not relevant to what I must do now.”

“This time sounds different from other times,” says Mozart, “for in previous times I did not have a son, and now I do.”

What time is it? I write this two days before the Seder night. It will reach its readers a few days before Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers.

It is not a good time, I tell the friend who sits down next to me on the row of chairs outside the sanctuary. I have a glossed Haggadah open on my lap. I am trying to prepare for this year’s Seder, to think of how to retell, once more, the Exodus from Egypt and the crossing of the sea. Pesach is next week and my son Niot, who was a soldier, will have been dead for a year. The earth has circled the sun a single time since the last Seder, which was the last night he was with us. We are cleaning and preparing once more to eat matzah and bitter herbs and tell again the story of how we came out of Egypt. Two and a half weeks later we will again remember the fallen soldiers. But this year is different, for there is a newly fallen soldier to remember, and he is my son.

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Driving Louella — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Thanks to the editors at the Jerusalem Report for permitting me to post this before the current issue reaches subscribers, so that you can read this story before Pesach.

This is the story I tell my family every Seder night.

When I was about two years old, soon after my little brother Saul was born, my mother fell ill and was hospitalized for a time. My father, then covering City Hall for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, couldn’t handle a toddler and a baby on his own.

illustration by Avi Katz
My memories of that time are fuzzy around the edges, pervaded by a soft light like an ambient dawn. But they are real impressions of a time when I was journeying into consciousness, not long after I learned to talk, to turn feelings into words. In them my gaze is always directed upward, for nearly everything is bigger than me. Our modest suburban ranch house thus remains huge in my minds eye, centered on an endless corridor that had to be crossed to get from my bedroom to Mommy’s and Daddy’s, and to be run down to escape into the light of our living room with its wall-sized picture window. A troop of monsters, led by a sour-smelling pig, lived in a cavity in the corridor’s wall. At night they threatened to devour me.

Daddy needed a live-in nanny for us. In the late 1950s, in Cleveland, this meant a black woman from downtown. A series of matrons in long skirts and aprons made an appearance and then vanished. Sally said we were too noisy, Emma that we lived too far out. Cynthia simply stopped coming, without prior notice. In a dream from that time a dozen of them enter and leave the house in a line, like models on a fashion show runway.

Then Louella came and stayed. Dark, broad, taciturn, and creased, she was stern when that was required but smiled easily. She was very old, older than my grandmothers. She had sons and daughters and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Sometimes she’d bring one of them, a Joe or a Lloyd, to unplug a pipe or fix a fixture. She told us that her parents had been slaves in the south. She slept in the house’s third bedroom, which served during the day as a playroom for my brother and me.

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Remembering Slavery

Haim Watzman

Adi Nes, Abraham and Isaac
Adi Nes: Abraham and Isaac
Jews who grew up in the Diaspora and have raised children in Israel face a challenge at the Pesach Seder every year. The text of the Hagadah, and the spirit of the holiday, call on us to remember that we were slaves in Egypt, strangers in a strange land, outsiders. I grew up as a member of a minority. My children, on the other hand, have grown up as members of a majority that rules over a disadvantaged minority population. When I was a child, Pesach was my favorite holiday—its message resonated strongly with who I was. On Seder night, my own children clearly have a hard time seeing themselves as Others.
At this year’s Seder I’m going to focus particularly on this message. Fortuitously, I’ll have the help of a booklet of supplementary Hagadah readings published by Bema’agei Tzedek, an Israeli social and economic justice organization. Called Kriya L’Seder: A Call to Order! (and available only in Hebrew at present), the book let offers materials that seek to link the Jewish people’s experience of slavery and liberation to the injustices we see around us today.
Specifically, the booklet reminds us that slavery has neither vanished nor retreated to the far, benighted corners of the earth. As Israelis, we benefit from the labor of exploited foreign workers and maintain a law enforcement system that has allowed our country to become a world center for sexual slavery. Slaves, in short, are all around us.

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Rav and Shmuel at the Gym: How Should We Begin the Passover Seder?

Between sets of arm curls, Nahum walks over to me and says, “You’re familiar with the disagreement between Rav and Shmuel about the way the Seder should begin?”

Nahum doesn’t look like the kind who works on his biceps—he’s a slender guy in his mid-thirties who wears a black kipah and glasses. He resembles a teacher at a religious high school here in Jerusalem, which in fact he is.

But Nahum, like me, is a regular at the small weight room at the Jerusalem Pool on Emek Refa’im Street. We get a diverse crowd—men and women, jocks and schoolteachers, retired people and teenagers, Jews and Arabs, religious and non-religious; there’s even a macho ultra-Orthodox guy who lets out whoops when he lifts—but I’ll save him for another story.

The conversation, like the crowd, can come from all directions. Nahum is referring to the two leading Babylonian rabbis of the third century CE, whose disputes form part of the first layer of the Gemara, the Talmudic discussions of the laws laid down in the earlier Mishna. The Torah commands the Jews to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt at a discussion-meal conducted by families on the first night of Pesach (Passover). Rav and Shmuel disagreed on how to begin telling the story, and their disagreement is recorded in the Haggadah, the book forms the framework of the Seder night.

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