A Passover Sermon

Nissan 5762

By Rabbi Dr. Zalman Kossowsky

Zurich, Switzerland


Dear Friends, and  landsleit from Zelva, Dereczin and Volkovysk,

I have been preparing and giving sermons now for more than 30 years, but I must admit that finding the proper words  this year has been one of the most challenging that I can recall.

 I am sitting and writing this draft exactly 9 days before Pesach, but I have been mulling over these ideas for a while.  Obviously the situation around us, especially in Israel, is fraught with danger.  No one seems to have a good solution that will truly solve the problems that face us.  The hatred seems implacable and the threat of destructions seems very real.  Yet the refrain that keeps running through my mind comes from the Haggadah:


 /Ubku Ubh,Ictk vsnga thvu

 /Ubh,IKfk Ubhkg sng sckC sjt tÇa

/Ubh,IKfk Ubhkg ohsnIg rIsu rISõkfCa tKt

/osHn UbkhMn tUv QUrC aIsEvu


V'hi  she'amda  la'avoteynu  v'lanu  . . .  ela  sheb'chol  dor  vador  omdim  aleinu  l'chaloteynu  --  v'Hakadosh  Baruch  Hu  matzi'leynu  mi'yadam

This promise made to our fathers holds true also for us . . . In every generation oppressors have attempted to destroy us.  But the Holy One, Blessed be He, rescues us from their hands.

 And these are not just words in an ancient printed text.  They are also facts in our personal lives.  In recent times I have often wondered what thoughts passed through my late Father's k"z mind on that day in September 1939 when he had to jump on a bicycle and flee the Shtetl  of Zelva, where he was Rabbi, because the Communists were planning to take him that night into the forest and kill him.  Or did my mother k"z ever dream as she as she, her husband and daughter miraculously left Kaunas (Kovno) 13 months later, that she would need more than two sets of fingers and toes in order to count her descendents (not that she would ever do such a thing as 'count' her great-grandchildren).  And yes, there was a horrible price that was paid, on both the national as well as the individual level.  But 63 and one half years later, v"C  I am still here, talking to you, while Hitler and his Final Solution lie in the dust.  Yes, they are selling huge quantities of the Arabic version of 'Mein Kampf' but they too will pass into the dust, and our great-grandchildren will still be coming together to celebrate Pesach.  Hopefully in the rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem, but if not, then in Synagogues wherever they may be.

 Notwithstanding the above, we are all deeply troubled.  What shall we do?  What can we do?  A significant segment of the believing Jewish world came together on erev Rosh Chodesh, two weeks ago, in a day of fasting and prayer.  We pounded on the Gates of Heaven.  While I am convinced that the Almighty heard our prayers, as of now the dangers and threats are all still there.  And so I turned to the Chumash, because I have been taught, and I truly believe that it is so  --

ohbCk inhx - ,Ict hagn


ma'aseavot -- siman  la'banim  literally translated -- the acts of the Fathers are signposts for the children.  Or put into modern terminology -- there are macrocosmic and microcosmic cycles in life, and the acts of our ancestors form pathways down which we can travel.  And in this sense I went back to the story of that first Exodus because there is a phrase that keeps haunting me.

Ma  titz'ak  e'lai? G-d says:  Why do you cry out to me?  Dabeyr  el  B'nai  Yisrael  v'yisa'u speak to the children of Israel and let them move!

I cannot escape the conviction that there is a key here.  There is a siman -- a signpost for us the children of Israel of today.  So I try to understand the context and search the mefarshim the commentators because how can it be wrong to call out in our pain and fear to our Father in Heaven?  I read the whole chapter, I recommend it to you, it is Chapter 14 in Sefer  Shemot the Book of Exodus at the beginning of Parshat Beshalach.

 Moshe has triumphantly led the People out of the Land of Egypt and they have marched three days into the desert.  G'd appears to Moshe and tells him to stop and turn back towards Egypt so that the Egyptians will become convinced that the Israelites are confused and terrified of the desert and will chase after them.  'Why?'  'Because there is still a reckoning outstanding that needs to be settled!'  The Israelites listen and turn back and camp along the seashore where the Egyptian horde overtakes them.  The Bnai Yisrael look up and see the overpowering armored might of Egypt thundering down at them -- va'yir'u  me'od -- and they become very frightened and they cry out to Hashem and they say to Moshe -- 'why did you take us out of Egypt? . . . are there not enough graves in Egypt that you have brought us out here to die?  And Moshe tries to calm them and tells them not to loose heart, but to stand up and be ready to see the salvation that Hashem will bring.

That, briefly, is the context till the end of Verse 14.

 I believe that it is not difficult to see the pattern of our moment in history as a reflection of that first event.  The pogroms of Europe culminating in the horror of Hitler's attempted Final Solution being followed immediately by the miracle of the renaissance of the establishment of the State of Israel, the reishit  tzmichat  ge'ulatenu -- the dawn of the Deliverance are also reflections of the horrors of Egypt followed by the miracle of the Exodus.  But then too, the path to Promised Land is tortuous.  There are all sorts of reckonings that are still open and need to be settled and in this process there are many moments of terror and indecision to be experienced by the Bnai Yisrael.  So it is also for our People today.  We may be physically within the borders of the Promised Land, but neither our neighbors nor even the nations of the world are ready to accept that we have the right to be there.  (In this context there is a wondrous Midrash that tells of the 4 different schools of thought that developed amongst the Israelites regarding the optimal response to the Egyptian threat -- but that would make this sermon even longer that it is).

Then comes Verse 15 which I quoted earlier - Ma  titz'ak  e'lai?

Most of the commentators grapple with this verse.  However, in my moment of need now, I resonate especially to the comments of the Or  Ha'Chayim by R. Chaim ibn Atar (1696 -- 1743) who was the leader the Moroccan Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisrael at the beginning of the 18th century.

'Why not call to G'd in a time of trouble?  To whom else shall we call?  And why shall we stop calling before we are saved?  And where shall we travel to if the sea had not yet split?'

Therefore he suggests the following reading of Hashem's statement:: 

Ma  titz'ak  e'lai?  Moshe, do not call out to me.  I wish to help you and the Bnai Yisrael.  But they need to make the opening for the blessing to come to them.  They need to strengthen the forces of chesed and rachamim.  THEY NEED TO BEGIN TO MOVE !!!

 'How much?' we ask.  'To where?' we ask. 

'me'at  me'at' says the Ibn Ezra, 'small steps, but move in the right direction -- towards the sea.'


'But what is the right direction for us, today?' I ask myself.  'What is our yam  suf -- our Sea of Reeds today?'


And then the answer came back, echoing from the last verse of the prophetic vision of the Isaiah who foresaw this moment and whose message we read on the Shabbat before Tisha b'Av.

vesmC vhcJu vsPT yPJnC iIHm

Zion  b'mishpat  ti'pa'deh -- v'sha'veha  bi'tzedaka

Zion -- the State -- shall be redeemed through Justice, and those who return to her -- with Tzedaka!

 My friends, we tend to think of Tzedaka as charity, as money.  Let us not forget that the first time the term appears in the Torah it is in another context entirely.

In Chap. 15 of Sefer Bereishit -- of Genesis -- Hashem appears to Avraham in a vision and tells him:  'Fear not, Avram, for I am with you.  I am your shield.  Great will be your reward.'  To which Avram responds:  'L'rd what can you give me.  I have no children!'

To which Hashem reacts by taking him outside and showing him the stars and promising that 'his descendants, too, would be as numerous.' (Verse 6):

:vesm IK vcJjHu h"hC intvu


 v'he'e'min  ba'shem -- vayach'she'veha  lo  tzedaka

 And he believed in Hashem -- who considered this to him a 'tzedaka'.

Therefore, my friends, for us who wish to return to Zion today, our target to which Hashem is saying today - Dabeyr  el  B'nai  Bisrael  v'yisa'u  begins with believing firmly in the Promise and its fulfilment EVEN IN THE ABSENCE of evidence as to how it shall occur!

 But that is ONLY THE BEGINNING.  There is still the chesed and the rachamim that is commonly associated with the term.  It has to do with how we relate to our fellow man.  How we share in his or her needs and tzorres.  How we respond.  We are not being called upon, I believe, to perform major acts --  'me'at  me'at' says the Ibn Ezra, 'small steps' to which I would add -- 'but each and every day!!!!'

We know that the second Temple was destroyed because of sin'at  chinam  -  senseless hatred.  The antidote, therefore, is acts of 'senseless kindness'.  Be kind to the next person -- not because of something that you want from them or have the need to give to them, but simply because they are there.  Because they too, like you, are created b'tzelem  elokim -- in the image of G'd.

 There is one final element in this movement towards our personal yam  suf   our Sea or Reeds -- that may be hard for some of us today, after 353 murdered and 3,244 even more brutally and cold-bloodedly wounded and mutilated brothers and sisters in Israel, and that is to accept and understand that at the Seder, when we recount the Ten Plagues that Hashem visited upon Egypt, even the most 'right wing' among us will take off a drop of wine from the Cup of Blessing for each Plague.  Nor will any of us dare to say the 'Halel  Ha'Shalem' the 'Full Hallel' during the second half of Pesach.

 My friends -- G'd anxiously awaits our next move.  YOUR next move.

 He cannot move BEFORE we do !!!!

 Please  --  help G'd help us.

 Then indeed this will be, in this year -  a chag  sameach.