A ‘three-ply’ Passover

By Rabbi Max Weiman

A “three-ply” cord is not easily broken. 

Historians have often asked, “Why are the Jews still here keeping Judaism? What makes them eternal?” Judaism has three traditions woven together that make for a fierce combination. This is one of the reasons for our immortality.

Tradition #1  We call them Tanach and Talmud. Historian Paul Johnson says, “The Jews were above all historians…developed the power to write terse and dramatic historical narrative half a millennium before the Greeks….achieved a degree of perception and portraiture which even the best Greek and Roman historians couldn’t manage.” We have an historical record of the Jewish society filled with dates, facts, and people going back to ancient times. The modern Jewish periodicals Hamodia and Mishpacha magazine (that make a mess in my living room each week) often carry vignettes of European communities or the history of a unique Jewish community in Latin America.  Why? Because this is in our kishkas. We Israelites still document what is happening to us wherever we are. And we always have. Or as Johnson put it, “They were the first to create consequential, substantial and interpretative history.” We don’t just record our past for posterity; we analyze it to learn lessons from it – to be better people and maybe to avoid a Cossack smashing through the door. 

Despite the fact that the Torah’s main goal is to be a spiritual guide book – its historical content is adscititious, yet it also contains a chronicle of Jewish society through to the Second Temple, and then the Talmud takes over recording 60 volumes of ethics that also contains a wealth of details, dates, people, what we wore, ate, talked about for five hundred years. The goal is become holy, but by the way, the Babylonian Jews 1700 years ago commonly ate salty sour cream with moldy bread.

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As a member of this society, you can personally trace your cultural lineage back thousands of years.

Tradition #2  Love humanity. Be kind to animals. Don’t ruin the environment. The wisdom of the Torah can be traced back as having been given in written form, and explained orally from student to teacher, student to teacher in an unbroken chain from you through your teacher all the way back to Moshe. Every generation had one holy sage to transmit the tradition. The first person was Moshe, then Joshua in 1300 BCE, and each subsequent leader who was recognized as the leading sage at the time, like King David (900 BCE), Ezra (400 BCE), Hillel (40 CE), Rav (150 CE) and Rav Ashi (400CE) for example. Sometimes the top wise man was also king and/or a navi, but they always functioned as head of the Sanhedrin, and were called Av Beis Din.

A number of sages recorded this list of leaders like Maimonides (1100 CE) and Meiri (1300 CE).

Many times this tradition, called the mesora, was depleted. We lost a level of understanding when we no longer had prophecy. (350 BCE) We lost some of the tradition when we left Israel and were scattered throughout the globe. (70 CE) But the sages were pretty sharp guys, and with foresight canonized writings and codified teachings in a way that made the wisdom easily remembered, ensuring a unified religious practice all over the world and in every subsequent generation. Now we aren’t completely unified as a people. We can’t even agree on how to spell Chanukah, Hannukah,.. whatever. We no longer have one particular sage in charge of continuing this mesora, but we do still have leading sages that can trace their mesora back to a time when we did.

One day the smart phone in your hand will be considered ancient and archaic. That’s technology; it keeps improving. But spirituality is the same as it always was. If you’re not happy, it doesn’t matter how fancy your computer is. If you don’t love your spouse, what difference does it make what your IPhone can do?

Freud wrote, “We preserved our unity through ideas, and because of them we have survived to this day.” I would be more precise and say it is through the ideas of the Torah, the eternal principles of the Infinite, that when we adhere to them, we share in the eternity of them. As it says in the Zohar, “the Torah and the Almighty are one.” This is a very deep mystical idea. Too hot to handle.

As a student, you can personally trace your wisdom back, person to person, all the way to Moshe and Mt. Sinai.

Tradition #3 The family tradition, a cohesive unit that shares the values of the parents with the children. This we see most clearly on Pesach night at the Seder. The power of this event is palpable even to the most assimilated Jew. They sense the historical importance of this night. I still remember growing up and seeing the silver cup in front of me once a year with sickeningly sweet wine inside. But Manischewitz wine is not the real family tradition, the Exodus is.

While it is still a mitzvah to have a Seder even without children, it’s clear that Jewish Law underscores the children, and designs aspects of the Seder directly to the children, something not done on Shabbos or any other holiday. Why do we dip twice? So that little Sarah or Eli will ask the question. Why do we remove the Seder plate at the beginning? So that a kid will ask why? The Hagadah itself mentions four children, the four questions, and how a specific response is encouraged to match the nature of each child. And the Torah’s commandment regarding the Hagadah’s retelling of the story of the Exodus say’s “And you tell your child”. Not – tell your student. It’s a family tradition, your father tells you that his father told him, that his father told him…all the way back to Egypt that we were slaves in Egypt and the Almighty took us out with miracles and gave us the Torah. Even without children, we remind ourselves. This is our family tradition. Egypt. Mt. Sinai. The Torah. It all happened.

There are those that say that the reason this tradition was designed to be given father to child, is to instill belief based on the fact that children trust their parents more than anyone. If a parent tells a child, “This happened.” a child is ready to believe it. This way the tradition stays intact.

You can trace yourself child to parent, child to parent in an unbroken chain back to Egypt when we were taken out with miracles and given the Torah. If your own parent doesn’t have that tradition, you can still get it from a family that does and be “adopted” into their tradition. We are all one big family.

We have three traditions; all three give muscle, and validity to our common bond. This three ply cord is not easily broken. Keep up the tradition and have a happy Pesach.

Rabbi Max Weiman is director of Kabbalah Made Easy, Inc. editor of kabbalahmadeeasy.com, and author of several books including his latest on the Sefira period, “49 Things, 49 Days” Targum Press available on Amazon.com and Menuchapublishers.com