Notes on the Language of Renewal

Rav Yair Dreyfus • 2018

Re-encountering one’s childhood can awaken unpleasant feelings.Jew is called upon to open with condemnation: to see all the rejected, repressed sides, the roots of his failure.


“The deepest faith is in the question!”

When the time came for the kushyot (4 questions) on the seder night, the Izhbitzer Rebbe would scream out the questions. After all, what else but a roar could express the encounter with the sins of our youth, raw and exposed? The seder night is the experience of rock-bottom: meeting and recreating those dark spaces of a nation made ugly and lowly by slavery.

On the seder night, the Alter of Kelm, Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, would crawl on the floor, recreating the experience of working as a slave.

In general, re-encountering one’s childhood can awaken unpleasant feelings: shame, repression, condemnation. Every Jew is called upon to open with condemnation (פותח בגנות”): to see all the rejected, repressed sides, the roots of his failure. This is the first and essential expression for the subject who has been redeemed and is now seeking freedom. On this night, a Jew is not a private person. His personal suffering, the tormenting desire for freedom – these are incorporated into the greater story of Jewish existence.

How are we to be redeemed from the stories of our childhood, the sins of youth, the failures of the past?

How do we finish with praise (‘מסיים בשבח’)?

The answer is simple: moving inward with a compassionate eye and the wisdom of age, the ability to turn incidents of suffering and imprisonment into a narrative of maturity, one sustained by perspective and internal reconciliation.

This is coming to terms with the “לא כלום”, the “nothing” in the depths of the image. I remember the “nothing”, said the blind beggar in Rav Nachman’s story. The “nothing” is the empty space that awakens the point of origin, which is above all sin and wrongdoing. On the night of the seder, we are invited to the “nothing” of our being – not only as individuals, but as the hidden root of all of the Congregation of Israel, the shape of Jacob chiseled up above.

The compassionate, good eye of prophecy knows how to recount the story of the sins in the desert as wayward mistakes of youth – as a narrative of desire, of the relationship between a unique couple: the Congregation of Israel and the Holy One Blessed Be He.

So says God: I remembered the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride – how you went after me in the wilderness, in an unsown land (Jeremiah 2:2)

The devotion of your youth? Your love as a bride? But surely the Torah records otherwise! Think of the spies, the Golden Calf, the endless complaints!

But this sort of narrative – constructed out of our remembered biography – is neither nostalgic self-indulgence nor a romanticized cover-up of our flaws. It is an observation informed by the humility of old age, a perspective sobered by experiences of national suffering and persecution.

The point of departure for the night of the seder is hunger. Kol dichfin yeytey vyeychol. Anyone who is hungry, let him come and eat: awakening the imagination, rousing up desire. And the seder’s end point is satiety: the Pesach offering eaten with a full stomach, at the conclusion of the day, at a mature old age.

The seder’s beginning is the awakening of a father to son, son to father; its end is in the drunkenness of four cups of wine, cups of redemption which blur the borders between children and parents.

The seder begins with Maggid – with speech, the commandment to tell the story of the Exodus – and it ends with Nirtza, a melody above language and music, a taste of the redemption of the Song of Songs.

It begins with avoidance, a childish fear; it ends with consummation and coupling, and the melodies that resound in the end of days…

The true work of this evening is to rouse and to be awakened. As the Zohar says: “to include the left in the right.” To saturate our old-new ways with wonder and surprise:

Lift up your eyes and see Who created these… (Isaiah 40:26)

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