Short Tales

Jewish World Review

An unabridged lesson

Your Seder too long? Here's a Chassidic tale about the importance of keeping liturgy and customs intact --- with a nice commentary on a section of the Hagadah, to boot.

By Linda Feinberg | The Shpoler Zeide (1725-1812) was in a joyous mood as he sat down at the Seder table with his family in Ukraine. The table gleamed, the children glowed and even his rebbetzin -- rabbi's wife and helpmate -- sat with a contented, if tired, smile on her face.

After a final check that everything needed for the Seder was prepared, the great Chassidic master signaled for the children to start the ceremony with the traditional singing of the order of the Seder. When they were done, the Rebbe poured the Kiddush wine into his silver becher goblet and motioned for one of his younger sons, who had just begun cheder, formal schooling, to rise.

The child was confident that he had learned his lessons well, and so he happily sang out in a loud voice: "Kadesh: When Father comes home from the synagogue on Passover night, he must immediately recite the Kiddush."

Then the youngster sat down.

"Nu?" the Shpoler Zeide gently asked: "Why don't you finish the explanation?"

The boy looked at his father with a puzzled expression. "That's all my teacher taught us to say," he replied. "Didn't I say it well?"

"What you said, you said very well," the Shpoler Zeide replied, as he flashed a warm smile. He then proceeded to recite the Kiddush with a joyful heart.

Yet, as the Seder progressed, a nagging thought kept popping into the saint's mind: Why did my son's instructor change a time-honored tradition by shortening the children's lines?

For hundreds of years, schoolmasters had taught their charges to recite by heart short explanations that introduce each stage of the Seder ceremony. When the Shpoler Zeide's son was asked to introduce "Kadesh," the boy should have boomed: "Kadesh: When Father comes home from synagogue on Passover night, he must immediately recite the Kiddush, so that the little children will not fall asleep and they will ask the Four Questions beginning with Ma Nishtana."

The fact that the instructor had not taught his students the second half of the explanation troubled the Shpoler Zeide immensely. When the Rebbe saw that his son's teacher was one of the guests for the holiday meal the next morning, he asked the teacher to explain his behavior.

"The children are very young and it's hard for them to concentrate," the teacher replied matter-of-factly. "Because there is so much to learn, I decided to make it easier for them by cutting out some of the unnecessary parts. The second half of the explanation for Kadesh isn't really so important since we are all required to recite Kiddush early, even if there are no little children at the Seder."

The Shpoler Zeide looked at the instructor in shock.

"Who are you to decide what is important and what is not?" the Shpoler Zeide cried. "Are you wiser than the generations of schoolteachers who have come before you? If you understood the true meaning of these explanations, you wouldn't dare change so much as a syllable of what has come down to us through the ages. Every syllable of the Seder narrative has a deep, multi-level meaning."

It had certainly not been the teacher's intention to cause such a commotion --- either at the Rebbe's table, or Above. By now, though, it was becoming clear that his transgression had been very grave, indeed.

The other Chassidim who were gathered around the table, were clamoring for an explanation, and the Shpoler Zeide was just as eager to provide them with one. When it came to Seder Night, there was no such thing as a trivial custom.

"You will undoubtedly recall," the Shpoler Zeide began, "that in the Zohar it is written, 'Rav Chiya opened his discourse and said, 'I am asleep, but my heart is awake.' Thus says the House of Israel, 'I am asleep during the exile.'

"From Rav Chiya's explanation of these words from Song of Songs," the Rebbe continued, "we see that during the exile the Jews are unable to reach the higher levels of spiritual sensitivity -- it is as if they are asleep -- because they are pursued and afflicted by their enemies."

The Shpoler Zeide stopped speaking, and a heavy silence filled the room. The Chassidim were even more puzzled than before. What, after all, did this teaching from the Zohar, the mystical book of the Kabalah, have to do with youngsters singing at the Seder?

"When Father comes home from the synagogue on Passover night," the Shpoler Zeide sang out in a sing-song voice, "what does it mean? When our Father in Heaven sees from His abode On High that all the Jews have gone to synagogue and poured out their souls in prayer and songs of thanksgiving -- even though they are all exhausted from the heavy work of preparing for Passover -- then

"He must recite Kiddush right away," the Shpoler Zeide continued. "That is to say, the Creator must renew his betrothal -- his Kiddushin, of which the word Kidush shares the same root -- to Jewry right away. He must redeem us from exile right away."

The Shpoler Zeide turned his glance to the teacher and asked, "Can you tell us why our Father in Heaven must redeem us straight away?"

"So that the little children will not fall asleep," the teacher replied, softly.

"And who are the 'little children'?" prodded the Shpoler Zeide.

"Jewry," whispered the teacher.

"That's exactly right," the Rebbe said. "For is it not written in Jeremiah: 'Is not Ephraim my beloved son, a precious child?' So tell me, how is it possible that there can be a Seder where there are no 'little children' present?"

The teacher, of course, had no answer to the Shpoler Zeide's question, and the Rebbe finished his homile.

"The Creator must act quickly," explained the saint, "so that His children will not fall too deeply into the slumber of exile. He must act right away so that we will not despair, Heaven forbid, of never being redeemed.

"He must act," the Rebbe continued, "while we still have the strength to ask, 'Ma Nishtana?' Why is this night -- why is this bitter exile -- different from all other nights? Why has this dark exile been so prolonged? Why does it not end?"

The Shpoler Zeide suddenly threw his head back and gave out a long wail.

"Master of the Universe," the saint cried, "redeem us quickly, while our hearts, at least, are still awake! Please don't let us fall into the dark slumber of despair!

"Even when it is night, a 'child' can still gladden the heart of his Father."

And then the great Chassidic master stood up. "Let's show our Father in Heaven that we know how to dance --- even in the dark!"

And with that the saint beckoned to his Chassidim to join him in a dance. Soon they were all circling faster and faster, in rhythm with the uplifting beat of the joyous song. As their spirits soared higher and higher, the face of the Shpoler Zeide beamed once more with its accustomed glow of inspired ecstasy.

Every heart was now awake and joyfully cleaving to its Father in Heaven. The pain of the dark exile was, for the moment, completely forgotten.

Linda Feinberg is a columnist for Yated Ne'eman. Send your comments by clicking here.


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