Selected Sermon/Article
2001-04-09 Pesach Sermon-Second Day by Rav Ze'ev Smason
The Lessons of the Karpas
One of the fir kashes that our children posed to us last night was " ha'leilah ha'zeh kulanoo m'soobin": Why on this night do we all recline? The answer that you gave, of course, was: The reclining focuses our attention on the freedom we obtained from the Egyptians, because it's the way of a free person to lean at the meal. A dispute exits amongst our rabbis, however, whether we should lean when we eat the karpas. Upon what is this dispute based?

I'd like to begin to answer this question by first sharing with you an amazing story that happened over 30 years ago at Maimonides Day School in Brookline, MA.

One evening, after the mincha prayer service, while waiting to start ma'ariv, the Rav, the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik asked one of the members of the congregation for a special favor. "Moe," the Rav said, "we have thirty minutes before we are going to daven ma'ariv. Can you do me a favor and teach me all the rules of baseball? I want to know how the game is played."

Although shocked by this unusual request, Moe gave the Rav a crash course on the minutiae of baseball: three strikes you're out, four balls and you walk to first, stealing the base, and other basic baseball particulars. At the end of the thirty minute tutorial, Moe mustered enough courage to ask the Rav why he wanted to know how to play baseball. The Rav replied, "My grandchildren are visiting, and I want to be able to talk to them about what interests them."

One of the great rabbis of the twentieth century knew what few teachers remember -- always begin a class or lecture by first engaging your audience with that which interests them. Once you have gained their attention, you can continue teaching any lesson you wish.

If this is true in the classroom, how much more important it is at the Pesach seder, when we are commanded by the Torah to be teachers, recalling and retelling sipoor Yitzias Mitzraim, the story of the Exodus. To assist us, our Sages devised the Haggada, a teacher's manual and text, created to stimulate thought and discussion.

Last night after making kiddush, we washed our hands and dipped karpas, often parsley or another vegetable, into salt water. If the purpose of the Haggada is to arouse discussion, partaking of an hors d'oeuver seems to fail the test. Why did the rabbis select such an innocuous ritual to engage their audience?

I'd like to explain part of the significance of the karpas by telling you a brief story. In my final year of college in Los Angeles, I rented a very old apartment in a beachside community. To call it quaint was an understatement; it had a Murphy bed, and was a throwback to what apartments were like in the 1940s. There was something in the kitchen that just didn't seem to belong ; a small door that opened to the courtyard, looking like a refrigerator without a back, and without a motor. I couldn't imagine what this three-sided compartment was, until my parents clued me in. In 'the old days', this was the form of refrigerator that people used, with an opening to the courtyard for the ice man to bring a big block of ice to keep the icebox cool! Do any of you here remember a time when there were no refrigerators?

In the days before refrigerators, it was considered special to have vegetables at a meal. Sometimes only people like kings and their families got to eat many vegetables. In times not that long ago, a vegetable appetizer was a sign of great wealth. Karpas represents a vegetable appetizer that is a sign of wealth. On Pesach, every Jew is supposed to feel wealthy and special as a sign of freedom, like so many other such reminders at the seder.

Dipping food is a further sign of comfort and indulgence. Why, then, do we dip the karpas into salt water? The very name karpas, when reversed, alludes to the Egyptian slavery samech perecah -- sixty (myriads) at hard labor. This bitterness both reminds us of the bondage that we experienced, as well as remembering other people who aren't as fortunate as we are. Some people won't have much food tonight, and there might even be some who won't have a seder, but we'll, G-d willing, be blessed with both.

Avdoos and Chayroos -- Bondage and Freedom -- the two themes of the seder, all contained within one piece of parsley dipped in salt water. To return to the question that I began my drasha with this morning; those who say we do not lean when eating the karpas, understand the essence of the karpas as a remembrance of slavery. Leaning is for free people -- how can we lean, then, in eating the saltwater-dipped karpas? On the other hand, those who suggest that we should lean when eating the karpas argue that while we do recall the bitter tears shed in Egypt, the essence of the tasty appetizer is the remembrance of freedom and wealth; thus, we should lean when eating the karpas.

Just as Rabbi Soloveitchik engaged the minds of his grandchildren with baseball as an educational device, so too the authors of the Haggada engaged us with the device of karpas. It connects us to the Haggada by stimulating our minds to learn the real lesson of Pesach at the beginning of the seder: The escape from material and spiritual slavery, into physical and spiritual freedom.

Good Yom Tov