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Seder - When Chaos is Called Order

Monday, 22 April, 2019 - 10:31 pm




The word "Seder" actually means "order." This is a little ironic. The average Seder in any Jewish home is one of the most chaotic events you could ever imagine. And that's called order. 

We start the Seder by listing the fifteen steps that we will follow. The first two words are "Kadesh Urchatz" which mean "Sanctify and wash." These refer to the first two steps of the Seder, making Kiddush and then washing hands. 


But the order is significant. After all, it is called the Seder. But here it seems to be in reverse order. Surely we need to wash first before sanctifying ourselves. You can't reach holiness if you are filthy. You can't expect to enter sacred space if you are still dirty with sin. Shouldn't the order be first wash yourself of any muck, then you can start to become holy?


The holy Chassidic prankster Rabbi Naftoli of Ropschitz had an interesting custom. He would always cut his fingernails after immersing in the ritual bath (mikva) on Friday afternoon. The more common custom was to cut fingernails before going to the mikva in honour of Shabbos. 


One of Rabbi Naftoli's students questioned his master on this reversal of the usual order. Rabbi Naftoli told him, "The answer to your question is too deep for you to understand." 


"Try me," said the eager student. 


"No, it is a mystical secret that I can't share with you."


"Please Rebbe, I truly desire to learn the secret."


"Well," said Rabbi Naftoli, "if you really want to be worthy of knowing this secret, you need to fast for forty days. Then come back to me."


The student was by now so curious, he took upon himself forty days of fasting. The whole time he wondered, what could be the secret of cutting fingernails after the mikva? What mystery lies behind this holy practice?


At the end of forty days he returns to Rabbi Naftoli, saying, "I have done your bidding, I have fasted forty days. Now please reveal to me the hidden meaning of cutting the nails after immersing."


Rabbi Naftoli beckons his student into his private study. He sits him down. He closes his eyes. And he says, 


"The reason for cutting nails after the mikva is... after a hot bath they are much softer, and easier to cut."


The student's eyes lit up. He knew his master, and knew that behind his jokes and pranks were profound teachings. Here too lay a truly deep secret.


These two pre-Shabbos rituals, cutting nails and immersing in the mikva, symbolize two different acts of self-refinement. Fingernails represent the sharpness and negativity in our character that may cause hurt to others. Cutting the nails is the smoothening out of our rough edges, ridding ourselves of bad traits. Immersing in the mikva represents elevating ourselves to a more pure and sanctified state, surrounding ourselves in holy water and stepping up to a higher state of being.


The usual order is to cut nails and then immerse in the mikva. You first have to rid yourself of evil before you can step higher on the ladder of holiness.


But Rabbi Naftoli taught that sometimes you need to do things the other way around. Immerse yourself in holiness first. Do something good, surround yourself with purity, even if you haven't yet dealt with the flaws in your character. You can get back to that later. And your job will be easier, because once you have tasted holiness, you won't want to be bad anymore. The mikva softens your nails to make them easier to cut.


That is lesson number one of the Seder - the order. You don't need to fix your problems before you can approach holiness. You don't need to be a pure person before you can do a mitzvah. Just jump right in. Pesach means passing over - taking a leap. If you wait until you are worthy before you do a mitzvah, you may wait forever. The world can't wait, it needs your mitzvah now. So Kadesh Urchatz - do something holy right now. You can wash off the muck later.


I wish you a Good Shabbos and a Happy and Kosher Pesach (from New York),
Rabbi Moss 

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