There is a passage in the Haggadah that always confuses me. Just after we read about the four sons, it says:

One may think that [the discussion of the Exodus] must be from the first of the month. The Torah therefore says, “On that day.” “On that day,” however, could mean while it is yet daytime; the Torah therefore says, “It is because of this.” The expression “because of this” can only be said when matzah and maror are placed before you.

Sorry, can you explain what’s going on here?


This cryptic paragraph contains a life-changing lesson. But first, let's understand its plain meaning.

The Haggadah is establishing the correct time to tell the story of the Exodus. In the typical Talmudic back-and-forth style, the Haggadah explains:

You may have thought that the Seder should take place on the first of the month of Nissan, because back in Egypt that was when preparations for the Exodus began. But the Torah states: “You shall tell your child on that day, ‘because of this G‑d did for me when I left Egypt.’” “On that day” means the Seder should be celebrated on the day of the Exodus itself, the 15th of Nissan.

But “on that day” makes it sound like the Seder should take place during the daylight hours. This is not the case, however. You have to be able to point at the matzah and maror and say “because of this G‑d did for me when I left Egypt.” The Torah commands us to eat matzah and maror at night, not during the day. So the story of the Exodus can only be told at night, when you can point at the matzah and maror in front of you.

Like every passage in the Haggadah, this one has many levels of meaning. Here is a story that reveals a profound understanding of an otherwise technical teaching.

It was Seder night, 1946. Rabbi Yisroel Alter, the fifth Gerrer Rebbe, had escaped Poland and reached the Holy Land, only to learn that his wife, daughter, son and grandchildren had all been murdered by the Nazis.

He sat down with some of his students for the first post-war Seder, a Seder without family.

We can't imagine the superhuman strength it took for the survivors to make a Seder at that time. We can't imagine the pain of reading the Four Questions knowing their children had all perished. But they did it.

Rabbi Alter came to the passage, “One may think …” and he paused. Looking at the assembled group of broken souls, he explained the passage in a new way:

After going through a time of great darkness and pain, how do we live on? One may think that you can't start a new life right away. You must wait for a new moon to appear, for time to pass, and when things are different, only then will you start to live again.

This is not the case. You can't wait until then. You need to find the strength to live and celebrate “on that day” - right now, today. Even while you are still hurting, you have to awaken your soul and start anew.

You might think that joy can only come during daylight, when the sun is shining and things are good. No. Don't wait around until your mood changes. Force yourself to embrace life now, even when it is still dark. Let your soul shine in the darkness. Whatever is before you, whether you have matzah, the bread of freedom, or maror, the bitter herbs, you need to start your new life today.

With these few words Rabbi Alter breathed new life into a broken generation. The raw truth of his words continues to reverberate. Right now there are many people hurting in so many ways. We can't wait around for things to get better. We have to make it better. Don't delay your new life for the next new moon. Don't wait until you are in the mood to make a positive change. Do it now. Start your exodus today.

Biographical note: Rabbi Yisroel Alter (1895–1977), known as the Beit Yisrael, was the fifth Gerrer Rebbe. He rebuilt Polish Chassidism from the ashes. He remarried after the war, and though he was not blessed with more children, his followers and their descendants now number in the hundreds of thousands.