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Finding the Afikoman
by Yosef Y. Jacobson
Afikoman.

For children, it is the highlight of the seder. Over the years they discovered that because the seder could not be concluded until this final piece of matzah is eaten, they could “steal” it in order to coerce their exhausted parents, desperate for sleep, into granting them whatever ridiculous demands they should choose to impose, hence the American idea of “Afikoman presents.” For adults, it just seems like an ingenious trick to give kids an authorized “recess,” a chance to run around and have fun while at the same time keeping them involved in what is happening at the table.
 
What is the Afikoman?
 
One of the first things we do at the seder, following Kiddush and Karpas, is “Yachatz” which is the breaking of the matzah. Typically a matzah will break into two incongruent pieces. The larger piece, the Afikoman, which literally means “desert,” is stowed away, to be saved for later, and the smaller piece is set in front of us. It is before it, and on it, and that we now recite the entire Haggadah. Many of the most crucial and integral parts of the seder experience are prefaced with the instruction: “uncover the broken matzah” or “raise up the broken matzah.” This matzah, precisely because it is small and broken, aptly represents our “bread of affliction,” and “the food of poverty.” It is the quintessential matzah, and it plays a leading role throughout t he seder drama. If the seder were a play, this would be one of the main actors. Finally, after concluding the recitation of the entire Haggadah, it is the first thing eaten, and with it we fulfill our biblical obligation of eating matzah. 
 
The larger piece, meanwhile, is hidden away, sidelined and absent; it must wait patiently until its return much later into the night. Only after reciting the Haggadah, after eating matzah, maror, korech, and after the entire holiday meal do we remember it and retrieve it from its hiding place, and this becomes our “desert.”
 
Preferably, it is the last thing to be eaten that night so that we sleep with the taste of matzah lingering in our mouths and in our memories. Although seemingly relegated to a secondary part in the play, and cast into some sort of supporting role, the
Afikoman is just as integral, crucial, and necessary to the seder experience as its “younger brother.” Our Sages tell us, “ain maftirin ad acharei hapesach afikoman,” meaning “The seder cannot be concluded without the Afikoman.” It also replaces and represents what was the biblical highlight of the seder, the Pascal sacrifice.
 
A Tale of Two Matzos
 
The Passover story is the eternal story of the Jew. “For not only once did they stand up against us to destroy us, rather in every generation they attempt this again. And only G-d saves us from their hands,” we state in the Haggadah.
 
It is fascinating to observe the prestigious place the seder held and continues to hold in the lives and memories of so many Jews. The seder strikes a chord deep within us. Surveys show that more Jews conduct some form of Passover Seder than attend even High Holiday services. Many of our warmest and fondest childhood memories were created at our parent’s seder table. Somehow the Jew feels that he or she cannot ignore the seder story; it is our personal story as individuals and as a people.
 
The story of Pesach is the story of the Jew. With the Exodus from Egypt we embarked upon a historic journey, we were entrusted with mission and we have yet to reach its conclusion and climax. This journey is encapsulated the night of the seder.
 
Now we can understand the breaking and separation of the matzah. Perhaps the matzah represents the Jewish people, the Congregation of Israel, who throughout history have continuously been crushed and humbled (like matzah), and have been given to eat the “bread of poverty,” the “bread of affliction.” [Time and time again we were not allowed to wait until our dough rose, we had to take the wandering stick and leave with nothing but matzah.]
 
But for a long time now, our matzah has been divided; we are sadly a divided people. One part of our people, the smaller part of the matzah, still stubbornly sits at the “seder table,” waking up each morning and remembering that we are part of a story; we are on a journey from Abraham till Moshiach. This is the small part of the matzah, which refuses to get up of from the table and find other alternatives for life. Yes, they sometimes sit there with closed eyes, have asleep, but at least they are there! These are the Jews who wake up each morning, put on tefilin, pray to G-d, learn Torah, and send their children to learn and discover the ideals, values of dreams of Judaism.
 
The larger part of the matzah – the majority of our people -- seem to have wandered from the seder table, into foreign pastures. They are often absent from the Jewish experience, e often ignorant of their heritage and its timeless messages, often alienated from our people and its story.
 
And we can identify the moment in history when the matzah was “split.”

Around 250 years ago, with the French Revolution, and what was known as “Enlightenment,” the shtetl walls crumbled and many, indeed the majority, of Jews have ultimately said goodbye to their ideology for the leading ideologies of the day. Voltaire replaced Moses; Rousseau replaced Rashi. In France and Germany, enlightenment led to alienation of hundreds of thousands of Jews from tradition. In Eastern Europe, millions of Jews bid farewell to the Torah for a host of new “isms” that seemed far more promising and exciting than Juda-ism. Secular Zionistic nationalism, for example, captured the imagination of countless young Jews, confusing G-d with a homeland, forgetting who gave them the right to that same land. In Russia, Jews flocked to found and support Marxism, communism and socialism. In America, over one million Jews assimilated between 1840 and 1930 alone. In the last few decades in the USA, we lost another million of our children.
 
And the split continues… Here in America, in the Holy Land, and in so many other countries of the world. The small part of the matzah shouts with disdain – I am at the seder table, you are lost and estranged; while the big part of the matzah often looks at the small part of the matzah with pity, wondering how it manages to remain so isolated and detached from modernity and new world.
 
The Rebbe’s Calling
 
This Sunday marks the Rebbe’s 107th birthday. The Rebbe was born in 1902, in the Ukraine, a few days before Passover. Growing up at the height of the revolutions which swept the world and captured the hearts and souls of millions of Jews, the Rebbe observed the “matzah” being split, fragmented, broken.
 
Providence has the Rebbe emerge into our worlds a few days before the seder, perhaps because his life’s message captured the great story of the afikoman.
 
What was the Rebbe’s message to our generation?
That the larger part of the matzah may be absent from our seder table, but it is our Afikoman. Millions of Jews may be absent, but they have not been forgotten. Indeed, the seder cannot reach its conclusion without them; they must be sought out, brought back one by one and rejoin the seder table of Jewish life.
This is the mission of our time. The seder is almost complete, the story is almost finished. Moshiach is at the doorstep. The meal has been eaten, and we have had our share of maror, of suffering. And now we must remember the Afikoman.
 
We must search for the afikoman, and with much love and sensitivity bring it back to the table, and let it reunite with its own essence, with its own story, with its own soul.

At times the Afikoman is hard to locate, the assimilated Jew is difficult to identify. Sometimes he struggles to even identify himself. But at the end of the night, at the end of this exile, he will return, to listen to the story of the Exodus, to take part in the mitzvah and pass it along to his own children. For no Jew will be left behind. And only then will we be able to conclude our journey and truly be “Next year in Jerusalem.”

(My thanks to Avi Shlomo for preparing this essay.)
 

 


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