Pondering Passover

Pondering Passover
Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

SIGNIFICANCE OF THE TWO NAMES

Two terms are mentioned with regards to this holiday in the Torah:
Chag Hamatzot (“The Festival of Unleavened Bread”) and Chag HaPesach
(“The Holiday of the Pesach Sacrifice”) These names are parallel to
two aspects of the festival – one is the crystallization of the Nation
of Israel’s Emunah, or belief, in God – symbolized by the name “Chag
Hamatzot” – and Israel’s treasured status – symbolized by the name,
“Chag HaPesach.” In the course of the Exodus from Egypt, God’s
Providence over the world revealed itself in the most obvious,
concrete manner. Consequently, Jewish belief in Hashem is rooted in
the Exodus. This is what the Matzah, consumed on the Seder night,
symbolizes. In the words of the Passover Haggadah: “This matzah that
we eat, what is its significance? We eat it since our forefather’s
dough did not leaven prior to the moment when the King of Kings, the
Holy One Blessed Be He, appeared to them and redeemed them.”

The Nation of Israel’s unique, treasured status also manifested itself
during the Exodus. During the ten plagues, the distinction drawn by
God between Israel and Egypt became abundantly clear as the Egyptians
were consistently smitten while the Jews were consistently spared.
This sharp delineation was most stark during the smiting of the first
born, when God smote the Egyptian homes but “jumped over” Jewish ones.
The term “Pesach” is a reference to the “skipping over” of the
Israelite homes.

These two foundational ideas, belief in God and the uniqueness of the
Children of Israel, are also intertwined. We were formed into a new,
treasured nation during the Exodus so that we would ultimately receive
God’s Torah; Israel’s fate is dependent on its ongoing link to the
Divine: When the Jews perform the will of the Creator and sanctify His
name in the world, they are beneficiaries of all of the Torah’s
blessings. When, on the other hand, they transgress His will, all of
the misfortunes cited in the Torah befall them.

The sanctification of God’s name in the world is dependent upon
Israel, as the prophet Isaiah states: “I created this nation for me,
so that they would speak of My praises.” This is why God’s very
contemplation of the creation of Israel preceded the actual creation
of the world. The world was only created so that Israel would
introduce knowledge and understanding of God to the world. This is
also the meaning of the Talmudic passage that asserts that God made
His creation of the world contingent upon Israel’s receipt of the
Torah. If the Jews would have failed to accept and fulfill the Torah,
creation would have been without purpose, and the universe would have
justifiably been thrown back into chaos and disarray.

The treasured status of Israel was more sharply illustrated by the
fact that God chose us to be His nation, despite the fact that, at the
time, we were lowly slaves, immersed, as the Kabbalah tells us, in the
49th level of ritual impurity. In light of the above, the two names of
this holiday represent two themes that are really two sides of the
same coin. The reality of God was to be finally revealed to the world,
and the Jewish people were to be the vehicle for that revelation.

WHY THE EXTENDED SERVITUDE?

Question: Why was it necessary for the Jewish people, before they
became consolidated into a full-fledged nation, to be enslaved in
Egypt for such a long time and under such harsh conditions? Answer:
The destiny of the Nation of Israel is to morally improve the world.
In order for the nation to take on this challenge, it had to
experience, in a very concrete manner, the extent of suffering and
pain that one man could potentially cause to another.

On several occasions, when the Torah commands us in matters between
man and his fellow man, it reminds us of our national experience in
Egypt. “Do not oppress the stranger, since you know the soul of the
stranger, because you were strangers in the Land of Egypt. (Shmot 23,
9) Elsewhere, in Vayikra 19, 33-34, we are told: “When a stranger
lives with you in your land, do not oppress him. He should be treated
as a regular citizen…and you shall love him as yourself, because you
were strangers in the Land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” The
sages note that before God began to smite the Egyptians, He told Moshe
to command Israel regarding the Mitzvah of releasing servants. Why?
Before they left Egypt, they had to agree that in the future, when
they are free men and become masters of their own servants, they will
not take unfair advantage of those servants. Thus, after six years, a
Jewish slave-owner must release his servant – and even provide him
with generous “parting gifts”!(Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh Hashanah, 3, 5)

Something truly wondrous happened during the exodus from Egypt: all
other nations, when they succeed in overcoming their oppressors,
become haughty, and themselves become the “taskmasters” of their
former masters. Yet Israel, even after the Egyptians were totally
beaten, did not attempt to overpower and dominate them. All the
Children of Israel cared about was their own freedom!

This was the first time that the ethical concept of the inherent
freedom of man was revealed to the world. It is against this backdrop
the festival of Pesach is referred to as the “Festival of Freedom.”
Our sages codified this in the text of the silent prayer for the
holiday, calling Pesach “the time of our redemption…” Not
coincidentally is this the first of the festivals, the holiday in
which the foundation of man’s freedom was laid; a free man has moral
responsibility for everything he does as an individual and as a member
of society. Perhaps this is also why they used to determine the years
of a king’s reign from the month of Nissan, so that the Jewish
monarchy would be firmly grounded in the concept of freedom.

THESIS AND ANTI-THESIS

Israel and Egypt are polar opposites: Egypt was a highly materialistic
society; Egyptians were believers in idolatry. But the Jewish nation
held an abstract, spiritual conception of the world, and therefore
only Israel could accept the abstract belief in the One God, who
possesses neither physical form or any other material quality.
Therefore, Israel’s relationship to the physical world is also pure
and perfect, This is why the people of Israel are, by their very
nature, modest and distant from sexual immorality. The Egyptians, on
the other hand, because of their focus on materialism, were very drawn
to sexual licentiousness. Thus, the Torah commands, in Vayikra 18:3,
“The deeds of Egypt, the land in which you dwelt, do not perform.” And
our sages say in the halachic midrash on Vayikra, Torat Cohanim:
“There was no nation as abominable in its actions as was Egypt.” The
Maharal of Prague, in his epic work, Gvurot Hashem, notes that this
was particularly true of the generations of Egyptians that enslaved
Israel.

No doubt that during this era, Egyptian society achieved great things
in terms of land development and usage, forging a stable system of
government, a sophisticated irrigation system, and an advanced
economic system – with the help of our forefather, Yosef. However,
these accomplishments were divorced from any spiritual context. The
Egyptians did not believe in the existence of an independent,
spiritual soul, but rather thought that the soul was dependent, even
subservient to its physical casing. This is why the Egyptians exerted
such great effort to embalm dead bodies, since they thought that man’s
whole reality was intertwined with their physical existence; a
person’s death was, for them, not the end of his physical existence,
it just meant that he could not speak or move. But in all other
senses, he is completely alive.

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