A Material Foundation for the Divine Presence
Our world was created in such a way that its physical aspects stand out above all else, enjoying full, strong expression with little or no effort; the spiritual aspects, on the other hand, are hidden, and it takes a considerable amount of time to grasp their significance. It was therefore only to be expected that the Egyptians would initially subjugate the Israelites, for the prowess of the Egyptians already existed in full force while the potential of the Children of Israel was at the outset only latent, like an embryo waiting to be born. And because Israel’s strength existed in potential alone, the Egyptians took advantage them, enslaving them in order to increase their own honor and satisfy their own physical appetites.
But, inner spiritual strength cannot truly exercise its power in this world if it lacks a physical underpinning, and the Jews took their physical foundation for national existence from Egypt. Throughout the period in which the Egyptians enslaved the Jews and believed that they were decisively defeating them, the Jews were all the while drawing upon the strength of the Egyptians, as it is written, “And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceedingly mighty; and the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:7). The more the Egyptians tried to enslave and overpower the Jews, the more they multiplied, as it is written, “But the more they inflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew,” until they had swollen in number to 600,000 men above the age of twenty. Rabbi Yehudah Loew, the “Maharal of Prague,” explains that this is the amount necessary for the birth of the Jewish people; when they reached this amount Divinity rested among them, the Egyptian empire collapsed, and the Israelites left Egypt for Mount Sinai to receive the Torah.
The Jews merited more than just the blessing of fertility in the land of Egypt; they left Egypt with much property which they had earned through their many years of slave labor. The Children of Israel, then, left Egypt with a suitable material foundation. It is therefore written, “And I will give this people favor in the sight of Egypt, and it shall come to pass that when you go, you will not go empty-handed; every woman shall ask of her neighbor and of her that sojourns in her house, jewels of silver and jewels of gold and garments, and you shall put them on your sons and your daughters, and you shall despoil Egypt” (Exodus 3:21,22).
Egypt nevertheless deserved all of this; had they chosen to behave in a upright manner, supporting the Israelites and helping them to grow in number and to become wealthy, they would have received a two-fold blessing, as in the days of Joseph who had been responsible for the success of Egypt in a time of great famine. Instead, they chose the path of evil, enslaving the Children of Israel with great cruelty. For this reason they were punished through the ten plagues, God’s name was sanctified in the world, judgment was meted out upon the evil, and Israel became a free nation.
One who debases the festivals
The Sages teach us a foundation of fundamental importance: “Rabbi Eliezer the Modai says, ‘One who desecrates the Holy or debases the festivals… or who presents the Torah in a manner which is not in keeping with the law, even though he possesses knowledge of Torah and good deeds, has no portion in the World to Come’” (Mishnah, Avot 3:11).
Regarding the above assertion our beloved mentor, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook zt”l, use to say that we must ponder how it is possible for a person who possesses knowledge of Torah and good deeds not to receive a place the World to Come. What’s more, seeing as the Mishnah does not indicate just how much knowledge of Torah this individual possesses, it would appear that even a great scholar who is careful about fulfilling the commandments and performing kind deeds, because he presents the Torah in a manner which is not in keeping with the law, has no portion in the World to Come.
What we are dealing with here is a person who has great respect for tradition and is careful to perform the entire Seder according to the letter of the law, but attributes everything to human thought and creativity. He claims that the importance of the Passover festival and Seder Night is the fact that the father passes down the tradition to the following generations and instills in them ethical principles such as the liberty, and recognition of man’s mission to improve the world; the wine and the matzoth, he claims, serve to demonstrate the historical conscience of the Jewish people. And though all of these ideas are true and good, the central foundation is missing here – that is, that God Himself commanded us to celebrate Passover and to eat matzah on Seder Night.
The same individual will say that it is important that the Jews keep the Sabbath day, adding that, “More than the Jews have guarded the Sabbath, the Sabbath has guarded the Jews,” because on the Sabbath the Jewish family crystallizes and becomes reinforced, and every Jew is allowed to rest from his labor and delve into more spiritual matters. The problem is that such a person denies that the Almighty commanded us to observe the Sabbath in all of its general rules and down to the letter of the law.
This is what the Mishnah meant by “One who presents the Torah in a manner which is not in keeping with the law…” Though he may be exceedingly studious, for him the Torah is not Divine; it is but mere human wisdom. Hence such an individual takes the liberty of interpreting Scripture however he see fit. In this manner he desecrates the Holy, for he believes the Torah to be no more than an assemblage of acts that man has invented in order to give expression to all sorts of spiritual ideas. Such a viewpoint denies the Divine origin of the Torah. Therefore, even though he may possess knowledge of Torah and good deeds, and in this world he is considered a good and respectable person, he has no bond with the Holy, he plays no part in the eternal mission of Israel, and, hence, has no place in the World to Come.
Thirty Days Before the Holiday
The Rabbis made an enactment that we inquire and expound upon the laws of Passover thirty days before the holiday, for we find that Moses our Teacher began, on Passover, to clarify the laws of Pesach Sheni, a holiday which comes thirty days after Passover. The main reason for this was that all of Israel had to prepare their sacrifices before Passover and to assure that they did not carry any disqualifying blemishes (Pesachim 6:1; Avodah Zarah 5:2).
Yet this enactment remained in affect even after the Holy Temple was destroyed, such that even today a Jew must study the laws of Passover thirty days before the holiday. The laws of Passover, as is well known, are numerous: making the house Chametz-free, searching for and nullifying the Chametz, baking the Matzah, and performing the Seder. Yet, there are early authorities who hold that in fact the enactment was of a different nature. These authorities claim that the enactment was that during the thirty days prior to the holiday, if a rabbi is presented with a variety of questions, he must begin by answering those questions which deal with the laws of Passover, for such questions are of more immediate relevancy. According to this opinion there is no obligation upon each individual Jew to set aside time in order to study the laws of Passover (Ran; Rashbah). At any rate, considering that many of the early authorities hold that there is an obligation to set aside time to study the laws of Passover thirty days before the holiday, each Jew should set aside time to study these laws accordingly, i.e., beginning with the fourteenth of Adar – Purim. It is therefore advisable that in the schools and Yeshivoth time be relegated for the study of Passover laws during these thirty days.
The Rabbinic decisors disagree on this issue with regard to other holidays. Some say that because, according to the enactment, the main reason for studying was to prepare the bringing of the sacrifices, and on each of Judaism’s three pilgrimage festivals three different sacrifices were brought (Olat Raayah, Shlamei Chagigah, Shlamei Simchah) one should study for thirty days prior to each of the three holidays; others say that the custom today relates only to Passover because its laws are numerous and severe (Mishnah Berurah 429:1).
All of the above concerns preparing for the holidays, but when it comes to the holiday itself there exists an ancient enactment which was decided by Moses himself, that the laws of each holiday be studied on that very holiday (Megilah 32b; Magen Avraham 429:1).