Beit Midrash

  • Pesach
To dedicate this lesson
Chapter One-Part One

The Meaning of the Holiday


Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

1. The Festival of Matzot and the Festival of Pesaĥ
The holiday of Pesaĥ has two different names in the Torah: Ĥag Ha-matzot (the Festival of Matzot) and Ĥag Ha-Pesaĥ (the Paschal festival, or Passover). These two names express two different meanings of the holiday: Ĥag Ha-matzot represents the revelation of God’s providence, and Ĥag Ha-Pesaĥ represents Israel’s unique spiritual capacity.
At the Exodus from Egypt, God’s sovereignty over the world was given its most apparent and concrete manifestation. Thus, our faith in God is fundamentally rooted in the Exodus. The matza symbolizes this aspect of our holiday, as we read in the Hagada: "This matza that we eat – what is the reason? Because our forefathers’ dough did not have time to rise before the holy Supreme King of kings revealed Himself to them and redeemed them."
The unique mission and destiny of the people of Israel was also revealed at the time of the Exodus. The distinction between the Egyptians and the Israelites was conspicuous in all of the plagues, as the Egyptians were struck and the Israelites were saved. This culminated with the Plague of the Firstborn, when the Destroyer struck every Egyptian household but passed over (pasaĥ) Israelite homes. Israel’s uniqueness is expressed through and symbolized by the Paschal sacrifice.
These two fundamental principles – faith and Israel – are linked together and interdependent. Unlike the other nations, which are formed through human endeavor, the nation of Israel was forged through divine miracles and wonders at the time of the Exodus for the purpose of receiving God’s Torah. Israel’s status entirely depends on their connection with God: when Israel does God’s will and makes God’s name manifest in the world, they earn all the blessings promised in the Torah. But when they do not fulfill God’s will, all of the curses written in the Torah are visited upon them.
The revelation of God’s name in the world, i.e., the manifestation of divine values on earth, depends upon Israel, as Scripture states: "I created this nation for My sake; they will tell My praise" (Yeshayahu 43:21). For this reason, the Sages stated (Bereishit Rabba 1:4) that the idea of Israel preceded the creation of the world, for it is through Israel that the purpose of the world is revealed. This is what the Sages meant when they said: "God set a condition with Creation: ‘If Israel accepts the Torah, you will continue to exist, but if not, then I will return you to being formless and void’" (Shabbat 88a). Israel’s unique capabilities were further made manifest in that God chose us to be His nation and children, in spite of the fact that we were lowly slaves, stuck in the morass of impurity in Egypt.
Thus the two biblical names of the holiday express two aspects of one matter, namely, the revelation of God’s name in the world through Israel.
2. The Festival of Freedom – the Revelation of Morality
Why did the people of Israel, before their appearance as a nation, first have to endure such terrible slavery in Egypt? The simple explanation is that Israel’s mission is to rectify the moral state of the world, and in order to do so, it must experience firsthand the suffering and the pain that human beings can cause to one another.
Thus, we find several instances where the Torah invokes our experiences in Egypt when instructing us about interpersonal relationships. For example: "You shall not oppress a stranger – for you know the soul of a stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Shemot 23:9) and "If a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God" (Vayikra 19:33-34).
Similarly, the Sages said that before God began to smite the Egyptians, He instructed Moshe to command Israel concerning the mitzva of releasing slaves. Thus, even before they gained their freedom from Egypt they resolved that once they become free and have slaves of their own, they would never torment them. On the contrary, after six years they would send slaves free and grant them generous gifts (y. RH 3:5).
Indeed, an amazing thing happened at the Exodus. All other peoples who had overthrown their enslavers became haughty and enslaved their former masters. Israel, however, did not try to enslave the Egyptians, even after they had been completely defeated; they only sought their own freedom. This was the first time that freedom appeared in the world as a moral value.
This is why Pesaĥ is called the Festival of Freedom, or, as the Sages termed it in the liturgy, "zman ĥerutenu," "the season of our freedom." It is no coincidence that Pesaĥ is the first of the pilgrimage festivals: it embodies the foundation of human freedom and consequently of moral responsibility for every individual and societal act. Perhaps this is also why the years of Israelite kings’ reigns were counted from the beginning the month of Nisan, so that the idea of freedom be fundamental to Israelite sovereignty.
3. Spiritual Liberation from Material Enslavement
Israel and Egypt are diametrically opposed. Egypt was an extremely materialistic society with a pagan worldview. The nation of Israel, on the other hand, is unique with its spiritual and abstract worldview. Thus, only Israel was able to accept the abstract belief in one incorporeal and non-physical God. Consequently, Israel’s relationship to the material world is also pure and refined, and Jews are thus naturally modest and circumscribed in their sexual mores. The Egyptians, on the other hand, due to their emphasis on the physical and their materialistic worldview, were strongly attracted to promiscuity and sexual transgression. Thus, the Torah commands: "You shall not do like the deeds of the land of Egypt, in which you dwelt" (Vayikra 18:3). The Sages interpreted this to mean that no nation committed deeds more abominable than the Egyptians did (Torat Kohanim ad loc.), especially the last generation that enslaved Israel (based on Maharal’s Gevurot Hashem ch. 4).
The Egyptians of that period indeed accomplished some amazing material and administrative feats by creating a stable regime, an advanced irrigation system, and a sophisticated economy (in part due to the help of Yosef, Yaakov’s son). However, these material accomplishments were disconnected from the spiritual world and even opposed to it. Their worldview was extremely idolatrous. They did not believe in the existence of an independent, spiritual soul, but thought that the soul is contingent on and subservient to the existence of the physical body. This is why the Egyptians went to such great lengths to embalm corpses; they thought that one’s existence hinges solely on his physical reality. Death, in their view, merely means that one is no longer able to move or speak, but is no different from life in every other respect. Accordingly, they also invested enormous effort in building the pyramids, which are glorified cemeteries for the body.
To be sure, the material world has an important place in Judaism as well. However, a worldview based solely on physical existence will necessarily be idolatrous and amoral. This is because all of the paradigms provided by nature are amoral. There may be beauty and wisdom reflected in the amazing regularity of the laws of nature, but they do not possess morality. The strong prey on the weak just as the powerful enslave the poor. The pagan worldview, instead of striving toward a higher level, sanctifies material existence with all its brutality and injustice. In contrast, a faith-based and spiritual worldview is characterized by constant striving toward improving the world, fighting evil and empowering justice. This is how the prophet Yeshayahu described the ultimate redemption and the Mashi’aĥ’s leadership:
But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the land; he shall smite the land with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. Righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist, and faithfulness the girdle of his loins. The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid... the cow and the bear shall graze, together their young shall lie down. The lion shall eat straw like cattle… They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea. (Yeshayahu 11:4-9)

Thus, the Exodus from Egypt was not merely the emancipation of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt. Rather, it was the liberation of all mankind from the chains of materialism. This is why it is so important to delve into the Exodus, to the extent that we are commanded to see ourselves, every year on the Seder night, as though we ourselves left Egypt. We have also been commanded to remember the Exodus every day and every night. To a certain extent, Shabbat and all holidays were established to commemorate the Exodus, for at the Exodus the spirit of man was freed from the bonds of material existence. Since we have not finished liberating ourselves from the bonds of the material world – the chains of the evil impulse and its lusts – from a spiritual perspective, we still need to continue leaving Egypt. Hence, it is a mitzva to delve into the Exodus.

From the library of Yeshivat Har Bracha
את המידע הדפסתי באמצעות אתר