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Pesach 5773 — 03/27/2013

Pesach 5773 — 03/27/2013

Remember … the strong hand and the outstretched arm with which the Eternal your Gd brought you out [of Egypt] (Deut 7:18-19)

R. Chanan Morrison has produced two beautiful volumes of adaptations and distillations of the writings of R. Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Palestine (he died in 1935).  There is much information about Rav Kook and his thought on the web, and some of his writings are available in English, including R. Morrison’s two books: Gold from the Land of Israel, which contains essays on the weekly parshiot, and Silver from the Land of Israel which contains essays on the holidays, and from which I will be drawing ideas and inspiration.  Any mistakes and/or misinterpretations are of course mine, not R. Kook’s or R. Morrison’s.

There are many parallel expressions in the Tanach, and many writers chalk it up simply to Biblical style.  The earth was unformed and void (tohu v’vohu);  we will be called to give a judgment and accounting (din v’cheshbon) before Gd, Gd took us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm (b’yad chazakah uv’zero’a n’tuyah).  Most Rabbinic commentary however finds great significance in both terms, and in their juxtaposition as well.

Rav Kook finds a fundamental distinction between the “strong hand” and the “outstretched arm.”  R. Morrison writes:

If the objective of the Exodus had been only to liberate the Israelites and raise them to the level of other free nations of the world, then no special Divine intervention would have been necessary. … However, Gd wanted the newly freed slaves to swiftly attain a high moral and spiritual plane.  In order to prepare them for their unique destiny, they required Gd’s “strong hand.” … Gd’s “strong hand” dramatically raised the Jewish people from the depths of defilement and degradation in Egypt to the spiritual heights of Sinai.  (Silver from the Land of Israel, pp 154-5)

I believe that the essential point here is that when it came to the Exodus, Gd acted from his side.  In fact, at the splitting of the Sea, the Midrash has the angels asking Gd why Israel deserved to be redeemed and the Egyptians deserved to drown.  These and those are both idolators! they remonstrated.  One answer given is that Gd had provided Israel with two mitzvot, the Pesach offering, with the blood on the doorpost and lintel of the house, and brit milah.  These two bloods are referred to in the Haggadah using the verse (Ezek 16:6) By your blood shall you live, by your blood shall you live.  Nonetheless, these mitzvot primarily served to prevent the nation from descending to a point of spiritual degradation from which there could be no return.  Gd had to act, and Israel was basically passive in the process of liberation.  Thus, R. Kook explains, this facet of the liberation is described as coming from Gd’s “strong hand.”

R. Morrison continues:

The “outstretched arm,” on the other hand, implies an unrealized potential, a work in progress.  The Hebrew word for “arm” is zero’a, from the root zera (seed), indicating future growth. … While the “strong hand” gave the initial push, it is through the “outstretched arm” that we steadily advance toward our final goal. (ibid)

The “work in progress” is our continued development as individuals and as a nation, towards the goal of reflecting perfectly in the universe the order and intelligence of its Creator.  And this part of the puzzle is much more up to us.  Just as Gd gave creation its initial impetus (Let there be light!), so He gave the process of redemption its initial impetus in the Exodus.  But now a new dynamic begins to take hold.  A mere 7 days later, with the terrified nation hemmed in by the Egyptians and the Sea, Moshe tells the people Gd will do battle for you, but you shall be silent (Ex 14:14).  Gd has other ideas.  He tells Moshe Why are you crying out to Me?!  Tell the Israelites to move forward. (v. 15).  Now it is not just Gd Who is acting – to complete the process of the Exodus and to move forward from there, we have to “take the plunge,” and only then will Gd provide the salvation.

This distinction, by the way, is reflected in the different qualities of the two sets of tablets that Moshe Rabbeinu brought down from Mt. Sinai.  The first set was given to him by Gd directly.  Gd produced the tablets, Gd wrote the tablets, Gd gave them to Moshe to give to Israel.  At that point Israel was on a high enough spiritual level to receive them.  Unfortunately they had been brought to this level by Gd, and without His constant help they could not sustain their clarity of vision.  The result of that was the golden calf, and the result of that was, according to one Midrash, that “the letters flew back to heaven” and Moshe could no longer hold the tablets.  They slipped from his hand and were shattered.  Now, after winning Gd’s forgiveness for the nation, Moshe is told to “hew two tablets like the first ones.”  Now human input is needed for Revelation – the people must repent, that is, they must go through the process of raising themselves to a high enough spiritual plane to merit revelation, and Moshe must prepare the physical substrate for the Revelation.  Further, our Sages tell us that the first tablets contained the whole Torah – Written and Oral.  Had we been able to sustain that level of Revelation everything would have been spelled out for us by Gd.  Since we were not, we got the second tablets, with Written Torah only, and Moshe brought down the Oral Torah orally.  We have to put in great effort to learn the Oral Torah; even though it is our heritage, it takes input from our side to acquire it.

On Pesach we celebrate the “strong hand” that brought us out from slavery to freedom.  This freedom is free.  It comes entirely from Gd.  But it is not complete.  The completion of the Exodus process takes place in 7 weeks, at Shavuot, when we receive the Torah.  And as we have seen, the Torah we have received requires input from our side to acquire and to live.  We certainly need Gd to be able to accomplish anything, but apparently Gd also “needs” us to give back to Him, to learn and to live according to His Torah.  We, the people of Israel, are in a unique position to be able to give the Creator and Master of the Universe this pleasure, every time we perform any action.  And when we do, Gd, like a lover, stretches out his arm to gather in His Beloved.

A joyous and kosher Pesach to all!