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Pesach 5778 — 03/31/2018

Pesach 5778 — 03/31/2018

Abarbanel does not have chapters on the holidays, so I will try and continue the discussion of chesed and din on my own. So don’t blame Abarbanel for anything you read this week. I will use R. Jonathan Sacks’ recent book, Ceremony and Celebration, although I will barely scratch the surface of what he has to say. Needless to say, don’t blame anything on R. Sacks either!

Biblically, Pesach is celebrated for 7 days, as it is today in Israel. In the Diaspora, holidays (except Yom Kippur, thank Gd!) are celebrated for two days. Originally this was due to the fact that messengers had to be dispatched from Jerusalem, where the Sanhedrin was empowered to declare the beginning of the month (e.g. Nisan, thus fixing the time of Pesach on the 15th of Nisan), to the communities living in Babylonia. In some cases, they did not reach the farthest communities in time, and those communities celebrated the holiday on two days out of doubt. Nowadays, when our calendar is fixed and does not depend on witnesses to the New Moon coming to the Temple and offering testimony, the original reason is no longer operative, but the tradition has been maintained, and more spiritual reasons are adduced – for example, that the holiness of the Land of Israel is much greater than the rest of the world, and outside it 2 days are necessary to have the requisite effect on us.

Because Pesach comes on Shabbat this year, the 8th day of Pesach also comes on Shabbat, and we will only continue with our regularly scheduled programming (parashat Shemini) in two weeks. In Israel, Pesach will end on Friday and Shemini will be read the next day. The readings in Israel and in the Diaspora will be different through May 12, when we will read the double portion BeHar-BeChukotai and Israel will read just BeChukotai. Note that we will read the tochachah / rebuke on the same day. I wonder if that was arranged on purpose so that the curses in BeChukotai not be read on two separate weeks.

Rabbi Sacks notes that Pesach celebrates the Exodus from Egypt, which is the seminal event in the formation of the Jewish people. He also notes that the saga of exile and redemption is recounted several times in the book of Genesis, prior to the descent into Egypt. The story of Pesach is thus understood by the Torah not as just a historical event, not even an event that involved signs and wonders and miraculous deliverances. It always was meant to be part of the journey, prefigured five times in advance by four exiles and a nighttime vision before there even was a Jewish people. The way to the Promised Land passes through Egypt and exile. This was not a detour but part of the route itself, anticipated at the very outset.

R. Sacks goes on to tell us how the Pesach story is nothing less than revolutionary – challenging the assumptions of the ancient world that might makes right, that the social order is Divinely ordained and immutable, and that people have the right to rule over one another. In fact, one could take his argument further and say that the story of the plagues and the Exodus, and indeed Israel’s miraculous existence in the desert for 40 years and their conquest of the Land, all point to the non-self-sufficiency of the material world – for naturally all these things would have been impossible! Indeed, the continued existence of the Jewish people would have been impossible, had not Gd intervened in the ways of the world to preserve us, time and again.

I would like to focus on the last sentence of R. Sacks’ quote. Why was the exile “anticipated at the very outset”? A related question is, why, after experiencing all the miracles of the Exodus and the splitting of the sea, were the Israelites not perfected? Why was the redemption from Egyptian bondage incomplete in terms of bringing the final Redemption?

It seems to me that if we are going to have a creation, certainly a creation with creatures that possess free will (that would be us), then one has to anticipate that “mistakes will be made.” Gd is absolute, unchanging, eternal, infinite and totally transcendental to the world of activity. The activity that we see around us is absolutely different from Gd, or so it appears. Our Sages tell us that Gd had to “contract” Himself to “leave room” for limited creatures to exist. This leaves Gd, as it were, in one place, and the creation in another. This disconnection from Gd, I believe, is the source of all our problems – if we were truly connected to an infinite, loving Gd, how could we indulge in the petty behavior and the gratuitous cruelty towards others that have characterized human life and society since time immemorial?

This “exile” from Gd, however, appears to be necessary for creation to exist. In order for there to have been history, development, growth, we necessarily had to start from a lower state. Had Adam and Eve not eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, there would have been no separation from Gd, we would all be living in the Garden, and nothing new would be created. I believe in this sense, exile, or alienation from Gd, is absolutely a fundamental, logical necessity for creation to exist.

What about Redemption? We believe that a loving Gd would not cast us out to flounder around eternally, always seeking, but groping blindly and never finding. The redemption from Egypt provides a paradigm of this as well. The purpose of the redemption from Egypt was not simply relief from the cruelties of bondage – its larger purpose was so that Gd could take the Jewish people to Himself as a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The medium for this transformation was to be Torah – knowledge – and the culmination of the entire Exodus experience was the Revelation at Mt. Sinai, where the entire nation experienced directly that in truth, Gd is the only reality, and the surface reality that we experience in our ordinary state of consciousness is only the expression of Gd’s Reality, the way waves are the expression of the ocean, but in truth are not at all separate from the ocean.

Alas, one experience of the ultimate reality may be transformative, but it was not enough to raise Israel permanently to this ideal level of perception. So 40 days after the Revelation there is the incident with the golden calf. Moses must descend from his high spiritual level, and the people certainly descended from their level, which they were not sufficiently conditioned to maintain. As we have gone through repeated cycles of exile and redemption, both as individuals and as a people, our knowledge of Gd has deepened and become more and more established. One way that we go through such a cycle is by reliving the Exodus at our Seder table each year. May Gd bless us with ever increasing depth of knowledge and perception, so we can leave exile and alienation behind for good and bask in Gd’s presence for eternity.

Chag Kasher v’Sameach


Commentary by Steve Sufian


After the plague of the first born Pharaoh tells Moses and Aaron to leave with all their people and their flocks to “worship the Lrd as you have spoken.”  He does not say “worship your Lrd”; he says “worship the Lrd.”  As with all of Torah, many interpretations might be given of this. I take it straightforwardly: he has become, at least for the moment, a monotheist. The king of Egypt/Mitzraim/restrictions/fragmentation has
become a worshipper of Wholeness.

In support of this interpretation, consider that Pharaoh concludes this command with the statement “You shall also bless me.”  Rashi interprets this as meaning that Pharaoh is requesting divine blessing because Pharaoh is also a firstborn. Perhaps. But since Pharaoh has already been spared, this doesn’t seem to me to hold up.  Better is that Pharaoh genuinely, for a moment, realizes that Moses and Aaron have access to Totality and they can invoke that power to bless Pharaoh, to fill him with holiness. Pharaoh had realized this, for a little while, earlier when after a plague he requested Moses and Aaron to entreat Gd to remove the unpleasant creatures from his land. Moses and Aaron did so, and Gd complied.

Since Gd is all there is and Pharaoh, Moses and Aaron are but roles he plays, it is perfectly reasonable to me that Gd can soften and open any heart that He has hardened, dissolve any restriction He has created, and make all first born dedicated to Him, not only people, animals, but also the first-born seeds of thought and desire, the sprouting of Totality into individuality.

And this certainly goes for any doubt, limits, thoughts and desires left in us.  When we conclude the Seder with “Next year in Jerusalem”, we mean “next year in full blessing, in Wholeness, no sorrow left, only the Joy of Totality, of Oneness.”

Why wait until next year?


Baruch HaShem