Sparks of Redemption – Pesach
בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים (משנה פסחים, י, ה).
The festival of Pesach did not originate with the Exodus from Egypt. We know from the Torah and Midrashei Chazal that Avraham Avinu observed Pesach, when he was visited by the three angels (לושי ועשי עוגות). Avraham needed to give Sarah tips how to bake a cake? Obviously not, the Midrash explains that they were revising Hilchot Matzot, that she should knead the dough more strictly without delays, so that it should not become chametz. Yitzchak Avinu observed Pesach when he blessed Yaakov, thinking he was Eisav. Rivka prepared two goats (שני גדיי עזים). The Midrash asks “Did Yitzchak eat two whole goats?” and answers that one was for קרבן פסח and the other for קרבן חגיגה.
The Avot observed Pesach, not to commemorate a future event that had not yet happened, but because something was “hardwired” into the fabric of the universe and the calendar, that they felt by instinct and Ruach Hakodesh that drove them to celebrate Pesach, year in and year out - at that time of the year. There are certain monumental events in our history that warrant a festival and others that don’t. For example, we do not celebrate the splitting of the Jordan River in the time of Yehoshua, even though it was almost on a par with the splitting of the Red Sea, but we do celebrate Purim. Why do some events warrant a festival and others don’t? The answer is that all the historic events around which a festival is commemorated, were not one-time occurrences in history, something special for that specific time only. All the festivals we do celebrate, were equally relevant for that specific time in history and for all future generations, every year anew.
Celebration of the festival of Pesach is undoubtedly linked inexorably with our Exodus from Egypt 3334 years ago, it is the focus. However Chazal emphasize that if we only celebrate it “in memory of”, we are missing the point. The point is to relive it, year in and year out and to rediscover the significance and meaning in our own current reality, every year anew
With that in mind, I would like in this shiur to explore a parallel between the generation of the Exodus from Egypt and the “troubled” (?) generation we are currently living in and rediscover the significance of Pesach today on a real, meaningful level. As part of this process we will be doing a little “myth busting” and dispelling some of the “rose colored”, romantic notions we may have about the story of יציאת מצרים.
Let’s begin by exploring the state of the population group who-were -to-become “Am Yisrael”, prior to the Redemption of the Exodus.
Yaakov Avinu and the Twelve Tribes descended to Egypt in the time of Yosef and their descendants multiplied supernaturally until they outnumbered the Egyptians almost 5 to 1 (see my shiur on Bo). Intimidated by this demographic “threat”, Pharaoh enslaved Bnei Yisrael. Chazal teach us that of their 210 years in Egypt, only 86 years were considered “שעבוד” (Shir Hashirim Rabba 2, 24), from when Miriam was born (her name מרים was symbolic of וימררו את חייהם). The leader of Bnei Yisrael at the time was Amram (Sota 12a). The leaders in Bnei Yisrael were from the tribe of Levi, who spearheaded and were exemplified by their דבקות to HKB”H.
The great leader Amram died (בעתיו של נחש – without sin) when Aharon was 27 and Moshe was 24 (Lekach Tov, Shmot 6, 16). The mantle of leadership then passed to Aharon. Moshe had fled Egypt when he was 13 (Rashi, Rabeinu Bachyei - Shmot 2,14) and only returned to Egypt when he was 80 (Shmot 7,7). This means that in Moshe’s absence, Aharon was the leader of Bnei Yisrael for 56 years! This was a primary reason of Moshe’s reluctance to return to Egypt, to not “supplant” his older brother. The Torah tells us that Aharon held no ill feeling to Moshe returning, quite the contrary וראך ושמח בלבו (Shmot 4, 14).
The character and personality of Aharon is well known, that he was a אוהב שלום ורודף שלום. Despite his devotion and love for his people, Bnei Yisrael under his leadership, due to the שעבוד, descended to the 49th level of טומאה, became assimilated and served idols (Yalkut Shimoni 234). Had HKB”H not redeemed them exactly at that time, they would have been unredeemable (Be’er Mayim Chaim, Shmot 2, 1).
HKB”H sent a redeemer, Moshe Rabeinu to take Am Yisrael out of Egypt. The nation of Am Israel was forged at this critical nexus, when HKB”H Himself appeared to Am Yisrael in all His glory and rained down Ten Plagues on the Egyptians. It was a clear call - מי לה' אלי – who wants to be part of Am Yisrael and who doesn’t? The grim reality is that only one fifth of Bnei Yisrael in Egypt answered that call (see my shiur on Bo), the other four fifths were so totally far gone that even the faintest of sparks that was needed to bring them back over the brink, had gone out and they perished, millions and millions of them during the Plague of Darkness. They had assimilated to such a degree, that even a clear revelation and a spectacular display of supernatural miracles, was not enough. The שעבוד had so totally wreaked its destruction that any connection to HKB”H was eradicated and they were for all intents and purposes, no different from the goyim.
Aharon’s leadership obviously must have involved קירוב. There must have been outreach and an attempt to save every soul - we are talking about Aharon HaKohen after all. HKB”H and Moshe “upped the ante” with the עשר מכות, not just קירוב work, but all out, full blown miracles and clear revelation. Ultimately, however, everything boiled down to the choice. It had less to do with lineage, who your mother was, who your grandfather was – but what you, yourself chose at that critical point in time. Those who chose right were redeemed, those that didn’t perished. We are descended from those who chose right!
Fast forward 3334 years!
I don’t think there is a living soul on earth, Jewish or not, that can deny that something “interesting” is taking place in history, right now, as we speak. Every major religion in the world has some precognition that something “big” is going to take place in this generation, whether it is the Mayans/Nostradamus (2012), the Christians (the millennium year) or the Moslems (prophecies of Israel’s destruction?).
The game changer is that, contrary to every prediction that the “Nation of Israel” was no longer relevant following the destruction of the 2nd Temple – the raison d’etre of the two major religions, Christianity and Islam – this, our generation has seen a return of the “reborn” Nation of Israel en masse to their homeland, after thousands of years of exile, transforming it from a barren wasteland into a thriving, flowering oasis of knowledge, culture, technology and morality in a region which is severely deficient in all the above.
This has prompted a universal paradigm shift regarding the destiny of the Jewish People, the Nation of Israel - starting with the Catholic Church and as we are now beginning to witness, a large part of the (Suni) Islamic world as well.
However, the major paradigm shift is currently occurring within Am Yisrael itself as we begin to come to grips with the enormity of the events we are currently living through. Following almost 2000 years of galut and the evolution of survival skills essential to prevent the decimation of our people, we are now recognizing a new reality – that the greatest threat to Am Yisrael in this generation is not from without, but from within!
It is true that Iran poses an existential threat with their nuclear arms race, but I don’t think that there is any rational Jew today who truly believes that a united Israel does not possess the military capability to either prevent Iran from achieving nuclear capability or for thwarting the threat if they do (like Begin’s bombing the nuclear reactor in Iraq, the Arrow missile system, etc.). Similarly, as painful and destructive as it may be, no rational Jew today believes that Palestinian/Arab terror poses an existential threat. The true threat to Am Yisrael today, the same threat that has always existed throughout our history, is the threat from within.
We are currently experiencing a meltdown of Western Democratic progressive liberalism. This is a global phenomenon, not just here within Israel, but in the US and increasingly in Europe, as people begin to recognize the destructive, erosive effects of progressive liberalism and their inadequacy in protecting against evil, totalitarian movements and regimes. We are slowly starting to see Europe wake up to a new reality that their home has been hijacked by Islamic fundamentalism and that their “sacred cows” and illusions of protection, like NATO are defunct. Just like we witnessed the “demise” of Communism in the USSR and the “rise” of Democracy and progressive liberalism in the Western world, we are now witness to the opposite, the “rise” of Communistic (aka Totalitarian) regimes, Russia and China and the decline of Western Democratic progressive liberalism.
We are also witnessing this transition here in Israel as we see the balance of power shift from the progressive liberal secular sector to the conservative, traditional, religious sector. Contrary to popular belief, this is not about “Bibi”, it is a paradigm shift within Israel from progressive-liberal-secular to conservative-traditional-religious. The balance of power has already shifted in favor of the latter, but this is not reflected in the Knesset since the High Court, the last bastion of progressive liberalism, continues to thwart the transition undemocratically. Israel is therefore in a stalemate, a 50:50 split in its national electorate (although the split is more like 40:60 within the Jewish electorate in favor of conservative traditionalism).
This is the “reality on the ground”, but behind it lies something far deeper. In Breishit when we read about the war of the Four Kings vs. the Five Kings, Chazal teach us to look beyond the “reality on the ground”, the troop movements, the massing of forces on the Ukranian border, tank columns advancing on Kiev, etc. The Midrash teaches us – when you see the major world forces (nature or nations) at odds with each other, something deeper is going on (בראשית רבה מב, ד). When there is an earthquake somewhere in the world, a tsunami, a global COVID pandemic, a world war, a potential world war(?) …. Yes there is the “reality on the ground” – troop movements, seismic fault lines, delta strains, omicron strains …… but look beyond that. Beyond that is HKB”H trying to communicate with us, with Am Yisrael.
In Egypt, it was possible to explain and rationalize every מכה according to the “reality on the ground” – the alkalinity/salinity/acidity of the Nile water, the natural migration of frog populations, the low pressure wind velocity’s effect on hibernating locusts from the Arabian Peninsula, solar eclipses polarizing the sun’s rays, etc. etc. I am sure all the scientists and analysts in Egypt were vying for Cairo’s prime time TV spots, offering their theories and analyses. Similarly, it is possible to look at events that have occurred in the last century and events that are happening right now as we speak and “mistake” them for what they really are. HKB”H is communicating with us - the question is “Are we listening?”
Or are we so overwhelmed having our world and perceptions rocked that, in an attempt to try “restore” our sense of normalcy and familiarity, we are almost exclusively focused on protecting our own ד' אמות and sectorial interests? It is a natural defense mechanism we humans have and after all, we are human. But Am Yisrael is unique in that we are more attuned than other nations to Hashem’s “seismic” fluctuations. We have the ability to hear “frequencies” that no other nation can hear. We have to put aside our petty insecurities and adjust the volume switch on our receivers so we can clearly hear the broadcast.
The broadcast is the same broadcast it was in מצרים with the Ten Plagues. Can anyone even question the fact that the global COVID pandemic is on the scale of the Ten Plagues? HKB”H is sending us a message – מי לה' אלי, just like He did back in Egypt 3334 years ago. The message is – “Time is running out, time to take sides. Are you with Me or not?”
Just like back in Egypt, we have our contemporary “Tribe of Levi” – a small percentage of our Nation that excels in their דביקות to HKB”H and the Torah. For it to compare with Aharon Hakohen back in Egypt, however, today’s “Tribe of Levi” also has to be אוהב שלום ורודף שלום, it has to excel in the entire Torah, including כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה and not seclude itself off from the rest of the Nation and worry only about its own ד' אמות. We are in a race now to save souls and every soul we fail to save now will be lost. I think the current “Tribe of Levi” within Am Yisrael is starting to wake up to this fact and work more on קירוב within Am Yisrael and less on seclusion and self-preservation.
Just like back in Egypt, we have a large percentage of the population who are suffering the destructive effects of שעבוד. Just like back then where it was בחומר ובלבנים, today it is pretty much the same בחומריות ובלב אבנים. Back then it was administered with a whip, today it is far more subtle, but equally cruel. So cruel in fact that you are a slave, but you don’t even know it. Make no mistake, the vast majority of Am Yisrael today is deep in the שעבוד, assimilation and levels of טומאה that distance us from HKB”H. If we consider ourselves to be part of the “Tribe of Levi” and follow the philosophy of Aharon HaKohen, we have an obligation to these brothers and sisters to try bring them back, not push them away. Only HKB”H is בוחן לבבות, only He truly sees beyond the tattoo and the IPhone plugged in the ear. It is our job to be mekarev, not to judge and push away. If someone wants to come to the Kotel, instead of flying on vacation to Bali, it is because they have a “spark” of something that draws them here! Who cares if they don’t really understand what the Kotel is (yet). Just like Hillel (Shabbat 31a) who accepted a גר who said “I only believe in the תורה שבכתב and not the תורה שבעל פה”- instead of pushing him away, cursing him and losing him Hillel started teaching him the alef-bet and eventually was mekarev him and he became a גר צדק. It is not our job to be בוחן לבבות, only HKB”H is equipped for that! We have to do what we can and leave the rest up to HKB”H. Make no mistake the day will come when the person has to make his/her own choice, just like in Egypt. Who has a higher chance of making the right choice? Someone we push away, or someone we mekarev? We have thousands of people now in Israel who only have a faint spark of Yiddishkeit in them, from a grandfather three generations back! Trying to convert these people to immediately keep תרי"ג mitzvot and transform overnight from a vodka drinking, tattooed, punk rocker to a bocher yeshiva in Mir is the shita of Beit Shamai! The halacha is not like Beit Shamai and for a good reason. The halacha is like Beit Hillel, like Aharon Hakohen back in the last Geulah, same with our Geulah b”H. I’m not saying “convert and forget”, we need to “convert and follow up” to make sure the conversion is only the beginning and ….. that the end will be in Mir, b”H.
Just like Hashem selected a גואל who grew up in Pharaoh’s palace, who spent years out in the field watching Yitro’s sheep and not a nice “bocher yeshiva” studying in Amram’s beis midrash! Just like He chose the granddaughter of Balak to (eventually) give birth to דוד המלך, isn’t it also faintly possible that Hashem chose a secular group of Marxist Russian kibbutznikim to rebuild Eretz Yisrael and instigate the first stages of the Geulah - for the same reason - to confuse the סטרא אחרא.
Our job is to observe to the Torah to the best of our ability and care deeply enough about our brothers and sisters who don’t, so that we do our best to mekarev them and not push them away.
Make no mistake, we are in the end of the 6th millennium (5782), the time of בעיתה - our promised Geulah is approaching whether we are worthy of it or not. We will get the call, just like Bnei Yisrael did 3334 years ago – מי לה' אלי. And yes, רחמנא ליצלן a large percentage of our brothers and sisters will be too far gone to answer that call, just like in Egypt. But we have to try save as many as we can before it is too late. This is the job of our generation, to tune into HKB”H’s broadcast, to listen to the program that He is so clearly sending us, to surpass our petty insecurities and to get down to the job at hand, to do tshuva and work furiously on saving souls.
That is Pesach today.