Some Personal Reflections on Pesach-Pesach 5774

For a printable PDF version click here: Some Personal Reflections on Pesach 5774

This week, in light of Pesach fast approaching, I would like to offer something in lieu of my usual weekly Torah contemplation, a much more personal and slightly less academic and scholastic approach than usual.

Pesach for me holds a poignant reminder of how quickly the ordinary becomes extraordinary, the usual unusual, the routine abnormal and certainty supremely unknown. Three years ago during Pesach, I was taken ill with a rare and very serious illness and was subsequently hospitalised for over two weeks with a long rehabilitation afterwards. I was fortunate in that time to have been given the most incredible support by family, friends, students and strangers. This event affirmed my belief in both mankind and God. I won’t pretend it was all plain sailing and that it did not lead to some deep existential questions , but if life changing events occur that don’t stir you or force you to ask the deepest of questions, then perhaps they have been in vain. In this light I would like to offerfive ideas (though of course there were many more) that I reflected on during that period which connect quite deeply to the themes of Pesach and that I desperately try from time to time to reflect on and remember.

 

The first is connected to Freedom. Freedom is not something that is given to us, it is something we ourselves create. None of us are truly free, we are all subject to our upbringings, material conditions, genetics, and simply circumstances. What we are free to do is to choose how to react to our givens. We are free to choose what attitude to take, what meaning to find, what positives to extort from the sometimes difficult, and even tragic of circumstances. Isaiah Berlin spoke of two types of freedom, negative and positive.[1] Negative liberty is the absence of obstacles or constraints. Positive liberty is the possibility of acting in such a way as to take control of one’s life and realise one’s fundamental purpose. When the people of Israel leave Egypt, they are given freedom, but this is only an arbitrary freedom, a freedom from as opposed to a freedom to. Freedom from slavery, totalitarian regimes and dictators is actually the easiest step in liberating a people. To learn how to become truly free, to decide what I have been given freedom to do, that is a life lesson, and a journey for the people of Israel that takes over forty years of wandering in the desert, a lesson we are perhaps still learning today. I always had freedom, I was born into a free society, I had freedom of religion and was generally given a lot of freedom by my parents. For the first time in my life, when lying in the hospital bed I felt constrained, limited. I realised that there are many things in life we have no control over, but equally there are numerous things we can control and one of those is the way in which we react to what has been handed to us. As Rav Soloveichik famously teaches in his essay on suffering, to ask the ‘why’, will not reap any rewards, since we may never understand God’s workings in this world, but to ask the ‘what’ – to what does this summon me to do/become? this is the way one can exercise true liberty. In choosing how to react to any given event or circumstance I am using my free will and creating my own destiny. [2] The people who leave Egypt found the second stage of freedom, positive liberty, an immense challenge and they fail time and again through the way they react to their circumstances. Instead of taking the initiative, problem solving in a creative and independent fashion, they resort to the ‘why’ mode – ‘why were we taken out of Egypt to be killed in the Desert’.[3] It is for this reason that the first generation are destined to die off in the desert, leaving their children to enter the land. For only a people who are truly free, who can take their destiny into their own hands, who are empowered with a sense of purpose, can conquer a land and build a God-fearing society.

 

The second thing I learnt is that the most precious and valuable things in life are not those that cost money. Not the gold and silver that the Israelites go and get from the Egyptian neighbours, but rather the strength and support given by family and friends – the value of community and relationships. Unfortunately it often takes times of suffering and pain for us to realise that this is the case. God through Moshe’s words tries to impart this message to the people when they leave Egypt. The moment they become free is the moment they are free to form meaningful relationships. They are commanded to sit with their family (and those that don’t have a family must join another one)and eat together a meal of freedom before they are free. [4] This command to me is the one of the most startling of the whole Exodus story. It is far more miraculous for a people who have been enslaved for almost five generations, who have most probably never eaten a festive meal together with others, to do such a thing, than for the Master of the Universe to split the sea. One asks man to change, the other asks God to show His greatness. Surely the first is far more difficult a task than the second. To tell a slave nation that they must celebrate their freedom before they are liberated, is like telling a child to walk before it can crawl. Yet I believe what gives the people the strength to achieve the impossible is because this meal has to be eaten with others. Faith and hope is something found not in the lonesome place of the individual but in the sharing of experiences, in the comfort of others, in the embrace of those that love you. In commanding the people to eat a meal of freedom before they are free, to have absolute faith that things will be ok before it is certain, is an essential part of being a people who live in a continual mode of uncertainty. Most people who have been through difficult periods will tell you that what gets them through it is the knowledge that they are being carried by the people who love and care for them, being prayed for, being thought about. The fact that you are part of a much larger circle of community makes you feel that you are encircled in faith and allows you to see the glimmers of hope.

 

The third element that enabled me to recover was the image of my children, knowing they needed me to care for them, educate them, love them. Of course their sweet smiles and playful personality gave me much strength, but in reality what pushes a person forward is their immense sense of responsibility. The knowledge that other people rely on you, is enough to ensure you do everything to recover. Again in the story of the Exodus, God conceives of this human trait. A repeated mantra throughout all of Moshe’s speeches to the people is the responsibility a parent has to tell the story of Yetziat Mizraim to his child.[5] In fact the whole of Leil Haseder is geared towards this end. At every point of the Seder we are finding new and different ways to educate the next generation. We are taught how to respond to each child differently. But most profoundly we are attesting to the fact that the very foundation of our religion, that the future of Judaism, rests on the responsibility of the parent to educate, enlighten, encourage, inspire and install in their children the beauty of the legacy that is the Jewish people. In claiming responsibility for the next generation, God hopes to imbue the slave nation with an enriched sense of purpose and courage to move forward. As the renowned historian and Jewish writer Jacob Neusner warns us:

 

Civilization hangs suspended, from generation to generation by the gossamer strand of memory. If only one cohort of mothers and fathers fails to convey to it children what it has learned from its parents, then the great chain of learning and wisdom snaps. If the guardians of human knowledge stumble only one time, in their fall collapses the whole edifice of knowledge and understanding.

 

The fourth lesson I learnt was to be grateful for routine and normality. To recognise that beauty and greatness is not found in the extraordinary, exceptional, spontaneous moments in life, but very often and perhaps most importantly, in the day to day mundane activity we call routine. Stuck in the hospital bed, I remember feeling frustrated and trapped. I recall looking out the window feeling envious of people going about their day to day activities. I longed for a normal morning, woken by the kids running out the door, coffee in one hand, kids sandwiches in the other, sitting in traffic on the way to teach. I remember thinking clearly that I needed to listen more carefully to the writing of A.J.Heschel, who beckons us to be ‘radically amazed’ by the extraordinary in the ordinary.

 

The surest way to suppress our ability to understand the meaning of God and the importance of worship is to take things for granted. Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin.

Wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of the religious man’s attitude toward history and nature. One attitude is alien to his spirit: taking things for granted, regarding events as a natural course of things.

Awareness of the divine begins with wonder. It is the result of what man does with his higher incomprehension. The greatest hindrance to such awareness is our adjustment to conventional notions, to mental clichés. Wonder or radical amazement, the state of maladjustment to words and notions, is therefore a prerequisite for an authentic awareness of that which is.[6]

 

To find God through the day to day events of nature, to remember to hear the question God quietly asks mankind, that in the business of our lives is deafened. I try today, although it’s very hard at times, to appreciate the tree that has started flowering, the smile of my children, the calmness of the sea and to find some silent moments for reflection or to simply appreciate the day to day and to be grateful for the mundane. To be able to answer, when someone asks how was your week, ‘really just ordinary’ and be thankful for that. Because the ordinary is good. In the Mishkan before the people ever bought any spontaneous or extraordinary sacrifice, they had to first ensure the Korban Tamid – the daily sacrifice had been offered. Because without the day to day routine, without the ordinary, the extraordinary is not possible. The people that left Egypt had an innate need for extraordinary.   Having suffered slavery for so long, they needed to be wowed by God, to be shown the incredible power He possessed. But it is obvious from the ensuing narratives, that this did not beget positive behaviour. The people fail to understand that faith is not cultivated in the impressive acts of open revelation. They fail to understand that faith is something that comes from hearing the ‘still small voice’[7]. Faith in God means finding God in the small acts of kindness men do for each other. Faith means travelling in the desert for 38 years in silence without any word from God, as preparation for a life dedicated to the Divine mission. Faith is appreciating and being grateful for the small details and not just the great acts of fire and brimstone.

 

The final idea I learnt was the importance of time and process. The very first commandment the people of Israel were given after leaving Egypt was the obligation of celebrating Rosh Chodesh the new moon/month.[8] A status of a slave is one that possess no control over his own time. Time is not his, it belongs only to his master. He cannot appreciate the nuance of time – hence slaves are not obligated by time-bound commandments. On the brink of freedom God invites the people to a life possessed of time. By giving the Mitzva of ‘Hachodesh Haze Lachem’, He is not only giving the people the gift of time, but also endowing them with free will – the choice of what to do with that time, whether to sanctify it or not. The Seforno, a Medieval commentator notes on this mitzva:

 

From now on the months shall be yours, to do with them what you shall desire, For in the times of slavery your days were not yours, they were for serving others and their will.. Therefore This month shall be unto you the beginning of months for this is when your free existence begins.[9]

 

We live in a generation that is moving so fast, both technologically and historically. The world seems to be getting smaller, but the number of technological developments greater. We live in a culture of the ‘instant’. Instant information, instant food, instant relationships, instant money making, instant photos. The only ‘processing’ we have is a computer processor or processed food. We have forgotten the value of living through a process. The beauty of working hard for many months, even years to develop an idea, a relationship, a concept has become obsolete. What has been lost in the world of the ‘instantaneous’ is the complexity, frustrations, highs and lows of living through a process, not knowing the end result, having to exist with hope, fear and belief. Matza symbolises the bread of the ‘instant’. At the moment they left Egypt, the moment of freedom, they were told to eat Mazta, basic, flat and easy. Requiring no time, no processing, it was what we might call the first ‘fast food’ – representing our immediate but only initial freedom. Only at Shavuot, after we have had time to process our freedom, understand what it means, see its multifaceted nature and experienced its highs and lows, that’s when we bring two loaves of bread – which requires a process to develop- to the altar (notably the only time we are allowed to bring bread to the altar).

There is a value to both. There are times for immediate answers, information and results,. But equally and perhaps more profoundly, there are moments when it is imperative upon us to recognise, and even embrace the need for process. Again during my recovery I learnt a fundamental lesson, I think the lesson that I have embraced and that has helped the most in all aspects of life since – the lesson of time. Time to heal, time to recover both physically and emotionally, time to realise we don’t have all the answers, time to appreciate the process as well as the end result. With process comes an immense sense of humility. When things are instant, we have no time to think, muse, deliberate, ponder or consider all options. We think we have all the answers and forget that often the questions, the doubt, the reflection are more important than the answers. Elie Wiesel, teaches us the importance of living with questions and allowing the journey of life to uncover the answers. At the very start of his notorious book Night, he recalls a conversation between himself and Moche the Beadle, that I believe is the cornerstone of his entire philosophy:

 

He explained to me with great insistence that every question possessed a power that did not lie in the answer. ‘Man raises himself toward God by the question he asks Him’, he was fond of repeating. ‘That is the true dialogue. Man questions God and God answers. But we don’t understand His answers. We can’t understand them. Because they come from the depth of the soul, and they will stay there until death. You will find the true answers, Eliezer, only within yourself!’.[10]

 

This is what the notion of ‘process’ gives to the project we call life. This is what we must teach our children on Seder Night. Questions are more important than answers. Easy and quick answers are very often inauthentic. Living life is a process and answering our deep painful questions is part of that. The people of Israel were the first to be taught that by none other than God himself.

I want to end witha quote from Natan Sharansky that I feel embodies the tension between the two freedoms we spoke about at the beginning. Pesach is not just a time for cleaning away the dust that has set over the last year, it is also about cleaning and reflecting on the stagnancy of our lives. It is about renewal in every sense, which require us to ask the most fundamental of questions about what we are enslaved to today and how we can break free from our מיצר our ‘strait’.[11]

 

Your Honor, you think that you are free! You think that because when this case is over you will go home while I will be enslaved, since I will go to jail for a long time. But know that between the two of us, I am the true free man! Yes, my body will be enslaved, but my spirit will remain free, because I will know that I did not bow to your decrees and I stayed faithful to my beliefs. But you, Your Honor, were told what to say! Your body may be free, but you are not free to decide according to your beliefs. Your spirit is enslaved and that is much worse.[12]

 

May the Chag of Pesach give us all the impetus to liberate our spirits and renew our faith so that we are free to walk God’s path in this world.

 

 

 

[1] Isaiah Berlin: Two Concepts of Liberty 1958

[2] See J.B.Soloveitchik Fate and Destiny

[3] The difference between the first and second generation is most apparent in the book of Bamidbar which we will address in the coming weeks.

[4] See Shemot 12: 1-14

[5] Shemot 12:26, 13:8, 13:14

[6] A.J. Heschel: God in search of Man p167

[7] See Melachim Book1 Chapter 19:12

[8] Shemot 12:1

[9] Seforno on Shemot 12:1

[10] Elie Wiesel: Night p14

[11] The Sefat Emet writes beautifully about the concept of leaving מצרים:

כי בכל דור ודור יש יציאת מצרים לפי ענין הדור וכל זה היה בשעת יציאת מצרים. וכפי אמונת האדם כאילו יצא נתגלה בחינת זו ומרגיש מיציאת מצרים של עתה ויכול לצאת כל אחד ממיצר שלו

In every generation there is a ‘leaving Egypt’ according to the issue of that generation, and this was all at the time of leaving Egypt. And according to the ‘belief’ of the man that he feels as if he came out, it will be revealed in this way and he will feel a ‘leaving Egypt’ of now, and every man can break out from his ‘strait’.

[12] Natan Sharansky: Fear no Evil

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