Wednesday, April 08, 2009

חג הפסח

Due to the madness that is pre-Pesach preparations, I only have a short D'var Torah today for Pesach. It derives from a shiur I heard from R' Akiva Tatz at the beginning of the month, and also draws from other sources of his.

The Rambam, in his famous work, the Mishnah Torah, details every single mitzvah in the Torah. When he tackles the laws of the Seder night, one might expect the Rambam to write extensively of the importance of the exodus from Egypt. It would seem fairly obvious that one of the mitzvot of the Seder night would be the telling of the story of יציאת מצרים. Pesach is the time when the Jews in Egypt went through the one of, if not the greatest redemption in history, but the Rambam does not stress the exodus itself very much at all. In fact, the Rambam writes extensively of the miracles, mentioning them over and over making the point that we have a mitzvah to talk of the ניסים and the נפלאות, but deliberately avoids referring to the fact that these miracles were simply a part of the exodus from Egypt. Only once does the Rambam makes a cursive, brief reference to the exodus itself. He doesn't say that the mitzvah is to speak about the exodus, but it is to speak of the miracle and wonder of the exodus! What on earth is this about?

It must be pointed out that the Rambam is one of the leading authorities on Halacha, and so we must strive to understand what his reasoning is when he says that we must spend our Seder nights talking of the miracle and wonder of the exodus.

Up until recently, my understanding of miracles had been very simplistic. As a child I learned of the ten plagues, and how the first plague was that the water of the Nile turned to blood, along with all the rest of the water in Egypt. It is said that during the plague, water when taken by an Egyptian would be blood but when taken by a Jew, would be clean water, and I had learned that Egyptians tried buying cups of water off Jews, only to find that the water was blood and undrinkable. Up until now, my understanding of this phenomenon was that as a cup of water was picked up by an Egyptian, it would turn a misty red colour and transform into blood.

That understanding makes sense of the miracle, but it is extremely limited and masks the true wonder of what actually happened. For the miracle was not that the water was first water and then it was blood; rather that it was blood and water at the same time; that a Jew and an Egyptian were able to look at the Nile at the same time and one see a normal river and the other behold nothing but blood.

Later on, when Am Yisrael are doing battle against the Amoraim, Yehoshua petitions Hashem to halt the sun so that the battle would be finished before the end of the day. Up until now, my understanding of the ensuing miracle was that the sun stopped and the world experienced an overly-long day. This is not so; the true miracle was that while the sun stopped for Am Yisrael, it continued for the rest of the world - a miracle that not only defied the laws of nature but also something completely unexplainable that defied the laws of logic too.

So we return to the story of the exodus. It is replete with miracles, whereby the natural laws that we observe every day were quite literally broken at Hashem's will. During the plague of darkness, there was a miracle that righteous Jews were able to see clearly at the same time as it was utter darkness for the Egyptians, and during the plague of the hailstones, there was a miracle that ice and fire were able to exist next to one another.

The Rambam makes a point that on this night we have a duty to make mention of these wonders and miracles. And herein lies the crux of what we call the ליל הסדר, the Seder night.

This is the one night of the year that we have call a סדר night, a night of order, and it would just so happen to be the one night of the year when everything is out of order, when miracles happen left, right and centre. It is a night where we recount how the order and rules of the natural world were subverted - what's the sense in calling it the Seder night?

The answer is beautiful in it's simplicity and it's depth; that this is the one night of the year when us Jews are in our element. The concept of a miracle is that it breaks the order, it is something that does not comply with the "rules" of the natural world and clearly announces a hand that is moving everything in this universe. When miracles occur, we can clearly perceive how this world exists - not because of the "forces of nature," but because Hashem has set the world into a regular and steady rhythm. It is only by breaking the order that we can appreciate the order at all. So when a miracle occurs and the impossible happens, we shouldn't be surprised, we should understand that just as Hashem commanded things to act in a certain way till now, He can command things to act in a different way. That is our seder! We should feel comfortable in the knowledge that nothing is "just so," and when the normal behaviour of the world is changed, it is no more miraculous than the ongoing miracle of the existence of the world.

Maybe now we can truly understand what I mentioned in my last D'var Torah on the Haftarah from Parshat HaGadol, when I wrote about the sun and heaven and hell. To recap very briefly, I read in the Yalkut Lekach Tov of how those who hearken to Hashem's word and those who turn away from Him are treated in very different ways. Only, they are treated in exactly the same way - through the sun. The same sun that provides light and a "healing" for the righteous will simultaneously be as hot and fiery as an oven for evildoers. It is imperative that we understand that the difference between good and bad can seem so slight, and yet the consequences of our decisions can be so harshly different. In a manner similar to that of the plague of the blood, we see how Hashem turns the natural world to His will - something that is completely in order.

Wishing you a Chag Kasher v'Sameach!

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