Monday, March 29, 2010

Pesach - פסח

Tonight, Jews around the world will read at the Seder the command: "בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים." (In each and every generation, one is obligated to see himself as if he left Egypt.)

The words above form the basis for the Seder night experience; all that we do is meant to remind us of the events of that dramatic period. But for all the props, texts and ceremonies, all our efforts are worthless unless we actively try to imagine ourselves as being part of the miraculous liberation from Egypt. Note that we are all *obligated* to see ourselves leaving Egypt. It's not just good practice; this is an outright command. While we can certainly appreciate that the events of the time were hugely important to the Jewish nation, what on earth is so crucial about our seeing ourselves as part of the generation that left Egypt?

This question is answered in part by the Sfat Emet, who notes that this phrase makes use of two different levels; one of the generation and one of the individual. The point is that there were two different aspects to the miracle of Pesach; one of a social scale and one on an individual scale. Whereas the social miracle was clearly evident on a physical level, the individual miracle was somewhat more discreet. Unfortunately for us, we seem to think that the command is for us to remember the physical exodus of the Jews from Egypt, but actually the command also exists on another, somewhat more neglected, level. It is often noted that the Hebrew word Mitzrayim (Egypt in English,) is related to the word Maytzar, which means constraints.

The Sfat Emet also tenders that every generation experiences its own version of the Redemption from Egypt. As each successive generation sinks to successively lower levels, we can claim with some justification that it is only by the mercy of God that we are permitted to continue our existence, even though we live our lives in opposition to the way we are instructed. With that belief under our belts, the Sfat Emet teaches us, we can then go on to relive the original and prototypical redemption as a private experience.

The two strands connect deeply. The constraints spoken about above were the spiritual constraints of the land of Egypt. In the text of Birkat Hamazon, we declare the land of Israel to be "Eretz Chemdah, Tovah ur'chava," a land that is delightful, good and wide." Now, it might seem reasonable to use the first two terms to describe Israel, but anyone who has looked at a map of Israel will tell you that it is anything but wide. The land of Israel is a narrow strip of land, even at it's widest section, and it's range from top to bottom is far more than it's range from side to side. The word Mitzrayim, Egypt, suffers from a similar poser; the root letters צ and ר make up the word Tzar, which means thin. Once again, anyone who recognises Egypt on a map will tell you that this it odds with Egypt's physical nature. What can this all mean?

I have learned that the way to reconcile these two problems is to understand that the width and the narrowness we learn of are not descriptions of the physical aspects of these two countries. Israel's "width" exists in it's spiritual richness. The narrowness of Egypt referred to it's limited connection to the spiritual. Returning to the point above, we may understand the command properly now; in each and every generation, one must see himself as not only being physically delivered from the oppression of the Egyptians, but also as having been spiritually redeemed by God. We are to imagine ourselves as having sunken to the lowest level possible and yet for Hashem to have come riding to the rescue and take us home to the land of Israel. I find this message very powerful; despite the fractures in the Jewish community (fractures that are often the most intractable when different parts of Jewry disagree on Israel and Judaism itself,) and despite the terrible sense of alienation and feeling of being different and alone in this world, we know that all will be alright in the end.

Wishing you a chag kasher v'sameach!

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