Pesach 5781: Reflection and Rejoicing

Chag Ha’Pesach 5781 is upon us.  

After a difficult year for our world, our nation, our communities and our Land, as we battled the various difficulties – and terrible losses, Hashem yerachem – that came along with the COVID pandemic, we are poised to once again celebrate the first of the Shalosh Regalim, Zman Cheiroseinu – the Festival of Our Freedom.  On motzei Shabbos, we will sit down to Leil Ha’Seder and fulfill the mitzvos of the evening, as we commemorate slavery and celebrate freedom.  For our journey to freedom and our nation born, on this night we will give thanks to G-d, and simultaneously hope and pray for the future, and ultimate, redemption.  

On the very first Pesach night in Egypt, the Israelites celebrated their upcoming march to freedom as G-d went through the land of Egypt and smote every firstborn Egyptian.  And how did our forefathers celebrate their newfound freedom?  By retreating to their homes, with their families and neighbors gathered around the table, eating the Paschal Sacrifice.  Not only was our nation born through this holiday meal, but G-d commanded the Israelites to not even leave their homes on this night.

וּלְקַחְתֶּ֞ם אֲגֻדַּ֣ת אֵז֗וֹב וּטְבַלְתֶּם֮ בַּדָּ֣ם אֲשֶׁר־בַּסַּף֒ וְהִגַּעְתֶּ֤ם אֶל־הַמַּשְׁקוֹף֙ וְאֶל־שְׁתֵּ֣י הַמְּזוּזֹ֔ת מִן־הַדָּ֖ם אֲשֶׁ֣ר בַּסָּ֑ף וְאַתֶּ֗ם לֹ֥א תֵצְא֛וּ אִ֥ישׁ מִפֶּֽתַח־בֵּית֖וֹ עַד־בֹּֽקֶר – And you shall take a bunch of hyssop and immerse [it] in the blood (of the Korban Pesach) that is in the basin, and you shall extend to the lintel and to the two doorposts the blood that is in the basin, and you shall not go out, any man from the entrance of his house until morning (Shemos 12:22).  

What did Hashem want to teach us in instructing us to stay inside our homes?  It could not merely be to spare the lives of the Israelite firstborn as He smote the Egyptian firstborn.  For if Hashem wanted to distinguish between Egyptian and Hebrew, He could well have done so whether the Israelites were in their homes our outside their homes.  The command “And you shall not go out, any man from the entrance of his house until morning” contains a powerful and timeless lesson.  Not only is it telling about the nature and focus of our people, but it reminds us how the lessons of Torah are eternal, and manifest in each and every generation.  After all the events that we have witnessed this past year, the following teaching of the Rav could not be more relevant.  

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt’l teaches, “And you shall not go out, any man from the entrance of his house until morning (Ex.12:22).  On the night of freedom, the slaves performed the movement of withdrawal, of recoil, of self-defiance and self-limitation.  Freedom does not rid a man of his morals, but on the contrary, adds to his morals.  The transition from slavery to freedom is very critical.  The masters who exploited, tortured, humiliated, find themselves suddenly at the mercy of the slaves for whom they showed no concern, displayed no human emotion.  The natural reaction of the slave who is suddenly freed is to avenge himself on the tyrant who murdered his baby, who assaulted and disgraced his daughter, who mercilessly beat him for any minor infraction of a nonsensical and sadistic rule.  It is usually a bloody, ruthless, and vengeful transition.  Fear of a slave upheaval haunted all the tyrants of antiquity, as well as those of modern times.  Rebellion by slaves meant total destruction.  History records many bloody and ruthless insurrections of slaves against their masters.  

“Ancient Rome experienced twice or thrice a grim confrontation with slaves who had set themselves free.  European history knowns of the Peasants’ Rebellion in medieval Germany and of the bloody Cossack revolt in Ukraine.  The stories about the cruelty of the rebels are blood-chilling.  They were eager to settle a long account of cruelty.  Horrific massacres were typical.  The brutish drive for vengeance, for gratification of the satanic in man, was irresistible.

“Did anything of that kind happen on the night of the Exodus?  Six hundred thousand slaves were liberated – וַיָּ֨קָם פַּרְעֹ֜ה לַ֗יְלָה ה֤וּא וְכָל־עֲבָדָיו֙ וְכָל־מִצְרַ֔יִם וַתְּהִ֛י צְעָקָ֥ה גְדֹלָ֖ה בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם כִּֽי־אֵ֣ין בַּ֔יִת אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵֽין־שָׁ֖ם מֵֽת – and Pharaoh came to Goshen to plead with Moshe (that he finally lead the nation to freedom).  The Egyptians were hysterical, moaning and crying: and there was a great outcry in Egypt, for there was no house in which no one was dead (Shemos 12:30).  The Jews were now the masters, the Egyptians the subordinates.  The oppressors were at the mercy of their former slaves.  

“Were Egyptian babies taken out of the embrace of their mothers and thrown into the Nile, as the babies of the slaves had been murdered?  Did the Hebrew beat up his taskmaster, who just days ago had tortured him mercilessly?  Did the liberated slaves set fire to the exclusive neighborhoods of their former overlords?  Did the teenagers at least smash the windowpanes of the offices where their taskmasters would assemble to plan restrictive and sadistic edicts?  Nothing of the sort.  Not one person was hurt, not one house destroyed.

“The liberated slaves had the courage to withdraw, to defy the natural call of the blood.  What did the Jews do in the hour of freedom?  Instead of swarming the streets of Goshen, they were locked up in their houses, eating the korban Pesach (with their families and neighbors) and reciting the Hallel (songs of thanks and praise to G-d).  It is unique in the history of revolutions” (Chumash Masores HaRav, Shemos, p.94-95).  

As we reflect on this difficult past year, and once again rejoice on the Festival of Freedom, we recall how the liberated slaves rejoiced.  By retreating to their homes, sitting around the table, enjoying a meal with family and neighbors and giving thanks to G-d.  And this year, Pesach 5781, this is how we too, will celebrate the yomtov, and commemorate this past difficult year.  With restraint, with holiness, with Hallel and hoda’ah, we will sit inside our homes, cementing our relationship with family and friends and recommitting ourselves to living a committed life in the service of G-d. 

בברכת חג כשר ושמח,

Michal

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