Monday, April 10, 2006

Pesah (Hasidism)

In these hectic few days of preparation for Passover, it’s difficult to write at leisure and length. The following short teaching from Meor Einayim, brought under the heading of Parshat Tzav (the Shabbat before Passover in non-leap years), is a homily for Shabbat Hagadol:

The Shabbat preceding Pesah is called Shabbat Hagadol “The Great Sabbath”) because of the miracle that was done there. The matter being that our Sages said (Zohar Hadash II.170b) that at the Sea there was a great accusation made against Israel: “These and these are idolaters!” Yet is it conceivable that Israel would be idolaters, Heaven forbid?! Rather, Israel were sunken in fifty gates of impurity among the shells, and were in a state of smallness of mind, and were unable to go to God, may He be blessed. And God took them out of there, and they came to greatness. And this is, “And you have multiplied and grown” [Ezek 16:7; a verse interpreted metaphysically as referring to Israel, also quoted in the Haggadah]: that is, that you achieved greatness of mind.

And this is the meaning of: “In Nissan they were redeemed, and in Nissan they are to be redeemed in the future” [Rosh Hashana 11a]. For there are two kinds of exile: the general exile, which is the exile of all Israel among the nations; and the particular exile of each individual in Israel, whose soul is in exile by dint of the Evil Urge. And this is a general rule: that concerning any given time, when that time recurs again each year, it always becomes again as it was the first time; therefore we say the blessing “who has brought us to this time.” And this is the meaning of “In Nissan they were redeemed”—they went out from smallness of mind to greatness of mind; “and in Nissan they shall be redeemed in the future“—that is, that each year when that same time recurs, he can go out from smallness to greatness, as it was in the very first time.

One of the striking things here is how the meaning of the Exodus is spiritualized: rather than political, national liberation from bondage, it is read here on the personal level, as liberation from the mental and spiritual bondage of “smallness of mind” to the expanded consciousness signified by “greatness of mind,” open to apprehension of the Divine. In this, as in other senses, Pesah is a time of beginnings: just as it is the seed, the birth of the nation’s existence; and just as in nature it is springtime, the season of blossoming and of new grain; so too is it the first budding of religious consciousness.

This interpretation is not altogether metaphorical. Freedom from oppression is a necessary prerequisite for spiritual growth, for the free play of mind and spirit needed for inner religious and transpersonal insight. A slave cannot begin to develop spiritually, to even begin to think in terms of Godhead, of ultimate meaning, of universal cosmic questions, because he is too beaten down by his suffering, totally absorbed in simply surviving. We know that the Holocaust was enormously difficult for those who underwent it on the psychological and religious, as well as on other levels. Those individuals who nevertheless maintained a deep faith and religious commitment even in the death camps doubtless did so thanks to the resources they had absorbed from their parents and teachers and neighbors during earlier, peaceable times. But the Holocaust, for all its unspeakable horrors, only lasted a few years, and everyone who entered “Planet Auschwitz” brought with them memories of normal times, of life in functioning Jewish communities. The Egyptian bondage continued for 210 years: enough for generations to have grown up without ever having tasted the atmosphere of freedom, of ordinary family life, of sitting at a festive table—or even having heard from grandparents what such a thing was like. Hence, the need after the Exodus to learn everything from scratch, starting from true “smallness of mind.”

A second interesting point in this passage is that the “future redemption” referred to here is not a distant eschatological future, but alludes to each year, the “redemption” being read on a personal level. An important point: conventional wisdom has it that time is experienced within Judaism as linear time, as a progression from the “first” redemption to the ultimate, messianic redemption; hence, history is important, we “believe” in progress and are optimistic about the future. But here the image presented of time is more cyclical than linear, of constant recurrence of an archetypal event, what Mircea Eliade has described as “The Myth of the Eternal Return.” The various holidays and holy days are not merely “commemorations,” educational devices for reminding us of past events, but in some sense are a reliving, a re-creation, nay, a repetition of the original event. Every Pesah we are redeemed anew; every Shavuot we receive the Torah; every Tisha b’Av the bitter trauma of exile is renewed. It has been noted that classic Spanish Kabbalah is much more concerned with looking backward to the Creation than with looking forward to the Messiah. Then, too, Hasidim contains what Scholem has called the “neutralization” of the messianic element: following the wild excesses of Sabbatianism, they intuitively understood that messianism could be a two-edged sword, containing within it not only optimism and constructive hope, but also the anarchy and the debauchery that follows in wake of despair. (Of course, Hasidism has known its own messianic figures; in this age of mass communications and hype, it may take the bizarre form of the image of a dead “Messiah” gazing down upon a freeway from a giant poster, waving with fatherly cheer and hope.)

Matzah Before Midnight and Matzah After Midnight

One of my favorite Pesah teachings is from Habad: a teaching from R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady’s Likkutei Torah: Parshat Tzav, the first of two Torahs with the heading s.v. sheshet yamim tokhal matzot (Brooklyn 1972 ed., p. 25ff.). Because it is long and complicated, I will depart from my usual custom and bring several salient ideas in a paraphrase summary.

The teaching begins by pondering the apparent contradiction between two verses in the same passage of the Torah, one stating “Six days you shall eat matzah” [Deut 16:8] and the other that “Seven days you shall eat matzah” [ibid., v. 3]. It resolves this by stating that the verses refer to two different obligations: one includes the matzah eaten in Egypt on the evening of Passover, which it calls “matzah before midnight”; the other refers to the matzah eaten the remaining six and a half days of Pesah, “matzah after midnight,” which was taken by the Israelites on their backs and eaten in the way, and which was unleavened “because their dough did not suffice to rise.”

(This difference is also reflected in the halakhah, in at least two ways. The matzah eaten at the Seder is called “matzat mitzvah”: eating it is an absolute obligation, accompanied by the blessing “who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to eat matzah.” The other matzah, eaten the rest of the week, from lunch on the first day of Yom Tov on, is called “matzat reshut”: its consumption is not a formal requirement. Moreover, there are two differing explanations given as to why we eat matzah altogether: that of the Mishnah and Rambam’s text, on the one hand (“because they were redeemed”—m. Pesahim 10.5; Yad, Hametz u-Matzah 7.5; but see 8.4!), and that of the Haggadah, in the section “R. Gamaliel said,” on the other.)

Likkutei Torah goes on to explain this difference in terms of the spiritual significance of the two kinds of matzah. The matzah before midnight is called nahama dimhemenuta— “bread of faith,” eaten as a demonstration of faith and trust in God. Indeed, it is said that on the Seder night we are eating at “the Divine table”; partaking of the matzah is a kind of “awakening from below,” a demonstration of human love for, longing for, and waiting upon God.

To explain the “matzah after midnight,” the Alter Rebbe describes two kinds of Divine presence in the world. The more usual one is that of cause and effect: a long chain of causality, through a series of intermediaries (both natural and sefirotic) by which the Divine fulness is brought down into our physical world. There is thus no immediate or obvious sense of Divine presence, unless one reflects deeply upon how all this has come about.

But occasionally there are moments of grace, in which God’s majesty makes a dramatic irruption into history. In particular, there were three great moments—the night of the Exodus; the splitting of the Sea; and the Revelation at Sinai—when the Almighty burst through this chain of causality to make Himself known in a direct, immediate way. This moment was so powerful, that even inanimate matter such as dough was, so to speak, overcome by awe of the Divine Glory and did not rise, but remained flat, unleavened bread—matzah. Thus, the matzah is a tangible expression of the miraculous aspect of Pesah. Indeed, R. Shneur Zalman continues, in a certain sense the matzah eaten during the week of Pesah is of even greater holiness than that eaten at the Seder, reflecting as it does the overwhelming manifestation of God’s kingship and majesty in the world.

To return to the contrast between Purim and Pesah, alluded to a few weeks ago: Purim symbolizes the hidden, immanent Divine presence, not overtly felt in history, but hidden within the labyrinth of causality, often involving mundane and even mean, petty events and motivations of their human facilitators. There is an almost cynical pessimism about life—were it not for God’s hidden but guiding hand, human life and history would be no more than “a bunch of stuff,” simply one thing after another. During Pesah, by contrast, the grandeur of the Divine direction of history is tangibly felt: raising up this one, lowering that one.

In the Spring of 1974, Rav JB Soloveitchik ztz”l spoke on two separate occasions of the meaning of Pesah and the counting of the Omer that follows it. He said that the sense of Divine Kingship, of grandeur and order, of all being right in the world and of history working out as it should, is fleeting. Already during the middle days of Pesah we begin Sefirat ha-Omer which, for reasons rooted both in Kabbalah, in Jewish historical memory, and in his view even in the peshat of the Torah itself, is seen as a somewhat melancholy period, based on a sense of the earthbound and mundane nature of human life.

This talk was delivered, significantly, in wake of the Yom Kippur War in Israel. The Rav seemed to be giving vent to the sense that the elation, the jubilation and ecstasy that followed the Six Day War of ’67, the almost-messianic euphoria that accompanied the reunification of Jerusalem and the opening of the entire Land of Israel to Jewish presence, was shattered by the reality of the ’73 War. Even though Israel did eventually come out on top, there was a sense of fiasco, of failure, that Israel was far from invincible, and that we had returned to the vagaries of history, with all its caprices and uncertainties.

And if things were thus back then, in ’74, what shall we to say today, after all that has happened since? There are no doubt those who see the renewed struggle between the Cross (in the form of American democracy) and the Crescent as a portent of the final conflict that will end in the vindication of the House of Israel. I prefer to say, with R. Haninah b. Dosa: May he come, but may I—and my children, and their as yet hypothetical children—not see him.


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