by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – March 28, 2010
Shortly before his death, our forefather Jacob, also known as Israel, emigrated with his wives and children and their wives and children to Egypt. The children of Israel, after enjoying good fortune for a short period of time, were set upon by the insecurities and jealousies of the large, well-established nation of Egypt who not long beforehand were saved from death by starvation by their viceroy Joseph, an ancestor of these Israelites. The Egyptians rigorously enslaved the children of Israel and sought to squash this fledgling people by murdering their progeny. Nevertheless, the people of Israel continued to multiply. Finally, G-d stepped in to exact retribution for his people, descendants of His truest and most loyal servants Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who undoubtedly passed on some of their devotion to their offspring. The people of Israel, who had now experienced the caprice, vindictiveness, jealousy and oppression of another people – the strongest and most secure and established people of the time – who followed the dictates of their own minds and imagination, were now prepared to begin to appreciate the dictates of G-d whom their forefathers devotedly worshiped. To lead them away from the oppression of Egypt towards the gifts of G-d, G-d chose Moses, a man who grew up in the court of the supreme ruler of the world’s supreme nation who, thereby, experienced the politics and necessities of leadership like no other Israelite, and yet a man who went out to see his fellow Israelites in their state of slavery and could not remain quiet: “And he went out to his brothers and looked upon their burdens and he spied an Egyptian smiting a Hebrew, one of his brethren. And he looked this way and that way and when he saw that there was no man, he slew the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (Sh’mot 2:11-12).
“And the L-rd spoke to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt saying: This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you. Speak to the congregation of Israel saying, in the tenth of this month they shall take to them every man a lamb according to the house of their fathers, a lamb per house . . . .And you shall keep it until the 14th day of the same month and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall slaughter it after noon . . . .And they shall eat the meat that night roasted by fire and unleavened bread, with bitter herbs shall they eat it . . . .And this day shall be unto you for a memorial and you shall keep it as a festival to the L-rd throughout your generations . . . .Seven days shall you eat unleavened bread; even the first day shall you have put away leaven from your houses, for whoever eats leaven from the first day until the seventh day that soul shall be cut off from Israel. And on the first day there shall be a holy convocation and in the seventh day there shall be a holy convocation to you, no manner of work shall be done in them except for that which every soul must eat that only may be done by you. And you shall observe [the commandment of] the unleavened bread for in this selfsame day did I bring your legions out of the land of Egypt and you shall observe this day throughout your generations by ordinance forever . . . .Seven days shall there be no leaven found in your houses” (Sh’mot 12:1-19). For seven days in the Land of Israel and eight days in the Diaspora during the holiday of Pesach (Passover), the people of Israel are enjoined to abstain from leavened food to remind us of our haste in fleeing the oppressive environment of Egypt when we were not even given the time to allow the bread to rise. To allow this unique practice to fall would permit our attention to the very unique and critically significant event in our history – the exodus from Egypt – to be forgotten, something which we cannot allow to happen. The first and last days, moreover, require abstention from work, thereby allowing more time for prayer, celebration and contemplation. In fact, on the first evening of Pesach in the Land of Israel and on the first two evenings in the Diaspora, we engage in a lengthy narration of the events surrounding the exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt. And to temper our joy and remind us of the bitter times we have encountered at the hands of the Egyptians before the Israelite exodus and at the hands of other nations since the Israelite exodus, we eat bitter herbs on this holiday of Pesach.
We are asked to celebrate the holiday of Pesach. Doing so helps us recognize our bitter times at the hands of jealous and insecure adversaries throughout the ages – Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Seleucids, Romans, Crusaders, Cossacks, Nazis and Arabs – all of them larger and more secure, yet feeling threatened by the success of the small people of Israel. We are asked to celebrate the holiday of Pesach. Doing so helps us to recognize that the omnibenevolent G-d presented us with the gift of his holy Torah, and, despite our transgression of its laws, does not permit us to be vanquished and helps us, albeit quietly, overcome our foes. Let us celebrate the holiday of Pesach. Let us celebrate and feel proud of our continued existence as a people. Let us celebrate and feel proud of our continued existence as a nation. Let us celebrate and be proud of our continued existence as the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the children of Israel, who, with G-d’s help, endlessly overcome adversity. Let us celebrate and feel proud of who we are.