Drawing Strength From Pesach

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If a person was taken captive and subsequently released, we would expect him to hold some kind of celebration each year on the anniversary of his release.  But now let us imagine that this fellow is taken prisoner yet a second time.  At some later point, he is again released.  When would he celebrate his freedom – on the date of his initial release, or the on the day of his second and final release? 

 

Unquestionably, he would host his celebration on the date when he received his permanent freedom.  What sense would there be in celebrating the day when he was released if he was then captured again?! 

 

And yet, this seems to be precisely what we do each year, on Pesach.  We celebrate our release from the Egyptian exile – despite the fact that our nation were exiled subsequently, on multiple occasions. 

 

“Everlasting” Freedom? 

 

After leaving Egypt, we entered the Land of Israel and built a country – until the Babylonians brought us into exile several centuries later.  The Babylonians were then conquered by the Persians, under whose dominion we lived until they, like the rest of the ancient world, were overrun by the Greek Empire.  The Hashmonaim miraculously defeated the Greeks and drove them from the Land of Israel, but less than 300 years we came under the rule of Rome.  And we have been in exile ever since. 

 

And thus our Sages speak of four exiles that the Jewish People endured after the Exodus from Egypt: 1) Babylonia; 2) Persia; 3) Greece; 4) Rome, the exile in which we still find ourselves. 

 

Why, then, do we celebrate our redemption from the Egyptian exile, if we were subsequently sent back into exile – four times! – and we still remain in exile to this day? 

 

Even more perplexingly, each night, in the arvit service, we give praise to Gd for bringing us out of Egypt “leherut olam – to everlasting freedom.”  We speak of the freedom we gained at the time of the Exodus as “everlasting” – despite the fact that we have, unfortunately, suffered so much persecution and oppression since that miraculous redemption.  In what way is our freedom from Egyptian bondage “everlasting”? 

 

Egypt as the “Mother” 

 

The answer is found in an important teaching the Arizal (Rav Yitzhak Luria, Safed, 1534-1572), which is fundamental to our understanding of the significance of Yetziat Mitzrayim (the Exodus from Egypt) and our celebration of Pesach. 

 

The Arizal taught that the Egyptian bondage was the template, so-to-speak, of all future exiles.  We might compare this period of suffering to a woman pregnant with quadruplets, as it “gave birth” to the four later exiles.  The concept of exile was conceived in our ancestors’ experiences in Egypt, setting the foundation for the four exiles that followed. 

 

The Hida (Rav Haim Yosef David Azoulay, 1724-1806) found an allusion to this concept in the opening verse of the Book of Shemot, where the Torah introduces the story of the Egyptian bondage, listing the names of Yaakov’s sons “habaim Mitzrayemah – who were coming to Egypt.”  The word “baim” in this verse can be read as an acrostic representing the words “Bavel” (Babylonia), “Edom” (a reference to Rome), “Yavan” (Greece), and “Madai” (Media, which was connected to Persia).  When our ancestors came to Egypt, they were setting into motion the four subsequent exiles.  The period of exile of Egypt constituted the foundation from which the future exiles emerged. 

 

The flipside of this concept is that Yetziat Mitzrayim set into the motion all future processes of redemption.  Just as the horrors of the Egyptian exile laid the groundwork for the suffering during subsequent exiles, the miraculous Exodus from Egypt laid the groundwork for all subsequent redemptions.  And it is in this sense that Yetziat Mitzrayim brought us “everlasting freedom.”  Although we were later exiled again, multiple times, and still await our fourth and final redemption, that final redemption is rooted in our nation’s redemption from Egypt.  The miracles of Yetziat Mitzrayim established the precedent for our future redemptions – and thus, indeed, they could be said to have brought us “everlasting freedom,” in that they facilitate the final redemption for which we yearn and pray. 

 

The Arizal noted that this explains the prominence of the number 4 at the seder.  We drink four cups of wine, for example, to commemorate the four redemptions that were “born” at the time of Yetziat Mitzrayim.  We celebrate on this night not only our freedom from Egyptian bondage, but rather all the redemptions that we have experienced and the final redemption that we will soon, please Gd, experience, as they all originate from the miraculous redemption from Egyptian slavery.  We celebrate the concept of ge’ulah (redemption) which was born at the time of Yetziat Mitzrayim, confident that we will see the end of our current exile, as well. 

 

The Fourth Patriarch? 

 

With this background, we can perhaps understand an otherwise peculiar aspect of the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim. 

 

The process of the Exodus began – or so we would have thought – when Gd appeared to Moshe at the burning bush, and informed him that He would soon free Beneh Yisrael from slavery.  He commanded Moshe to return to Egypt, convey Gd’s promise of redemption to the people, and then confront Pharaoh to demand that he release the slaves. 

 

Surprisingly, though, after Moshe approached Pharaoh, the king not only refused his demand, but made Beneh Yisrael’s conditions much worse.  In an attempt to demoralize the people and dash their hopes of freedom, Pharaoh ordered that they would no longer be given straw with which to produce bricks, but would have to fetch straw themselves and then somehow meet the same quota of bricks as they had previously.  Suddenly, the slaves’ workload was doubled. 

 

Why did this happen?  Why did the suffering need to intensify before the redemption? 

 

The answer might be found in the comments of the Or Ha’haim (by Rav Haim Ben-Attar, 1696-1743) to the beginning of Parashat Tetzaveh.  The Or Ha’haim there establishes that the redemptions from all our nation’s previous exiles unfolded in the merit of our righteous patriarchs.  We were redeemed from the Babylonian exile in the merit of Avraham; from the Persian exile in the merit of Yitzhak; and from the Greek exile in the merit of Yaakov.  The question naturally becomes, then, in whose merit we will attain redemption from our current exile, as we have only three patriarchs, not four.   

 

The Or Ha’haim answers that the final redemption will transpire in the merit of Moshe Rabbenu.  He is the “fourth patriarch,” so-to-speak, in that he provides us the merit we will need to bring our final redemption.  (As an aside, it is worth emphasizing that Moshe Rabbenu is the one who brought us the Torah.   

Therefore, in order to enlist his great merit through which we can earn redemption, we need to devote time to learning Torah, rather the waste our time in front of screens…) 

 

If we combine the Or Ha’haim’s theory with the Arizal’s teaching discussed earlier, we arrive at a fascinating conclusion.  If, indeed, the Egyptian exile formed the template of the four subsequent exiles, then it stands to reason that the final phase of the Egyptian bondage corresponds to the final of the four exiles.  Our current exile, without question, has been the harshest and most tragic.  It has already lasted nearly two thousand years – several times longer than any of the previous exiles – and has included so many catastrophes, such as the Crusades, the expulsion from Spain, the Khmelnytsky pogroms in the 16th century, the Holocaust, and mass terror attacks in Israel.   

 

Understandably, then, once Moshe – who will redeem us from our current exile – arrived on the scene in Egypt, the suffering had to intensify.  Moshe’s emergence in Egypt represents the fourth and final exile – and for this reason, this period was the harshest and most tragic part of the Egyptian bondage, just as our current exile is the most painful of all the exiles. 

 

Anticipating Miracles 

 

Several centuries before Beneh Yisrael’s enslavement by Pharaoh, Gd informed Avraham that this would happen.  He also ensured our patriarch that “dan anochi” – He would punish the nation that would subjugate his descendants (Beresheet 15:14).  Gd fulfilled this promise through the ten plagues that He brought upon Egypt, and then by drowning Pharaoh’s army in the sea. 

 

Rav Saadia Gaon (882-942) noted that if these two words – “dan anochi” – were manifest through the great miracles of the Exodus, we cannot even imagine the fulfillment of the prophecies of our final redemption.  The books of the prophets are filled with promises of blessing and of our enemies’ downfall.  If two words produced Yetziat Mitzrayim, we can be certain that the final redemption will many times more miraculous than the Exodus from Egypt. 

 

The Pesach celebration, then, is not only about our ancestors – it is very much about us, about our current travails, and about our unwavering faith in redemption.  Yetziat Mitzrayim assures us that no matter how difficult our current circumstances seem, the Jewish Nation will be saved, just like our ancestors were – and in even more miraculous fashion. 

 

This year, Am Yisrael is preparing for Pesach in a state of anxiety and uncertainty.  The trauma of Simhat Torah is still very much with us.  Many of us know firsthand families who lost loved ones on that day or during the ensuing war.  Nobody knows how the current conflict will end, and Jews around the world are experiencing a frightening wave of anti-Semitic attacks.   

 

Pesach has come at the perfect time, reassuring us that, as Gd conveyed through the prophet Micha (7:15), “Like in the days when you left the land of Egypt, I will show them wonders.”  The miracles we speak about at the seder remind us that we will soon witness even greater miracles, that Gd will extricate us from our current crises just as He brought our ancestors out of Egypt.  There is no greater source of strength and encouragement for us during this time than the seder table, where we sit and focus our attention on the miraculous Exodus from Egypt, which is the model for the miraculous redemption that we can look forward to. 

 

Rather than fall into despair, let us be strengthened and reenergized, as we reaffirm our faith in the beautiful future that awaits the Jewish Nation.