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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Pesach – How to Transform the World without Losing Yourself in the Process

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on April 8, 2011)
Topics: Machshava/Jewish Thought, Moadim/Holidays, Personal Status & Identity, Pesach

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I would like to share my reflections on a profound Sfat Emet on the topic of Pesach and personal identity.   I found this piece to be particularly meaningful in the context of my comments on parshat Metzorah.  Here is the text:

כי זכירה היא נקודה פנימית שאין בה שכתה. ולפי שבשבת מתגלה נקודה זו בנפשות בנ״י לכן צריכה שמירה.שלא להתפשט נקודה פנימיות למקום שיש בו שכחה . ולכן זכור ושמור בדיבור אחד נאמרו.

והוא עצמו הענין בגאולת מצרים . שבכל חג המצות נעשה איש ישראל כברי׳ חדשה כמו שהי׳ ביציאת מצרים כקטן שנולד ומתחדש בו אותו הנקודה שנטע הקב״ה בנפשות בנ”י…

ובאמת צריך האדם להרחיב זאת הנקודה ולהמשיך כל המעשים אחריה.  וזה התיקון כל ימי השנה לפי מה שזוכה האדם לטוב ולמוטב. אבל כשבא חג המצות מתחדש הנקודה ונטהרת מכל הלכלוכים . ולכן צריכין לשמרה מחימוץ ומכל השתנות בזה התג . ושמרתם את המצות כי בעצם היום הזה הוצאתי וכו׳. פי׳ פנימיות הנקודה כמו שהיא בעצם ואינה מקבלת שינויי לכן צריכה שמירה והי׳ היום כו׳ לכם לזכרון. שמתחדש בו הנקודה שנק׳ זכרון כנ”ל . גם יתפרש יהי׳ לכם לזכרון ממש שיזכור האדם עיקר בריאתו בעולם לעשות רצונו ית׳׳ש ויום הזה נותן זכירה.

Because memory is the inner point that has no forgetting.   And because on Shabbat this point is revealed in the souls of the Jewish People, therefore it must be guarded so that this inner point does not spread out into a place of forgetfulness.  Thus it is said that “Remember” and “Guard” were said in the same utterance.

The same is true for the redemption from Egypt.  On every Pesach a Jew becomes like a new person, like the newborn child each of us was as we came forth from Egypt.  The point implanted by God within the hearts of the Jewish People renewed…

In truth, a person must spread that point and to draw all actions after it.  This is the “fixing” [the job] of all the other days of the year, according to what a person merits, for better or worse. But  when the Holiday of Matzot arrives, this point is renewed and purified from all of its filth.    And therefore it must be guarded from any fermentation, and from any change during this holiday. “Guard the matzot for on this very day I brought the children of Israel from the land of Egypt.” (Ex. 12:17).  The meaning [of b’etzem] is the inner point , just like it is in itself [b’atzmo] and does not allow for any change.  Therefore it requires guarding. “And this day will be for you as a remembrance,” for on this day this point which is called memory, will be renewed.  One could also explain “It shall be for you as a remembrance,” literally, that a person should remember the real reason that he was created in this world, which is to do God’s will, and this day is given by God to remember this.

At one level, what R. Yehudah Aryeh Leib Altar is stating is the classic Chassidic belief in the pintela Yid, the tiny Jew inside of every Jew.  This “tiny Jew” inside of each Jew does not allow for forgetfulness, and persists always.  Thus, a Jewish person never – at a metaphysical level – forgets his or her Jewish identity, and no matter how far he or she has drifted, and how oblivious he or she may be to the fact that s/he is Jewish, this inner essence is always present, and can always be resurfaced, and it is the work of Pesach (and Shabbat) to protect and nurture our Jewish identity, no matter how much it may have been soiled through our engagement with the outside world.  It is our duty to engage the larger reality, to “spread out,” but this can also make us lose our Jewishness, and thus we need Shabbat and Pesach to disengage, so we can restore our pure Jewish essence.

This argument, however, can be applied at the level of the individual and his or her true, distinctive essence.  He is saying that each of us has an irreducible point, a core identity, a soul.  This core identity does not allow for forgetfulness -no matter what we do, and how far we stray, it remains the core sense of who we are, even if we sometimes lose sight of it.  It is who we are free from all the “impurities,” all of our engagements in the outside world, all of our activities, pastimes, busy-ness and the like.

During the week, we get involved in the larger world.  Like chametz, we “spread out,” and this is our obligation – to engage the larger world.  But we need Shabbat to disengage.  And we need Pesach to return to our roots.  Through Pesach and Shabbat we don’t mistake our activities, our busy-ness, all of our larger engagements to be definitive of our identity.  We realize that our identity is a core inner part of ourselves, which cannot be reduced to, or mistaken for, our activities.

When we lose sight of our “inner point,” we lose sight of our tzelem E-lohim.   We define ourselves in purely material, this-worldly ways.  We have no sense of larger purpose, of meaning, of direction.  We forget, as the Sfat Emet says, the “real reason we were created in the world, which is to do God’s will.”     The dangers that can come of this, of reducing ourselves to our worldly-engagement or professional identities, was nicely presented in a recent article, “The Color of Money,” by Malcolm Gladwell, in the New Yorker, from March 28, 2011.  Gladwell compares two German industrialists at the time of World War II, Schueller and Schindler.  While arguing that Schueller was not anti-Semitic per se, the question Gladwell raises is whether he had any identity other than that of a business.  Did he, in other words, have the “inner point that does not allow for forgetfulness”?  Here is what Gladwell says:

Schueller’s behavior stemmed from pragmatism. He was a businessman, and collaborating with the Germans was to him the correct business decision. “The war years were very profitable for those who could keep manufacturing—anything that could be made could be sold, the occupiers would pay any price for luxuries, and there was a flourishing black market in scarce necessities,” Brandon writes. “But only collaboration ensured access to raw materials.”

… As they would say on Wall Street, he hedged the war to perfection. When the market turned in 1942, he shorted Germany and went long on France, and the awkward fact about Schueller’s behavior is that this ability to deal with unexpected obstacles is what we normally celebrate in entrepreneurs. The entrepreneur is someone obsessed with his creation, who applies the full force of his intellect to protect and sustain it.

…  [All of this is in contrast to Schindler.] In the first five years of the war, he made a huge amount of money. But when the Germans decided to shut down Schindler’s operation in Krakow—and ship his workers to the gas chambers—Schindler did an about-face. He persuaded the Germans to let him move his employees and machinery to Brünnlitz, in Czechoslovakia. Here is the business professor Ray Jones, in his article “The Economic Puzzle of Oskar Schindler”:

Schindler used the money he had made [in Krakow] . . . to pay bribes to acquire permission for the factory, to convert the factory into an armaments factory and subcamp, to transport his workers to the factory, to pay the SS for the prisoners’ labor, to purchase food for them on the black market, to acquire additional laborers, and to pay the necessary bribes to keep the Brunnlitz factory open. By the end of the war he had literally spent all of the money that he had made at Emalia, his entire personal fortune.

Schindler is the rare businessman who resolves the ethical conflicts of wartime capitalism in a way that we today find satisfactory. But he does so by violating every precept of good entrepreneurship—by jeopardizing his company and his investment and all his personal wealth for the welfare of his employees. Schindler’s moment of moral greatness was his recognition that the Nazi threat demanded more of him than that he be a good businessman…

In my discussion of Metzorah, I discuss what it means when we reduce others to labels and categories.   The Sfat Emet’s words regarding our “inner point,” makes us consider what happens when we reduce ourselves to our activities and our labels, and when we forget the tzelem E-lohim inside of ourselves.   We need Shabbat and Pesach to allow us to disengage and to return to our foundational experiences, to make us focus on who we are at our core, why we were put on this earth, and how we can continue to “spread out,” into the larger world, transforming the world around us, without losing ourselves in the process.