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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Pesach and the Problem of Passive Participation

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on April 4, 2018)
Topics: Pesach

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There is a great irony in the fact that Pesach, the hag which commemorates the historical period of greatest activity and upheaval, is actually quite tame and uneventful once the sedarim are over.  Other than the Seder night, there are no special mitzvot or rituals. The seven-day mitzvah of matzah as it appears in the Torah has effectively been collapsed into the eating of matzah on the Seder night; if we eat matzah during the rest of Pesach, we do not make any special brakha. The first day’s davening is marked by what we don’t do – we stop saying mashiv ha’ruach u’morid ha’geshem.  On the intermediate and final days we only say a half-Hallel.  The last days have no special identity, and we make no she’hehiyanu blessing over them during kiddush.

Sukkot is the opposite.  Sukkot commemorates a historical time when very little new and exciting happened.  The dwelling in huts or the Divine clouds took place over the entire 40 years of our wanderings through the dessert.  Yet it is the hag of the greatest excitement and rituals.  We sit in the sukkah and make a brakha over it all seven days; we take lulav and esrog all seven days; we say a full Hallel all seven days; we do hoshanot all seven days; the seventh day is Hoshanah Rabbah; the eighth day is Shmini Atzeret; the ninth day is Simchat Torah.

How are we to explain all this?  The key is to be found in the difference between having an active role or a passive role in one’s redemption.  During Pesach, we were essentially totally passive in the process.  God, directly and through Moshe, came and took us out of Egypt. What did we do?  It is true that when we were oppressed we cried out, but this was out of pain and not in prayer to God.  And while we believed in Moshe when he first came to us, this did not translate into action. When he and Aharon went before Pharaoh we were nowhere to be seen.  When things got worse, we complained rather than making any constructive contribution. We just wanted Moshe or God to fix the problem for us.

It is true that we had some low-level participation in the lead-up to the exodus.  We borrowed the vessels of gold and silver from our Egyptian neighbors, although in doing so there was no risk or need to truly commit ourselves.  We prepared the paschal lamb, which – as Hazal points out – could have exposed us to real danger (see Shemot 8:22).  But doing so was necessary for us to protect our own lives against God’s smiting of the first born; it was first and foremost not the willingness to take a risk, but an act of self-preservation.  For Hazal, the women were passive resistors to Pharaoh’s edicts: wives seduced their husbands so that they could become pregnant, and Miriam advised Amram to retract his decree that the men separate from their wives.  But, as critically necessary as these acts were, they were more acts of survival.  All of these fall short of truly active resistance or fighting for one’s freedom.

What could we do?  We were slaves.  We needed someone else to save us.  “A bound person cannot free himself from prison.” (Berakhot 5b).  But at some point it was going to become necessary for us to show some initiative and take ownership of what was happening, to move from passive slaves to agents of our own destiny.

This, says Sefat Emet (Pesach 5631), is what began to happen at the time of the splitting of the sea.  The initial exodus, he writes, only took place due to the oath that God had made to the forefathers. Now God commands the camp to return in the direction of Egypt (Ex. 14:2), to re-enter Egypt, as it were, so that they could experience a second exodus, one that would come as a result of their own merit.

Their merit was to be found in their willingness to follow God and return towards Egypt.  More than demonstrating their willingness to take a risk, doing so was choosing to take ownership over one’s presence in Egypt.  It was choosing to take responsibility.  And by choosing to return, they could now choose to leave.  This was also why they feared when Pharaoh and his army approached.  They believed in God’s ability to save them, but they feared that they did not have the ability to save themselves.  Owning one’s choices and future is scary.  It means taking risk. It means fear.  But ultimately, as free people, we have no choice but to do so.

To be an actor is to have the ability truly change who you are and the reality in which you are living.  As long as we were passive, we might have left Egypt, but we would not have escaped it:

This is the difference between the exodus from Egypt and the splitting of the sea. For the exodus from Egypt was one where they left the straits (Mitzrayim/meitzar) but the straits remained.  But the splitting of the sea was one which completely removed the straits away from them.  For the exodus from Egypt was due to God’s lovingkindness.  But the straits can only be removed through human effort… It was for this reason that this redemption happened in the very midst of the straits (i.e., at the sea itself).

When God took them out, they moved, but their reality pursued them – “Behold Mitzrayim” – Egypt and their straits, their constraints, there troubles – “was travelling after them.” (Ex. 14:10).  A person can try to run away from her problems but, as the saying goes, wherever you go, there you are.  True transformation requires acting, not running.  To change the society around us, and most importantly, to change ourselves, we must act, not be acted upon.

This takes us back to irony of Pesach and Sukkot.  Historically, on Sukkot, we experienced nothing new, certainly no nature-disrupting Divine miracles.  What makes it so exciting is not what was done to us, but what we did and what we do.  We build a sukkah, and what meaning do we give it? We see it as symbolic of an act of faith and trust in God – “I remember for you the kindness of your youth, your bridal love, when you went after me in the wilderness in a land that was not sown.”  (Jer. 2:2).  We use it to define our role in the exodus as an active one.  Alternatively, we see sukkot as commemorating the Clouds of Glory, and then have the temerity to say that by our building of the sukkah we are recreating those clouds and bringing God’s presence into our midst even today. We do not just hope for rain, we pray for it with our words and with our actions: we shake our lulav and esrog, we wave our hoshanot.  And let’s not forget that Sukkot comes after Elul, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.  It is the climax of a process in which we learn that if we want to make our lives different, then we must work to change our reality and work to change ourselves.

What, then, is Pesach?  To some degree, Pesach is the hag in which we recognize that sometimes we are a person bound in a prison, perhaps of our own making, perhaps not, and that we need God or someone else to save us.  We can’t always do it alone and we must learn that it’s okay to ask for help.  Sefat Emet writes that the redemption from above had to come first so that we could have strength and faith to see us through the hard times.  So that we would know that sometimes there first needs to be a “Draw me after You” before there can be “and to You I will run” (Shir HaShirim 1:4).

And then there are the middle and last days of Pesach.  Days when the reality of the exodus is still with us – there is still only matzah in the house – but it is kept on a low flame.  This is when we take responsibility for our lives and our decisions.  And yet, sometimes it is our job to keep on our current path, to make wise choices, to improve our lives, but not to transform them.

And that’s ok.  That describes most of our lives most of the time.  Very few of us can live with the excitement of Sukkot and the Yamim Noraim the whole year.  And anyway, if we have been making good decisions in our lives, we shouldn’t be looking for a major transformation.   Even when we make a major choice – a new job, where to live, whom to marry – there will at first be a major disruption and upheaval, but pretty soon we will acclimate and it will become the new normal.  We will be living in the second half of Pesach.

The key is that we are choosing.  While there are times that we need the redemption from above, ultimately, as free people we have to take responsibility for our lives and for our choices.  We must move from the first day of Pesach to the last.  From being taken out of Egypt to jumping in and crossing the sea.


Hag Sameiyach!