There are two types of light in the world: natural sunlight, and light produced through fire or the modern-day equivalent (electricity). The obvious difference between them is that sunlight is produced without any effort or initiative on our part. The sun rises each morning, without fail, regardless of whether we want it to rise or did anything to try to make this happen. All other forms of light come into being only through some form of human effort. The light in our living room will turn on only if we flip the switch, or had set a timer, and only because of the work that went into building and installing the lighting systems.
The scholars of Kabbalah used this distinction to illustrate the difference between the night of the Pesach seder and all other times of the year.
The Holiday of Leaping
At all other times, the “light” of spirituality shines upon us only in accordance with the work and effort we invest. If we want to grow and advance, then we need to work. There are no shortcuts. We need to turn on the light ourselves, so-to-speak, if we want to achieve. On the night of Pesach, however, we receive a special “light” that resembles the light of the sun. This “light” shines regardless of what we do. We receive special inspiration and assistance in our quest for spiritual excellence, without having done anything to earn it.
This special quality of the Pesach seder is rooted in the special event it commemorates – the night of the Exodus from Egypt. Tradition teaches us that over the course of their period of enslavement in Egypt, Beneh Yisrael plummeted to the lowest spiritual depths. Ancient Egypt was an especially debased society, entrenched in idolatry and immorality, and Beneh Yisrael fell prey to this contaminating influence, reaching the proverbial “49th gate of impurity,” one before the 50th, from which there is no returning. In such a state of contamination, the people hardly deserved redemption – let alone the awesome, miraculous display of Gd’s power that unfolded before their eyes. In His great love for Beneh Yisrael, and in fulfillment of the promise He had made to the patriarchs, Gd brought Beneh Yisraelout of Egypt through the performance of great miracles despite their being unworthy of such a spectacle. Gd elevated and inspired the people through the clear revelation of His power, injecting them with faith and devotion even though they had not put in the work that is ordinarily needed to receive such inspiration.
Each year, when we celebrate Pesach, this special gift is granted to the Jewish People anew. The Jewish holidays are not merely commemorative, but also experiential. Whenever we arrive at a certain holiday on the calendar, the special spiritual elements that were manifest during the original event commemorated by that holiday resurface. And thus on Pesach, we experience anew the undeserved “light” which shone upon our ancestors, the unique ability to be inspired and uplifted without having put in the work and effort to achieve this spiritual elevation.
This aspect of Pesach is alluded in the very name of the holiday, which means “skip” or “leap.” Gd not only “skipped” over Beneh Yisrael’s homes on the night of the Exodus, rescuing them from the plague of the firstborn which He unleashed against the Egyptians, but also helped them “skip” and leap to high levels of faith and spiritual devotion. Pesach, we might say, is the “holiday of leaping,” a time when we are given the unique ability to skip the steps that normally need to be taken to reach higher spiritual levels. As we sit down to the seder, we have the opportunity to enter the “express elevator” to reach spiritual heights that would otherwise take a great deal of time and hard work to achieve.
The great Hassidic master Rav Moshe Leib of Sassov (1745-1807) explained on this basis the verse in which Moshe tells the people in preparation for the night of the Exodus, “Gd will skip over the entrance” (“ufasah Hashem al hapetah” –Shemot 12:23). On this night, Gd allows us to skip the “petah,” the small opening that we are normally required to make in our hearts before we earn His assistance in the process of repentance of change. A special exception is made on Pesach, when Gd comes to lift us up without the need for us to work for it.
Vacuuming the Soul
A number of sources associate this special quality of Pesach with the particular mitzvahof matzah.
The Kabbalists refer to matzah as “lahma demehemnuta – bread of faith.” Eating the matzahon Pesach has the special ability to inspire us with faith, to raise our level of belief and trust in Gd. Halachahrequires reading the Haggadah, telling the story of the Exodus, while the matzotare on the table and uncovered, because the story of this miracle is one of the key “ingredients” of matzah. This special bread obtains its unique power from the story of the Exodus from Egypt, inspiring us with faith.
The Mahari Hagiz (1620-1674) goes even further, teaching that matzah has the ability to actually cleanse our souls. The word “matzah,” he teaches, is derived from the root m.tz.tz., which means “suck” or “draw.” Matzah works as a “vacuum cleaner” for the soul, drawing out the spiritual filth that collects within us. The Mahari Hagiz adds that the word “matzah” can also mean “fight.” The matzahhelps us fight against our yetzer hara, our evil inclination, empowering us to overcome our negative tendencies and be the people who we truly want to be. These are some of the remarkable spiritual benefits that matzahprovides.
Indeed, some righteous men had the practice of kissing the matzah to express their love and affection for this special food which has such a powerful impact upon our beings.
Matzah as Tefillin
As especially striking depiction of the power of matzah is presented by the Hatam Sofer (Rav Moshe Sofer of Pressburg, 1762-1839), commenting on the Torah’s account of Beneh Yisrael’s departure from Egypt.
The Torah writes that as our ancestors left Egypt, they carried “misharotam” on their shoulders (Shemot 12:34), which Rashi explains as referring to their leftover matzah and marror from the previous night. As the Torah tells us earlier, Beneh Yisrael spent their final night in Egypt observing the first ever seder, partaking of the Pesach sacrifice and eating matzahand marror. In the morning, as the Egyptians chased them out of the country, they carried the leftovers with them. (There was no leftover meat from the Pesach sacrifice, because Beneh Yisrael were commanded to burn any meat of the sacrifice that was not eaten by the morning – Shemot 12:10.)
While we readily understand why the people would take their leftover food with them as they left Egypt, as they needed food for the journey, it seems odd that they carried the leftovers specifically on their shoulders. Why did the leftover matzahbelong on their shoulders?
The Hatam Sofer offers an astonishing answer to this question, interpreting the Torah’s description to mean that the people carried their matzahon their upper arms – the place where men wear tefillin. According to the Hatam Sofer, strange as it might sound, the first tefillinever worn were pieces of matzah!
Why would Beneh Yisraelwear matzah as tefillin?
The Hatam Sofer explained that before the Exodus, Gd commanded Beneh Yisrael to take with them the Egyptians’ possessions. In the days prior to their departure, the people were to ask their Egyptian neighbors for their expensive utensils, clothing and jewelry which they then took with them as they left (Shemot 11:2). This was necessary in order for Gd to fulfill the promise He had made centuries earlier to Avraham, that after his descendants’ period of bondage in a foreign land, they would leave and return to Eretz Yisrael with great wealth (“ve’ahareh chen yetz’u birchush gadol” – Beresheet 15:14). Wealth, as we know very well, is a potential source of both great blessing and the opposite. When used properly, wealth brings a person a sense of security and stability, a means of achieving happiness and fulfillment, and opportunities to help people and make a significant contribution to the world. At the same time, however, wealth can result in endless and crippling anxiety, and can also become an all-consuming obsession which prevents a person from pursuing real joy and fulfillment. Moreover, wealth leads to arrogance and to power which can be abused. Many people who are blessed with wealth presume to be better and more important than others, and seek to assert control and authority. And, wealthy people are tempted to overindulge in physical pleasures and luxuries, which leads to all kinds of improper behavior.
Given the serious risks that come with wealth, Beneh Yisraelneeded “tefillin.”
To understand why, we need to first ask, what is the meaning of the tefillin, and why is this among the first mitzvotwe perform each day?
This mitzvahhas several different aspects, one of which is symbolized by the tefillin shel yad– the tefillinwhich is fastened to the upper arm, near the left half of the heart. The Zohar, the classic text of Kabbalistic thought, teaches that the yetzer harais centered in this part of the heart, on the left side. Symbolically, then, binding tefillin around the left arm represents our efforts to “bind” and restrain our sinful impulses. Each day presents us with its share of difficult religious challenges and temptations. Whatever one’s plans are for the day, whether it will be spent at the office, running errands, at social functions, or even at home, there will be spiritual challenges to be overcome; the yetzer hara will find a way to lure a person to sin somehow. And so we begin every day by binding tefillin near our hearts, empowering us with the ability to restrain our negative tendencies and exercise control over ourselves.
Beneh Yisrael wanted this protection as they left Egypt carrying numerous donkey-loads of newly-acquired riches. They felt the need for tefillin, for a symbol of the self-control and humble submission that they would need to ensure that their newfound wealth will not lead them to sin. As the mitzvahof tefillinhad not yet been given, the Hatam Sofer writes, the people used the matzah, instead. The matzah, the special “bread of faith,” has the power to bolster our resistance to the yetzer hara. It is so significant, and its effects so potent, that it was chosen by Beneh Yisrael as the “weapon” they would use for combatting the spiritual threats posed by their wealth.
This is the great power of the matzahwhich we eat on Pesach. It has the ability to strengthen us in our lifelong efforts to prevail over the various manifestations of the yetzer harathat confront us each and every day.
Applying for a Credit Line
After reading all this, one might, understandably, wonder, how come this hasn’t happened yet? We have all observed the seder each year for many years. So why haven’t we experienced this “leap”? We have all eaten a great deal of matzahon Pesach each year. Why do we still struggle mightily – not always with success – against our negative tendencies?
One likely possibility is that we are not doing what we need to do in order to access the special spiritual power of the Pesach experience.
Earlier, we said that just as Beneh Yisraelearned redemption from Egypt without deserving it, we, too, achieve a spiritual “leap” each year on Pesach even without putting in the work that is ordinarily needed for this to happen. It must be clarified that this does not mean we do not need to do anything at all. Even in Egypt, some minimal preparation was required. Beneh Yisrael were commanded to offer the korban pesah (paschal sacrifice) and to undergo circumcision. They received a degree of inspiration that far exceeded what they rightfully earned, but there was some minimal effort which they needed to make.
The Shem MiShmuel (Rav Shmuel Borenstein of Sochatchov, 1855-1926) drew an analogy to a customer who buys at a store where the storekeeper generously extends credit. The customer can buy as much as he wants on credit, but he needs to go into the store and ask for it. The goods he wants do not show up by his door; he first needs to go to the store and place a request for credit, and then it is graciously extended. The modern-day parallel would be receiving a no-interest credit line from our bank. Many banks offer a free credit line to trusted customers, but the customer first needs to apply for it. If a customer does not bother applying for a credit line, and his account is overdrawn, checks will bounce and he will be charged a hefty fee. He first needs to take the initiative to contact the bank, apply for a credit line, fill out the forms and perhaps show his credit score and proof of income. If he sits back and does nothing, he can’t expect to receive free credit.
We might also apply here our previous analogy to sunlight. The sun rises each day without any effort on our part, but we will not enjoy it unless we go outside, or at least open the shades. The light comes without any effort, but we need to act in order to access it.
The scholars of Kabbalah teach us that the “light” of Pesach requires some action and initiative on our part. We need to access this great gift by preparing for the experience in advance.
How do we prepare so we can access the special power of Pesach, and take the great “leap” that it enables us to take?
The Kabbalists point to several preparations that need to be made, one of which has to do with the faculty of speech.
Virtually all the mitzvotof the sederinvolve the mouth. We eat matzah, marror, and the other traditional foods, we tell the story of the Exodus and we sing Hallel. In fact, the word “Pesach” has been read as “peh sah – the mouth that speaks.” The Pesach celebration, to a large extent, revolves around the mouth. Therefore, the rabbis teach, we cannot access the spiritual power of Pesach without first preparing our mouths. A mouth that has been corrupted through forbidden speech cannot serve as a conduit for kedushah at the Pesach seder. As the spiritual impact of Pesach occurs through the mitzvot of this holiday, which are performed though the mouth, we need to prepare our mouths in advance in order to receive this impact.
This gives us one vitally important item to add to our long pre-Pesach “to do” list – to prepare our mouths for this holiday. The weeks before Pesach are a time for all of us to “kosher” not only our kitchens, but also our mouths, by paying greater attention to the way we talk. We must make greater efforts to avoid profanity, gossip, insults, angry outbursts and fighting – all of which contaminate our mouths and prevent us from accessing the special spiritual power of Pesach. This, too, is part of the preparations we should be making for Pesach. The upcoming holiday can be a meaningful, transformative experience, but only if we prepare our mouths in advance, and ensure it is worthy of serving as a pipeline for the inspiration that we all hope to receive.