Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Iyunei Shabbat - Shabbat Hagadol

Passover marks the beginning of forging the children of Israel into a nation. On Passover, the nation of Israel became free. This event in Jewish history is referred to in various contexts in Jewish life. For example, in reciting the Sabbath kiddush we say: “It is the first among our days of sacred assembly that recall the Exodus from Egypt.” The explanation for the obligation to put on tefillin is that “with a mighty hand the Lord freed you from Egypt” (Exodus 13:9, and see 13:16). And the reason we are given for observing the commandments is: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand” (Deut. 6:21).
But was the Exodus from Egypt an objective in and of itself, or was it a means to another end? What is the defining event that we commemorate on Passover?
When Moses is sent to Pharaoh, he is instructed to say: “I have said to you, Let my son go, that he may worship me” (Exodus 4:23). In other words, the purpose of the Exodus from Egypt is not the liberation of Israel for the purpose of being free, but rather the liberation of Israel to serve God. At Sinai, God offers: “Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine” (Exodus 19:5), and Israel responds, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” (19:8), and the covenant between God and Israel is sealed. Thus, it may be argued that the defining moment of the Exodus was not freedom from the yoke Pharaoh, but subjugation to the kingship of God. That being the case, perhaps the festival of Shavuot should be seen as the holiday celebrating the defining event in Jewish history.
However, arguably, neither liberation from Egyptian servitude, nor the kingship of God were the objective of the Exodus, but rather national sovereignty, as we perhaps may learn from the promises we recall at the Passover Seder: “I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the Lord, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the Lord” (6:6-8).
It is, therefore, interesting that the only holiday that celebrates Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel is the modern celebration of Israel’s Independence Day. As for the theophany at Sinai, while we refer to Shavuot as zman matan torateinu – the time of the giving of our Torah – it is not described that way in the Torah or by the Prophets. The Torah refers to Shavuot as hag habikurim – the Festival of the First Fruits. No express connection between Shavuot and the giving of the Torah can be found in the Bible, nor is the connection mentioned by either Josephus or Philo. It is noted only later, by the sages: “R. Eleazar said: All agree in respect to Azereth [Shavuot] that it must also be ‘for you’. What is the reason? It is the day on which the Torah was given” (TB Pesahim 68b). But is it possible that the reason that the Torah does not dedicate a special holiday to these events is that they are the true subject of Passover?
1.      From the above, it would appear that Passover is the holiday that marks the defining event in Jewish history, but what is the defining event that it celebrates? Do the primary value lessons of Passover culminate in liberty and freedom, or does Passover mark the beginning of a process that leads to other objectives and values?
2.      In what sense is Israel’s identity forged by the Exodus, and in what sense is it forged by the theophany at Sinai and by taking possession of the Land of Israel?
3.      Should Passover be understood as a retrospective holiday that celebrates the past (the Exodus), or a prospective holiday that envisages the future (Sinai and/or the land of Israel)? How might our decision in regard to that historical perspective influence the value lessons of Passover?