Friday, Sep 24, 2021

A Year of Preparation for One Special Pesach

There is a somewhat well-known story that has already been told in many ways. The version I have received is quite relevant to Pesach 5781.

Rav Nochum of Chernobel often traveled to the far flung parts of Europe to spread Torah and emunah. One night, he was staying at the inn of a fine but totally ignorant Jewish couple. They were vaguely aware of their religion but knew absolutely nothing about it. At midnight, Rav Nochum sat down on the floor to recite Tikkun Chatzos. His deep cries and moans reached the ears of the proprietor’s wife, who called out to her husband in concern. “I think the rabbi staying with us must be extremely ill,” she reported. “Go check on him.”

The innkeeper knocked, to no avail. He gingerly opened the door and spotted Rav Nochum on the floor, tears pouring down his cheeks.

“Should I call a doctor for you? You are obviously in great pain,” the simple man intoned.

“No, no,” Rav Nochum reassured the frightened man, “I am fine. I am crying for the Bais Hamikdosh that was destroyed.”

The puzzled hotelkeeper was relieved but clueless. “When was this Bais Hamikdosh destroyed?” he demanded.

Rav Nochum informed him that it had happened two thousand years ago.

“And now you’re crying?” he responded incredulously.

Rav Nochum explained the great loss and added that soon Moshiach would come and take us all back to Eretz Yisroel. “Wouldn’t you like to come along as well?”

Now the simple man was stumped. This major decision was too much for him and he indicated that he had to defer to his much more knowledgeable wife.

After consulting with his resident expert, the man stood up, decisively declaring, “She said there is no way. We are no longer young, we have a home and a garden, ducks and geese, cows and chickens. We are not going anywhere.”

Rav Nochum, however, was not a loss for words. “It is true,” he admitted softly, “that you have a fine home and many animals, but you are also surrounded by anti-Semitic Cossacks who can take it all away at any moment and murder you to boot.”

Once again, the man began changing his mind. “You are correct,” he responded. “The Cossack next door got drunk last year and broke all our windows, but still I must ask my wife.”

After a few moments, he returned with the final verdict. “My wife says that you are making a good point. So please tell this Moshiach to transport the Cossacks to Eretz Yisroel. Then we can stay here in tranquility with our ducks and chickens.”

When Rav Nochum returned to Chernobel for Pesach, he shared at the Seder a new understanding he had derived from his experience.

“We drink the Four Cups in commemoration of the four statements of geulah,” the rebbe began. “The very first one is vehotzeisi eschem mitachas sivlos Mitzrayim. Before we can leave our exiles, we must rid ourselves of the savlanus, our tolerance for exile itself, for otherwise, even if we are redeemed, who says that we will want to go?”

The story is told of Rav Aryeh Levin, known as the Tzaddik of Yerushalyim and the rov of the Jews in prison. He was once visiting the home of Rav Yitzchok Isaac Halevi Herzog, the chief rabbi of Israel, while David Ben-Gurion, the prime minister, was there as well. The chief rabbi asked Rav Aryeh to give Ben-Gurion a brocha. The tzaddik immediately wished the prime minister that he should soon give up his post. Ben-Gurion was shocked. “Really?” he sputtered. Rav Levin gently explained with a smile, “Yes, you should give it up to Dovid Melech Yisroel.”

When Rav Aryeh repeated the story (some say that it was to his son-law, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv), he smiled with pleasure and said, “He couldn’t be offended by such a brocha, could he?”

Indeed, some don’t even know what geulah is, some don’t believe in it, and others are simply too complacent to await it with anticipation and hope. Although we don’t always understand the hand of Hashem clearly, this past year may have been one of the more open revelations of recent times. Many, if not all, of our indisputable pleasures and fundamental expectations from life were wrenched from us by what seemed to be a conspiracy of medical danger, governmental overreach and practical difficulty. Yet, after a year of seclusion, quarantines, masks and deprivation, we all realize that Hashem has been in charge, as always. Perhaps part of the message has been that we dare not be presumptuous about whatever we think is our own. Like the wife of the innkeeper, we must consider if we would readily leave golus for the equivalent of our ducks and chickens. Before being saved (vehitzalti), being redeemed (vega’alti) or being taken back into Hashem’s waiting arms (velakachti), we must look ourselves in the eye and see if we are still tolerating the golus too much to leave.

This may be one of the meanings of the Netziv’s interpretation (Haggodas Volozhin) that the four languages of redemption reflect the four stages of Klal Yisroel’s geulah. Chazal (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 2:17) liken the redemptive process to a patient recovering from a dangerous illness. Even after he has been technically cured, he must still recover, often undergo rehabilitation and resume eating, walking and functioning properly. Only then can he be declared fully restored, let alone even better than before. Klal Yisroel, which was in the throes of the 49th level of tumah at Yetzias Mitzrayim, needed to ascend to new heights of kedusha, not just to emerge from defilement, to receive the Torah. Each year, perhaps especially this one, we, too, must go through such a process. This implies primarily that we profoundly and sincerely want to be redeemed completely, with the all the changes that entails.

My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner (Maamorei Pachad Yitzchok, Pesach 42:5, page 169) adds a crucial caveat to this concept. He reminds us that even after the four stages of geulah have been completed, there is a fifth that represents arriving in Eretz Yisroel (veheiveisi). He cites the Ramban’s words that “even after they have left the house of bondage, they are still considered exiles because they are not in their own land.” Rav Hutner explains that when the Mishkon was built, even though we had not yet arrived in Eretz Yisroel, we were no longer “exiles” because “now we were on our way home.” He adds that once the Shechinah is resting upon us (Mishkon/Shechinah), we are on the road back home. I would humbly add that in our situation, if we are going back to our shuls and botei medrash, to the place of the Shechinah, we may truly feel that we are “on the road back home.” Hopefully, we will soon realize that our gaaguim and kissufim – our longings and yearnings – are not those of the rest of the world. We have been missing hashroas haShechinah, and if we want it, we can have it back.

This yearning on our part is actually a powerful tool for change, especially for the great geulah. The Radomsker Rebbe (Tiferes Shlomo to Shevi’i Shel Pesach) writes that “in every generation, when Pesach arrives, the innermost will of Klal Yisroel goes up to heaven as if all that we wish has come to pass. The Sefas Emes (Shabbos Hagadol 5660) comments that the fact that the two mitzvos associated in the Haggadah with blood are the only ones whose neglect results in kareis proves that Pesach defines our national essence. We are not just celebrating Pesach. We are Pesach. This is only logical because just as Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of man, Pesach is the birthday of Klal Yisroel. It is when we contemplate our birth, childhood and total history. It is a time when we can redefine ourselves, reach back to our most pristine moments and look longingly to a future in our land when we have been redeemed to live the way we were meant to from the very beginning.

A chag kosher vesomeiach to all.

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