This past Sunday morning, our shul and kollel had the enormous pleasure and zechus of hosting Rav Dovid Schustal, rosh yeshiva of Bais Medrash Govoah of Lakewood. He delivered a shiur in both halacha and hashkafah, during which he quoted an extraordinary thought from his father-in-law, Rav Shneur Kotler zt”l.
In the Haggadah, we prominently mention the “two bloods” that apparently gave Klal Yisroel mitzvos with which to merit the exodus from Egypt. One was the blood of the Korban Pesach and the other the blood of bris milah. Rav Kotler asked several powerful questions, one of which was the following: What was the point of giving us mitzvos at that time, when we were actually leaving Mitzrayim through the merits of our ancestors? Klal Yisroel itself was sadly sunken in the 49th level of tumah and could not leave Mitzrayim on its own zechusim. Why, therefore, was it necessary or even relevant to provide a mitzvah here or there?
Rav Shneur quoted the posuk we will soon recite in the Haggadah indicating that Hashem took us out “one nation from the midst of another.” Chazal (Mechilta, Beshalach 6 and Shochar Tov, Tehillim 114) explain this posuk by using the analogy of “a farmer who plucks the baby calf from the mother’s womb.” What do Chazal mean to convey through this metaphor? They are saying that Klal Yisroel was so entwined with the Egyptian culture and people that Hashem had to, so to speak, untangle us from their grasp upon us. This came in two stages. To extend the Medrash’s metaphor, the blood of the Korban Pesach severed the umbilical cord connecting the infant Klal Yisroel to the mother Mitzrayim. But disconnecting was not enough. We could not be left, G-d forbid, isolated without finding a new and infinitely better source of life and spiritual sustenance. And so we were given the blood of bris milah which reattached us to the life-blood of our Father in heaven and to the avos and imahos who had given birth to us centuries before.
Thus, the bloods of Pesach and milah were not granted to us to provide mitzvos or even merits. They effectuated the process by which we could leave Mitzrayim far behind and become bonded to the real source of our original life and the future of the nation forevermore.
Rav Schustal regaled us all with how this approach answers myriad questions and seeming inconsistencies in the saga of Yetzias Mitzrayim. However, I would like to share how this seminal teaching can illuminate the process of Yetzias Mitzrayim, the beautiful Yom Tov ahead and how to incorporate both into our daily lives.
Let us turn for a moment to our somewhat enigmatic status in Egypt before the exodus. As we mentioned, on the one hand, in Mitzrayim we were languishing in the lowest human condition possible, the 49th level of defilement. Yet, on the other we have all learned and heard that we were able to leave Mitzrayim in the zechus of not having given up on our Jewish names, modes of dress and language. Well, which was it? Were we totally assimilated or did we mirror Meah Shearim, Williamsburg and, in the ghetto of Goshen, a bit of the insularity of New Square?
Rav Meir Simcha Hakohein of Dvinsk (Meshech Chochmah, Shemos 6:7) offers a startling original answer. Although many of us were engaged in idolatry and had to be weaned from the Egyptian forms of avodah zarah, Yaakov Avinu had already implanted in us various fences and separations so that we should not become assimilated. Indeed, miraculously, there was no intermarriage in Egypt and, despite defilement and sins, our identity remained pure and distinct.
We are now in a position to understand a basic teaching of the Torah and Jewish history. We celebrate two beginnings. Tishrei represents the beginning of the calendar year, while Nissan represents the beginning of the year of months. Why is this dichotomy necessary?
The answer is that there are indeed two beginnings. The natural world as we know it began on the first of Tishrei. However, the beginning of the supernatural world, as evidenced by the nation which lives supernaturally, is Rosh Chodesh Nissan. Had we not left Egypt and Egyptian culture behind, we, too, might have been relegated to a world governed by nature and its limitations. But after the ten makkos and Krias Yam Suf, our shackles to nature, like our connection to Mitzraym itself, were ripped asunder, never to be reconnected again. We left Mitzrayim reinforced with the power of the two bloods, but later we soared far beyond the bonds of ancient Egypt becoming the people who have no physical limitations at all.
The event we will be celebrating in just a few days carried other cosmic ramifications as well. We will mention in the Haggadah, “Vayehi shom legoy – There we became a nation.” My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l, pointed out (Pachad Yitzchok, Pesach, 71:7) that Chazal (Brachos 9a) declare that there were two stages to this event. At night we were redeemed and in the morning we physically left. He asks why this bifurcation was necessary. One would think that redemption and the actual exodus were so inexorably entwined that they would happen simultaneously. He answered that we know that in the morning, the Erev Rav, the “mixed multitudes” of people who were both insincere and toxic to our nation, joined us. Hashem, however, wanted Am Yisroel to be created in pristine perfection. Therefore, He formed us as a new entity before we were contaminated. Over the centuries and millennia, the Erev Rav would cause us much harm and grief, but since our nascence was pure and perfect, they could not destroy us from within.
The other material change that happened at Yetzias Mitzrayim was paradoxically a step backward which constituted a leap forward. Man was created perfectly on the sixth day of creation. However, after he sinned, he plummeted precipitously, to the point of becoming almost unrecognizable as the purpose of creation itself. As Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato (Derech Hashem 4:4) explains, “We had to be forged in the crucible of Egypt and purified…so that there would be one nation who would rectify the sin of Adam” (see also ibid. 2:4 and Ramchal’s Maamar Hachochmah). This revelation does no less than explain why we had to duffer so much and for so long in Egypt. We had to go back to go forward. Man was created to achieve perfection. In this quest, mankind failed; it was left to Klal Yisroel to regain that glory through its suffering and struggles, emerging from Mitzrayim to receive the Torah and reestablish Hashem’s presence and monarchy on earth. This, too, is part of what we sing on Friday nights in the immortal words of Rav Shlomo Alkabetz, “sof maaseh bemachashavah techilah – last in deed but first in thought.” Hashem knew all along that we would have to descend in order to arise. We would have to endure physically so that we would endure eternally. The avos knew this from the Bris Bein Habesarim, but Klal Yisroel had to go through the process with blind faith and trust in the Al-mighty’s wisdom and ultimate plan for His people.
What is most important for each one of us to know and understand before Pesach is that all of this is reenacted and replicated every year at the Seder. The Ramchal (4:7) makes clear that each aspect of Yetzias Mitzrayim happens again annually in our internal lives. The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh (Bamidbar 23:22) derives this fact from the posuk of “Keil motziam miMitzrayim – It is G-d Who brings them out of Egypt.” He points out that grammatically, motziam is in the present tense, implying that we travel through this process annually even as we seem to be sitting comfortably at our Sedarim wherever we are. Rav Dovid Cohen, rosh Yeshivas Chevron (Zeman Cheiruseinu, page 162), considers this posuk as the source of the Haggadah’s demand that “in every generation we must see ourselves as if we have left Egypt.” I believe that it was the Brisker Rov who declared this mandate to be the most difficult mitzvah of the Seder. Even more than eating the large Brisker shiurim and swallowing the maror in the requisite amount of time, it is a Herculean task to be reimagining ourselves first as slaves and later as leaving Egypt in triumph.
But difficult does not mean impossible and the rewards are enormous. I remember hearing the late Rabbi Dr. Shea Twersky zt”l saying that people need to achieve freedom in many ways. Some need to rid themselves of alcoholism, some from addiction, some from bad middos and obsessions with foolish pursuits. He felt that all of this could be accomplished – with effort and sincerity – on this night of personal redemption and freedom. The Ramban (Shemos 12:42) understands this concept to be the meaning of “a protection for all the children of Israel for their generations.” We have both the obligation and the tremendous good fortune to access this power every year at the Seder. There are halachic ramifications to this fact such as not reciting various parts of Krias Shema Al Hamitah after the Seder. But the major change must happen inside our souls, which are singing of higher matters and levels than any other night of the year. The Radomsker Rebbe (Tiferes Shlomo, “Shabbos Hagadol”) promises us that “because of the incredible holiness of this night, Hashem is misdabek (cleaves onto) every single Jew.” He derives this from the statement in the Haggadah that this night there is gilui Shechinah, an actual revelation for every one of us. May we be zocheh in this year when we have all suffered to all of these great madreigos at each one of our uplifting and life-changing Sedorim.