We are accustomed to think of Chanukah as the Yom Tov of light. But that shimmering menorah was actually preceded by the light of Pesach, as we shall see. I thought that since there has been so much darkness in these past few weeks, it would be appropriate to bask in the luminescence of the upcoming Yom Tov, even as we prepare in what seems to be a time of gloom and shadows.
The opening word of Mishnayos and Gemara Pesachim is ohr, which means “light.” Surely it is no coincidence and undoubtedly it comes to teach us something important.
Rav Yonasan David, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Pachad Yitzchok, notes this and suggests an explanation (Kuntrus Pesach, Maamar 13). He cites an explanation of his father-in-law, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, of the question and answer format of the Haggadah and of sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim in general. Rav Hutner taught that when a question is asked, we are in a state of darkness and lack of understanding. When the answer is given, we “see the light.” That mirrors the entire process that we celebrate and relive on Pesach. We encourage inquiries, we recite the Four Questions, and we provide answers. This is the story of Klal Yisroel. As Chazal require, we must tell the story going from g’nus, our ignominy, and ending with our shevach, our growth as individuals and as a nation. We recognize that we were once extremely lowly, both physically and spiritually, and Hashem saved and uplifted us. On Pesach, we replicate this process, eating maror to remember our bitter conditions and matzah to recall our salvation and spiritual rehabilitation.
But all that is only the very beginning. Rav David points out that the only creation that Hashem Himself specifically declared by its name to be “good” was light (Bereishis 1:4). The Ramban teaches that each time that Hashem said that what he had created was good was the kiyum – the sustaining power – of that creation. Six times the Torah declares that something was “good.” However, when man was created, the Creator said it for a seventh time, this time declaring everything that He had made to be tov me’od, very good. This was because man represents the essence and pinnacle of creation, which is very good. Now, every creation fulfills G-d’s will in some fashion, which constitutes its very own “light.” However, man is the purpose of the rest of creation and is therefore exceptionally good.
In Mitzrayim, it became manifest that although mankind itself had fallen from the level called “light” into darkness, represented by the plague of choshech, “for all the Bnei Yisroel there was light in their dwellings” (Shemos 10:23). However, this was not enough. Not only did we have light when others had only darkness, but we were suddenly able to see that even what was previously misunderstood as evil, pain or suffering was also bathed in celestial light. We understood this much more fully on the seventh day of Pesach, at Krias Yam Suf. There, we suddenly realized that even the fact that the Egyptians had pursued us was for our benefit, so that they could be definitively be punished and so that we could receive the reward at the sea. This is a reflection of the fact that only through the darkness can we appreciate the light. When Hashem said at creation that all that He had created was good, He meant even things that we do not understand at the time. Thus, the Medrash (Koheles Rabbah 3:16) expounds the posuk of “and Hashem saw that all that He had created was tov me’od” as good referring to the yeitzer tov, the inclination to do good, and me’od referring to the yeitzer hara. In other words, sometimes that which seems extremely evil is in the end even better for us than that which is openly good.
Another example of this is the posuk just before the splitting of the sea: “There were clouds and darkness, while it illuminated the night” (Shemos 14:20). Rashi explains that for the Egyptians, there was darkness, while for us, there was light. This means that in an instant, we understood the essence of night. It is neither evil nor negative. It is merely a tool for the Creator to make the distinctions between good and evil. The same held true for how Hashem removed the wheels from the Egyptian chariots (14:25). Rashi again enlightens us. He reveals that “it was the same fire that removed their wheels that gave us the light of understanding and serenity.”
We might add to these beautiful words of Rav David the ennobling interpretation of Rav Gedaliah Schorr. He notes in Ohr Gedalyahu that Chazal say that Moshe Rabbeinu sinned by saying “mei’az – from the time I came to Paroh, this nation has been made worse.” But he repented with the word az at the beginning of the shirah. By saying mei’az, Moshe indicated that he didn’t understand why Hashem had deepened Klal Yisroel’s suffering in Egypt. However, later, he understood that by suffering briefly, we were able to leave Mitzrayim after 210 years instead of 400, which allowed us to be saved from sinking further into the 50th level of defilement. That would have been tragic and possibly fatal forever, G-d forbid. Thus, the shirah is a song of understanding and light, a paean of hope and an overflowing of gratitude for everything, the great salvation and even its prelude which at the time seemed incomprehensible.
The Chiddushei Harim, the first Gerer Rebbe, points out that this also explains what seems to be a discrepancy in the chronology of the Song of the Sea. The shirah begins with the drowning of the Egyptians, but then reverts to them pursuing Klal Yisroel and seemingly lurching forth again into the downfall of Mitzrayim. The Chiddushei Harim explains that at the moment the Egyptians were pursuing us, it was impossible to thank Hashem for their action, because our lives were in mortal danger. However, later, when we saw their collective corpses lining the seashore, we collected the massive “spoils of the sea” and were able to witness our mortal enemy finally smitten. We were able to sing about their machinations, murderous plans and powerful attack. However, that was only after we knew that “the horse and rider were thrown into the sea” (15:1).We learned forever the profound lesson that whatever G-d does is for the best, only that at the time we must simply believe and trust. Later we can sing.
To return to the words of Rav David. He quotes Rav Hutner as asking a fascinating question. After the splitting of the sea, Moshe restored the waters to their former status and the Yam Suf functioned as before (14:26). Why did Moshe have to do this? The Ramban teaches that when the Torah testifies that “Hashem saw…and it was good,” nature as we know it was validated and established forever. Only rarely would nature be overridden, at the behest of the Creator. It would therefore seem that Moshe would have to do nothing and the miracle would end, reestablishing the force of nature that had prevailed for two and half millennia.
Rav Hutner answered that this proves that Krias Yam Suf restored nature – not the world of after Adam’s sin, but that of the pristine world preceding his fall. This was the world of ki tov, the universe of absolute perfection and eternal light. It was a world without death or rancor; it was a world without epidemic or illness; it was the world we all dream of and pray for many times a day. The miracles of the exodus and the splitting of the sea came not to establish a supernatural world, but a world of super nature. Had we not sinned with the Eigel, this would have been the beautiful new status of the world. That was shattered until we could return perfection with Moshiach.
We may now add that for this reason, we end the Haggadah with the saga of Krias Yam Suf and our return, G-d willing, to Yerushalayim. All of that is possible on Pesach because we have once again traveled through darkness and seen the light even in its midst.
The Kozhnitzer Maggid (Avodas Yisroel, s.v b’leil) teaches that “on the night of Pesach, the primordial light is revealed, especially during the recitation of Hallel.”
The Kosover Rebbe (Ahavas Shalom, s.v. Eretz Yisroel) adds that every Jew feels an elevation on this night greater than any other of the year.
Rav Pinchos Halevi of Frankfurt urges us to seize the moment, for that “glistening light is available for the taking” (Ponim Yofos, Parshas Bo).
Perhaps we can add that the famous question, “mah nishtanah halaylah hazeh mikol haleilos,” can be understood as asking: Why is it that on this night we can even appreciate night and its darkness? The answer is that once we have endured suffering and emerged into light, not only are we grateful for our solace, but we begin to understand the purpose of our suffering as well. As the Gemara (Pesachim 50a) tells us, when Moshiach comes, we will make the same blessing on the good and the bad, but we will see clearly how both were necessary and a gift from Hashem.
I cannot think of anyone who has not suffered in these extraordinary pre-Pesach days. Of course, some more and some less, but all have experienced tests, trials and tribulations. Let us embrace the light, but also the choshech, and let us daven with great kavanah that this should have been the harbinger of the great geulah of Moshiach Tzidkeinu bimeheirah b’yomeinu.