The following is an excerpt from Yisroel’s upcoming book on the Jewish Holidays entitled “There is a Season: Inspiring Illuminations on the Jewish Holidays:”
The story of Passover is the cornerstone of the Jewish Faith. No words are repeated more often in the Bible than the words “Remember that which I did for your ancestors in Egypt.” Indeed, Passover is perhaps the most well-known of all the Jewish Holidays and certainly the most celebrated. Indeed, no story has garnered as much attention as this ancient Biblical story. The story is retold by countless number of Jews and even non-Jews each year. Every year families gather around the table, often three generations or more, children, parents, grandparents, and perhaps great grandparents to share the story of our extraordinary beginnings of the birth of our Nation in the oldest of all our Holidays. Indeed, while the Abraham story may be the birth of our People, the Exodus story is our birth as a Nation. It is not only the story of slavery to freedom, it is the story of despair to redemption, of poverty to riches, of chaos to unity, and above all, faithlessness to faithfulness. It is, indeed, the greatest story ever told.
The entire Torah is called a Sefer Torah, where the word Sefer is commonly translated as a “scroll” of Torah. However, the word Sefer can also mean Sipur which means to tell over, usually referring to a story. Indeed, the entire Torah is, to a certain extent a story that we are meant to tell over to our children. In the Shema prayer that is said daily and is regarded as one of the most important prayers we say, it contains the words from the Torah Veshantam Levanecha which means you shall teach your sons. The Torah goes on to say the imperative to teach our sons wherever we are, whether we are in the comforts of our own home or travelling on the way, whether it is in the morning or at night. Passive on these stories is known the Mesorah, or Tradition, and it is the bedrock of the Jewish Faith.
Although there is great emphasis on teaching the Torah to our children, there is an even greater emphasis on this when it comes to sharing the story of the Exodus. The phrase given numerous times throughout the Hagadda is Sipur Yitziat Mitzraim, which means “tell over the story of the Exodus.” In one place in the Torah which the Talmud expounds on, it is written that we have a specific commandment to mention the Exodus every single day. We fulfill this commandment when we say the Shma, which we are commanded to say twice every day. So the Exodus is in many ways the highlight of our prayers as well.
Every one of the Jewish Holidays did not occur in a vacuum. Their messages are just as relevant today as they were when they were first recorded. A Jew does not commemorate the holidays, a Jew experiences the holidays, lives through the events and understands its significance in his or her life today. There are so many extraordinary lessons that can be learned from the Exodus story. I wanted to just share one, and it is one that is often overlooked, but in my humble opinion, is one of the most important lessons of all.
There is a beautiful insight from the Lubavitcher Rebbe which expands on this Pesach theme of slavery to Redemption as well. We know that the culmination of the Ten Plagues was the final plague, that is, the plague of the First Born. In fact, the name “Passover” is based on the idea that God “passed over” so to speak the Jewish homes that had markings on their doors when He brought down the tenth plague. So obviously, the tenth plague was of extreme significance. The Rebbe points out that this was the only plague when God said precisely when it would occur in the Torah, namely at Midnight. Why was it significant to tell us when the plague would occur, and why specifically at midnight? In order to understand the Rebbe’s answer to these questions, it is important to understand that the Jewish midnight isn’t at 12:00 AM the way the secular day is divided, rather it is literally halfway through the night, that is halfway between sunrise and sunset. This is a time that would fluctuate throughout the year, depending on how long the night is. So true midnight is that moment of transition, when the very darkest point of the night begins to turn to light. This is what God was teaching us with the tenth plague, this was that cathartic moment when Oppression would end, and Redemption would begin. This is what we are celebrating on Pesach, and this is why the symbolism of both slavery and freedom are so rich that night, for we are celebrating that transition. This transition often takes place in a single moment. But what a difference a moment can make! From Darkness into Light, indeed.
It is interesting to note that the word Matzah, the unleavened bread which we are required to eat on Passover is very similar in Hebrew letters to the word Chametz, which is the leavened bread that we are forbidden to eat on Passover. In fact, if one was to lay out the 3 Hebrew letters of these two words, there would only be a very small line which differentiates between these two. This surely can be no coincidence. Why would these two words which have such opposite meanings, be spelled with almost identical letters? The commentators explain this beautifully with this idea we have just shared. Chametz represents laziness, while Matzah represents zeal and alacrity. Often the difference between slavery and freedom is just a split moment. When we are inspired in life, even for a split moment, it is that moment that we must act. For if we wait, if we delay, then our own self-doubts and haughtiness often creep in, and our opportunity is lost forever. How often does a special Mitzvah come our way and we wait a moment too long and the opportunity is gone forever? Often one simple good deed can have very dramatic repercussions which we may not ever be aware of. True freedom is not just free will, it is the ability to overcome our base urges and voluntarily choose the right path. Carpi Deim, Seize the Day, as the expression goes. This is the message of Passover, and the message of the Matzah. Act with zeal, as the Jewish People did on Passover night. Do not wait, for then the moment is lost forever.