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Naftali Rothenberg
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Redemption without illusions: Our joy is not complete

In times of crisis, it is all too easy to realize that Passover is not quite the holiday of redemption, but that of preparing for future redemption
People walk next to a seder table with pictures of the hostages held in the Gaza Strip by the terror group Hamas, in Jerusalem, April 22, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/ Flash90)
People walk next to a seder table with pictures of the hostages held in the Gaza Strip by the terror group Hamas, in Jerusalem, April 22, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/ Flash90)

My father died at a good old age, in 1996, four days before Passover. We got up from the shortened shiva and, a few hours later, I found myself sitting at the festive Seder table, surrounded by my beloved family and struggling to start singing “Kaddesh U’Rachatz…” and saying the Kiddush of the holiday. This year, my thoughts go out to the thousands of families who lost their loved ones in the massacre by Hamas on the seventh of October and the war that has continued since then, to the abductees dying in the dark tunnels in Gaza and their families, to the 150,000 refugees from the Western Negev and the Galilee. I am almost ashamed of my difficulty then in front of the agony they go through every day and even more so with the arrival of the holiday.

The Seder night is the most celebrated holiday by Jews all over the world, even those who are less connected to tradition. This year, the usual holiday greetings are said apologetically accompanied by explanations and are not answered as every year with a smile and a bright face. Almost every family arrived to this holiday and its heart is not with the celebration.

The challenging reality stands in contrast to the nature of the holiday in normal years: the atmosphere of the festivals in the shopping centers, the mass arrangements in the hotels, hundreds of thousands of vacationers in Israel and abroad, and above all the family gatherings. A crisis is also an opportunity to understand the holiday in a different way and reveal a deep meaning. In this context, I remembered sources that emphasize that joy is not the focus of the content of Passover:

You find three joys spelled out in the holiday (Sukkot): “And you rejoiced in your holiday”; “And you were so joyful”; “And you rejoiced before the Lord your God.” But regarding Pesach, there is no mention, not even once, of simcha (joy). Why is there no simcha? For the Egyptians died in it. And you find that all seven days of the holiday (Sukkot) we recite Hallel, but on the days of Passover we do not recite the Hallel on them except on the first (day of) yom tov and night. Why? As (R’) Shmuel said: “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls” (Psikta d’Rav Kahana; Yalkut Shimoni 654).

The Torah tells us that the deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery was achieved through the destruction and death of their enslavers, Pharaoh and all his army. From the point of view of our sages it was a flaw in the redemption, and their opinion is repeated in many other sources: the fact that the freedom of the Israelites was achieved in the downfall of the Egyptians clouds the joy. The survivors do indeed owe praise and thanks for their salvation and are allowed to rejoice in it:

Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD. They said:
I will sing to the LORD, for He has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea…

Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels…

And Miriam chanted for them:
Sing to the LORD, for He has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea. (Exodus 15 1-2; 20-21)

In order for the singing of mankind to be complete, the angels are supposed to join in the singers. Here too, “asked the ministering angels to sing before the Holy One, blessed be He. The Almighty said to them: The work of my hands drowns in the sea and you sing before me?!” (BT Sanhedrin 39:2). This is explained by Rabbi Yechiel Jacob Weinberg, (Lifrakim 1- 6): “Since then, silence is the joy of the Israelites… From now on, Israel has no part in the joy as long as God’s creatures are drowning. Their fate is tied to the fate of all mankind, and only when complete redemption for all mankind will the day of celebration come to Israel.”

Every year, we sit around the seder table, eat, drink and rejoice, give thanks for our salvation, and drink four glasses of wine, symbolize four different expressions of the redemption. Wine is the expression of joy (BT Psachim 109:1): “There is no joy but in wine.” Nonetheless once the plagues of Egypt are mentioned or when we say the verse about life out of bloodshed (Ezekiel 16:6), It is customary to drip wine from the glass out to express: our joy is not complete.

From this point of view, Pesach is not the holiday of redemption but the holiday of preparation for the future redemption. The lesson we are trying to learn from the Exodus is about redemption without illusions. We celebrate partial redemption and rejoicing partial joy and these are also important and meaningful. We hold on to them around the seder table this year as well.

Please join me in praying for the return of the kidnapped, for the recovery of the wounded, for the return of the displaced to their homes, for the peace of the IDF soldiers and the security forces, for peace for Israel and the entire world.

Be people-loving, be blessed. Moadim Le’Simchah.

About the Author
Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg is the rabbi of Har Adar township, Israel, and a senior research fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute
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