Transformations Happen Before They Occur

One of the oddest aspects of Pesach is the timing. One would think that the holiday of freedom would begin right after the Jews are released, right after they begin their journey from slavery.

But that is not how we celebrate Pesach. The main celebration, the Seder, is a recreation of the last meal the Jews ate in Egypt, before they went free; in fact, eating at the Seder is to end at midnight, the moment when the Egyptians began to insist that the Jews leave Egypt.  And the obvious question is: why celebrate freedom by recreating the last meal of slavery?

The answer is that transformations happen before they occur. Outwardly, freedom might begin only when the Jews march out of their homes; but the true beginnings of freedom are earlier, when the Jews readied themselves for self-determination by performing the Pesach ritual. In sacrificing the lamb, an Egyptian deity, the Jews declared independence from Egypt. And by following God’s command, the former slaves expressed their faith that they will finally be redeemed. The Pesach ritual conveys inner freedom by declaring independence and expressing hope.

This idea about transformations is found in Kabbalah in a concept called “itoreruta d’litata”, the awakening from below. Great miracles don’t arrive without an initiation from those who are affected by them; the grand awakening in heaven must be matched first by an awakening from below. And here too on Pesach, we are celebrating not the result of freedom, but rather its’ preparations, because the march to freedom begins even before you leave your house.

Much of Jewish history is about the hours of the seder BEFORE midnight. An apocryphal story is told of Napoleon driving his carriage past a synagogue on the 9th of Av. He saw Jews sitting on the steps, crying. He sent his driver in to learn what catastrophe had occurred; the driver returned, with a smirk, and explained to Napoleon that the Jews were mourning the destruction of the Temple that occurred some 1,700 years earlier. Napoleon told the driver not to laugh, because “A people that cries 1,700 years for their land will one day be rewarded.”

This story represents the magic of the seder. At the time of the seder, we have not yet escaped slavery; that only begins at midnight. But a more important change has occurred during the hours before midnight: the desire to achieve freedom. And that desire has remained with us throughout history, during the best of times and the worst of times. We might have been slaves on the outside, but on the inside, we were independent “Pesach seder” Jews, filled with hopes of redemption.

This lesson is important to us, both as a community and as individuals. Each of us has an Egypt to escape. And the lesson of the seder is if we do our job right, and get ready for freedom before midnight, then after midnight, we can open the door and find Elijah waiting for us.

May God bless you and your family with a wonderful Pesach!


About the Author
Chaim Steinmetz is senior rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City. Rabbi Steinmetz has been a congregational Rabbi for over 20 years, and has previously served pulpits in Montreal, Quebec and Mount Vernon, New York.