Turn It Again: Pesach Edition

Turn It Again: Torah Wisdom for Today: Pesach Edition

In Pirkei Avot, a book of maxims in the Mishnah, an ancient rabbi, Ben Bag-Bag said about Torah study, Hafokh bah, vaHafokh vah, dkhola bah.” Turn it over and over, for everything is in it. For two thousand years, thats what Jews have done. Here is another turning.

Pesach During War—Really?

Can one celebrate Passover during a time of war and antisemitism, when many Jews feel themselves physically or emotionally at risk? This might sound like a very contemporary question, but it was posed in Prague by the Maharal in the 16th century.

The Maharal of Prague, Judah Loew ben Bezalel, was an incisive and important Jewish thinker. Outside of the world of scholars, however, he is better remembered for creating a golem. This golem was shaped from the mud of the Vltava River, animated through the use of incantations and God’s holy name, and was charged by the Maharal to protect the Jews of Prague from the increasingly violent antisemitism that his community was experiencing.

Within this context, the Maharal presents a question that has continued to resonate over the centuries.

יש מקשים, מה הועיל לנו היציאה, הרי אנו משועבדים בשאר מלכיות, דמאי שנא מלכות מצרים משאר מלכיות.

“People have posed a very difficult question. How has the Exodus from Egypt benefitted us, given that we have been subjugated in countless other countries. In what way is the Egyptian empire different from these other empires” (Gevurot HaShem, chapter 61, trans. by David Kosak)?

The Maharal responds by noting that the Exodus was different, for at that time what we received was not conditional freedom, but something essentially good, namely innate freedom. This sort of freedom can’t be removed by exigencies like war or exile. It is a spiritual birthright that has the potential to change both our self-perception and how we experience the specific exigencies of our lives, such as slavery, war, or antisemitism.

In today’s world, we might file this under the category of Jewish Pride. The many functions of pride movements like Jewish Pride or Black Pride can help us better understand the Maharal, for such movements are a celebration, a form of resistance, an educational tool, a community builder, and a psychological bolster to the afflicted community. Pride can be the catalyst to experience the core of freedom that God embedded in every human being, but that is all it is. Regarding his famous statue of David along with his other works, Michelangelo is often quoted as having said that he saw the angel in the marble and carved until he set him free.

Similarly our job is to liberate what is already present, regardless of war, antisemitism, or anything else that obscures our God-given freedom.

A Happy Pesach,

Rav D

Special thanks to Rabbi Sam Feinsmith, who first exposed me to this text.