Passover’s Primary Messages
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
Egypt was a hotbed of idolatry and mysticism. The Jews refrained from adapting to this culture while Jacob’s 12 sons were yet alive. But once they passed on, the Jews lost these role models and replaced them with the Egyptians, from whom they sought approval through following their idolatry. This sin earned them 210 years of bondage. Once God decided their oppression must end, He sent Moses to Pharaoh, afflicting him and Egypt with 10 plagues. The intent was to reveal the fallacy of any power other than God. None of Egypt's lifeless idols had any affect on the miraculous plagues. And we know this because Pharaoh always sought Moses to end every plague, never seeking safety from anyone else or any deity.
Despite the severity of the plagues, God gave Pharaoh the resilience to remain with his decision of not freeing the Jews in order that God could “multiply His wonders in the land of Egypt.” God also wished to show that a person who goes too far in his sin can lose his ability to repent (Maimonides).
The 10 plagues clearly demonstrated God's complete control over all regions of existence, from Earth to the waters, over animal life and meteorological phenomenon, and even over heavenly spheres. God showed exclusive dominion not only over creations, but He demonstrated His justice through afflicting the Egyptian's and not the Jews, displaying His system of reward and punishment. Through Moses’ predictions of the precise moments of the plagues’ onslaught and termination, the principle of prophecy was also taught to Egypt. Prophecy teaches that God relates to man, and not just any man, but to an intellect and not to a mystic. Pharaoh and Egypt realized the inanimate nature of the gods and idols. Not one of their deities performed anything, while Moses’ God controlled everything.
To entitle their exodus, God commanded Moses to command the Jews in sacrificing the Paschal lamb and in circumcision. Rabbi Israel Chait explained, to earn freedom, the Jews must demonstrate both intellectual and moral perfection. Otherwise they would be unfit to receive Torah. Intellectual perfection required the rejection of idolatry through killing Egypt’s calf god, and moral perfection required circumcision which decreases one’s instinctual gratification, thereby freeing energies for the pursuit of wisdom.
Haggadah says that if a person does not expound on three matters on Passover eve, he has not filled his obligation. They are the Paschal lamb, matza and bitter herbs, maror…
By sacrificing the Paschal lamb by God's word, the Jews rejected idolatry and affirmed monotheism. God commanded them to paint the lamb’s blood on the insides of their door posts so the Jews would ponder this reality, that the Egyptian god is simply a biological organism that dies when its blood is spilled. The door post is simply the most frequented part of the house, explaining God’s selection of this location for the blood. Eating the lamb further reinforced the lamb’s subservience to human needs and not man's subservience to animal.
The lamb was to be eaten together with matzah. Why was Matzah so significant? When the Jews left Egypt they unanimously and without orchestration, took the dough, “rolled up in their garments and carried on their shoulders.” For what vital reason does God spare precious space in Torah to recount these details?
Here, God highlighted the Jews’ sinful attachment to bread. As the free Jews left Egypt they wished to portray free Egyptians who enjoyed bread, while feeding the Jews hard dry matzah for 210 years. Now free, the Jews desired to enjoy the image of a free person, namely the Egyptian, who ate soft bread. This explains why God shares with us that they rolled up the dough in their clothing and carried it on the shoulders. Clothing is man's expression of dignity, and this dough they planned to bake into bread would give them a dangerous self image. Carrying it on their shoulders was a means of displaying it to others, “Look, I am free!” But freedom as an ends was not God’s objective. The Jews were not released from Egypt to enjoy a release of servitude, but to accept servitude to God through His Torah. Therefore God did not allow the dough to rise, and when the Jews baked it, it only turned into matzah. Here we find the significance of matzah: God’s restriction of the Jew to express freedom for freedom sake. Unbridled freedom is not God’s plan. Matzah embodies the message that the Exodus was not for the Jew to act like an unbridled Egyptian. But the Exodus released the Jews from man’s dominion in order to subjugate them to God's dominion. This is why we count the days from Passover to Shavuos: a clear connection between the Exodus and arriving at Mount Sinai to receive Torah.
We are commanded in eating bitter herbs at the Passover Seder. This intends to create a stark contrast between our transition from bitter bondage to freedom. To engender a deeper appreciation for God's kindness, we recall our bitter lives as we enjoy our freedom. We must view ourselves as if we were freed, and that God’s Egyptian redemption directly impacts our lives. When retelling the story of the Exodus we follow this pattern, commencing with our history of degradation and concluding with our freedom and praise to God. For when we align our degraded past with God's kindness and our freedom, a greater appreciation for God is sensed and expressed.
Leaning and Wine
Freedom is expressed through drinking wine and leaning. We also do not pour our own cups as a further demonstration of our free state, when others serve us.
Elaboration is Praiseworthy
Elaborating on the Exodus amplifies the elaborate acts and miracles God employed to secure our freedom. Dayanu and Hagadda’s various interpretations of just how many miracles were performed in the Egypt and during the splitting of the Reed Sea also echo the multitude of kindnesses God showed us. Therefore we mirror God’s multitude of kindnesses with our lengthy recount of the Exodus…even to sunrise.
It is crucial that we teach each child according to their level, embodied in the four sons to whom we have four responses. This night of transmission insures that future generations remain loyal to Torah. Additionally, many other mitzvahs function as a remembrance of the Egyptian Exodus, for this event engenders an appreciation for God and a greater loyalty to Torah, thereby ensuring the most Jews will enjoy the benefit of a Torah life.