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Birth

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More than progress, more than transition, the word implies a break from the past, entry into a new world, a radical transformation into something infinitely removed from the prenatal state.

Specifically, all births, whether literal or figurative, involve three phases or “movements”: self-negation, self-assertion, and self-transcendence. There is an utter departure from the prior state—“what was sealed is opened, and what was open is sealed.”[1] There is an assertion of the newborn’s own faculties and energy to achieve the birth. And there is an assumption of an entirely new mode of being—the fetus becomes a life; a “limb of the mother”[2] becomes an individual human being.

To gain a clearer understanding of the three aspects of birth, we might examine a birth of another sort—the birth of an idea in the mind of a student. Not every acquisition of knowledge constitutes a “birth”: often the new idea is but the development or derivative of an old one, or a kindred addition to a family of ideas that form an established philosophy and mindset. But then there are those ideas that mark a radical departure from the student’s prior thinking and the onset of a completely new vision and perspective.

Such a rebirth of mind requires, at the very onset, a virtual self-abnegation on the part of the student. In order to be receptive to an idea of such magnitude, the student must set aside all previous conceptions—obliterating, in effect, his very intellectual identity—so that nothing in his “old” way of thinking should interfere with his assimilation of the new idea. In the words of our sages, “an empty vessel can receive, a full vessel cannot.”[3] The Talmud relates that the great sage Rav Zeira fasted a hundred fasts in order to “forget” all he had learned in the Torah academies of Babylonia so that he might be able to acquire the methodology and approach to Torah practiced in the academies of the Holy Land.[4]

At the same time, the student must engage his intellectual faculties to absorb and digest the new idea. So his self-abnegation actually leads to an assertion of his intellectual self, as he labors to grasp the potent new thought with his own mental prowess.

Ultimately, however, the effect of the new idea is to create a new mind, whose scope and depth transcends the very tools that have assimilated it. In the very process of grasping and internalizing the idea, the student’s mind is supplanted by an intellect infinitely greater than its prior self. By severing its moorings from the womb of  previous thinking and amassing its own prowess to break out into a new intellectual world, the mind acheives a “birth”—a new identity, as  distant from its predessessor as a newborn life that has emerged from the fetal state.

And so it is with every birth, be it the birth of a new individual, a new idea, a new era, a new people. The newborn entity begins by relinquishing all that defined and comprised its former self—a move that, paradoxically, propels it to the zenith of its potential. And out of these contrasting agitations toward naught and being a new self is born, transcending and supplanting the old.

Freedom

Has such a  great thing ever been, or has the likes of it ever been known? … Has G-d ever endeavored to come and take for Himself a nation from the womb of a nation… as the L-rd your G-d has done for you in Egypt before your eyes?

Deuteronomy 4:32-34

The theme of the Exodus from Egypt as the “birth” of the Jewish nation is further developed in the prophecy of Ezekiel, and is elaborated on in the writings of our sages.[5] On the 15th of Nissan in the year 2448 (1313 bce), a new entity, the Jew, was born.

More than the development of an enslaved clan into a sovereign people, more than the entry of another member into the “family of nations,” the event marked the creation of a new phenomenon, something that “has never before been nor has the likes of it ever been known”: a nation consecrated to G-d, a people whose very identity lies in their commitment to serve the divine purpose in creation.

Standing before Pharaoh to deliver G-d’s demand that Egypt free the people of Israel, Moses does not say, “Let My people go!”; he says, “Let My people go, so that they may serve Me.”[6] For this was the essence of the Exodus. As G-d told Moses at Mount Sinai, where He first appeared to him in the burning bush and entrusted to him the mission to free the Jewish people, “When you take this nation out of Egypt, you will serve G-d on this mountain.”[7] Seven weeks after exiting Egypt, the people of Israel gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, the charter of their nationhood and their guide to making life’s every endeavor an exercise in the service of G-d.

How is this to be reconciled with our conception of Passover as the festival of freedom? Certainly, servitude to G-d is preferable to servitude to Egypt, and every pious man will insist that servitude to G-d is preferable to a hedonistic “freedom” in a lawless world. But servitude and freedom, by definition, polar opposites. If anything, Passover should be called “the festival of servitude”!

In truth, however, the journey from Egypt to Sinai was the ultimate march to freedom. Freedom is the liberty to be oneself, and to uninhibitedly realize the self’s deepest desires and aspirations. At Sinai, the essence of the Jewish soul came to light—a soul that is “literally a part of G-d above” and whose most basic desire is to cleave to its source.[8] This is the true self of the Jew; anything that obscures or hinders its realization—be it a whip-wielding taskmaster or the internal drives of the animal in man—is an imprisoning chain on his soul. The Torah, illuminating the Jew’s path to G-d and empowering him to overcome all that constrains his exercise of his quintessential will, is the key to his freedom and self-realization.

This was the entity born on Passover: a people whose “self” is defined not by society or nature, nor by the physical, emotional or intellectual garments of the soul, but by the spark of G-dliness that is the essence of man. A people to whom freedom means not the gratification of the body or the satiation of the spirit, but the realization of the soul’s quest to unite with its creator and source.

Three Names

The Torah calls it “The Festival of Matzot.” Twenty-two generations later, when the hundred and twenty members of the “Great Assembly” formulated a text for the daily and seasonal prayers,[9] they added the name, “Season of our Freedom.” Ultimately, however, the festival came to be called by the sages of the Talmud (and everyone else) by yet a third name—“Passover.”[10]

The three names of Passover reflect the three aspects of birth described above. Matzah, the unleavened bread, is the symbol of humility and self-abnegation;[11] the very first thing that the Jews in Egypt had to do was to utterly abnegate their prior existence and self-definition. They had to commit themselves to “first do and then comprehend,”[12] to relinquish their understanding and their will in “blind” obedience to G-d.

Having so done, they achieved the ultimate in self-assertion and freedom. Having cut the cord that bound them to the womb of Egypt, they found that this spelled not the annihilation of self but the realization of the self’s highest potentials. They found that a self freed of habit and convention, freed of the dictates of mind and heart, is a self enabled to maximize its faculties in its quest toward a higher state of being and self-realization.

Finally, the “Festival of Matzot” and the “Season of our Freedom” yielded “Passover”: a leap above and beyond the very parameters of their former reality, as a nation emerged from the throes of birth into a new world.

Based on an address by the Rebbe, Passover 5737 (1977)[13]


[1].  “Rabbi Simla’i taught: ‘The fetus in its mother’s womb is like a folded ledger: its hands lie against its temples, its elbows against its ankles, its heels against its buttocks. Its mouth is sealed and its navel is open… When it emerges into the world, what was sealed is opened, and what was open is sealed” (Talmud, Niddah 30b).

[2]. Talmud, Gittin 23b. Although a fetus possesses life and vitality, it is not a “life” in the same sense as is a post-birth human being, but a living extension of its mother’s body. Thus, according to Torah law, if a fetus endangers the mother’s life the pregnancy is to be terminated, since “as long as it has not emerged into the world (outside the womb) it is not a soul”; but from the moment that its head emerges, it is considered a “soul,” and “we cannot destroy one soul to save another” (Talmud, Ohalot 7:6; ibid., Sanhedrin 72b and Rashi’s commentary. See also Nachmanides on Shabbat 107b and Niddah 44b, Meiri on Shabbat 107b and Sanhedrin 72b).

Editor’s note:  The abortion issue is often misrepresented as hinging solely on the question of whether a fetus is a “life”—in which case its destruction is “murder”—or not, in which case it is merely a question of “a woman’s choice regarding her own body.” But there exist other moral wrongs aside from murder. According to the Torah, abortion is not murder in its ultimate sense, and is therefore justified (and obligatory) if the pregnancy poses a danger to the mother’s life; but it is the destruction of life, both of a living extension of the mother and of the potential for a full-fledged life. The issue of “women’s rights” is irrelevant: no human being, man or woman, has the right to destroy his own life and body or any part thereof, and society carries the responsibility of preventing such acts.

[3]. Talmud, Berachot 40a.

[4]. Ibid., Bava Metzia 85a.

[5]. Ezekiel 16; Mechilta, Beshalach 14:30; Midrash Tehillim, 107:4; Yalkut Shimoni on Deuteronomy 4:34; et al.

[6]. Exodus 7:16, 26; 8:16; 9:1, 13; 10:3.

[7]. Ibid. 3:12.

[8]. Tanya, ch. 2; see Mishneh Torah, Laws of Divorce, 2:20.

[9]. Originally, every man prayed in his own words and on the occasions dictated by his needs. However, the prevailing conditions at the time of Israel’s return from the Babylonian exile (4th century bce) necessitated the establishment of a universal text and schedule for prayer (see Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer, ch. 1).

[10]. In the Torah, “Passover” (pesach) is used only as the name of the offering brought in the Holy Temple on the afternoon of the 14th of Nissan (the “paschal lamb”—actually a lamb or kid) and eaten that evening—the first night of Passover—with matzah and maror.

[11]. See The Taste of Matzah, WIR, vol. VII, no. 19.

[12]. Exodus 24:7; see Talmud, Shabbat 88a.

[13]. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XVII, pp. 71-77.

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