The Freedom To Passover

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On the night of the fifteenth of Nissan, it is a positive commandment (mitzvat assei) to relate the miracles and wonders that were performed for our forefathers in Egypt, as it is written, “Remember this day, on which you went out of Egypt”—just as it is written, “Remember the day of Shabbat.”

Mishneh Torah, Laws of Leaven and Matzo, 7:1

What is freedom? When pressed to define this most basic human need and aspiration, we usually find ourselves explaining what freedom is not. Freedom is not slavery, it is not confinement, it is not inhibition. But is that all there is to freedom—the absence of subjugation? Or is there a positive/dynamic aspect to the state of freedom?

The same could be asked about another much desired and little understood state: rest. Rest is not movement, not toil, not creating; but what is it? Is it merely the negation of activity, or is rest itself an active pursuit?

The Torah implies that it is. In the second chapter of Genesis we read that “G-d concluded, on the seventh day, the work that He had done; and He rested on the seventh day from all the work that He had done.”[1] But if G-d rested on the seventh day, why does the verse say that He concluded His work on the seventh day? Our sages explain: on the seventh day G-d created the final and culminating element of His creation—the element of rest. “What was the world lacking? Rest. With the onset of Shabbat came rest.”[2] Rest is a existent phenomenon, a creation, not merely the absence of work.

“Work” is the movement from self outward, the projection of one’s creative powers to effect changes on one’s environment; “rest” is the endeavor to focus inward, to withdraw to the quintessential core of one’s being. For six days G-d projected outward, creating a universe that is “outside” and distinct of Himself. On the seventh day of creation He rested—He shifted His focus inward, drawing creation back into His omnipresent being.[3] Thus Shabbat is a “holy” day, a day of heightened spiritual sensitivity;[4] a day on which the created reality more deeply identifies with its supernal source.

The same applies, on the human level, to our weekly implementation of the divine cycle of creation in our own lives. Six days a week we project outward, developing and perfecting G-d’s world. On Shabbat, we actualize our “partnership with G-d in creation”[5] by resting: by delving into the inner essence of our own souls and of the soul of creation.

So Shabbat is not a day of inactivity, but a day devoted to the activity of rest. A day in which we endeavor to seek our own spiritual center, to better attune ourselves to the self that is one with the divine essence of all. True, the laws of Shabbat are replete with forbidden activities—in order to rest, one must cease to outwardly project; but the prohibition against work is only one aspect of the phenomenon of rest. In the Torah, there are two versions of the Sixth Commandment: in Exodus 20 it reads, “Remember the day of Shabbat, to sanctify it,” while in the fifth chapter of Deuteronomy it reads, “Keep the day of Shabbat.” The Talmud explains that, “ ‘Remember and ‘Keep’ were expressed by G-d in a single utterance.”[6] The dynamic inward focus of Shabbat (“Remember”), and the avoidance of materially creative deeds (“Keep”), are the active and passive dimensions of a single endeavor: the endeavor of rest.

Thus Maimonides begins his codification of the laws of Shabbat with the statement: “Resting from work on the seventh day is a positive commandment, as it is written, ‘On[7] the seventh day you shall rest.’ Whoever works on this day, negates [this] positive commandment, and also transgresses a negative commandment—‘Do[8] not do any work’”[9] Maimonides is emphasizing that although the bulk of Shabbat’s laws (twenty-eight out of the thirty chapters in Maimonides’ own section on Shabbat) address what is not to done on the seventh day, the imperative to rest on Shabbat is firstly and foremostly a positive commandment. “The positive commandment of Shabbat is to rest, not merely to cease working.”[10]

A Dynamic Equation

This explains the enigmatic passage in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, quoted at the beginning of this essay, in which he compares the commandment to “Remember this day, on which you went out of Egypt” to the imperative to “Remember the day of Shabbat.”[11] Many of the Mishneh Torah’s commentaries have puzzled over the significance of this comparison and have offered various halachic explanations for it.[12]

Legal constructs aside, Maimonides is alluding to a conceptual correlation between the defining characteristic of Shabbat and that of Passover.[13] On Passover, as on Shabbat, we are empowered to experience a state that, on the surface, seems to have no intrinsic content of its own, being only the negation of something else. But just as Shabbat rest is more than the absence of toil, so, too, the freedom of Passover is a dynamic freedom, not merely the absence of bondage.

Freedom is commonly perceived as the removal of all external constraints on a person’s development and self-expression. Freedom is the natural state of man, this line of reasoning implies; free him of all outside forces that limit and inhibit him, and you have a free human being.

Passover embodies a far more ambitious freedom. The exodus from Egypt, which marked the end of Israel’s subjugation to their Egyptian enslavers, was but the first step of a seven-week journey, a forty-nine step climb in the conquest and transcendence of self that culminated in our receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai on the festival of Shavuot.[14] Nor does Shavuot represent the final realization of freedom: at Sinai, we were granted the potential and challenge to attain yet a deeper dimension of liberty and self-transcendence.

Thus Shavuot is the only festival that has no calendar date—the Torah designates it not as a certain day of a certain month (as it does all other festivals) but as the day that follows a seven-week count from the festival of Passover. This is to emphasize that Shavuot is an outgrowth of Passover—that the significance of the Exodus came to light only on the day we stood at Sinai. As G-d tells Moses at the onset of his mission to liberate the Jewish people, “This is your sign that I have sent you: when you take this nation out of Egypt, you shall serve G-d at this mountain.”[15] Standing before Pharaoh, Moses did not merely demand, in the name of G-d, that he “Let My people go,” but “Let My people go, that they may serve Me.”[16]

What is the significance of this liberating “service”? It means that man, no matter how free of external constraints, is a finite creature, ever subject to the limits of his own nature and character. That to attain true freedom he must therefore transcend his humanity–his emotional, intellectual, even spiritual self–and access the “spark of G-dliness” that is his infinite, supra-human self. The Torah, G-d’s blueprint for life on earth, outlines the observances and practices that enable us realize our divine essence in our daily lives.

The day we left the borders of Egypt we were “free” in the conventional sense—no longer could an alien taskmaster dictate what we must or may not do. We then proceeded to also free ourselves of the alien influences that constrained us from within: the pagan habits and mind-set that centuries of subjection to the depraved culture of Egypt had imposed on us, and our own inborn negative inclinations.[17] Then, at Sinai, we were empowered to strive for yet a deeper dimension of freedom—a freedom that is not the negation of adversarial forces and influences, but the surmounting of our own, positive psychic and behavioral patterns. There is nothing negative about our human potential; but we are capable of more, of raising our achievements to a level in relation to which yesterday’s “liberated” self is limited and subjective.[18]

Thus our sages have said: “In every generation a person must see himself as if he has himself come out from Mitzrayim (Egypt).”[19]

The Hebrew word for “Egypt,” mitzrayim, means “boundaries,” and the endeavor to free ourselves from  yesterday’s boundaries is a perpetual one. For freedom is more than the drive to escape foreign and negative inhibitors: no matter how free of them we are, we remain defined by the boundaries of self and self-definition. Freedom is the incessant drive to “pass over” these boundaries, to draw on our divine, infinite potential to constantly overreach what we are.

Based on the Rebbe’s talks on Passover of 5740 (1980)[20] and on other occasions

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber

 


[1] Genesis 2:2.

[2]  Rashi, ibid.; see Midrash Rabba, Breishit 10:10

[3] In truth, “there is no place that is void of Him” (Zohar, Tikkunim 57)—G-d pervades every corner of reality; in the words of the Midrash, “The world is not his place; He is the place of the world” (Midrash Tehillim, 90:10). But the act of creation involved a tzimtum (“constriction”)—the creation of a “vaccum” of awareness in the consciousness of creation: in its own mind, the created reality is something distinct of its Creator. On Shabbat, however, G-d’s “drawing in” of creation to Himself to relate to it in a more intimate manner results in an alleviation of the tzimtum: the guise of apartness that shrouds our existence becomes that much more transparent, making the truth that “there is none else beside Him” (Deuteronomy 4:35) that much more accessible to our terrestrial perception. (See The Subconscious of G-d, WIR vol. IV no. 40; A Private World, WIR vol. V no. 25; The Time of our Lives: War and Peace, Motion and Rest, vol. IV no. 48.)

[4] Even “a boor does not lie on Shabbat”—Jerusalem Talmud, D’mai 4:1

[5] Talmud, Shabbat 119b.

[6] Ibid., Rosh Hashanah 27a.

[7] Exodus 23:12.

[8] Ibid., 20:10.

[9] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Shabbat, 1:1.

[10] Rabbi Yosef Rosen (the “Ragachover”) on Maimonides, Ibid.

[11] Maimonides’ source is apparently the Midrash Rabbah, Shmot 19:8: “G-d said to Moses: Tell Israel that just as I… commanded them to remember the Shabbat… so, too, shall they remember… the day they went out of Egypt.”

[12] See Migdal Oz on Mishneh Torah,  Laws of Leaven and Matzo, 7:1; Minchat Chinuch, Mitzvah 21; Gevurot Hashem, chapter 2; et al. See also Maimonides’ Sefer Hamitzvot, Positive Mitzvah 157.

[13] In this context, it is significant that Passover is the only festival that is referred to by the Torah as “the Shabbat” (Leviticus 23:15; see Talmud, Menachot 65b).

[14] See the essay Wet Matzo, WIR 6 No 34

[15] Exodus 3:12.

[16] Ibid. 7:16, et al.

[17]  See Genesis 8:21.

[18] The distinction between the “negative” and “positive” aspects of freedom–freedom from subjugation, as opposed to freedom as an intrinsic state–have their parallel in Torah law. On the Jubilee year, all slaves were set free, but their freedom came in two stages. From the very first day of the year, slaves ceased to be subject to their masters; however, they assumed the status of “free men” only upon the sounding of the shofar on Yom Kippur, ten days later (see Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee Years, 10:14).

[19] Talmud, Pesachim 116b; Passover Haggadah.

[20] Likkutei Sichot vol. XXI pp. 68-76.

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michele bisnott
4 years ago

EXCELLENT!!! Baruch HaShem!

The Meaningful Life Center