Pesach – It ain’t Over Till it’s Over
Pesach represents the birth of our nation. We remember, particularly at the Seder, the labor pangs of our birth, the difficult circumstances of the slavery. We also remember our emergence into the world as a nation, aided by the mighty hand of God and His outstretched arm. We recall the plagues that cracked Egypt’s resolve, later breaking them. We remember our faith growing with each demonstration of the Lord’s intervention. What a glorious day it was when we marched out of Egypt. It was in broad daylight, carrying the wealth of our taskmasters with us as we boldly faced a bright future.
The story could have ended there. The slavery was over and Israel was unified in its journey toward the Promised Land that its ancestors told of. But God had a few twists up His sleeve. Israel was later pursued by the imposing remnants of the Egyptian army. They were caught helpless and unprepared, pinned against the sea. They cried out to God – what else could they do? It was seven days after leaving Egypt, on the final night of Pesach, that the sea split and the nation passed between the walls of water, overcoming a major obstacle on their way to freedom.
I would raise a philosophical question: Was Israel actually free when they marched out of Egypt? The subsequent chase by the Egyptian army indicates otherwise. What was the purpose of this twist of events? Why could the redemption not occur in a single step? Why were the people harassed again, their confidence shaken just when they were beginning to gain some sense of their new freedom?
A parallel can be drawn to the birth of the modern state of Israel. It is not a stretch to suggest that the terrible events of the Second World War were some of the birth-pangs of the state. R’ Yosef Kahaneman, the Ponevizher Rav, draws a correlation between these two events. As we approach Israel’s 70th birthday we can look back with some perspective that was not available to the first generations who realized this dream. When comparing the birth of the modern state with the Exodus from Egypt we discover similar patterns. In 1948 Israel declared its independence. This declaration did not in itself give the state independence, they had to fight for it. Many young men stepped off the boat from DP camps in Europe and were handed weapons to join the defense forces. Inscriptions on graves of soldiers who fell in the War of Independence show that some were in the country for just a few days before making the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of their country and people.
But eventually the war was over. Independence was won, not only diplomatically but also militarily. Even then, however, the state and its citizens were subject to frequent attacks and were required to constantly defend their towns and territory. A major outbreak occurred in 1956, and of course the magnificent events of 1967 again highlighted that independence could not be taken for granted. 1973 followed, the gulf wars, South Lebanon, and more recently the Gaza outbreaks.
It seems that the Almighty wanted us to learn that there is no single event that can provide a full solution. We can march out of Egypt in broad daylight but that doesn’t guarantee that a week later we will not be beset by another challenge to our freedom. We will always remain dependent on His aid.
Rabbi Paysach Krohn related that his daughter asked him a basic question when they were studying together the structure of the prayers. We know that the first three blessings of the amida are blessings of praise, as the appropriate etiquette when we approach God is to first acknowledge His greatness. We then have the middle section which on weekdays is a series of petitions and on Shabbat and festivals it addresses the particular nature of the day. The final three blessings are of thanksgiving, acknowledging our debt to God. If this is the structure, his daughter asked, why is the final blessing, the prayer for peace, part of the section of praise? It seems that we limit our gratitude and conclude with yet another petition!
Rabbi Krohn didn’t have a suitable answer so he approached his Rebbe, Rabbi Dovid Cohen. Rabbi Cohen explained that we conclude the amida with a petition because saying thank you to God is fundamentally different from expressing gratitude to another person. When we thank another person there is an element of grudge. We don’t want to be indebted to anyone, and the underlying message of our “thank you” is that we wish we did not owe any gratitude and we hope we will not require their services again. When we thank the Almighty, however, it is with full knowledge that we will need His aid again and again. Incorporated into the blessings of thanksgiving, therefore, is a further request.
When we left Egypt God ensured that we knew we were still dependent upon Him. When an independent modern state of Israel was established God ensured we would never feel complacent, never take for granted that we are free and at liberty to let our guard down. This is part of our relationship with God. He won’t allow us to let go of Him, and He certainly won’t let go of us.