Passover (first day)(Exodus 12:21-51)
Passover: Defining a Nation
On Passover we celebrate the Exodus from Egypt and express our endless gratitude to God for extracting us from the terrible slavery that we endured there. However, there is a great difficulty with the whole essence of this festival. Imagine John is walking down the street and suddenly someone appears in front of him holding a steel bar and strikes his leg very hard, causing it to break. Whilst John is sprawled out on the floor in agony, his assailant approaches him and calmly informs him that there is no need to worry because he is a surgeon and will happily perform the operation to help heal John's broken leg. He performs the surgery and John's leg does indeed heal. How should John feel about this person - should he feel tremendous gratitude that he healed him? Of course not! - He would much rather have preferred if he had never been hit, and consequently would not have needed surgery. Similarly on Passover we thank God for taking us out of Egypt but the question must be asked: 'who put us there initially?!' It was God Himself - so why are we thanking Him so profusely for an act of kindness that need not have been required at all?!
It must be that the actual process of being taken out of Egypt was essential to the future of the Jewish people and that the slavery was necessary in order to facilitate it. How is this so? Rabbi Akiva Tatz discusses how the beginning of something is the defining factor in how that thing will develop. For example, the initial DNA of a fertilized egg contains all the genetic information that will eventually sprout into a human being. The way in which it is formed will have a great effect on how it develops.
The Exodus was the birth of a nation, the beginning of the process that led us to receive the Torah and enter the land of Israel. Accordingly, the way in which the Jewish nation was formed had a huge impact on its subsequent development. It determined that the spiritual laws governing the Jewish nation were completely different from those of the other nations. Historically most nations are formed when a large group of people settles an area of land or overcomes another group and seizes control of their land, which then becomes the home of this nation. The birth of the Jewish nation was very different in many respects: Firstly, we did nothing to facilitate the Exodus - the Ten Plagues which caused the Egyptians to send us out were purely Divine acts, with no input from us. Secondly, whilst most nations are born in their own land, we were born in a foreign country - a unique historical event.
But the most important difference is the manner in which our creation took place. Whilst other nations are formed according to the normal laws of nature, we were formed in a totally miraculous fashion - the Ten Plagues were completely beyond derech hateva (the laws of nature) as was the Splitting of the Sea. This is of immense significance - it defined the way in which the 'laws of nature' would affect the Jewish nation. The other nations and their inhabitants live according to derech hateva - there are historical trends that define the development of the nations. In contrast the history of the Jewish nation developed according to a different set of laws, laws that are above derech hateva. This was defined by our formation - the Exodus from Egypt.
We asked why we are so thankful to God for freeing us from the slavery. The answer is that we are grateful that He put us in the slavery and then took us out. It was only because we were so weak and helpless that our formation could be completely in the hands of God - it was impossible to attribute any aspect of the Exodus to our power. Had we been free men who lived in Egypt and not slaves, and then left it for the land of Israel, it would have been very easy for us to attribute some or all of our success to our own hands - there would have been the yetser hara to think that 'my power and my strength enabled me to achieve this success'. Instead the slavery facilitated the miraculous events that characterized the Exodus which were clearly completely directed by the Hand of God and involved no input from any human being.(1) This explains the law that we must discuss the 'genai' (the negative aspects) of the story of the Exodus before the positive. The genai was intrinsic to the course of events that led to our formation in such a miraculous fashion, without it, the positive, that is the miracles which became the model for our existence, could never have happened.
We have thus far discussed how the formation of the Jewish nation dictated that our actual existence be defined by a completely different set of 'laws of nature' than those of the other nations. How has this manifest itself? The Aish Hatorah Discovery Seminar teaches a class known as 'the Seven Wonders of Jewish History'. This class shows how there are several unique factors that set apart Jewish history from that of the rest of the world. These include: The eternal and chosen status of the Jewish people; their predicted survival despite their exile and worldwide dispersion; their predicted survival in the face of persistent, vehement anti-Semitism.(2) A nation that is forced to leave its own homeland on more than one occasion, whilst facing tremendous persecution, is by the regular 'laws of history', destined either to be destroyed or assimilated into other nations. That the Jewish people have not faced this fate is clearly an indication of a unique pattern of history.
This concept of the Jewish nation living above derech hateva also shows itself in how observant Jews conduct their daily lives. We often do not act according to the dictates of regular 'common sense'. For example, many businesses are the most busy on Shabbat and therefore logic dictates that one work on Shabbat. However, observant Jews know that the laws of the Torah override this practical attitude. They realize that our financial well-being is not determined by how much we work, and that any work on Shabbat would not reap any benefit.
It is clear that the observant Jew follows a unique lifestyle based on the dictates of the Torah nevertheless it seems that there are still areas where this lesson provides a great challenge in life. What is the overall attitude with which one approaches life? Does he focus primarily on materialistic success as his source of happiness, or does he realize that spiritual considerations override this. For example, in a purely logical way of approaching life, it would be far more sensible to work more hours than to spend a few hours each day learning Torah. However, according to an outlook that transcends the normal laws of nature, one would realize that learning Torah is ultimately far more important than making that extra bit of money that is not necessary for survival. This is just one example of a general attitude that encompasses the major decision each Jew needs to think over every Passover - that is, do I live my life according to the regular laws of nature or do I realize that a Jew's life goals are unique, defined by an understanding of the singular nature of Klal Yisroel.
1. This also explains why there is barely any mention of Moses in the Haggadah. Even he had no real input into the Exodus - it was all from God.
2. See Waldmam, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, Ch.4, p.157-187 for a comprehensive discussion of all Seven wonders and how they provide strong evidence of the veracity of the Torah.