Click here to listen to podcast version.

This week is Shabbat HaGadol – The Great Shabbat, so named because it is the Shabbat before Pesach, and a time to prepare spiritually, intellectually and emotionally for this festival.

The Dubner Maggid, one of our great sages from 19th century Eastern Europe, asks a very simple question about Pesach, which necessitates taking a step back and re-examining everything we thought we understood about the festival.

He asks: What are we thanking God for? The Dubner Maggid, famous for his analogies, gives the following parable to illustrate his question: Suppose you break your arm, God forbid, and a doctor sets the bones, puts it in a cast, and helps you make a full recovery. You would be grateful and give thanks to the doctor. But, what if it was the doctor who broke your arm in the first place? Would you still be grateful to him for healing you?

The analogy is clear. Why, asks the Dubner Maggid, should we express gratitude to God on Pesach if He put us into slavery in the first place? We were not taken as slaves by an invading army. We had been in the Land of Israel and God orchestrated a series of events that saw Jacob and his family land up in Egypt. Remember, Joseph was sold, then there was a famine, and Jacob and his family went down to Egypt and were reunited with him. And even on the way down to Egypt, when Jacob hesitated and expressed certain reservations, God reassured him and told him to press on – that this was part of the plan and that He would be with him. God had even foretold the plan to Abraham in the famous vision of the ‘Covenant Between the Pieces’: “Your children will be strangers in a land that is not theirs. They will be enslaved and oppressed.”

Clearly, this was God’s plan from the beginning. And if He put us into slavery in the first place, why do we thank Him for taking us out of it?

This question strikes at the very heart of Pesach. And the Dubner Maggid offers the following extraordinary answer: On Seder night, we give thanks to God not only for our freedom, but for the slavery! Because it was the slavery that forged us into a nation; it was the slavery, along with the resulting freedom, that made us into the Jewish people, that prepared us for receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, changing the course of human civilisation.

This is why we eat the maror, the bitter herbs, representing slavery, on Seder night. We don’t suppress the bitterness, we discuss it, in some ways we even celebrate it – because it was part of the process of becoming a great nation. The structure of the Haggadah is revealing. As designated by the Talmud, it begins with the negative, the fact that we were slaves in Egypt, and concludes with the positive, the triumph of our liberation – because it’s all one story, and it has to be told in its entirety. It’s all a part of who we are.

Our slavery was a prerequisite for receiving the Torah, and it prepared us in two ways. Firstly, our faith in God was strengthened because of the incredible miracles that accompanied our liberation. These miracles – the 10 plagues, the splitting of the sea – were only necessary because we had been in slavery. We see this explicitly in this verse: God says (Exodus 10:1-2): “I have made him [Pharaoh] and his advisors stubborn, so that I will be able to demonstrate these miraculous signs among them. You will then be able to tell your children and grandchildren how I did awesome acts with the Egyptians, and how I performed miraculous signs among them. You will then fully realise that I am God.”

Secondly, suffering itself can have a purging effect. At times, people go through tremendous difficulties, but they emerge from them stronger, elevated, transformed almost beyond recognition. So, too, the Jewish people emerged from the unimaginable hardships of the Egypt experience purified and much closer to God. This idea is captured in a magnificent image later on in the Torah, in the verse which describes how Moses, Aaron, and the 70 elders were on Mount Sinai and saw a vision from God, in the form of “brickwork of sapphire and like the essence of the heavens for purity”. (Exodus 24:10) What was this mysterious “brickwork of sapphire”?

The answer is the key to unlocking the meaning of the Egypt experience. The Jerusalem Talmud explains that this brickwork, which lay directly beneath the Heavenly Throne, represented the bricks and mortar with which the Jewish people had been forced to build during their enslavement. It was a sign of God’s solidarity with the Jewish people, that God remembered their pain and was with them in their suffering.

This concept is encapsulated in a beautiful verse in Psalms: “I am with him in his suffering”. (Psalms 91:15) When we undergo great difficulties and suffering, through it all, God is with us; He feels our suffering and the brickwork of our pain lies beneath His Heavenly Throne.

Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, one of our great sages of the previous century, asks: If the purpose of showing them the sapphire brickwork was to demonstrate that He was with the Jewish people throughout the painful Egyptian slavery, why did God only show them this vision on Mount Sinai, after they had been liberated? If He wanted to convey His solidarity while they were in pain, He should have done so during their enslavement?

Rav Sorotzkin explains that with the sapphire brickwork, God was showing them what they had achieved while they were in Egypt, how they were elevated now that they had come out on the other side. The sapphire, as it says in the verse, was “like the essence of the heavens for its purity”. It represents the refinement and spiritual greatness they achieved during their slavery, and that a person can attain, with pain, the catalyst for that transformation.

While they were enslaved, it was possible that the Jewish people thought their pain and suffering was empty; in their minds, they were simply working with bricks and mortar, and they could not see the higher purpose. When they reached Mount Sinai, however, they realised that, in retrospect, their suffering – along with their faith, their prayers, their growing connection to God and the tremendous miracles they had witnessed – had refined them and made them great; had forged them into a people who merited to receive the revelation of Torah.

Through their unrelenting pain and suffering, their blood, sweat and tears as they worked with bricks and mortar, they were actually building the heavenly sapphire brickwork – which, in turn, reflected their greatness.

We see that Pesach is not just about liberation, it’s about the process leading up to it. This is an important lesson for life: sometimes we go through very difficult times and we may feel that the suffering is empty. But, even as we suffer, there is a process of growth taking place, we are becoming greater people and getting closer to God. We are building incredible heavenly edifices of merit in the next world, which, sometimes, we are not even aware of.

Pesach is about acknowledging the heavenly brickwork of greatness that the Jewish people built during their slavery in Egypt in preparation to receive the Torah on Mount Sinai.