ON Scripture — The Torah

Launched in 2012, ON Scripture — The Torah features the writings of leading Jewish intellectuals, rabbis and community leaders from the United States, Israel and Europe. The goal of this commentary is to feature the work of a diverse group of Jewish writers who can engage the weekly Torah portion with sophistication and can also convey its relevance to contemporary life.

Contributors are encouraged to explore connections between the texts they are studying and current events and trends — political, cultural and spiritual. In addition to the written reflections, we are beginning to produce short videos to accompany the commentaries as a way to enhance the learning experience of our viewers.

April 14, 2014

The Momentum of Freedom (Passover)

By Ariel Evan Mayse and Yossi Quint

yossi quintariel evan mayseIn celebrating the Jewish liturgical year and holiday cycle, we relive significant occasions in the tale of the Jewish people. The Hasidic masters emphasize that each festival highlights a particular spiritual quality, some essential element of life that is a part of both our national story and our own spiritual lives.

Passover is a time for contemplating the meaning of freedom, but is also forces us to confront the nature of servitude and bondage. Furthermore, on seder night we do more than simply recall the Exodus of the Israelites from under Pharaoh’s hand, we reenact their journey and must have the courage to leave our own personal Egypt. In the Mishnah’s well-known formulation, “In each and every generation, one is obligated to see himself as if he left Egypt” (Tractate Pesachim 10:5). Passover marks the beginning of an ongoing quest for redemption that extends to our own day.

The Children of Israel were swept out of Egypt in a mighty show of force. This momentum of divine energy was necessary to free them from the doldrums of slavery in which our ancestors were inescapably mired. They experienced the miraculous plagues, were delivered from Pharaoh’s army and triumphantly walked through a great sea split asunder. This allowed the Israelites to attain a great awareness of God quite suddenly, with very little preparation or reflection.

Rabbi Isaac Luria, the great 16th-century mystic of Safed, taught that the word "pesach" (pass over) refers to God’s deliberate “skipping” over the Israelite households during the plague of the firstborn, but also to the way in which they swiftly attained the highest state of consciousness without moving through the lesser stages. But like all moments of bliss, this awareness was ethereal and fleeting. This consciousness departed as the former slaves entered the desert, returning only after a period of wandering that led to receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai.

Let us pause and consider the parallel to all of this that takes place in our own lives.

Moments of intense passion and illumination are the forces of change that allow us to move beyond things that hold us back, sweeping aside the debris that clutters our hearts and minds. Leaving our own Egypt requires a sudden burst of awareness and insight, one that is powerful enough to get us beyond the fears and negative forces that bind and constrict us.

A similar dynamic is often found at play in history as well. Revolutionary movements require tremendous force and zeal in order to sweep away the ancient régime. This sort of energy, however, is ultimately unsustainable; it is only the first stage of the journey. The lasting project of transformation and liberation must be accomplished in its wake. Long-term stability comes through the hard work of building structures infused with the initial fires of inspiration.

The Passover Haggadah (ritual guide book) speaks of four children: the wise, the wicked, the simple and the one who does not know how to ask. Perhaps each of these four children represents some part of us, or the ways we approach the world at different points in our spiritual journey.

The wise child asks, “What are these testimonies, statues and judgments that Y-H-V-H our God has commanded you?" (Deuteronomy 6:20). That is, why are all the laws and details of the Pesach celebration necessary? The Haggadah’s answer, however, doesn’t seem to respond directly. We are instructed to tell him, “One does not conclude the Pesach meal with afikoman.” Why? And what is the relevance of the afikoman, the final piece of matzah eaten at the seder?

R. Abraham Hayyim of Zlotchov, a Hasidic master and author of the work "Peri Hayyim," teaches that the wise child is asking why there are so many laws in our tradition because he has already achieved a very high level of divine awareness. From this rung, he cannot understand why one might need the mediating force of "halakhah" (Jewish law) to connect to God. While the Master from Zlotchov admires the spiritual intensity of the wise child, he reminds us that even such elevated souls do not experience the world like this all the time.

Life inevitably involves a shuttling back and forth between moments of elation and tribulation, expanded consciousness and constriction, feelings of connection to God and those of rupture and estrangement. We leave Egypt each time we perform the seder, only to return again and again in the years to come. These peregrinations may be frustrating, but they are a natural part of the human experience. They make our spiritual lives dynamic and ensure that our growth never stops.

R. Abraham is suggesting that halakhah is the framework through which we may encounter God even when we do not rest among the peaks of consciousness. In a clever wordplay he notes that the afikoman (afiko-man) at the seder represents manna (man in Hebrew), the bread from heaven that temporarily sated our ancestors on their way out of Egypt. Therefore, we warn the wise child, “do not finish” (ein maftirin) — do not think that you are exempt from the commandments, for you, too, will inevitably return to lower levels of consciousness.

But halakhah is more than a safety net to carry us when we fall. It is the dynamic process through which we can reclaim the illuminating moment of higher consciousness without relying on divine intervention.

Our epiphanies and experiences of total clarity are subtle and transient. It takes weeks, months or even years to integrate and reclaim them. So, what must we do in order to achieve the illumination of seder night once more?

There are three stages in the ongoing process of redemption. The first is Egypt, a place — physical or psychological — of constriction and bondage. Freedom from this type of consciousness requires a radical thrust of energy that takes us forth from slavery. In the next phase of the journey, we lose the vibrant power of this liberating force. This leaves us with the responsibility and autonomy to regain the initial level of awareness by embracing new structures. Otherwise we risk stagnation, anarchy or perhaps even worse, slipping back into Egypt unchanged and unredeemed.

Yes, we keep returning to Egypt as we perform the seder every year, but each Pesach is a new opportunity for growth and liberation, allowing us to leap forward in the cycle of redemption, freedom and reconstruction.

Ariel Mayse is a doctoral candidate in Jewish studies at Harvard University, where he is working with Rabbi Arthur Green and Bernard Septimus. Yossi Quint is an undergraduate student at Princeton University, where he is majoring in religion.

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ON Scripture — The Torah is a collaboration between Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Previous postings may be found at the Odyssey Networks website.