Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Redeeming Ourselves - Reflections on Passover 5775

There is an oft-quoted Zohar which states that Hashem redeemed the Jewish People from the Egyptian bondage prematurely because we had sunken to the 49th level of tumah; had the Jews sunken one more level, to the 50th and final level, we would have been irredeemable. So Gcd hastened the Redemption in order that the Children of Israel not be lost to history forever.

In thinking about this the other day, my very perspicacious daughter Elisheva asked me, "Abba, why did Hashem wait until the last possible moment to save us? What was He waiting for?

It's a splendid question, don't you think? (And yes, I'm braggin' on my brilliant kid.)

As I have written ELSEWHERE, Taharah/Tumah represents the spectrum between the Source of Life and the utter absence of life, and that it is a part of the human condition to cycle between these poles. The 50th degree of tumah mentioned in the Zohar represents death itself. 

But not just physical death, the quantifiable absence of heartbeat or brain waves. Death in this context can be defined more broadly as the state in which we are no longer able to exert any power and influence in the world. 

In this sense, poverty is akin to death, because the poor do not have the means to affect the world in which they live. Thus says the verse: "Precious in the Eyes of the Lcrd is the death of His chasidim, His dear ones." (Psalms 116:15) Not martyrdom, but poverty. "The A-lmighty looked at every attribute and could find none better for Israel than poverty." (Chagigah 9B) Why? Because in their sorrows, the poor look constantly Heavenward. 

For the same reason, victimhood is death, because victims are objects, not subjects, in their own world. Victims are unable to make any mark or impact on their world; they are but one small step from being literally dead.

The ultimate poor person, the ultimate victim, is the slave. Slaves must focus entirely on imperatives of mere survival; there can be no attention paid to the higher, spiritual callings of life. 

Hashem had to redeem us from Egypt because we were utterly incapable of redeeming ourselves. We were victims, not actors, in the grand drama of our own lives.

I will tell you that many people fill their lives with the "have-to's:" the grocery shopping, the dry cleaners, music lessons for the kids, dropping the car off at the shop, errands, here, errands there - the nuts and bolts of mere survival. The day ends in exhaustion, and what have we truly accomplished? We have made no lasting impact in the world. In 100 years, in 1000 years, no one will remember the salon appointment or the business lunch. When all the dust settles, we have expended ourselves on the hamster wheel of today, for no other purpose than to jump back on the hamster wheel tomorrow.

For many, any residual effort and energy after the "have-tos" is devoted to personal pleasures and recreation. But like the slave in Egypt-land, there is scant little time left for the higher, spiritual callings of life. We are, in a sense, trapped as victims of our own lives, where life molds us, instead of us molding our lives.

We work hard for five so we can play hard for two. What a bleak existence! No wonder people do drugs and alcohol.

But there is a higher Geulah (redemption): V'alu moshi'im behar Tzion..."And the Saviors shall rise from Mount Zion to judge Mount Seir..." (Ovadiah 1:21) Saviors? In the plural? Our Sages understand this verse to mean that the ultimate redemption will come about in one of two ways: the Redemption of Pesach, which was the redemption of the victim, of the aino zochim, a violent, bloody redemption requiring miraculous, Divine intervention; or the Redemption of Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur - the redemption of Teshuvah, the redemption of the Zochim, the bloodless redemption of the worthy.

To answer Elisheva's question: why did Hashem wait until the last possible moment to save us? What was He waiting for? 

Perhaps He was waiting for us to redeem ourselves. 

The Higher Redemption is when we don't behave like victims; when we are proactive in influencing the world around us. That is why matzah has two identities: the bread of poverty/helplessness/affliction and the Bread of Freedom & Redemption. And that is why the Talmud in Tractate Megillah says that, in the Messianic Era, all the Jewish holidays will be abolished save for Purim - because on Purim, we saved ourselves. To be sure, we understood Gcd's Hand in human affairs, but the great salvation arose, not through supernatural miracles, but rather via hidden miracles worked through the agency of great heroes: Esther, Mordechai, and those who took up arms to defend themselves against the enemy. We were actors, not victims; men, not mice.

Gcd was waiting for us to redeem ourselves, and I think He awaits us yet. Based on the actions of Jacob in parashat VaYetze, one of the enduring lessons of Torah is that when we do everything in our power, Gcd takes care of the rest. 
"...the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no (human) could have dreamed would come his way." -Goethe
Listen to Goethe. Commit yourself. Look at the world around you. Use the prism of Torah to understand the rapidly-changing events in the world we inhabit. Trust your intuition;  cultivate the soul-voice that speaks Truth to guide you. You'll know what to do. 

This Pesach, let's not wait to be redeemed. Let's redeem ourselves.

Chag Sameach.

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