If the elephant never forgets, then we, the Jewish people, are a nation of pachyderms. Every two-bit country that oppressed us and then disappeared is commemorated with at least a holiday if not a book in Tanach, and every tyrant, king and general who attacked us and was then killed during the past 3400 years is marked for special ignominy. We don’t forget anything.
The best example of our inflexible hold on history is Pesach. We escaped Egypt, and now, every year, we spend a week not only marking our redemption but even eating the same food we ate at that time, 3400 years in the past!
However, Pesach is more than just another holiday in which we hold on to our past - after all, Pesach is the only event in Jewish history that actually requires full-scale, dramatic, re-enactment.
• We have no such re-enactment for the Akeidah.
• We have no such re-enactment for the giving of the Torah at Sinai - we do learn all night on Shavuos, but that’s a custom rather than a biblical mitzvah.
• We have no such re-enactment for the building of the Mishkan or Beis haMikdash, or for their destruction.
You might be able to make a case for Succos as re-enactment, but we certainly have no staging with the philosophical depth and legal complexity of the Pesach Seder for anything in Jewish history. Why this? Why is it so critical that we envision ourselves on this march through the walls of a long-dead empire?
Perhaps the key is in the Geulah experience itself, in teaching Jews of every generation how best to appreciate and handle גאולה, Redemption.
גאולה, as the word is used in the Torah, means more than being saved from a threat:
The Torah’s term גאולה refers to redeeming a slave from slavery.
The Torah’s term גאולה refers to redeeming family land that has been pawned.
The Torah’s term גאולה refers to redeeming property that had been dedicated to the Beis haMikdash, so that now it may be used for common, mundane purposes.
גאולה is about changing our state, enabling a fresh start, breaking new ground, without being beholden to the people we were before or the world in which we lived before - and because we are creatures of habit and comfort and fear of the new and unknown, גאולה is a hard experience for us to absorb. גאולה can frighten us into hiding like a groundhog who has seen his shadow, or like the Jews in the desert who complained to Moshe, “We would have preferred the slavery of Egypt to the insecurity of this new way of life.”
The trail of Jewish history amply illustrates the difficulty of embracing גאולה; our national narrative is littered with redemptions which offered the opportunity of a new start, but which ultimately failed either because we didn’t recognize them, or because we weren’t willing to grasp them:
• The Assyrians invaded Israel, exiled the northern ten tribes and then turned to the South. It seemed inevitable that they would conquer ירושלים - but King Chizkiyahu, Yerushalayim and the nation were miraculously spared. This could have been a real גאולה, the gemara even says that Mashiach could have come at that point, had the people celebrated and embraced Gd adequately - but they did not thank HaShem immediately with great song, and the opportunity was lost.
• Purim offered another גאולה, as the Jews celebrated their escape from Haman and thanked HaShem. But shortly thereafter the Jews were given Persian permission to return to Israel and build the second Beis haMikdash, and the great majority did not go.
• I would make the case that 1948 was a potential גאולה as well, a watershed moment when Jews could have returned en masse to this new, Jewish land - but, again, it was only a partial גאולה because some went but the great majority did not.
The megilah we read today, שיר השירים, sums up the problem of the failed גאולה. HaShem is described as a suitor at our door, his hand outstretched, calling to us, פתחי לי אחותי רעיתי יונתי תמתי, Open up the door for me, my sister, my beloved, my dove, my perfect one! But the response of the Jewish people is a reluctant excuse, רחצתי את רגלי איככה אטנפם, I have washed my feet, how can I dirty them? It’s an excuse, a paltry excuse for declining גאולה.
Pesach, on the other hand, was a case of successful גאולה, successful redemption, as we marched out of Egypt and all the way to Sinai to receive the Torah. We recognized the opportunity, and we grasped it - and so, today, we use Pesach in order to accustom ourselves to the idea and opportunity of redemption, of instantaneous change, of a Divinely ordained shift that demands we rush בחפזון to keep up.
• We imagine what it was like to be a slave, familiar with matzah and marror, and suddenly find ourselves eating a korban Pesach.
• We imagine what it was like to be downtrodden, born into servitude, and suddenly learn that the heritage of Avraham counts for something, that the promises of the past are more than legend, that the Creator of the Universe wants a relationship with us.
• We imagine what it is like to see our world’s priorities and obligations turned upside down in the frenzy of redemption.
We need Pesach to help us imagine what it is like to embark into a new world of possibility so that we will understand the nature of גאולה and so that it will no longer be intimidating. In every generation, we train our children to see themselves leaving Egypt, to have their lens widen from the closed perspective of the slave to the wide-open vista of the free, to understand what it means to have the shackles suddenly removed. Pesach is our training ground for freedom.
As I pointed out before, the Torah’s vision of גאולה is not an all-or-nothing term reserved only for Messianic redemption; גאולה refers to every change of status, every shift in our existence, large and small. All of these are opportunities.
גאולה may be a job offer. גאולה may be an opportunity to attend a class. גאולה may be an invitation from a spouse, a parent, or some other relative to apologize and re-start a troubled relationship on a healthier footing.
Pesach tells us to keep our eyes open, to watch for Moshe coming out of the desert to tell us that our slavery is over, to recognize the גאולה for what it is and to capitalize on our opportunities.
The ultimate גאולה, whether we call it the first sprouting of our national redemption or just the fulfillment of our Jewish dream of living in our own land, is the return to Israel. That’s the whole ball-game, a fulfillment of the Torah’s instruction to us to take possession of Israel and pass it on to our descendants, and the chance for us to celebrate the Torah and its mitzvos in their intended way.
We’ve been through, several times, the many legitimate reasons why people cannot make aliyah. Health reasons for some, responsibilities in America for others, and so on. But Pesach teaches us to keep our eyes open for גאולה, to recognize it when it comes, and to leap at our chance to escape Mitzrayim and head toward our land.
They tell the story of a man who drowns in a flood, declining all human efforts to rescue him because he’s waiting for a Divine miracle. When he goes before Gd for judgment, Gd explains that all of those human efforts were the miracle, the redemption Gd was sending.
May we learn to recognize our גאולות, large and small, and take advantage of them when they come.