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Festivals of Spring

Passover (first day) (Exodus 12:21-51 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

Springtime is a liberation, both physically and emotionally.

Jewish holidays are not a mere celebration of key historic moments in the life of the Jewish people. Jewish holidays are occasions when God offers the spiritual inputs necessary for Jews to survive as spiritual beings.

Each of the Jewish holidays serves as the occasion for a particular input. The holidays mark the first time a particular spiritual input of a holiday was provided by God. But they do much more than commemorate that original historic event. Each time the Jewish calendar rolls around to the time of year when the spiritual input was made available for the first time, the same input is offered once again. Because of the extra closeness to God that the injection of such an input indicates, the occasion is declared a Holy Day. 


The social anthropologist regards Passover as the Jewish spring festival. Most human cultures hold some sort of formal celebration to celebrate the end of winter and the arrival of new life in the spring. In the view of the anthropologist, Passover is the Jewish version of this universal human custom, with, of course, the eccentric Jewish twist of eating unleavened bread for seven days.

Jewish tradition teaches that there is some truth to this point of view. Passover is indeed the Jewish spring festival, but with an important difference. Whereas the spring festivals of other cultures are held to celebrate the renewal of the natural world, Passover celebrates the spiritual counterpart of natural renewal. The apparent eccentricity of Jews is a result of the fact that they generally focus on the spiritual aspects of the phenomena to which other cultures relate physically. 


Passover is no exception. It is easy to see how spring represents freedom in physical terms. During the winter you huddle indoors to shelter yourself from the cold and rain as much as possible and endure the darkness of long winter nights. Mother Nature withholds her bounty; there is nothing to harvest. You support yourself by consuming the provisions you have had the foresight to store the previous summer and fall, knowing what lies ahead. As they diminish at what appears to you an extremely rapid rate, you also face the anxiety of going hungry.

When spring finally arrives, you are liberated both physically and emotionally. As you emerge from your winter lair into the brightness of the spring sunshine and harvest your winter crop, barley in the case of Passover, and as you watch the vegetation begin to bud, the fear of starvation recedes and you become intoxicated with the joy and excitement of the returning pulse of life. It is natural for you to hold a festival to express your excitement and happiness and share it with others in carefree revelry.

Passover is also a spring festival. We refer to it in our prayers as the season of our freedom, but the freedom it celebrates is the spiritual counterpart of this physical and emotional liberation that the renewal of nature offers each spring. Just as the liberation of nature frees man to express the joy of his release from enforced inactivity and relief from anxiety, spiritual liberation frees man to express the joy of the awareness of himself as a spiritual being who can leave the world of physicality and immerse himself in the sublime. The spiritual spring of Passover releases the Jew from the cage of physicality, the parallel of spiritual winter. 


Human beings are imprisoned by physicality. Our senses are sharply aware of the body and its needs but the soul is impossible to see and can only be felt. It sits in frustration caged up inside the physical confines of the body and its awareness, searching for a way out. But the feeling of spiritual frustration we experience when the soul is bottled up and unable to express itself does not have the painful intensity of physical hunger or anxiety. It is such a subtle discomfort that it can easily be dismissed as a mild sort of depression.

The domination of our physical senses makes it difficult and even embarrassing for us to publicly express ourselves spiritually, even when we have a powerful sense that there must be more to life than physical reality. The psychological difficulty of putting one's soul on public display can be expressed as the measure of the difference between truth and belief, 'emet' and 'emuna' in Hebrew.

The general consensus is to consider anything that can be perceived by the senses or detected scientifically, even if it cannot be directly seen, as part of reality. But anything that does not manifest itself physically, or cannot be demonstrated scientifically, is characterized as existing only in the realm of belief, not truth. It is not 'emet' -- true, but merely 'emuna'-- belief. If you can't prove it, then you can only believe it. It isn't necessarily real.

The difference between truth and belief is significant, because we human beings are far more influenced by things we perceive as 'true' than by things that we merely believe. But sometimes 'emuna' can be so powerful that the subject of a belief can assume the dimensions of truth for the believer. When that happens, our narrow definition of what constitutes reality is able to expand.

We can bring this down to earth by looking at the mitzvah to eat matzah and the events that it commemorates:

"You shall not eat leavened bread with it, for seven days you shall eat matzahs because of it, bread of affliction, for you departed from the land of Egypt in haste -- so that you will remember the days of your departure from the land of Egypt all the days of your life." (Deut. 16:3)

The Zohar calls matzah the 'food of faith'; it reminds us that we left Egypt in haste and followed God blindly into the desert without knowing our destination and without provisioning ourselves properly for a desert sojourn. So powerful was our belief in God, that it allowed us to cross the great psychological divide that generally separates inner belief from the perception of outer reality. Although we couldn't see how God could feed and shelter such a great multitude in the desert in the 'real' world with which we were familiar, we followed Him gladly into the world of our beliefs where anything is possible.

The power of the matzah transforms belief into a perception of truth and totally nullifies the distinction between truth, 'emet', and belief, 'emuna'. Matzah is indeed 'soul food.'


Spiritual freedom is attained when the perception of belief reaches this level of intense clarity. The believer is then released from the powerful grip of physical reality and allowed to invest all of his energy in the reality that is visible only through the window of his beliefs without reservation. Without the spiritual liberation offered by such clarity, it is never possible to invest as much energy in 'emuna' as in 'emet'.

The innate skepticism of the rational faculty that lies at the deepest part of human consciousness prevents us from investing a great deal of energy and resources in anything that is only visible through the window of belief in the first place. There is no way to silence the inner voice that asks, "How can you be sure that what you believe is really there?" When you add the ever-present scorn and mockery of the non-believer to your own innate skepticism, it is easy to see how painfully difficult it must be even for the most committed Jew to dedicate his or her life to observing the mitzvot. The difference between 'emet' and 'emuna' has to disappear for us Jews to be able to proudly observe our Torah without feeling slightly ridiculous and apologetic.

We now have some insight into what the 'season of our freedom' implies. On Passover, God gives us the spiritual input that enables us to sharpen our perception of 'emuna' and raise it to the level of 'emet'. The elimination of the difference between knowing something through belief or through what we commonly call knowledge is the essence of spiritual freedom.

But understanding what spiritual freedom is doesn't help us to explain how we are supposed to come by it. How in fact does God deliver this spiritual input? How does Passover work? 


In Jewish tradition, the physical is always merely the surface reflection of the spiritual. According to this approach, the true reason behind the natural physical rebirth and liberation of spring is spiritual. It is because Passover, the Jewish spring festival, is the 'season of freedom' of the spirit, that Mother Nature is able to offer mankind physical liberation. The point of the Divine emanation of spiritual liberation that is offered to all, is to deliver a powerful enough dose of 'emuna' to eliminate the distinction between the things that can be sensed physically and those that can be seen only through the window of belief.

But when the difference between the spiritual and the physical is eliminated, the Divine emanation of spiritual freedom has a physical expression as well; when it reaches the physical world it can be observed there as springtime.

If we take this idea a step deeper, what we call 'emet', truth or scientific reality, is really only the external surface layer of the deeper reality of 'emuna'. From our physical standpoint, it appears to us that the reality we call 'truth' rests on a more solid foundation than something we can only accept as real through the power of belief. But if we look at the world spiritually we are bound to conclude that the opposite is true. The reality of 'emet' is the surface layer of the deeper reality of 'emuna'. It is 'emuna' that is more solid than 'emet'. 


The Zohar finds a connection between an apparently random set of events that occurred in series of tens. The world was created with ten declarations, the Torah was given with Ten Commandments, and God sent ten plagues to force the Egyptians to release the Jewish people. According to the Zohar, these events are related in the following way -- the ten declarations of creation were transformed into the Ten Commandments by the ten plagues.

The Maharal of Prague explains the first part of the connection in his book Gvurot Hashem (Ch.57). The way to approach the ten plagues is to look at each plague as turning off one of God's ten declarations of creation. By the culmination of the plagues all of them had been shut down one by one. Thus His first speech 'let there be light' was shut down by the plague of darkness; His tenth speech 'let us make man' was shut down by the plague of the first born; His creation of vegetation by the plague of locusts that consumed all vegetation; and so on through them all. 


The bewildering account of Pharaoh's apparently senseless resistance can be understood as a dispute over the nature of reality. Pharaoh believed in the reality we associate with 'truth.' The things he could detect with his physical senses when he explored the world around him, whose workings he could understand with the aid of his scientists constituted the real world. Miracles were only a temporary phenomenon. They didn't follow the laws of nature and they didn't fit into reality. The power of miracles originated in a reality that could only be actualized through the medium of belief. When the power of belief that fueled the miracles was all spent, reality would still be there. Existence was not a whim of some Deity. Existence was a function of reality.

God was not attacking him with a force that was part of the natural world. God was trying to frighten him by manipulating reality in strange ways. Pharaoh believed in knowledge. His sense of 'truth' was very powerful and he used it to distinguish between what was real and what was not. To Pharaoh, God was playing tricks. Reality was only what was detectable by the senses and understandable through science. Even God couldn't permanently alter it. All he had to do was outlast the tricks. As long as God wasn't applying any natural power against Egypt he was safe. There was no need to be frightened of miracles. In reality he was safe. 


The plagues were sent to demonstrate that there was no reality. What we perceive as 'truth' is really all miracles. God's declarations of creation are all that there is to reality. Every time a declaration was withdrawn, a part of so-called reality would collapse.

The plagues demonstrate that what we call 'truth' and define as reality is actually only belief. The evidence of our senses and all the scientific laws that we have deduced have not grounded us in reality; they have only put us in contact with the surface layer of the creation speeches of God. Following the reality of 'truth' is identical to following the reality of belief. They both lead to the conclusion that the declarations of God are all that there is to reality. At the deepest layer of existence there is no difference between 'emet' and 'emuna'. 'Emet' is 'emuna.' The difference between them is an illusion in the mind of Pharaoh, an illusion that has been shattered by the ten plagues for all time. 


But there is more. If God's declarations of creation are all that there is to reality, we must cling to existence by keeping them operational. The plagues demonstrate that the creation speeches require a human audience. When Pharaoh refused to pay attention to them, God demonstrated His readiness to shut them down, and turned them off one by one in face of his intransigence.

We can only insure the continuance of God's declarations and thereby retain our hold on existence if we pay attention and attempt to understand the message God is doing His utmost to communicate. That is how the continuance of the creation speeches is tied up with the observance of the Ten Commandments. It is only in His commandments that we can discover God's purpose in making the declarations. 


We have reached the crux of the distinction between 'emet' and 'emuna.' If reality is defined by what we commonly understand as 'truth', it needs no purpose. The world we perceive with our senses is there simply because it is there. As long as we can be certain that the physical world we see around us is real, it makes no difference who put it there or why. The 'truth' is self-evident; it requires no explanation. If the world we see through our senses, the scientific world that we can study, constitutes fundamental reality, we can safely ignore anything that can be discovered only through the power of belief. Such things aren't real, so who needs them?

Passover is the season of spiritual liberation, because the Exodus is the demonstration of the fallacy that underlies the world of 'truth'. There is no truth without belief; 'emet' rests on the foundation of 'emuna.'

Every Passover God allows us to see that reality rests on the power of 'emuna'. It cannot be taken for granted and can only endure as long as we focus on its purpose. If we are receptive to the message of Passover we will be knocked out of the false sense of security we derive from the solid physical world around us. We will gladly follow God into the desert and run for our lives to Mount Sinai. We need the Ten Commandments to keep the declarations of creation turned on. The shackles of our physical limitations melt away and we are free to express the joy of our release from the bondage of the false vision of the world.

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