The Festival of Pesach – The Exile in Egypt (Galut Mitzrayim)
The children make their debut at the seder with the singing of “Ma Nishtana”. They ask why is this night different? Tonight we only eat Matzah, we may not eat any bread.
On all nights we can eat any vegetables we prefer, tonight we are obligated to eat bitter herbs.
On all nights we have no obligation do dip our food, tonight we have to dip our food twice.
On all nights we may eat in any position we choose, tonight we recline.
The answer given to us immediately thereafter is “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and G-d took us out with an outstretched hand, and had He not taken us out we would have still been slaves in Egypt.”
While this forms the basis for the holiday, this does not seem to be sufficient, particularly as much later in the Haggadah, we find the reasons for the eating of Matzah and bitter herbs spelled out explicitly.
The Abarbanel explains, that the children are not asking for the reasons for the above mentioned peculiarities, rather they are questioning the paradoxical nature of the evening. On the one hand we eat the matzah reminiscent of the bread we ate as slaves, we eat the bitter herbs to remind ourselves of the bitter time we had in Egypt, and yet on the other hand we conduct ourselves royally; we eat reclining, we dip our food. In a nutshell we are reliving slavery and conducting ourselves royally in the course of one evening.
- Hebrew-English Pesach word sheet with transliteration
- The Hebrew month of Nissan and its place in the zodiac
- Pesach jokes, funnies and one-liners
The answer provided by the Haggadah goes back to the time we left Egypt. It was on this very night when we changed our status. At the beginning of the evening we were in bondage and during the course of the evening, we became free men. Thus when we relive this on the Seder night we retain both elements; our slavery and our freedom.
We say, we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. This contains two elements 1) Pharaoh and 2) Egypt.
The Hebrew word for Pharaoh – “paro” is closely related to the Hebrew word “pa-rua” which means; wild, without boundaries and limitations. This was indicative of the social makeup of the Egyptian society. They were a totally decadent, permissive society. The Torah, when it wants to instruct us in morality, tells us: “Don’t be like the Egyptians” they were the example, par-excellence, of immorality.
The Hebrew word for Egypt, “mitzraim” is closely related to the Hebrew word “mei-tza-rim” meaning constraints or being closed in.
In Egypt, we were exposed on the one hand to a society of total decadence and promiscuity, yet on the other hand we were totally suppressed by a totalitarian despot. So tight were the borders of Egypt that no slave ever escaped.
The Gemara in Brachot records the following prayer of Rav Alexandri, “Master of the universe, it is clear and obvious to You, that it is our will to perform Your will, but we are held back by the yeast in the dough and the decrees of the nations. May it be Your will, to save us from them that we may be able to perform your commandments whole heartedly”.
The “yeast in the dough” is symbolic of a person’s bad inclinations and “decrees of the nations” refer to the influences and pressures from the outside.
Yeast, is necessary for the production of bread, however it has to be used exactly in the correct proportions and measures and for a precise amount of time. If not, the bread will spoil. Similarly, a person has many drives and instincts which have a place if correctly channeled. The problems all start when they are blown out of proportion.
The Rambam (Maimonides), when discussing how to mend faulty character traits, tells us that we have to start by first going to the opposite extreme, to break the negative trait and then to slowly work back to the middle of the road which is preferred. He brings as an example; somebody who is totally stingy, should first go to the opposite extreme to totally break this negative trait of miserliness and then go to the preferred middle of the road; holding back where need be and giving where need be.
Matzah, is bread without yeast: a situation which is symbolic of living without any bad inclination. Our going out of Egypt contained both these ingredients; firstly we left the decadence and immorality of Egypt – the yeast of the dough. Secondly, we also left the bondage of Egypt; the limitations placed upon us by being under the regime of Egypt.
The Balei Mussar tells us that each festival has an intrinsic relationship with the date in which it took place. We refer to Pesach as ‘Zman Heruteinu” the time of our freedom, because the date contained the roots from which our redemption could grow – it was not a mere coming together of time and event.
If this is the time we overcame Egypt, symbolic of outside pressure not to perform mitzvot, and Pharaoh – symbolic of immorality – this means that we have a special opportunity now, to overcome again.