What Are We Celebrating on Pesach?
By BARRY GELMAN
What are we celebrating on Pesach? The answer seems easy enough; on Pesach we should thank God for taking us out of Egyptian slavery and for choosing us to be his partner in the world. A most joyous holiday, we should avoid depressing reminders of our past.
To tell the truth, this suggestion is the very opposite of that which our Rabbis recommend. The Talmud in Pesachim (117a) says that when we tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, we must start with the unpleasant and finish with the praiseworthy (pleasant). In fact we do just that when we begin the Haggadah with memories of Abraham’s idol worshipping family and with the bitter recollection of our slavery in Egypt.
One wonders, why is this necessary? After all, it’s time to celebrate our salvation, why ruin it with negative memories of the past?
The Rabbi of the Slonimer Chassidim suggests that the reason is rooted in the purpose of recounting the Exodus. The reason we tell the story of the Exodus is to relive not so much the miracles and wonders of the time, but more importantly, the fact that the Egypt experience was the defining moment of our history. It was at that time that we became Knesset Yisrael, it was at that moment that we were elected to serve only God.
If that’s the case, it not only makes sense that we begin our night of recall with the not so flattering, but it also makes the event that much more potent.
We were chosen at a time in our history when we were not at the ultimate spiritual level. While we did manage to maintain quite a bit of Jewish identity, spiritually we were not at the top of our game. Despite all of that, God embraced us, basically saying that this gesture is not dependent on how we behave, rather it is pure, everlasting love for love’s sake.
Had God waited for our highest spiritual moment such as Har Sinai, the impact would have not been the same. That perhaps, may have indicated that our election was based on our spiritual level, or on our acceptance of the Torah. In fact the very opposite is true. God referred to us as his "first born" while we were still in Egypt, long before our acceptance of the Torah. It turns out that the mandate to begin with the negative is merely a vehicle to highlight the absolutely positive nature of the relationship between Bnei Yisrael and God.
It seems to me that this should be our focus this Pesach.
These thoughts are incredibly uplifting and liberating. Wouldn’t we rather serve a God who loves us unconditionally then a vindictive "picky" God.
What unites us is the unshakable love of God, a love that was bestowed on us not due to any external factor, but simply because of who we are, the children of Abraham and Sarah. Wouldn’t it be nice if we would, all of us, celebrate this fact together as one this Pesach?
Barry Gelman is rabbi of United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston, Texas