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Passover: The Leap of Love

Everyone knows that Passover commemorates the miraculous Exodus of the Jews from Egypt. After 210 years of servitude, an entire people leave in astounding record time, faster than it takes dough to leaven into bread. We celebrate this event with a festive meal and ceremony called the Seder, during which we recite the Haggadah—the telling of this wondrous historical episode.

The Exodus from Egypt is not just another milestone in the history of the Jewish people. In fact, every holiday is actually a memorial to the Exodus. Even Rosh Hashana and Shabbat are referred to as a “Zechar L’Yitziat Mitzraim,” a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt, although they have no apparent connection to the Exodus.

In addition, every Jew is obligated to see himself as if he personally had left Egypt and to recount it every day, which is fulfilled by reciting the third paragraph of the Shema. Thus, the Exodus is the seminal event of the Jewish calendar and of daily Jewish consciousness. Why?

The first of the Ten Commandments is: “I am YHVH your G- d who took you out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” The Zohar (Vol 2, pg. 38) remarks: “This is the foundation and the root of Torah, all the commandments, and the complete faith of Israel”.

Nothing could be stranger than the name of the holiday: Passover. Wouldn’t “the Holiday of Freedom” or the “Exodus” be more appropriate? With a straight face, we are told that it is so named because G-d passed over the houses of the Jews when He caused the death of the first born of the Egyptians during the tenth plague. We get the very disturbing image of G-d hopping and skipping over the Jews’ homes. This image is also found in the
Song of Songs, which is read on Passover: “Behold the voice of my Beloved comes skipping over mountains, hopping over valleys.”

Indeed, it is emphasized that it was G-d Himself who was skipping. The Jerusalem Talmud [Sanhedrin 2:5] establishes that “G-d came to redeem Israel. He did not send an agent, an angel, rather He Himself.” On the verse in Exodus 12:1, “I will perform judgment—I am YHVH,” Rashi comments: “I Myself and not an agent.”

Couldn’t G-d have simply decreed the death of the first- born without all this skipping and personal
involvement?  It is common knowledge that the Jews had sunk to the 49th level of impurity. G-d saved them just before they fell to the last level, the fiftieth, at which point redemption would have been impossible. In other words, the Jews were actually unworthy of redemption. So why were they redeemed?

A careful reading of the text (Exodus 6) shows that the predominant message of the Exodus is the revelation of the profound truth of “I am YHVH.” (See verses 6:2, 6, 7, 8) We know that each Divine name indicates a different encounter with G-d, revealing different attributes and perspectives of the Divine truth.

The name Elokim is G-d revealed as the Creator of nature, borders, rules, principles, regulations. This is the name that appears throughout the creation story. In addition, this is the name of G-d revealed as a judge, committed to laws, order, justice, consequences, cause and effect. This is the G-d who responds measure for measure to the choices and deeds of humans. G-d as Elokim cannot save the Jews, because they don’t deserve it.

However, G-d as perceived in Judaism is not only an Elokim. He is also revealed as YHVH. This is G-d the compassionate. He is not only a creator, a ruler, and a judge, but also a sustainer, One who extends and shares His being with us, perpetuating our existence at every moment. We are not independent from YHVH. Rather we are unified with Him as the rays of the sun are to the sun or the thought is to the thinker. YHVH is G-d the Father, and we are His children. Elokim is committed to the laws of nature, the limitations of time and space.
YHVH, however, is beyond nature, the miracle worker, the G-d who, in the name of Love, transcends time and space.

G-d as Elokim cannot do anything for the Jews in Egypt. No slave had ever succeeded in escaping Pharaoh's captivity. Even time and space were against the possibility of mobilizing an entire nation of three million people to leave Egypt in less time than it takes for bread to rise. To mobilize my own family to leave the house takes longer than that. But the greatest miracle of the Exodus is that even though the Jews were undeserving, they were saved. G-d not only suspended the laws of nature, He also suspended the laws of justice.

This is G-d as YHVH. The Jewish belief is that the essential name of G-d is YHVH, and that the essential attribute of G-d is love and compassion. This is the lesson of the Exodus. This is why we must remind ourselves of it every day.

The name Elokim is actually only an aspect of the name YHVH, and ultimately subordinate to that attribute. This is one of the understandings of the Shema: that YHVH is Elokim while remaining YHVH. In other words, the attribute of justice is actually an aspect of the full meaning of love.

Such is the way of all parenthood: out of love for my child I establish for her rules and regulations. I create a world of consistent forces that she can learn to handle. Her deeds incur real consequences. I judge her, reward her and punish her, all for the sake of allowing her to grow into her own identity. However, since judgment is a function of love and thereby subordinate to it, there may be times when my child may be undeserving, yet I will still be compassionate towards her. I may “pass over” my attribute of judgment in the name of compassion, in
order to save my child.

This then is the meaning of the verse in the Song of Songs, “Behold the voice of my beloved comes skipping over the mountains, hopping over the valleys.” Nothing can stand in the way of God’s love for His people. No obstacle of nature is too great. His love transcends all barriers.

This is the inner dynamic of Passover. G-d, in order to pass over the homes of the Jews, passed over his attribute of judgment in the name of love. The Zohar (Vol. 3, pg. 99) teaches: “Even though G-d loves justice, His love for His children overcame His love for His justice.”

Why did G-d not send an angel? Because He could not send an angel. Angels are bound to the laws of nature. Rabbeinu Bachya explains that had G-d sent an angel to perform the plague of the firstborn, then even the Jews would have been killed, for they too were culpable. Therefore, G-d Himself, YHVH, executed the plague.

One more vital point needs elucidation: Why did G-d require the Jews to sacrifice the Pascal lamb and smear its blood on their door-posts, so that G-d would pass over their houses? Did G-d really need this sign to identify Jewish homes?

I believe that there really is one obstacle that can stand in the way of G-d’s love. G-d can love us, but He can’t make us believe that he loves us. A poignant passage in Isaiah portrays this impasse. The Prophet is defending the people, claiming that they are sinning because G-d is not present for them. G-d responds [Isaiah 65:1]: “I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for Me. I was ready to be found by those who did not seek Me. I
said ‘Here I am, here I am.’”

G-d may pour upon us all His love, but it is up to us to acknowledge and accept it. We have to make some overture, some sign, which is what smearing the blood on the door- posts was all about. G-d did not need an identifying sign, but we had to identify ourselves as wanting redemption.

What does it take for people to acknowledge the miracles of our own day? Thirty-nine scud missiles fell on the city of Tel Aviv, and only one man was killed. I remember hearing the previous Minister of Defense interviewed on the radio, saying with an air of reluctance, “This would have to be called a miracle.” Once I was walking in the countryside and I saw a tubular, V-shaped object hovering in mid-air, about ten meters above the ground. I looked at it for two hours, trying to figure out what it was. At one point, a guy came walking past me. I pointed to the object. He saw it, too. “Truly remarkable,” he said, and went right on walking.

Perhaps this is why we have to open the door for Eliyahu. Certainly he could enter without our opening the door. However, nobody would really notice him.

G-d says to the Jews, “Nothing can stand in the way of My love for you, except you.” Passover is the time to experience and acknowledge G-d’s love for you. That’s why it is the foundation of all the holidays, of all of Judaism. Without the acknowledgment that G-d loves you enough to redeem you even when you’re not worthy, you have no inkling of G-d’s relationship with you. That’s why we read the great love poem, the Song of Songs, on Passover. That’s why we spend hours reciting the Hagaddah, like an  enamored lover describing every minute detail of how her beloved proposed to her. The more we acknowledge G-d’s love, the more love we will experience.