By Shlomo Riskin ~
The Festival of Passover is called by our sages “the time of our freedom,” the celebration of our exodus from Egypt. It is also Biblically known as the “Festival of Matzot,” the holiday of unleavened bread. The flat rather tasteless dough that was never given a chance to ferment and rise, was the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in Egypt. After a long day of servitude, they prepared the simplest fare possible and this was the same “bread” that our ancestors hurriedly prepared for their journey to freedom. Is it not strange that our liberty from enslavement by a mighty, totalitarian regime is symbolized by a half-baked pumpernickel flour and water, interrupted from rising in its earliest stage of development?!
Furthermore, the Bible teaches us that “You shall count for yourselves – from the morrow of the Festival day, from the day when you bring the Omer of the waving – seven weeks, they shall be complete… you shall offer a new meal offering baked leavened loaves of bread” (Lev 23: 15-17) to celebrate the Festival of the First Fruits, the Festival of Weeks (Shavuot).
Why after all manner of leavening has been forbidden during Passover, do we celebrate this connected holiday (through the counting of each day from the second day of Passover continuing for a full seven weeks) with an offering of leavened, risen loaves of bread? And why is this culminating festival called “Weeks” (Shavuot) which connotes a period of counting rather than an achievement worthy of a significant holiday?
One final question: Why do we read on Passover the magnificent Song of Songs, the love song between Shlomo and Shulamit, the shepherd and the shepherdess, God and Historic Israel. It is not a poem of a lover seeking his beloved, a passionate chase culminating in conquest of the prize. It is rather a search, a hide-and-seek quest for love and unity that is constantly elusive. At the moment that the beloved finally opens the door, the lover has slipped away and gone. The very final verse cries out, “Flee, my beloved, and appear to be like a gazelle or a young hart.”
The answer to all three of our questions lies in the distinction between the western mentality and the Jewish mind-set. Western culture measures everything by the bottom line, the result of the game: “Did you win or did you lose?!” The ancient world, and especially Jewish teaching, is more interested in the method, the search for meaning, how you played the game. Indeed, the Chinese religion is called Tao, the Way, and Judaism speaks of “halakha”, walking or progressing on the road.
Hence, Passover is only the beginning of the process, the road to redemption, which takes us out of Egyptian enslavement, but only brings us as far as the desert. We count seven weeks paralleling the seven sabbatical years leading up to the jubilee; but the actual Festival itself is called the Festival of Weeks after the process which will get us there, overseeing the development from half-baked dough to the fully risen loaves “of bread. During the last five thousand years, the end-game, the actual redemption, has eluded us – but that is hardly the real point. It is the weeks of preparation, the arduous expectation and the paving of the way, which makes the Festival of Weeks the significant piece.
That is the true meaning behind Song-of Songs. Love is not the act of conquest, the achievement of unity; it is the search for unity, and the closeness between the two that it engenders. And so the truest commandment is not to effectuate the Messianic Age, but rather that we await its arrival and prepare the road for its coming. This preparation for the Messiah was the most important aspect of the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, ztz’l. He taught the necessity of preparing ourselves for the coming of the Messiah rather than the identification of who it may be. The State of Israel is not “redemption realized,” not even to the most ardent religious Zionist; it is merely the “beginning of the sprouting of the redemption,” a work-in-progress which will hopefully pave the way towards our worthiness to be redeemed.
Talmid Chacham, the Hebrew phrase for a Talmudic Scholar, does not mean “wise individual,” rather it means a student of the wise; a good Jew who aspires to the goal of wisdom. The greater a person’s wisdom, the greater is their understanding that they have not yet achieved – nor will they ever achieve — complete wisdom. What counts is their aspiration.
Hence, especially during the Passover Seder, the questions are more important than the answers; indeed, the four children are “typed” by the quality of their questions.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.