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The Highest Light

 
Our sages relate that when Israel was redeemed from the Egyptian exile, G-d mercifully orchestrated our exit from there just in the nick of time - "at the end of four hundred and thirty years, on that very day" (Ex. 12:41). Israel demonstrated great collective and personal strength and fortitude by steadfastly maintaining a certain level of sanctity throughout the ordeal of both physical and spiritual bondage. But at the same time, the nation had sunk to a low level of spiritual impurity due to the hardships and influences of the Egyptian captivity. Thus we are taught that our ancestors were literally tottering one step away from the brink of a spiritual chaos from which there would have been no return - the "49th level of impurity" - had it not been for G-d's "strong hand and outstretched arm" (Psalms 136:12) which delivered us "on that very day" - on the very day and at the exact moment of Divine redemption.

The mystical teachings state that G-d pulled Israel out of Egypt at the moment with great compassion. The Heavenly illumination of this compassion was completely overwhelming. They were immediately elevated to the highest level, the "49th level of purity"; transmuted by the highest Divine light. Although they had no preparation and were not ready - "they picked up their dough before it became leaven" (Ex. 12:34) - they were catapulted from their low level directly into the presence of the King's radiance, and it was this radiance which bore them out from the realm of evil.

But it had the makings of a spiritual trauma, this moving from the lowest level to the highest, with no stages in between; like going from 0 to 180 mph in seconds flat. The people did not remain long under the influence of this magnificent and undeserved light. The next day it departed from them, and it was necessary for Israel to regain this illumination, slowly, gradually and naturally, one level at a time, in preparation to stand at the foot of Mount Sinai to hear the voice of G-d and receive the Torah, 49 days later on Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks. This is one of the secrets of the Divine commandment that instructs us to count off these seven weeks, numbering 49 days from the second day of Passover leading up to the Shavuot festival (Lev. 23:15): It is not only a concept of counting, but a period of intense spiritual toil and discipline, and great effort, through which we slowly and gradually regain the light that had been given to us gratis on the first night of Passover.

For so it is every year. On the first night of Passover at the seder, we once again bask in that radiant light of redemption. If - hopefully - we grasp the moment properly, then we merit to leave Egypt. In the words of the hagada, "In every generation it is one's duty to see himself as if he personally left Egypt on this night, as it says: 'You shall tell your son on that day, it was because of this that the L-rd did for me when I went out of Egypt'."

But then the light departs (in the words of Robert Frost, "Nothing Gold Can Stay") and we must work hard to regain it, to build ourselves up to the level where we are found deserving to receive the Torah anew.

Tonight, we begin the seventh day of Passover. Our tradition relates that this is a day of great potential, illumination and spiritual portent; indeed, it is at once both the culmination of the Festival of Passover and its inimitable, powerful crescendo. For tonight marks the night, having departed from Egypt one week earlier, when Israel reached the Sea of Reeds. And ultimately, it is the splitting of the sea and Israel's crossing over to the other side, never to look back, which began her role and destiny in the world.

"And the Children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, Egypt was journeying after them, and they were very frightened; the Children of Israel cried out to Hashem." Many are familiar with the teaching of our rabbis that the sea did not split until one man - Nachson, prince of the tribe of Judah, walked into the water and continued walking until it came up to his nostrils. At the moment when he could go no further, G-d made the miracle, and the sea split and remained open the entire night for all the nation to walk through on dry land. We emphasize this teaching because it so clearly serves to indicate how G-d certainly makes miracles, but only when man has done everything in his power. Once one man did everything he could possibly do, no more and no less than wading in until his nostrils, then G-d stepped in. For if we show no commitment to Him, why should He show any to us?

But another source (Midrash Yalkut Shimoni on Ex. 14, 233) indicates that when╩ Israel arrived at the sea, things were not so simple at all...

"At the sea, our fathers were divided into four groups.
One group said, 'let us drown ourselves in the sea.'
Another group said, 'let us return to Egypt.'
Another group said, 'let us wage war against them.'
The last group said, 'let us scream out against them'."

Is it my imagination, or does this description bear uncanny resemblance to Israel today? We stand veritably at the brink of the Sea, at the chasm separating us from the rest of the world, challenged by G-d Himself to rise up and march across towards our only one and true freedom - our destiny to be a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex. 19:6) and never look back. For G-d's reaction pertained to none of the above, but rather, simply "Why do you cry to Me? Speak to the Children of Israel and go" (Ex. 14:15). But in the face of pressures from within and without, including those in power who are totally lost and clueless to their Jewish identity and who are willing to forfeit the country's Jewish identity as well, in the face of both murderous Islamic terror - such as that which claimed at least nine lives during this Passover holiday in Tel Aviv - and the diplomatic terror tactics the world wages against us, perhaps we seem to fit this description. Some seem ready to just forget the whole thing, the dream that could have been the State of Israel, and implode in despair, "drowning ourselves in the sea" and making it easier for our enemies by giving up our land and bringing our own borders closer and closer to the sea. Others seem all to ready to "return to Egypt," to accept that our fate is to be dominated by others. These people are ready to enslave themselves, our future, our children's future, to the interests of foreign powers. Some see war as the answer; some maintain that prayer is the only answer.

Passover is almost over. Today I visited the Temple Mount along with hundreds of other Jews, and our joy at being able to make this pilgrimage on the Festival was palpable. But we did not merit bringing the Passover offering this year. I know of one Jew who spent the seder night in a Jerusalem prison for simply showing up at the Temple Mount on Passover eve. And, I know of another who tried to visit the Temple Mount and was warned by a Moslem police officer not to return to Jerusalem.╩ Does this make any sense? How long will our leaders choose to elongate our own exile? How long will we allow our only holy place to be desecrated, and our own Jewish identity to be denied?

Whether or not we are ready, we have already marched out of Egypt. Now we face the sea. But to which group do we want to belong? As we have emphasized before, the Torah expects us to utilize the Divine cycle of time as a vehicle to relive these experiences, not just to commemorate events of a distant, misty past. And this exhortation is not just for a select few: "With our young and our old we shall depart" (Ex. 10:9). It cannot be overstated that the Jewish experience, far from being stuck in the past, is a constant bridge to the future; we are constantly alive in the moment of G-d's eternal now. The question is, can we truly seize the promise of this moment, and rise to our potential. If we can, then we shall finally cross the sea to true freedom, the freedom that will only be attained when we cease to live in denial, and begin to live our lives illuminated by that highest light that G-d gives us.

With Passover blessings from Jerusalem,
Rabbi Chaim Richman

 

 

 

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