Pesach in the Hassidic Tradition

Posted by Arie Strikovsky on April 5, 2001
Topics: Hasidut, Pesach, Spiritual Practices

It is a Torah commandment to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The Hassidic masters felt that the mitzvah of retelling the Exodus story entailed more than just a directive to narrate what had occurred to our ancestors. Rather, they conceived of the Exodus story as an example of the mitzvah of narrative itself, which must be practiced by every Jew throughout the year. [One interpretation of Pesach is “pe” – mouth, and “sach” – speak, to connote the idea that we must continually tell our tale.] When the Baal Shem Tov felt that his prayer could not penetrate to heaven, he would begin telling a narrative, and the gates of heaven would open…

If this is what happens with a story told all year long, just think what can be attained by telling the story of the Pesach Exodus. R. Yehuda Leib Alter, the second Admor of the Gur [Hassidic] dynasty and author of the “Sfat Emet,” stated that with the story of the Exodus from Egypt we are igniting the sparks of redemption. In the beginning God planned to bring complete redemption during the Exodus from Egypt. But only part of the redemptive plan was carried out; the rest was left, hidden away and preserved, for a future time. And where did God hide this redemption- to-come? In His Holy Torah, and especially in the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Thus, when we all sit around and narrate the story of the Haggadah, we are thereby drawing out and igniting the sparks of redemption. Therefore, says Rebbe Abraham Borenstein of Sokhochov, we must tell of the Exodus from Egypt with such great emotion and enthusiasm that we feel and see the miracles and wonders of the Exodus from Egypt for ourselves. But how do we do this?

Hassidism has two basic methods. According to one method, represented clearly by the Maggid of Mezeritch and Rabbi Schneuer Zalman of Liadi, “Baal HaTanya,” man must humble himself, reach a state of self-effacement before the Lord, and direct his prayers to redeem the Divine Presence (Shekhinah) from Exile. According to this view, the individual who preoccupies himself and God with his personal problems will not contribute to the ushering in of God’s kingdom on earth, and the realization of the prophetic vision for the end of days.

According to the second method, however, that is represented by most of the sages of Poland, man must express his personal concerns to God as one conversing with his friend.

With this introduction we can, if only in our imagination, listen in as a guest at the courts of the great Hassidic leaders of the past and hear their words, directed at each and every one of us.

One of the outstanding followers of R’ Schneuer Zalman asked the rabbi: “Rebbe, what does my soul lack?”

The rebbe answered: “You are indeed a God-fearing person, and you are diligent in Torah. But, my son, you must expel from within yourself the hametz that represents pride and coarseness, and allow to enter the Matzah that represents the negation of self. According to halakha, a hametz vessel that has been used in fire must be purified by fire, and the purification continues until sparks fly from the vessel [the word kli means vessel, but also can connote a person with the capacity to “contain” spirituality], or until its outer layer comes off [the “outer layer” in its earthly significance is the layer of dirt on the pot, and in the spiritual significance is the “layer” of defilement that covers the soul].”

Other Hassidic Sages upheld the view whereby they believed that man should not humble himself but should pour his heart and concerns out to his Creator. Among these Sages were Rav Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev. It is told that on the Seder night Rav Levi Yitzhak reached great heights of enthusiasm and appeared to be in “seventh heaven,” when the Heavens revealed to him: “Do not be boastful; the Seder of Haim the porter is grander than your Seder!”

At that point, Hassidim who had already finished their Seder had come to the Rebbe’s house to hear and see the Seder of the great Tzaddik. Rav Levi Yitzhak turned to them: “Do you know Reb Haim the porter?”

The Hassidim scattered throughout the streets of Berditchev looking for him, until they discovered where he lived. They knocked on the door for him to open up. A woman came out and said, “What do you need my husband for? He’s drunk and asleep in bed.” The Hassidim, of course, ignored her words, woke her husband up from his sleep and carried him on their shoulders until they reached the Tzaddik’s home. The Tzaddik ordered them to seat the porter by his side, and turned to him with questions: “Dear Reb Haim, what inspirational thoughts did you have during the Seder?”

The porter fixed his bleary eyes on him, nodded his head and said: “I’ll tell the Rav the truth. I heard that it was forbidden to drink alcoholic beverages for eight straight days, so this morning I drank a right proper amount that would last me for all eight days. I got so tired that I fell asleep. When night came, my wife woke me from my sleep and said, ‘Why aren’t you getting ready for the Seder tonight, just like all other Jews?’ I answered her, ‘What do you what from me? I’m just an ignoramus, son of ignoramuses. But see, I know this, our forefathers were captured by the Gypsies [he got ‘Gypsies’ and ‘Egyptians’ confused. Since he knew about Gypsies personally, he mixed them up with the ancient Egyptians.] We have a mighty God who led us out of there to freedom, and now we are again captives, and I know and will tell you, God will lead us to freedom again.’ Afterwards I saw that the table was set with Matzot, wine and eggs. I ate and drank and gave my wife to eat and drink. After that I was overcome with joy and raised my cup to the Heavens and said, ‘Look, my God, at the cup that I am drinking, to Your health! L’haim to You, God! Hear us and redeem us.’ And then I went back to sleep.”

The Saba [grandfather] from Shpola was also among those Tzaddikim who gained satisfaction from the simple people’s worship of God.

One Seder night, the Saba stood before God and complained: “Father in Heaven, now, on the Seder night, when You are returning from synagogue to Your seat of honor- wait a minute! Look at those who prayed before You this evening. They are tired, drained. And nonetheless they came to the synagogue and said ‘Hallel’ to You with great enthusiasm, pouring out their hearts. Dear God, doesn’t this make any impression on You! Redeem us, immediately, before, Heaven forbid, we grow weary of hoping. God, let me ask You one question: Why is this night different from all other nights? Why has this Exile gone on so much longer than other exiles we have undergone?”

When the Saba came to these words, he broke out in a cry, raised his arms to Heaven and cried: “Please, God in Heaven! Redeem us quickly from this Exile while our heart is still alive. God, You redeemed us with the expectation that the Exile would make us more observant. But I swear to You, that the Exile will not make us more observant. And if You tarry, You will end up redeeming ‘goyim.’

The Hassidim who were there fell on their faces, cried long and hard and repented deeply, until the holy Saba arose and said: “Now we must make the Father in heaven rejoice, and show Him that His children can even dance when we are in the depths of darkness.” And he gave the order to sing a song of joy, and began to dance with ecstasy.

The rebbe’s complaint has great religious-sociological significance. He felt that the Exile had exhausted itself. In the Middle Ages, suffering had united the people with God, and the evil decrees in the Diaspora created a barrier between the Jewish people and the other nations of the world. During modern times, however, this barrier was disappearing, and the continuation of the Diaspora would increase assimilation among the nations.

Pesach is called “Hag Hamatzot” (the Holiday of Matzot) in the Torah, while the people called the holiday “Pesach.”

Rav Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, the defender of Israel, found that this linguistic distinction reflected the mutual love between God and His people. He held that the name “Hag Hamatzot” praises the Jews, who hurried to leave Egypt before their dough had had time to ferment. God thus called this holiday “Hag Hamatzot,” in order to give praise to His children. The name “Pesach” points to the miracle that God wrought when He passed over the homes of the Israelites and killed only the Egyptian first-born. Thus His children call the holiday “Pesach,” in order to give praise to God.

Rav Levi Yitzhak himself applied what he taught. When, on the eve of Pesach, he saw women busy cleaning and making the home and utensils kosher through scraping and scrubbing, he would say (as is said when the Shofar is blown on Rosh Hashanah): “May it be God’s will that those angels arising from the letters kuf, shin, resh, kuf (which normally stand for the Shofar notes but can also stand for kuf = kritza = scrubbing; shin = shtifa = pouring; resh = rehitza = washing; kuf = kirud = sanding) – may arise before His holy seat and recommend us before Him.”

Pesach as the Creation of a Convert-Accepting Nation

There is an additional, universal significance to Pesach. Three of the great Hassidic sages, Rav Nachman of Bratslav, Rav Schneur Zalman of Liadi and Rav Yehuda Leib of Gur, author of the “S’fat Emet,” include the strangers who joined the Jewish people as one of the miracles of the Exodus from Egypt. While some of the sages had reservations about the “great multitude,” these rabbis see in this conversion the raising up of the “sparks” that fell “when the vessels were broken” before the creation of the world. According to Lurianic doctrine, at the beginning of the creation process God shone magnificent Divine lights at His world. However, the “vessels” were not strong enough to contain these lights, and they exploded into the “world of chaos,” with the Divine sparks scattering throughout the countries of the world. In the next attempt, God radiated weaker lights on to his world, and this time the lights were accepted and the “world of tikkun” was created. The weakened lights of this world reached the Jewish people, while the sparks from the “world of chaos” were still scattered among the nations of the world. The task of the Jewish people is to reunite all these lost sparks and to incorporate them into the “world of tikkun.” One way of achieving this is to absorb righteous converts. This is especially important because many of the converts have glorious souls that are rooted in the Divine sparks of the primary lights that had fallen when the “vessels were broken.”

These Hassidic ideas can shed a new dimension on the Exodus narrative. One purpose of the Egyptian plagues was to bring the Egyptians closer to the worship of the Creator. And, indeed, in addition to the plagues in Egypt, Moshe added educational messages for both Pharaoh and the Egyptians: “And by this you shall know that I am the Lord” (Exodus 7:17); “So that you shall know that there is none like Me in all the land… in order to show you My power, and in order that My fame may resound throughout the world” (ibid. 9:14-16); “you yourself must provide us with sacrifices and burnt offerings to offer up to the Lord our God””(ibid., 10:25). These efforts produced several positive reactions: The sorcerers’ statement, “This is the finger of God!” (ibid., 8:15); Pharaoh’s request to Moshe and Aharon, “And may you bring a blessing upon me also!” (ibid., 12:32); and perhaps, most importantly, thousands of sensitive Egyptians who decided to join the Jewish people and were included in the “covenant at Sinai.”

Had the Divine program been fulfilled in totality, all the Egyptians and, through them, all the peoples of the world, would have been included in the tikkun. But this vision remains for future redemption.

This article was originally published in Hebrew in Daf L’Tarbut Yehudit, a bulletin of the Ministry of Education, Jerusalem.

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