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Passover: When We Become a Nation of Individuals

Passover: When We Become a Nation of Individuals

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Passover marks the birth of the Jewish nation. Since G‑d redeemed us from Egyptian slavery to give us the Torah at Mount Sinai, we are no longer just a collection of individuals; rather, we are a singular, united entity, bound together by our relationship with G‑d and the Torah.

Therefore, the focus of Passover, the celebration of our Exodus from Egypt, ought to be on Jewish unity, and its mitzvahs and traditions should emphasize our similarities and oneness.

We are a singular, united entity

However, the opposite seems to be true. Some of the core Passover mitzvahs appear to highlight the uniqueness of the individual rather than the unity of the Jewish people.

One of the essential mitzvahs of Passover was the Passover offering. When the Temple stood, every single individual had to participate in the Passover sacrifice and eat from its meat. It was not a communal sacrifice (offered on behalf of the entire nation), as were most of the sacrifices that were offered daily in the Temple. The Passover offering was an individual sacrifice, offered and eaten by each individual—albeit as part of a small group.

Another essential mitzvah of Passover is the reciting of the Haggadah, in which we recount the story of the Exodus. Instead of simply reading the story, we tell it by way of questions and answers. The children ask the “Mah Nishtanah,” and we answer them with the story of Passover. When describing the questions of the children, the Torah makes reference to four types of children: the wise son, the wicked son, the simple son and the one who does not know to ask. Each son asks a different question, and our responses vary depending on their individual queries and needs.

Why is Passover celebrated in such an individualized manner? Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to mark the birth of our nation with a communal sacrifice, one that unites and binds us all together as one people? Why must the Haggadah be centered around four different sons? Is this the time to call attention to our differences as people?

This paradox of community and individuality actually plays out in the core structure of the Jewish nation. Although we are “one nation,” “am echad,” we are divided into 12 tribes. Throughout the Torah, emphasis is placed on the separation of the tribes. Each tribe crossed the Red Sea separately, was counted separately, camped in the desert separately, received portions in the Land of Israel separately, in some cases fought their wars separately, and at times could not intermarry into other tribes. Every tribe was also noted for its unique role in the Jewish nation: Judah was the tribe of kings, Levi was the tribe of priests, Issachar was the tribe of scholars, Dan was the tribe of judges, etc.

This arrangement seems strange. Why was it necessary at all to have this division between the tribes? If we are a united nation, why not just have a single society with no tribal affiliations?

Our nation is not a typical one. We are a paradoxical people. Yes, we are united and, yes, we are one, but our individuality is never lost.

Take the human body as an example of this kind of paradox. Every limb of the body is different and has a unique function that no other limb has, and yet all the limbs are united as a single body operating in perfect harmony, despite the differences between the various parts. Every limb brings something to the table that all the other limbs need, and thus they all complement each other.

Each of the 12 tribes has a different role, but at the same time, we are a single nation operating in harmony. Every tribe provides a different piece of the puzzle, which is only completed by all the tribes operating together. This is the definition of Jewish unity. It’s not that we’re all the same and our differences are cast aside; rather, our differences come together to complete and complement each other.

The same could be said on the individual level. We all are different and have a unique style. We all have something that only we bring to the table, something that no other Jew has. But it is precisely these differences that bind us together. Every individual possesses a piece of G‑d’s puzzle, and this puzzle cannot be completed unless every Jew contributes his or her unique part.

This is why the Passover sacrificeOur ability to be unique is what makes our nation truly special wasn’t a communal sacrifice. The individual nature of the sacrifice drives home the message that we are a nation of individuals. Our ability to be unique and embrace our differences is what makes our nation truly special.

This is also why, when it comes to recounting the story of the Exodus, we specifically draw attention to the four sons. We expound on their differences and tailor our answers to meet their individual needs. The message here is that it’s okay to be different; you don’t have to conform to a rigid style. Our nation must include all four sons, as each one adds an ingredient that would otherwise be lacking.

So, as we sit around the Seder table and recount the story of our nation’s birth, we need to focus on two things:

  1. We need to get in touch with ourselves as individuals, looking out for that unique piece of the puzzle that is ours, that only we can contribute. After all, the rest of the Jewish nation is relying on us.
  2. We need to turn to the people sitting next to us and accept them for who they are, appreciating their uniqueness and valuing their style. We need to realize that as a nation, we are not complete without every person’s contribution.

This is the true feeling of liberation: to feel comfortable in your own skin and proud of who you are, while simultaneously accepting and valuing everyone else around you.

Rabbi Sholom Kesselman lives in Los Angeles, Calif. He teaches Chassidus at Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon Chabad, and advanced Talmud at Cheder Menachem junior high school.
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