Pesach is the festival of liberation, it celebrates a historical event: The exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. But one of the tasks that the event lays upon us is that “in every generation, and every day, a Jew must see himself as if he had that day been liberated from Egypt.” The implication is that freedom was not won once and for all. It needs constant guarding. And that every day and every environment carries its own equivalent of “Egypt”—a power to undermine the freedom of the Jew. Perhaps the most potent threat comes from within the individual himself. It is the conviction that certain achievements are beyond him: The strong and comfortable belief that he was not born to reach the heights of the religious life. To believe this is to set bars around oneself, to imprison oneself in an illusion. Pesach is thus an ongoing process of self-liberation. And the festival and its practices are symbols of a struggle that is constantly renewed within the Jew, to create the freedom in which to live out his eternal vocation.

The following extracts are adapted from Pesach letters of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

1. The Meaning of Liberation

2. The Festival of Spring

3. The Fifth Son

Torah Studies: 1. The Meaning of Liberation

…The days of the Festival of our Freedom are approaching, when we will again recall that great event at the dawn of our history, when our people were liberated from Egyptian bondage in order to receive the Torah as free men.

Memory and imagination are the ability to associate oneself with an event in the past, and in so doing to live again through the emotions that were felt at the time of the event. Only physically are we bound by time and space. In our minds we can travel without limits, and the more spiritual we become, the closer we can approach the past, the more intensely we can experience its message and inspiration.

Remembering is a spiritual achievement. Commenting on the verse, “And these days shall be remembered and done” (Esther 9:28), the Rabbis say that as soon as those days are remembered, they are re-enacted in Heaven. The Divine benevolence that brought the miracles in the past is wakened again by our act of recollection.

This is one of the reasons why we have been enjoined to remember the liberation from Egypt in every generation and every day. And why every Jew must see himself as if he had been freed from Egypt on that day. For every day he must personally “go out from Egypt,” that is, he must escape from the limits, temptations and obstructions that his physical existence places in the way of his spiritual life.

The counterpart of the liberation from Egypt is the liberation of the Divine Soul from the constraints of its physical environment. And this must be experienced every day if true freedom is to be reached.

And when it is achieved, as it must be, with the help of G‑d who freed our people from Egypt, and through a life of Torah and Mitzvot, a great spiritual anguish is ended. The inner conflict between what is physical and what is Divine in the Jew’s nature, is transcended. And then, only then, can he enjoy real freedom, the sense of serenity and harmony which is the prelude to freedom and peace in the world at large….

(Source: Letter, 11th Nissan, 5713;
Igrot Kodesh, Vol. 7 pp. 205-6)

…One of the most significant lessons of the festival of Pesach is that the Jew has the capacity, even within a short space of time, to transform himself from one extreme to another.

The Torah and the Rabbis graphically describe the extent of the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt, and the spiritual depths to which they had sunk. They were slaves in a country from which none could escape. They were under the power of a Pharaoh who had bathed in the blood of Jewish children. They were destitute, broken in body and spirit by the lowest kind of forced labor. And then, suddenly, Pharaoh’s power was broken, the whole people liberated, and a nation who not long ago were slaves, left the land “with an outstretched arm” and “with great wealth.”

And their spiritual liberation was equally dramatic. They had reached the “forty-ninth stage of impurity,” to the point of idolatry. And then—they saw G‑d revealed in the fullness of His glory. A few weeks later they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, at the apex of holiness and prophecy and heard G‑d saying to each of them, without any intermediary: “I am the L-rd, thy G‑d.”

From this it follows that no matter where a Jew stands, or a Jewish community stands, on the ladder to perfection, the call comes every day to remember the liberation from Egypt, to strive after freedom, boldly (“with an outstretched arm”) and with a total commitment (“with great wealth”) to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” by accepting the life of Torah “as in the days of your liberation from Egypt.” Despair belongs to those who see with human eyes, not to those who see with the eye of faith.

There must be no pause nor hesitation on this road; no resting satisfied with what has already been accomplished. One must press on unrelenting until one experiences the call: “I am the L-rd, thy G‑d….”

(Source: Letter, 11th Nissan, 5719;
Igrot Kodesh, Vol. 18 pp. 318-19)

…One of the most striking features of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt was their demonstration of faith in the Providence of G‑d.

Consider the circumstances: An entire nation, men, women and children, numbering several million, willingly left a well-settled and prosperous country, a country whose pagan values had already left their impression on them, to venture on a long and dangerous journey, without provisions, but with absolute reliance on the word of G‑d as spoken by Moses.

What is more, they did not follow the familiar and shorter route through the land of Philistines, which although it involved the risk of war, was far more attractive than the prospect of crossing a vast and desolate desert. In war there is the chance of victory; in defeat there is the chance of escape; but in a desert, without food or water, nature allows no chance of survival. Yet they followed this route, disregarding rationality, and trusting in the word of G‑d.

The facts are more remarkable still. The Israelites had spent 210 years in Egypt, a highly agricultural country, where the nomadic life was mistrusted, where the soil was fertile and irrigated by the Nile whatever the caprices of the climate. They forsook all the security of the natural order….

Why did they do so? This question is echoed in every generation. The secular world, and the Jew who has strayed from Jewish truth, asks the practicing Jew: You live like us in a materialistic world. You belong to a competitive society. You too face the struggle for economic survival. How can you exempt yourself from its values? How can you adhere to a code of precepts that burden your life and restrict your actions at every turn?

The answer lies in the exodus from Egypt.

Then, when Jews responded to the call of G‑d, disregarding what seemed reasonable at the time, breaking with the values of their Egyptian environment, it transpired that the path they took was the path of true happiness, spiritually in receiving the Torah and becoming G‑d’s chosen people, materially in reaching the Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey.

It is so today and always. Through the Torah (the Torat Chayim, the “law of life”) and the Mitzvot a Jew attaches himself to the Creator of the World, and frees himself from all “natural” limitations. This is the way of happiness, in the spirit and the material world….

(Source: Letter, 11th Nissan, 5721;
Igrot Kodesh, Vol. 20 pp. 204-5)

Torah Studies: 2. The Festival of Spring

Pesach is the festival of Spring. “Observe the month of Spring and keep the Passover unto the L-rd your G‑d, for in the month of Spring the L-rd your G‑d brought you out of Egypt by night” (Devarim 16:1). This commandment has dictated the form of the Jewish calendar, for although it is primarily based on the lunar month, the seasons are determined by the sun. As a result, every two or three years an extra month must be added to the year, to keep the solar and lunar dates in harmony, so that Pesach will indeed fall during the Spring. Is there a deeper significance in the fact that Pesach is always a Spring festival? True, that was the time of year when, historically, the exodus took place. But why did G‑d choose just that season? And what is the lesson that is implied?

…For hundreds of years the Jews had been enslaved by a powerful nation, which had imposed its dominion on all surrounding nations, not merely by brute force (its “chariots and horsemen”) but by its overwhelming preponderance in science and technology, in everything which we now call “culture” and “civilization.”

The civilization of the Egyptians was based on the forces of nature and natural phenomena, especially the Nile river. Rain is scarce in Egypt; but human ingenuity had devised an elaborate irrigation system which had turned Egypt into a flourishing oasis, surrounded by desert.

This circumstance produced an idolatrous culture, which was characterized by two main features: The deification of the forces of nature, and the deification of the powers of man who was able to use natural forces for his own ends. From here it was only a short step to the deification of Pharaoh, who personified the Egyptian ideal of the god-man.

This system, which viewed the world as an aggregate of natural forces (of which the human element was one), combined as it was with the philosophy expressed in the verse, “My power and the strength of my hand have made me this wealth” (Devarim 8:17) led to extreme forms of paganism and was the “justification” of the enslavement of, and atrocities towards, the weak and the minority in society.

The cultic activities of the Egyptians reached their climax at the time of annual reawakening of the forces of nature, in the month of Spring, for which the zodiacal sign was the Ram (Aries), a sacred symbol of Egyptian paganism.

Moses’ intervention was dramatic. Suddenly he arrived with the announcement from G‑d: “I have surely remembered you” (Shemot 3:16). Now was the time when the G‑d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had willed the liberation of the Jews from Pharaoh’s oppression and Egyptian exile. But there was one condition: “Withdraw and take for yourselves a lamb for your families and offer the Pesach (sacrifice)” (Shemot 12:21).

This was the command. “Withdraw”—withdraw from the idolatry of the land. “Take for yourselves a lamb”—take the symbol of the Egyptian deity and offer it as a sacrifice to G‑d. It was not enough to deny idolatry inwardly, in their hearts. They had to do it openly, without fear, in accordance with all the details they had been commanded.

If it were done, Moses assured in the name of G‑d, not only would they be freed from Egypt, but Pharaoh himself would urge them to leave; and not when the forces of nature were dormant and concealed, but in the month of Spring, when they were at the height of their powers.

In this way the Israelites acknowledged that the world was not simply an aggregate of natural forces, nor even a dualism of naturalism and supernaturalism in which nature and the spirit struggle for supremacy. Their action declared that there is One and only One G‑d, who is the Master of the world, and in Whom all is a Unity.

This received its highest expression in the Giving of the Torah, which was the culmination and the ultimate purpose of the liberation from Egypt. It lay in the words: “I am the L-rd thy G‑d, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods….”

The gods of Egypt have their descendants. There are those today who base their lives on the deification of the forces of nature, and who still say “my power and the strength of my hand have made me this wealth.” And there are those who leave room for G‑d in their homes, while forsaking Him outside for the sake of social norms.

But Pesach intervenes with the reminder: “Withdraw” from the idolatry of the land, in whatever form it is disguised. Do so openly, without fear and with dignity. “Take unto yourselves” all your powers and dedicate them to G‑d. Do so “in the month of Spring” at the moment when prosperity, technology and the deification of human achievement is at its height. And remember that every achievement is a Divine blessing, every form of prosperity a facet of G‑d’s benevolence.

(Source: Letter, 11th Nissan, 5725;
Igrot Kodesh, Vol. 23 pp. 361-5)

Torah Studies: 3. The Fifth Son

The Seder service, and the reciting of the Haggadah, have always been considered to be directed particularly towards the children: “And you shall relate to your son on that day” (Shemot 13:8). Many of our customs at the Seder table were intended specifically to capture the attention of the child. And the different kinds of education which are needed by different personalities are illustrated in the passage in the Haggadah which tells of the four kinds of son, the wise, the wicked, the simple and the one who does not know how to ask. But there is a fifth, and far more problematic, son. There is a good reason why he is not mentioned explicitly in the Haggadah. For he is the absent son.

…While the “four sons” differ from one another in their reaction to the Seder service, they have one thing in common. They are all present. Even the so-called “wicked” son is there, taking an active, if dissenting, interest in what is going on in Jewish life around him. This, at least, justifies the hope that one day he will become “wise,” and that all Jewish children attending the Seder will become conscientious and committed Jews.

Unfortunately there is, in our time, another kind of Jewish child: The child who is conspicuous by his absence, who has no interest whatever in Torah and Mitzvot, who is not even aware of the Seder and the miracles it recalls.

This is a grave challenge, which should command our attention long before Pesach and the Seder-night. For no Jewish child should be forgotten and given up. We must make every effort to save the lost child, and bring him to the Seder table. Determined to do so, and driven by a deep sense of compassion and responsibility, we need have no fear of failure.

To remedy any situation, we must discover its origins.

In this case, they lie in a mistaken analysis of their situation on the part of some immigrants arriving in a new and strange environment. Finding themselves a small minority, and encountering the inevitable difficulties of resettlement, some parents had the idea, which they communicated to their children, that assimilation was the solution. But in their efforts to abandon the Jewish way of life, they created a spiritual conflict within themselves. They were determined that their children should be spared the tension of divided loyalties; and to rationalize their desertion of their Jewish heritage they convinced themselves and their children that the life of Torah and Mitzvot did not fit their new surroundings. They looked for, and therefore “found,” faults with the Jewish way of life, while everything in the non-Jewish environment seemed attractive and good.

By this attitude, the parents hoped to ensure their children’s survival in the new environment. But what kind of survival was it to be, if the soul was sacrificed for the material benefits of the world?

And what they thought was an “escape into freedom” turned out, in the final analysis, to be an escape into slavish imitation, which tended to be so marked by caricature and a sense of insecurity as to command little respect from that younger generation that it was intended for….

The festival of Pesach and the deliverance that it commemorates, are timely reminders that Jewish survival does not rest in imitation of the non-Jewish environment, but in fidelity to our traditions and our religious vocation.

Our ancestors in Egypt were a small minority, and they lived in the most difficult circumstances. But, as the Rabbis tell us, they retained their identity as Jews, preserved their uniqueness, and kept up their traditions without anxiety or shame. It was this that made their survival certain, and assured their liberation from all forms of tyranny, physical and spiritual….

There is no room for hopelessness in Jewish life, and no Jew should ever be given up as a lost cause. Through compassion and fellow-love (Ahavat Yisroel) even a “lost” generation can be brought back to the love of G‑d (Ahavat HaShem) and love of the Torah (Ahavat HaTorah); not only to be included in the community of the “four sons” but to belong in time to the rank of the “wise” son….

May the gathering of these “lost tribes of Israel” to the Seder table hasten the true and complete redemption of our people, through the coming of the Messiah speedily in our time.

(Source: Letter, 11th Nissan, 5717; Vol. 15 pp. 33-37)