By Rabbi Pinchas Stolper
Two unique moments of high emotional intensity punctuate the Jewish year, Neilah on Yom Kippur and Kiddush at the beginning of the Passover Seder. To the spiritually sensitive person no other moments of the year compare to these special experiences in sheer depth and overwhelming emotion. Each of these moments arrives after we have invested great emotional effort and significant preparation. Neilah is spiritual and personal. We achieve a spiritual and emotional high thanks to the cleansing effect of Neilah, the result of our long effort to achieve teshuva. Each person feels the forgiving and renewing effect of his efforts which result, we are confident, in G-d's compassion and forgiveness. Each person feels reborn, renewed and cleansed before G-d. The Seder, too, comes after much physical exertion, -- the intense weeks of pre-Passover planning and preparation -- hopefully, here too, we have allowed the significance of the many enactments of Pesach to sink in, to effect our thoughts, our psyche, mood and our spiritual state.
The intensity of Neilah is mostly personal in nature. I stood before G-d, I repented, I attempted to change my ways. The emphasis is personal and individual. Once Succot has passed, we confront the long, dark, cold winter symbolizing alienation, distance, failure, exile and sin. The winter months teach that human salvation and the quest for human completeness and happiness cannot be entrusted to the individual alone. When operating in isolation most individuals fail. The human being requires a support system of family, friends, teachers, society and nation in order to direct, inspire, and motivate his efforts. It is difficult to overcome the forces of isolation, evil, alienation, and exile in isolation. In recognition of the inability of the individual to banish loneliness and failure, G-d gave mankind the gift of a new mechanism, a new structure with which to fight the battle of life, the foundation stone of which are family and nation.
The entire first book of the Torah relates many incidents which describe how despite initial successes the individual working in isolation failed to change the course of history and transform humanity. The individual proved incapable of bringing about the Messianic order. G-d therefore taught our ancestors how to create a new entity to whom he entrusted the responsibility for creating the new humanity, -- the Jewish nation -- whose core and central structure is the Jewish family.
With the advent of spring, human hope is reborn. Nissan, the month of Aviv which literally means spring, is the first month of the new year heralding the first festival, Pesach, the holiday of birth and renewal. Pesach celebrates the birth of a new mechanism for human salvation, Am Yisroel, the foundation of which is no longer the individual operating alone but the family. Pesach is the celebration of the birth of the Jewish nation -- a sacred collective of Jewish families. Therefore, the Paschal sacrifice, the core of the Seder celebration must be a family event.
The great preparatory efforts which lead to Kiddush at the Seder create within each of us a deep emotional awareness of birth. Kiddush is the very first act in the first dramatic moments of the Seder, the annual celebration of the birth of the Jewish nation. The Seder marks our rededication to our responsibilities as free men. No longer are we slaves to Pharaoh, -- now we are free to serve G-d. "You are My servants and not slaves to slaves." The Seder recalls the first great act of Divine intervention in human history, the dramatic overthrow of the world's most powerful and advanced kingdom by Divine forces, a singular, spectacular event which paved the way for the birth of G-d's own nation.
At Pesach we literally sense G-d's hand in history. Here is the first major occasion when G-d revealed himself before all of mankind as the controlling force of nature, the master of history. Our rabbis teach that Pesach contains within it the four hinge periods of life; -- the birth of the Jewish people, the conversion of each Jew to his new spiritual status as a member of Am Yisrael, the marriage of the Jewish people to G-d through the giving of the Torah and the emergence of an eternal and indestructible nation that would be dedicated to the worship and service of G-d. In the opening act of the Seder, G-d is revealed as the Master of nature and history, the Father of the Jewish nation, the protector of the slave and the oppressed, the Creator of justice, human order and a new spiritual society.
The head of each family stands at the head of the Seder table with the Kiddush cup in hand in full realization that he is about to re-enact and re-live the historic moments of the Exodus, that he is a witness to and a participant in the foundation of a new spiritual reality. Each of us literally feels as though, "I, too, was just now freed from Egyptian bondage." This emotion brings with it a sense of stock taking in the entire family. Much as each individual is scrutinized on Yom Kippur -- so too is the family being scrutinized on Pesach.
The fundamental concept of Pesach is arevut, responsibility; the realization that salvation, tikkun, cannot be realized through the individual alone but requires the collective efforts of the am, a nation, a word which means with, together, a collective. The am describes a new "individual," a unique concept, a human collective held together not only by blood, language, culture, geography, and dependence but also by shared goals, ideals and teachings, -- a mystical, spiritual entity, a covenant with G-d. The family is the school which teaches that each individual is responsible for more than himself. Father and mother are responsible for the klal as well. The family becomes the foundation of the am. The bigger the individual, the farther does he reach beyond his or her own family and the greater is his or her responsibility for the nation. Communal responsibility begins with the family and is founded on the familial bond.
Why the intense preparations for Pesach? Why are there so many laws and stringencies which describe a striving for perfection and an effort at 100% compliance in the removal of chametz? This intensity, this striving for totality is a re-enactment of the Pesach travail of birth, the birthday of a new revolutionary entity, Am Yisrael. This entity contains within it the potential for human perfection and harmony. From the moment of the recital of the kiddush we put behind us the bleak, dark, cold night of winter. Suddenly warmth and sun break through, bringing with them life, hope and redemption. Aviv, Spring, is rooted in Av, meaning father. From slavery, to family, to nation, we experience the presence of our new heightened status and spiritual reality.
Contrast the elevated Jewish family with the Egyptian failure to preserve family life. In Egypt women were fair game, to the victor belonged the spoils. I recently read that among the many "wives" of Pharaoh Ramses II were his sister and three of his daughters. The Seder is a sanctification of children and family, of the sacred bond which unites father and mother. We see our children as a challenge to extend the past into the future. Our children are links in the chain that reaches back to the Exodus, that stretches forward, which reaches the Messiah. The emphasis of the Seder is therefore on education, on children, on the transmission of the tasks, values, burdens, ideals and hopes of Jewish history. We are no longer slaves because a slave has no family.
By casting off the filth of Egyptian decadence, Israel is not only born, it also carries the seeds and the potential for eternal life. Our Sages teach that Israel overcame death and was restored to humanitys status of "man prior to the sin of Adam." But this time the New Mankind is born through the realization that perfection can come about only through tikkun olam -- reaching out to all of mankind in the creation of the Kingdom of G-d. Pesach, therefore marks the creation of the seed from which will grow human harmony, perfection and redemption.
Why do we need two beginnings of the Jewish year; one in Tishrei and one in Nissan? The emphasis in Tishrei is on the individual; in Nissan, it is on the family. The Torah teaches, "This month is to you (in the plural) the beginning of months." To You -- the Jewish nation.