“Eis rekod” – “a time of dance” (Koheles 3:4).
The phrase is not “eis lirkod,” “a time to dance,” as with the others, but “a time of dance,” for when one achieves true inner joy, es tantzt zich alein – “the dancing comes of its own.”
“Elokim motzi asirim b’kosharos” – God brings out prisoners into prosperity (Tehillim 68:7.) The Gemara (Sanhedrin 22a) reads the word b’kosharos as bechi v’shiros – weeping and song. The Exodus from Egypt was the result of the fusion of tears and music, the elegies in Egypt and the ecstatic symphony at the Red Sea. Both are needed to achieve true redemption.1
A SPECIAL KIND OF TORAH
In the early years of the eighteenth century, a quiet revolution took place in the nation of Israel. The Jewish world was in a state of depression due to the twin tragedies of the Chmielnicki massacres of 1648-49 and the false Messiah, Shabbetai Zvi of the 1660s. The common Jew, particularly, without the gladdening companionship of Torah study, felt lost in an ocean of tears and confusion.
But in its wisdom and compassion, Heaven sent the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples to infuse a new spirit of hope and joy into Klal Yisrael. The new movement taught how to find constant delight, even in the midst of catastrophe, and how to elevate the body along with the soul.
The vehicle for this spiritual awakening was the special kind of Torah interpretations offered by the Chassidic Masters. These were usually presented at holiday meals, with the Rebbe surrounded by hundreds of followers in an atmosphere charged with uplifting melodies and intense spiritual rapture. The purpose of this essay is an attempt to grant a glimpse into the world of Chassidus through an encounter with its Torah.
The soul of Chassidus glows with the fires of Yom Tov. Even on days when the mundane and the profane seemingly conspire to extinguish the embers, Yom Tov whispers “I am still here.” No need, as on Motzei Shabbos, to mourn the loss of the neshamah yesairah, the exquisite supplemental Shabbos soul. “After Yom Tov, the spirit lingers, informs and transforms; so that the body itself becomes a vehicle for holiness . . . Shabbos is a day of the soul, not of the body (yoma d’nishmasin u’lav d’gufa). For this reason, cooking is permissible on Yom Tov, but not on Shabbos, for the body cannot receive the unique celestial holiness of Shabbos, but it can become a receptacle for the special kedushah of Yom Tov.”2
The Chassidic Courts of Gur and Lublin, Sanz and Lubavitch, Belz and Ropshitz, Munkatch and Karlin, and hundreds more, teemed with Chassidim who had each come to be elevated by spending Yom Tov with his Rebbe. The mitzvah to “greet one’s Rebbe on Yom Tov” (Rosh Hashanah 16b) flows “from the Rebbe’s own spiritual loftiness on Yom Tov and the window of opportunity to ascend with him on that day.”
Thus, the Torah insights of Chassidus are both time-bound and timeless. Many Chassidic works are full of the specific dates when a particular Torah insight was taught. One may have been spoken on Pesach 5653, another on Succos 5709. Torah insights are frequently labeled and placed in a context of time and place. Yet mysteriously, the apparent limits themselves contribute to a sense of the eternal. Year after year, the Rebbe may return to the same verse, adding just a bit to the thought of the year before. Only the perspective of decades yields the picture of an integrated whole, a sense of totality and connection which might have gone unnoticed at the time.
So as we sit for a moment at the Seder of the Noam Elimelech or the tish (table) of the Chozeh of Lublin, let’s remember that we have both the advantage of perspective and the deficit of silence. The music is still and the resonance has been hushed. But we can imagine and dream, gaze at some of their pictures and bring them alive. As we repeat the inspired words and thoughts, those holy souls in Eden are elevated by our studying their teachings and they, in turn, smile down upon us and help us to understand.4
REB TZADOK’S PARADOXES AND THE SEDER
There is a panorama to the Seder. All of Jewish history is replayed before our eyes and we suffer and rejoice once more. Reb Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin teaches us how to enter that dimension and relive the events through the dialectic power of paradox:
Derech she’eilah u’teshuvah – The Seder is conducted in question and answer form. Why? What is the purpose of soliciting a question? The reason is that one who asks is involved. Listening is passive; inquiring is interactive. To fulfill the edict of imagining ourselves as leaving Egypt, we need to be jolted out of stagnation. Probing, analyzing, evaluating leads to new energy levels and freshness. Of course, there is a danger in encouraging questions. Some of them raise difficult theological issues. But the process itself, even before the answers become clear, is invigorating and rejuvenating, and catapults us into the reality of the events, instead of merely into the catacombs of memory.5
Why do we review the history of the Avos at the Seder? What is the specifically Pesach-related purpose? How does it relate to our obligations and aspirations on this special night?
The answer is that the travails of the Avos are what allowed B’nai Yisrael to survive the Bondage, and reliving the Exodus means reliving the Patriarchs’ struggles as well. Reb Tzadok reminds us of the utter despair (yeiush) Avraham and Sarah must have felt during the decades when they were childless. What was the purpose and result of such tribulation? It was to create a people utterly immune to spiritual capitulation. “God wanted to build the nation out of the most profound despair because this is the essence of the Jewish spirit, to know that one should never despair.”6
The transition from the quintessentially Abrahamic approach to that of Yitzchak is a somewhat puzzling one. Avraham, the embodiment of chesed – loving-kindness at the highest of levels – gives birth to Yitzchak, the pillar of pachad – the spirit of awe and rigor. Why and how did Yitzchak’s midah become so drastically different from that of his father? Reb Tzadok teaches us that, in fact, the two are not so far apart by pointing to a fascinating midrash: “Yitzchak was crowned with Avraham and Avraham was crowned with Yitzchak.” (Tanchuma, Toldos) This means that the midos of the first two of the Avos were complementary and mutually necessary. The pinnacle of love results in the rigor vital to self-sacrifice and the ultimate offering is that made with consummate love. The meaning and message of that enigma open a window into the secret of the bondage-redemption cycle itself. It is Avraham’s chesed which allows Yitzchak’s pachad to triumph at the moment of the akeidah and it is their combination which brought us through the afflictions of Egypt.7
The final refinement of the Abrahamic line before there can be a consecrated Family of Israel is the rejection of Esav. This renunciation is the most difficult one of all because of the surface similarity. Yaakov and Esav are born of the same parents and indeed Esav, in his guile, at times appears the more pious of the two. Esav’s hypocrisy (Bereshis Rabbah 65:1) can only be counteracted by Yaakov’s truth (Michah 7:20). It is Esav who personifies the perennial canard that we are “just like the other nations” (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 4). To successfully leave Egypt both behind and outside of us, we must efface any vestige of his venom from our collective bloodstream. Esav’s poison is his lie that he is the legitimate bechor (first-born son), that he is the pious one, that he has been wronged. At the Seder, however, we point with pride to the exclusivity of our suffering. We declare with the dignity born of pain that we went down to Egypt to fulfill our covenantal obligations. Esav, by contrast, went to Mount Se’ir in tranquility and endured none of the anguish of exile and slavery. Thus, while Esav will continue to claim the Abrahamic legacy through the ages, at the Seder we triumphantly hold aloft his repudiation so that the annual process of taking “a nation from the midst of another nation” (Devarim 4:34) can begin. One goal of the Seder is the demonstration of our uniqueness and singularity. This begins with our absolute rejection of our would-be imitator and usurper.8
THE EXODUS OF THE RELUCTANT GATHERERS
The Torah tells us of God’s request to the people of Israel at the time of the Exodus: “Please speak in the ears of the people and let them ask . . . for jewels of silver and jewels of gold.” (Shemos 11:2)
The Gemara (Berachos 9a) records a tradition that the people of Israel responded in the following way: “Would that we ourselves would actually leave.”
The Gemara explains this rejoinder with a parable which also illuminates the strange tone of supplication Hashem uses in making His request: This may be compared to a person who was told, “tomorrow you will be freed from prison and given great wealth.” His response to them is, “I beg of you. Take me out today and I ask for nothing.” The Gemara cites a statement that the asking was done “against their will,” and it is left somewhat ambiguous as to whose will is meant, that of the Jews or that of the Egyptians. The conclusion is that both are true.
In what way were both B’nai Yisrael and the Egyptians reluctant participants in the “asking” for gold and silver vessels? First we must explore God’s purpose in His directive to remove these precious objects.
The reason Hashem asked that his plea be spoken directly “in the ears of the people” was that He wanted them to understand the dual purpose in His request. The first objective was to obtain the promised wealth for His people. The second was to leave Egypt and take along the “sparks of holiness” which they had been sent to retrieve in the first place. The Ari, z”l, teaches that this is the ultimate objective of every exile. Every country has these pockets of sanctity and they must be gathered, uplifted and recovered before we can go on.
B’nai Yisrael’s response was, would that we ourselves could manage to leave spiritually intact, uninfected by the depravity and decay of this odious place. Perhaps we are incapable of hanging on any longer before sinking into spiritual oblivion. How can we undertake a new mission as well?
We can now understand on a deeper level why neither the Egyptians nor B’nai Yisrael initially wanted to comply with God’s request. The Egyptians did not want to part with their wealth and B’nai Yisrael were afraid to risk their spiritual well-being. Yet in the end, we did Hashem’s will. We gathered and we preserved, we protected and we rescued those delicate sparks. Thus, in the final, analysis, at the moment of redemption, we found the courage to perform the will of God, regardless of the spiritual risks. We went collecting those “holy sparks” despite the gnawing sense that each further moment added to the metaphysical danger. Our final moments in Egypt, therefore, were a leap of faith and love toward Hashem.
A full exploration of the concept of retrieving the holy sparks is beyond the scope of this article. But a brief word is in order.
Even in the midst of the worst of depravity, holiness can be discovered. It may be a solitary noble act in the core of great evil. It may be the sweet innocence of a child surrounded by corruption. It may even be the residue of holiness left over in a place from a previous culture or civilization. Whatever the source, Chassidic tradition teaches that our travels through sundry exiles over the centuries has been, at least in part, to salvage those repositories of virtue and holiness so that redemption and salvation could be complete.9
THE LYRICAL SYMPHONY OF HUMILITY
Shirah is a special kind of song. It is the song of self-abnegation and it is the song of humility. It is the recognition that something wonderful has happened which is so beyond human capability that it cannot but come from the hand of God. King David understood this very well, and personified it with his every fiber, thus becoming the “sweet singer of Israel” (Shmuel II, 23:1). He sang an immutable song, untainted by ego or conceit. And it became the song of all of Israel.
This, too, was the Song of Sea. Even the angels were not permitted to sing, for “God’s handiwork” was perishing in the swirling waters (Megillah 10b) and therefore Hashem silenced their praise.
But B’nai Yisrael were permitted to sing, for they obliterated their vanity so that all that mattered was the glory of God. Thus even the lowliest of Jews achieved the loftiest of prophesies at the moment the Red Sea split (Mechilta, Beshalach 2). No private agenda existed, no competition or rivalry disturbed the flow of the poetry. The refrain of the nation chorused with one purpose only – to extol and glorify the Name of God. With this music of modesty, the result could only be what it became – an eternal melody of the Jewish people’s enduring love and reverence for its Creator.10
There are still seats available at the table of the Rebbes of old. It takes some effort to get there, but the banquet is magnificent and the nourishment is infinitely sustaining. Partaking of their shirayim11 can transport us to times when we understood who we are and what we can be. They can help us to speak in the poetry of the ages and to sing the song of eternity. They can strengthen us in distress and give us courage for the future. And ultimately, they will fill us with such a joy that we will dance as if our movements had been choreographed by the Baal Shem Tov himself.
Rabbi Feitman is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Beachwood in Cleveland, Ohio. A noted author and lecturer, he is a contributing editor to The journal of Contemporary Halacha and to the ArtScroll Judaica series.
1. Sefas Emes, second Rebbe of Gur, Likutim, and see Berachos end of 60b: “To what does this verse refer?: ‘I will sing of mercy and justice; unto You, O God, will I sing praises.’ It means, whether it is mercy I will sing and whether it is justice I will sing.” The chiddush of this Sefas Emes is not that our tears in Egypt were important or that they were a factor in redemption, but in the fact that they constituted a shirah.
2. Sefas Emes, Parshas Emor, 5647, page 178, and Kedushas Levi, Rebbe of Berdichev, Pesach page 63.
3. Tiferes Shlomo (First Rebbe of Rodomsk), section on K’rias Shma.
4. See Yerushalmi Berachos 2.1: “[When] one relates a Torah thought in someone’s name, the lips of the originator of the thought move with him in the grave.”
5. Pri Tzadik, Pesach 2, Haggadah No. 593.
6. Divrei Soferim No. 16, Haggadah No. 403.
7. Pri Tzadik, Toldos, page 79, Haggadah No. 404.
8. Resisei Laylah No. 42, Haggadah No. 405.
9. Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polonyo, Tzofnas Pa’aneach 46b.
10. Rabbi Moshe Yechiel Halevi Epstein, fifth Rebbe of Ozerov, Aish Das, volume 8, page 108, Be’er Moshe to Shemos, page 388.
11. It is traditional to eat of the food upon which the Rebbe has made a blessing and of which he has begun to partake.