Pessah: Working toward redemption

At the conclusion of Tractate Makkot, the Talmud records how five rabbis, almost the same five mentioned here, passed the Temple Mount after the destruction and saw foxes emerging from the ruined Holy of Holies.

There are two main verses which exhort us to remember the Exodus: "Remember this day when you went out from Egypt, from the house of bondage; leaven shall not be eaten" (Exodus 13:3) and "You shall not eat leaven with (the Paschal Sacrifice) for seven days… in order that you may remember the day of your Exodus from Egypt all the days of your life" (Deuteronomy 16:3). The first verse clearly relates to the Seder night, and Maimonides defines the command "Remember" (zakhor) to mean retell, in the sense of to re-enact - the slavery as well as the redemption - on the mystical evening of 15 Nisan. The second verse commands us to "remember" (tizkor) "all the days of your life," which implies cognitive awareness 365 days a year. In the words of the Haggada, "Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah says: 'Behold, I am like 70 years old [although he was only 17, his hair became white overnight when he was appointed Prince of the Sanhedrin], and I never merited to have recited the mention of the Exodus from Egypt at night, until Ben Zoma expressed the verse 'in order that you may remember the day of your Exodus from Egypt all the days of your life' - the days of your life refers to the daytime; all the days of your life refers to nighttime. And the sages maintain: "The days of your life refers to this world; all the days of your life refers to bringing in the days of the Messiah." Words from the Haggada are taken from the Mishna in Berachot. The sages there are discussing a verse in the third paragraph of the Shema, recited by observant Jews every morning and evening: "I am the Lord your God, who took you out of the Land of Egypt in order to be for you a God." But there are three problems with this teaching. First, if the verse is not specific to the Seder evening - since the Shema is recited every evening - what is the paragraph doing in our Haggada? Secondly, the formulation of the words is difficult to understand. If "the days of your life" refers to this world, "all the days of your life" ought to refer to the world to come; why use the more unusual phrase "to bring in the days of the Messiah"? And finally, it's interesting to note that Maimonides doesn't include the commandment to remember the Exodus by day and by night as one of the 613 commandments. Why not? In order to answer these questions, we must first ponder another curious event recorded in the Haggada. The paragraph which introduces Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah's principle of remembering the Exodus in the morning and in the evening every day recounts how Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Tarfon went to Rabbi Akiva's Seder in Bnei Brak, where they spoke of the Exodus all night, until their students told them it was time to recite the morning Shema (Mishna Berachot 1, 5). Now Rabbi Eliezer teaches that it's forbidden for an individual to leave his home on the festival, even to visit his rebbe, since the Bible commands us to "rejoice on the festival, you and your home." And Rabbi Akiva was not even Rabbi Eliezer's teacher; on the contrary, he was Rabbi Eliezer's disciple! So how could Rabbi Eliezer go against his own teaching and spend the Seder away from home? At the conclusion of Tractate Makkot, the Talmud records how five rabbis, almost the same five mentioned here, passed the Temple Mount after the destruction and saw foxes emerging from the ruined Holy of Holies. Four wept, but Rabbi Akiva laughed. "Why do you laugh?," asked the sages. Rabbi Akiva explained that since our prophets foretold the destruction of the Second Temple, and also prophesied the building of the Third Temple, once he had personally witnessed the fulfillment of the former prophecy (by seeing foxes emerging from the ruins), he could rejoice in the knowledge that the second would also come to pass. Rabbi Akiva was a believer in Jewish national sovereignty even under the shadow of destruction. Rabbi Eliezer apparently felt the only place he would truly be able to celebrate the Exodus was in the presence of this most optimistic leader. What were these five rabbis doing all night? Perhaps they were regaling each other with interpretations and miracle stories - and perhaps they were planning the Bar Kochba rebellion - instigated, and certainly supplied with soldier-students by Rabbi Akiva. Hence Rabbi Elazar b. Azaryah - one of the five in attendance - declares how this was the first time he was privileged to plan for freedom at night. He is echoing the legalism which prescribes the remembrance of the Exodus at night, and is emphasizing the symbolism embedded in that legalism; never give up our national dream, no matter how dark the situation. The sages go one step further. It's not enough to merely remain faithful; one must actively work to bring about the Messianic Age. We are now able to resolve the difficulties raised at the beginning of our commentary. The principle enunciated by Rabbi Elazar b. Azaryah in the name of Ben Zoma - to declare the going out of Egypt by night as well as by day - receives heightened significance on the Seder night, when we must remain faithful to our vision even in the darkest periods. Moreover, we must actively pursue redemption, we must "bring about the days of the Messiah" by our planting and building, by our military might and political ingenuity. No wonder Maimonides doesn't list a separate commandment to remember the Exodus every evening; this recitation is the fundamental meaning of the Shema - words anticipating world redemption: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord [who is now only] our God will eventually become the One [God of justice, compassion and peace recognized by every nation]." It was precisely this message which Rabbi Akiva called out to his disciples while being tortured to death after the failed Bar Kochba revolt: "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord [will yet be]) One" - and his soul expired with the word "One" (ehad)! (B.T. Berachot 61b) The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.