Picture from the Parasha: The victory is in the chase

‘…But thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself…’ (Leviticus 19:18).

horses 521 (photo credit: http://artframe.co.il)
horses 521
(photo credit: http://artframe.co.il)
The festival of Pessah is called “the time of our freedom” – the celebration of our exodus from Egypt. It is also biblically known as “the festival of matzot,” the holiday of unleavened bread.
A flat, rather tasteless dough which was never given a chance to rise, the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate after a long day of servitude – when in their exhausted physical state they prepared the simplest fare possible – was likewise the “bread” which our ancestors hurriedly prepared for their journey to freedom.
But is it not strange that this great liberation from enslavement to a mighty, totalitarian regime is symbolized by a halfbaked flour-and-water bread prevented from rising ? Furthermore, the Bible teaches us that “You shall count for yourselves – from the morrow of the festival day, from the day when you bring the Omer of the waving – seven weeks... and you shall offer a new meal offering... baked leavened loaves of bread” (Leviticus 23: 15-17) to celebrate the festival of first fruits – Shavuot.
Why, after all manner of leavening has been forbidden during Pessah, do we celebrate this connected holiday (through the counting of each day from the second day of Passover continuing for a full seven weeks) with an offering of leavened bread? And why is this culminating festival called Weeks (Shavuot), which connotes a period of counting, rather than an achievement worthy of a significant holiday?
One final question: On Pessah we read the magnificent Song of Songs, the love song between Solomon and the Shulammite, the shepherd and the shepherdess, God and Israel. But this is not a poem of a lover seeking his beloved, a passionate chase. It is rather a search, a hide-and-seek quest for love and unity which is constantly elusive – the moment that the beloved finally opens the door, the lover has slipped away. Even the final verse cries out: “Flee, my beloved, and appear to be like a gazelle or a young hart upon the mountains of spices.”
The answer to all three questions lies in the distinction between the western mentality and the Jewish mind-set. Western culture measures everything by the bottom line, the result: Did you win or lose? The ancient world, and especially Jewish teaching, is more interested in how you play the game – the method, the search for meaning. Indeed there is a religion in the Far East called Tao, the Way, and Judaism speaks of halacha – walking or progressing on the road.
Hence Pessah is only the beginning of the road to redemption, which takes us out of Egyptian enslavement, but only as far as the arid desert. We count seven weeks, paralleling the seven sabbatical years leading to the jubilee; but the actual festival – replete with the vision of Israel rooted in her land and bringing first fruits to the Holy Temple, welcoming even the Moabite Ruth into the Jewish fold as the ultimate achievement of universal redemption – is called the Festival of Weeks, after the process which will get us there, the development from halfbaked dough to fully risen loaves. During the past 5,000 years, the end-game, the actual redemption, has eluded us – but that is hardly the point. It is the weeks of preparation, the arduous expectation and the paving of the way, which makes the festival of weeks significant.
That is the true meaning behind the Song of Songs. Love does not involve an act of conquest to achieve unity; it is the search for unity, and the closeness between the two which unity engenders, not the absorption of the one into the other.
And so the truest commandment is not to effectuate the Messianic Age, but rather to await its arrival and prepare for its coming. This preparation for the Messiah was the most important aspect of the teachings of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe – the necessity of preparing ourselves for Messiah’s coming rather than the identification of who he may be. The State of Israel is not Redemption realized, not even to the most ardent religious Zionist; it is merely the “beginning of the sprouting of Redemption,” – a work in progress which will hopefully pave the way toward becoming worthy of redemption.
Talmid hacham, the Hebrew phrase for talmudic scholar, does not mean “wise individual,” but rather a student of the wise; a good Jew aspires for wisdom, but the greater his level of wisdom, the greater is his understanding that he has not achieved complete wisdom.
What counts is the aspiration, the desirous anticipation; the achievement is beyond the grasp of mortal humans.
Hence, especially during the Pessah Seder, the questions are more important than the answers; indeed, the author of the Haggada “types” the four children by the quality – and music – of their questions.
And when the Great Scorekeeper places a grade next to your name, He will mark not whether you won or lost, but how you played the game.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.