PASSOVER: Loyalty and sensitivity

Seemingly, when the events took place, they were not a surprise to the Jewish nation.

A MAN wraps fresh matza during Passover in Ashdod in 2016 (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
A MAN wraps fresh matza during Passover in Ashdod in 2016
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Passover – or, as it is also called in the Torah, Hag Hamatzot – is a holiday of clear historical significance. Thousands of years ago, the Jewish nation was enslaved in Egypt, suffering from demeaned status and forced labor.
At some point, God intervened and redeemed the enslaved nation through wondrous miracles that defied the laws of nature. He liberated the nation and gave it the Torah and led it to the Land of Israel.
As a commemoration of these tremendous events, the Jewish nation celebrates Passover every year for seven days (in Israel, and eight outside Israel).
The main characteristic of the holiday is abstention from eating hametz, food made of flour that came in contact with water and rose. Instead of hametz, we eat matza. On the first night of the holiday – Seder night – we are commanded by the Torah to eat matza.
Actually, when we look at those historical events commemorated by celebrating Passover, we notice an interesting detail: Seemingly, when the events took place, they were not a surprise to the Jewish nation.
Many years before the nation came to Egypt and was enslaved, God told Abraham the following: “You shall surely know that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and oppress them, for 400 years. And also the nation that they will serve will I judge, and afterward they will go forth with great possessions.... And the fourth generation will return here [to the Land of Israel]...”
(Genesis 15:13-16).
These few verses tell of the process the nation will undergo for the following centuries: enslavement, redemption, arrival in the Land of Israel. A moment before God revealed Himself to Moses and sent him to liberate the nation from Egypt, the Torah tells us, God remembered “His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob” (Exodus 2:24). The stage of enslavement was over. Now was the time for the next stage – that of redemption. All according to the plan.
Presenting the events this way is true, but it does not present the whole truth. The transition from the stage of enslavement to that of redemption was not done according to plan. That is not what we read in the Torah.
The verses describing this transition add an important theme without which we lack an important component to understanding the entire picture: “Now it came to pass in those many days... the Children of Israel sighed from the labor, and they cried out, and their cry ascended to God from the labor.
God heard their cry, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God saw the Children of Israel, and God knew” (ibid.
The memory of the covenant with the forefathers is indeed mentioned here, but not as the true motive.
The suffering and crying out of the enslaved nation that rose to God are also mentioned, and He hears the cries and the pain. The memory of the covenant comes as a reaction to the overflowing human suffering.
And then – “God saw the Children of Israel, and God knew.”
The “seeing” attributed here to God is not, of course, the perceptual experience of absorbing information from the environment, as we do when absorbing visual information through our eyes. This is a metaphoric expression that denotes providence, attention, caring.
The following words, “And God knew,” are not an expression of attaining intellectual information; this is not the distant recognition of some object. On the contrary, when the Torah describes an intimate relationship between a couple, it uses the verb “to know.” This is a close relationship of complete connection. “And God knew” – He saw in the nation suffering in Egypt an object of recognition worthy of special treatment.
The redemption from slavery in Egypt is not described as only keeping a promise, but as an expression of a moral attitude toward a suffering person. God listens to suffering. He cares about a suffering person, He worries about him and lends him a hand. The two meanings of the redemption are described together: fulfillment of the promise alongside compassion and morality.
Seder night is a night when Jewish families gather around the table to experience ancient Jewish continuity and memory. By fulfilling the special commandments of this night – eating matza and bitter herbs, drinking four cups of wine, and reading the Passover Haggada – we maintain our connection to the Jewish nation’s magnificent chain of generations, that same nation that took upon itself the role of being humanity’s religious and moral beacon.
Furthermore, we commit ourselves year after year to being more attentive to human suffering. God, who redeemed our ancestors from Egypt, sees us as being worthy of walking in His path, to be caring, sensitive and compassionate toward all people everywhere.
On this festive night, when we pass on Judaism’s important principles to the following generations, we must remember – and teach our children – the two main messages of the redemption: loyalty to the covenant of our forefathers and sensitivity to human suffering.
The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.