Is Pessach “good” or “bad”?

An interesting question that poses itself around the celebration of Pessach is the following question: is Pessach good or bad? Of course, we are celebrating our redemption from Egypt, yet, at the very same time, we have to ask: Didn’t He put us there in the first place?

Obviously this is a very deep issue. I will therefore only answer briefly, and without getting into the question of “Why are we here?” (For that look at the other blogs here, this one, for example.)

There are two fundamental issues that need to be understood here though. 1) The issue of “good” and “bad”. Otherwise known as “How can a Good-G-d, do bad things?”; and the second 2) Why should we thank G-d for the redemption from the situation that He created in the first place?

Concerning the first issue: The Jewish way of looking at life? It’s all good! Therefore, it’s not a good G-d doing bad. It’s a good G-d doing good. Let me explain what I mean.

The main problem that we have with this issue is that the way that we look at “good” and “bad” are incredibly short-sighted and subjective.

Let me give a parable that happens again and again to get us started.

There is a person who becomes incredibly sick. He suffers terribly. It causes him to make significant changes in his way of life. However, as a result he realizes that he really wasn’t using his life in a productive way, and he makes significant changes to his life.

Is his sickness, therefore, good or bad?

Dr. Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, mentions that after his experiences in the concentration camps he was shown a picture of a number of the inmates on a wooden bed looking around sullenly. The person who had shown him the picture commented how terrible it was. Dr. Frankl, himself a survivor of the camps, said that just the opposite was true! He said that these people were in the sick ward at the camp, and that they were “enjoying” a respite from the back-breaking labor that they would have otherwise been doing at the time!

So, was the picture good or bad?

Are the parents of a sick child better-off or worse-off, than a couple who has no children?

Again, in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning in the second part, Dr. Frankl, encapsulates his therapy, Logotherapy. He relates the story of a woman who had two children (and presently no husband). One child was healthy and the other severely disabled. After her healthy child passed away, the mother tried to commit suicide together with her disabled son. The son tried to talk his mother out of it, because he enjoyed his life, but the mother had tried to commit suicide and failed.

Dr. Frankl walked in on the group where this mother was sitting in therapy and heard her story. He helped her in the following way:

He turned to a different woman in the group and said to her “Let’s pretend, and tell us what you think. (This is called a psycho-drama) You are a very wealthy, very successful woman who is now 80 and sitting in her death-bed. However, you have no children. You are reflecting back on your life. What are you thinking?”

To be brief she said that despite the money, the prestige, and the success, she has no children, and no real sense of lasting accomplishment in her life as she leaves no one behind.

He then turned to the mother that had tried to commit suicide and did the same thing with her. However, he asked her to pretend that she lived a full life as-is and is now 80 years old. Reflecting back on life, what does she feel?

Of course, her answer was that she felt truly accomplished. She had and raised a child, even though he was different and it was very hard for her.

Is it better to live with suffering than not to have lived at all?

Well, that depends on whether or not there is a meaning to life (Yes, there is. If you don’t yet know what it is, please read the other posts in the blog dealing with this issue. (Or wait for Core Emunah 3. Be”H, coming soon!)

Our definition of “evil” is also due to shortsightedness as well.

Who can tell us what the far-reaching implications of any one action of “good” or “evil” is? An earthquake, although devastating, also has many positive benefits as well, such as lowering global temperatures, spreading valuable minerals and more.

IF you refer to evil that is the result of a human’s decision to do evil, let me ask you this: can we say that a person truly has free-will to chose evil if he is never given the ability to carry it out?

G-d’s greatness is beyond measure and in many ways is well beyond our frail human understanding.

All actions that G-d does are good. Our suffering has meaning. However, that doesn’t mean that we will ever have the correct perspective or be able to overcome our subjectivity in order to understand in what way this is good.

It is for this reason that the halacha states that in this world we have two separate blessings to make on different earthly phenomena. On the good ones we say ha tov, v’ha mei’tiv (He who is good, and does good things (to others)), whereas on the “bad” things we say dayan ha’emmet ((to Him) who is the true Judge).

So, to summarize point 1 everything HaShem does is for the good. Even the “Bad” stuff.

Why should we thank HaShem for taking us out of Egypt if He put us there in the first place?

This is a much deeper issue. I have an article (in Hebrew) that I plan to post on the Hebrew blog, where it will be available to download. However, in this regard we have to differentiate between the status of the Jewish people between the time of Avraham (Abraham) up until the time of Moshe (Moses), our teacher, and the suffering that we were made to suffer for some 100 years in Egypt. It also has a lot to do with prophecy.

There were three issues, say our sages, ob”m, that were “in play” from the times of Father Abraham until our release from Egypt. Issue number one was that we required a place to grow into a nation that wouldn’t interfere with the Canaanite nations until the “right time” came along (more on this soon); we required slavery in order to bind the mitzvos of Pessach to us as a people; and lastly, we were deserving of punishment.

Let’s explain these issues.

The source for the issue of the slavery in Egypt happened during the famous Brit bein ha’betarim, which can be found in Genesis (Bereshit) 15

יג וַיֹּאמֶר לְאַבְרָם יָדֹעַ תֵּדַע כִּי גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם וַעֲבָדוּם וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה: יד וְגַם אֶת הַגּוֹי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲבֹדוּ דָּן אָנֹכִי וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יֵצְאוּ בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל: טו וְאַתָּה תָּבוֹא אֶל אֲבֹתֶיךָ בְּשָׁלוֹם תִּקָּבֵר בְּשֵׂיבָה טוֹבָה: טז וְדוֹר רְבִיעִי יָשׁוּבוּ הֵנָּה כִּי לֹא שָׁלֵם עֲוֹן הָאֱמֹרִי עַד הֵנָּה:

(13) And He said to Avraham “You shall surely know that your offspring shall be wanderers (ger) in an land that is not theirs, and they shall enslave them, and they shall afflict them four hundred years. (14) And also the nation that they shall be enslaved to I shall judge, and afterwards they shall leave with a great amount of property. (15) And you shall come unto your fathers (a euphemism for death) peacefully, and will be buried at an exceedingly old age. (16) And the fourth generation shall return here, for the sins of the Ammorites shall not be complete until here.

Let’s start at the end for a moment. The Torah clearly states that there is a practical issue that HaShem has to deal with: it’s too early to kick out the Ammorites. Why is that? Rashi, on this verse, explains that this is based on a dictum that HaShem set down in the world’s creation: He doesn’t bring about retribution until “the se’ah (an amount) is filled”. This means that his powerful trait of rachamim (forgiveness) prevents punishment from happening all of the time. As a result, even though the Canaanite people were evil and had stolen the land away from the descendants of Shem, HaShem’s attribute of mercy didn’t allow punishment to occur, and as a result, they could not be removed from the land “before the se’ah was filled”. When would that happen? After 400 years, of course!

From when do we count these 400 years? This is explicit in the verse (and Rashi elaborates this point with the math) that it is from the time that Avraham had children, which – as the Torah states explicitly in Bereshis (Genesis) 21:12 – means Yitzchak (Issac) only.

As there was another 400 years before the children of Avraham, (a descendant of Shem) could reclaim the land as a people, it made sense that they couldn’t also grow into a people in that land, as they would be viewed from the outset as a threat. Therefore somewhere else was needed, ergo “in a land that is not theirs” (verse 13 above).

Jumping, for a minute, to the third issue above (deserving of punishment)

This issue is discussed and stated explicitly in Tractate Nedarim 32b, where it says as follows:

אמר רבי אבהו אמר רבי אלעזר מפני מה נענש אברהם אבינו ונשתעבדו בניו למצרים מאתים ועשר שנים מפני שעשה אנגרייא בתלמידי חכמים שנאמר וירק את חניכיו ילידי ביתו ושמואל אמר מפני שהפריז על מדותיו של הקדוש ברוך הוא שנאמר במה אדע כי אירשנה ורבי יוחנן אמר שהפריש בני אדם מלהכנס תחת כנפי השכינה שנאמר תן לי הנפש והרכוש קח לך

Said Rabbi Avahu in the name of Rabbi Elazar “For what reason was Avraham, our father, punished and his sons were enslaved in Egypt for 210 years? Because he did anigariya (forced labor) to students of the wise (a euphamism for people who were engaged in Torah study), as the verse states “And he hastend (vayarek) his disciples, those born to his house.” Shmuel stated “Because he cast doubt (hiphriz) on the attributes of HaShem, as the verse states “For with what will I know that I shall inherit it (the land)?” And Rabbi Yochanan said “Because he prevented people from coming under the wings of the Schechina (the Divine Glory, as it says ( the King of Sodom to Avraham) “Give me the souls and the properties – take for yourself (and Avraham gave everything back, instead of keeping the people).”

Clearly, our sages hold that this was a punishment because of Avraham. So, the question is asked, why didn’t Avraham, himself, get it? The answer is clear: he was too great of a tzadik. The merits of his deeds, especially his chessed, which is greater than tzedakah (charity) saved him. As Shlomo haMelech writes (Mishlei (Proverbs) 10:2)

וצדקה תציל ממות

and charity shall save from death

Similarly, the merits of his children continued to prevent – almost entirely – the evil tidings of this punishment. This continued up until the time that Yosef was sold, which began the descent of Israel down to Egypt. But even this was done with mercy, as our sages, ob”m, teach us in Tractate Shabbos 89b

א”ר חייא בר אבא א”ר יוחנן ראוי היה יעקב אבינו לירד למצרים בשלשלאות של ברזל אלא שזכותו גרמה לו דכתיב {הושע יא-ד} בחבלי אדם אמשכם בעבותות אהבה ואהיה להם כמרימי עול על לחיהם ואט אליו אוכיל

Said Rabbi Chiya son of Abba, said Rabbi Yochanan “It was fitting that Ya’akov, our father, go down to Egypt in chains of iron, however, his merits caused him (to receive mercy, and instead he went down out of love for his son, Yosef) as the verse states (Hoshea 11:4) “With the chains of man I will draw them, with ropes of love, and I will be to them as one who removes the yoke…

But as the people of Israel continued their descent into “meh”-lihood, so, too did they open the gates before the fullness of the prophecy to transpire. As our sages, ob”m, tell us (Midrash Shemot Rabbah) “And the land was filled with them” this teaches that there was nowhere you couldn’t find the Jews, especially in places like the theaters and stadiums and all other cultural activities of Egypt. That’s when the actual slavery began.

So, in truth, it’s our own fault that we suffered all of that. Not because we didn’t need the slavery of Egypt (more on this in a minute), but rather because the extra, additional suffering we brought on ourselves. It’s like when I, as a parent, tell my kids that if they do “X” I will punish them. If they do it, who is at fault? Me, for having set the boundary, or them for having crossed it? Of course it’s the kids fault (assuming, of course, that I am a decent parent, and not overbearing).

So, in reality we got ourselves into trouble, and HaShem, in His infinite mercy, got us out of it.

Lastly, the second topic, we really did “need” the slavery of Egypt.

This is learned from the words of Rashi on the verse in Shemos (Exodus) 13:8 which says

    והגדת לבנך ביום ההוא לאמר בעבור זה עשה יהוה לי בצאתי ממצרים    

And you shall say to your son, on that day, relating “It is for this that HaShem did for me in Egypt

Rashi asks: “It is for this“? What, per se, is “this”? And he answers

בעבור שאקיים מצותיו כגון פסח מצה ומרור הללו

So that I can keep His mitzvos, such as Pesach, matzah and maror

Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz, z”l, in his book Sichos Mussar, explains Rashi as follows: If one pays close attention to Rashi throughout Bereshis (Genesis) we see that the mitzvos already found their expression long before the giving of the Torah at Sinai (for example: matzah was given by Lot to the angels because “it was Pesach” (Rashi) and Ya’akov took to goats from the herd to make a stew for his father, Yitzchak, because one was for stew and the other was the korbon Pesach.) Therefore, says Rav Chaim, the intent of the Torah here, says Rashi, is that the Jewish people now have an historical and an emotional tie to these mitzvos. “For this HaShem took me out of Egypt” so that I know that these mitzvos are special to me and my people.

Accordingly, there was a need for the slavery in Egypt. However, there was no reason that it should have been so long. To achieve the desired effect, it could have been much shorter as well.

In summary: was Pesach good or bad? Of course it was good! It was the source and the fulcrum that made our people into the special people that we are today . It’s what connected us to HaShem and His Torah with unbreakable bonds!

Yet Pesach isn’t entirely over yet. We’re still on our way to the “yom tov acharon” of Pesach, called “Shavuot.” With HaShem’s help, I’ll try and write more before Shavuot.

One Comment on “Is Pessach “good” or “bad”?

  1. Pingback: Connecting to the Beit Hamikdash, part 1. – Core Emunah

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