Pesach: Commemorating Freedom of Speech

Nov 17, 2014
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by Rabbi Yitzchak Shurin

It is very curious that the mitzva of Sippur Yetziat Mitzrayim is expressed by Chazal as one of verbosity. The Gemara tells us that the matza is called Lechem Oni,” she’onim alav devarim harbeh”. This is reinforced by the author of the Haggada, who stresses from the outset, “Vechol hamarbeh lesaper biyetzias mitzrayim harei zeh meshubach”. In general, we find that the rabbis discouraged long- windedness as it says in Pirkei Avos: “Vechol hamarbeh dvarim mayvee chet.” This is reiterated in Masechet Pesachim: ” A teacher should teach his student in the shortest fashion.” Reb Chaim Vital, the great kabbalist of Tsfat, understands the name “Pesach” as Peh Sach, the mouth converses. Why is the idea of speech so intrinsically connected with our chag?

It would seem that telling our story of freedom is distinctly different from other Mitzvot which are expressed orally, like, tefilla. Normally,speech is just a vehicle for the fulfillment of the mitzva, which involves communication; but in the case of the Pesach Seder, the mitzva lies in the speech itself. The essence of the mitzva is not only the communication, but also the expression of freedom that the speech represents. The more we speak, the more the atmosphere of freedom has been achieved.

Based on a Zohar, my uncle Rav Aaron Soloveitchik, zt”l, writes in his book Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind, “Upon delivery from the Egyptian bondage, the Israelites regained their self-expression. As long as they were subjected to Egyptian bondage, their self- expression was stifled and suppressed. But at the moment of Exodus, the Israelites regained their speech. Slaves cannot express or assert themselves properly. They cannot realize their potential. Only the free man is capable of doing so.” It can be added that slaves are not given the opportunity to raise questions or ponder ideas; that is reserved strictly for free people. It is therefore not coincidental that our Haggada encourages conversational give and take, and is often written in question and answer form. This format in itself is an expression of freedom.

Targum Onkeles on the posuk, “Vayipach beapav nishmat chayim, vayehi ha’adam lenefesh chaya” (Bereshis 2:7) says, “and man became a ‘ruach memallela’”, a speaking spirit. In other words, the essence of man’s creation is expressed by his ability to speak and communicate. If this ability ceases to exist, his essence is lost. Through speech, one gains clarity, and clarity leads to self-realization. Once a person or a nation realizes its’ individuality and uniqueness, it can never be enslaved because it realizes its’ true purpose. When Moshe Rabbeinu came to Parroh, he did not suffice with the well- known phrase of, “Let my people go free”. He always added, “veyavduni”, “so that they can serve Me”. Freedom is not truly achieved unless one has consciousness of purpose; without this, man becomes a slave without a master. Rambam, in Iggeret Taiman, which comments on Moslem subjegation and coercion, says, “We bear their subjugation and lies more than we are capable, like David says in Tehillim, ‘And we are dumbfounded and cannot open our mouths’”. Our rabbis caution us to bear the falsities of Yishmael and to be silent, like the Torah (Bereishit 25:14) hints, “Mashma Vdumah Umasah”, which means shema dom vsah, or accept, keep quiet, and bear. Now more than ever the Pesach Seder must serve as a vehicle for clarity and self-realization. We need lengthy discussions that question the true purpose of Am Yisrael to regain as well as reinforce our identity.

The Haggada shares how all the rabbis were learning around the table in Bnei Brak, telling the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim until their students came and told them that zman kriyas shema had arrived. Rabbi Yitzchok Meltzen, a friend of Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, comments that the Haggada brings this story as a proof that not only when the Jews have peace and tranquility do we have the mitzva of yetziat Mitzrayim, but even in the state of war, exile, and subjugation, which was taking place at that time under the Roman rule. As long as a nation has the liberty to express its history and vision, no matter how much that nation is subjugated, it still retains its’ independent character. In fact, when a nation is physically oppressed, it becomes even more necessary to realize its uniqueness, individuality, self-expression, and self-determination.

Beyond the simple meaning of our Rabbis hiding from the Romans in order to be mekayem the mitzva of Sippur Yetziat Mitzrayim, lies the secret of Jewish survival throughout our history. The Haggada conveys the message that when times are rough, we must work harder and longer towards regaining our uniqueness of purpose. At that point, our students can say, “Our teachers, you have achieved freedom. Now fulfill your purpose and go serve G-d; Higiya zman kriyat shema”.

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