By Rabbi Dan Lewin
We have entered a new month, the first month in the Jewish calendar called Nissan. As discussed, many times, each month is not simply a way to mark time, but has its unique flavor and spiritual opportunity, which, if we tap into it, causes some powerful change. The previous period of Adar invited the opportunity for added joy and revolved around the holiday of Purim. The days of Nissan offer an opening to achieve a greater freedom with the holiday of Pesach as the focus.
The Hebrew title of the month, Nissan, also hints at its theme, sharing the same root as the word for “miracles” — to “lift” the laws of nature. A common question that arises is: Why, throughout the Torah and our daily prayers, is there such an emphasis on remembering that we were once slaves in Egypt until G-d — with great wonders — took us out? Then, as if the standard daily meditations are not enough, we are commanded to recount and relive the story even more extensively during the weeklong festival.
Such intense focus on a singular biblical event in the long and miraculous survival of an ancient people may seem like overkill, a dusty and stale recollection that has little relevance to our current condition. The mindset of a Jew today, along with the global scene, thousands of years removed from the Exodus, is different. And as a people, we’ve since endured so much and evolved, being spread across the globe.
The birth of a nation
There are many layers to the answer: On the surface, it’s simply our Independence Day — the birth of the Jewish nation that culminated with receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai. There’s also the extreme type of the transformation in a relatively short time, the sudden shift from suffering slaves into scholars of Divine science. And then there’s the spectacular quality of the surrounding events, a sequence of supernatural experiences designed to simultaneously punish the enemy and uplift our ancestors.
In this vein, by consciously remembering this foundational story, we establish a vital link to the past: reconnecting with our birth as a nation, recognizing our humble beginnings and G-d’s extreme kindness in plucking us from under the most bitter conditions of exile. That unprecedented kindness, in essence, made us who we are today. Remembering those details enables us to view our lives in context — internalizing how the individual and current family unit fits into the grand purpose of a people — and to keep alive the feeling of thankfulness.
In addition to maintaining the most essential gratitude, remembering the Exodus is a fundamental component of our faith because that event served as the ultimate demonstration that G-d runs the world. From a different angle, each instructed remembrance in the Torah has an important spiritual benefit. The command to preserve the seven-day cycle, for example, by resting at the end of each week — “remembering the Shabbat day” — points to the origin of existence, seeing the world as a well-coordinated system, created by G-d, in which there is nothing superfluous or lacking. Likewise, recounting the miracles of Pesach reminds us that the world does not operate independently or arbitrarily, but rather, every detail of creation is continually being guided.
(By way of analogy, the founder of the company and the innovative CEO and leaders responsible for its success may be different characters. An erroneous conception of the creation can often take this pagan form, overtly or subtly. We are, therefore, reminded through the Exodus story that G-d is not only the Creator, but also the continual overseer and provider.)
On a deeper level, every year, the accomplishments of a significant date in our history are replayed. Mystically, this means that the global force that shone during that miraculous salvation is again injected into the world and becomes available for us to channel. In this sense, a holiday is not only a celebration of a past event, but an ongoing and eternally relevant one.
Leaving Egypt represents breaking free of limitations (the Hebrew letters for “Egypt” and “confine” are the same). Appling this idea to life, all experiences of freedom involve a removal of limitations, breaking some type of barrier to growth. The freedom that we can gain in Nissan, and specifically during the week of observing Pesach, involves extreme internal growth.
Cognitively, previous blockages are removed, which leads to greater insight. Rigidity in thinking — being trapped within the mind’s patterns — is a major component of mental struggle. Internal trappings make it difficult for the person to consider other perspectives, whether identifying with others’ experiences or simply adopting an alternative view of the world. In contrast, mental flexibility allows for learning, development and healing. Breaking limits in an emotional context means that negative feelings hold less sway over the psyche.
Happiness and freedom
So, as Adar offered an increase in joy, Pesach provides that sense of internal freedom we strive for on all levels. Both happiness and freedom entail an inner movement of the soul as it goes from a state of constriction to expansion. And these states are often intertwined. Feeling free naturally provokes joy — to no longer be bound by the previous restrictions. At the same time, our Sages teach that happiness, more than any other emotion, has the power to break barriers.
So, viewing the holiday from a different angle: The more that we mentally tune in to Pesach, the more we become liberated individually. As we strive, through our study and actions, to sense the current spiritual atmosphere of a holy day, the soul experiences an elevation from the confines imposed on it by the many trials and distractions of this corporal existence.
More practically, we are all battling to overcome to accomplish certain things — in the face of limitations and obstacles — that, if overcome, will make our life mission complete. Deeper introspection reveals that willpower and skill alone are insufficient. And that’s where another central theme of Nissan comes in — “an awakening from above” or receiving an extra push.
Passing over obstacles
The rules of nature dictate that true meaningful personal growth — whether repair, improvement or healing — take place in gradual stages. But during this month, we are given a special ability to “pass over” the natural steps: to progress from the lowest depths to great heights in a short period of time.
We only need the sincere desire and focus, along with the consciousness that it is not solely by our own means that we reach our destination, but by a tail wind of divine assistance.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.