By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
We have had quite a discussion in our family why it is that Passover is the most observed Jewish holiday and have come up with a variety of reasons, of which I will not bore you with at this time. We decided to submit this to you to perhaps shed some more light on the subject and we appreciate your words. Chag Sameach.
— Charles and Rita L.
Dear Charles and Rita,
Jewish sociologists have spilled much ink over this question and, as you found in your family, there are numerous takes on the subject. From a purely sociological perspective, there is some merit to all of the reasons found, but still, in my book, doesn’t add up to the intensity of dedication to the seder that we find in Jewish households throughout the world for over 3,000 years.
I would like to offer a perhaps metaphysical or spiritual reason why we find this to be so. Let us begin by observing the wording of the Ten Commandments, where God introduces Himself to the Jews as “I am the Lord, God who has taken you out of Egypt, from the house of bondage.” Why did God not first introduce Himself as the Creator of the universe? The builder of breathtaking mountains, the sun, stars and moon? This is a question the earliest commentators to the Torah grappled with.
One of the earliest Jewish philosophers, Rabbi Yehuda Helevi, author of the “Kuzari,” built the foundation of his philosophy on this question. It goes, in a nutshell, as follows: You cannot compare what you believe to what you have seen. Although we believed that God created the universe, there was no innocent bystander at the time to observe that Creation.
The entire Jewish nation, however, were living witnesses to all that had transpired over the past few years: the 10 plagues; the splitting of the sea; the falling of food, the manna, from the sky; and finally, the greatest revelation of all, God Al-mighty speaking directly to the entire Jewish nation at Sinai.
This thought is emphasized by God in the verse that He proclaims: “You have seen that from Heaven I have spoken to you!” This is a major departure from any and all other religions which claim divine revelation; all others claim this to an individual or small group. Only the Torah claims this happened to an entire nation. (This claim is actually accepted by Christianity and Islam, they both believe in the Divine Revelation of Torah at Sinai; they only claim that God later changed His mind).
That is why God introduced Himself as the One who brought the Jews out of Egypt; this is the foundation of our belief system. It is not simply a “faith,” but a belief based upon historical verification.
The Jews are commanded to recite the Shema, the acceptance of the Oneness of God, twice a day, morning and night. This recitation ends with the acceptance that God took us out of Egypt, an ending that seems out of place. The early commentators explain that our acceptance of the Oneness of God is not complete unless one truly believes in the historical story of the leaving of Egypt, as that is the foundation of our belief. (R’ash, Orchos Tzadikim).
Nachmanides, in his classical commentary to the Torah, explains further that out of our belief in the open miracles of Egypt and those which followed, we come to our well-known Jewish weltanschauung that all which transpires in our day-to-day lives is through direct intervention by the “Hand of God.” If God can control the world in the way of open miracles, He has the power to also perform “hidden miracles” which compose the stuff of our very lives.
This, I put forth, as a more profound reason why Pesach is so deeply rooted in the Jewish conscious and observance; if forms the foundation of our entire belief system and forms who we are and what our mission in the world is as a people. All seven days that we eat matzah and refrain from bread and leavened products we are proclaiming that there is a God, He is present in our lives, and this is our message to ourselves and all those around us.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.