Exile and Redemption: the Lubavitcher Rebbe on Pesach

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneeersohn, was one of the most influential religious figures of the 20th century. The handsomely produced Kol Menachem Haggadah contains a collection of his commentary on the Haggadah and Pesach. In this extract, the Rebbe –with the aid of the kabbalistic concept of tikun - explains how God fulfilled his promise to the children of Israel

March 15, 2010

The Kol Menachem Haggadah - Slager Edition, The Gutnick Library of Jewish Classics, Compiled by Rabbi Chaim Miller, Kol Menachem, £19.99

From the Haggadah:

Blessed is He Who keeps His Promise to the Jewish People!
Blessed is He! For the Holy One, blessed be He, calculated the End when He would carry out what He had told our father Avraham at the Covenant of the Parts, as the verse states: “And He said to Avram, ‘You should know that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs where they will be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years. Then I will pronounce judgment on the nation whom they will serve, and afterwards they will leave with great wealth’” (Bereishis 15:13-14).

From the Rebbe’s commentary on the passage:

The Talmud relates that after many years of slavery, Israel’s spirit was sufficiently crushed that they were willing to forego “great wealth” so as to leave Egypt without delay. Avraham, however, was not willing to let this opportunity pass. His insistence was that the Jewish people must leave with their promised fortune and as a result, says the Talmud, God obliged.

But if the Jewish people themselves were willing to forgo this opportunity to become rich, then what business did Avraham have in vetoing their decision? Surely they were entitled to relinquish their own rights to the silver and gold of Egypt?

Evidently, the “great wealth” was much more than the “icing on the cake” of redemption. If this opportunity had been missed, something fundamental would have been sorely lacking in the whole Divine plan of exile and redemption.

To fathom this point, we need to turn ourselves briefly to the most tormenting of all existential questions: Why are we here? How do we make sense of the pain, desire, pleasure and fear that are the stuff of the human experience?

Conventionally, Judaism teaches us to perceive life as a war between the good and evil within our souls, where we are given, in every instance, the free choice as to which direction to take. But since evil is an offense to God, onlyexisting so as to give us free choice, it will not persist forever. Axiomatic to this drama is an end to life as we know it, when evil will be eliminated and man will be rewarded for his positive decisions throughout history.

While generally satisfying, a significant weakness of this theology is that we are left with a certain discord between the period of struggle (worship) and the period of relief (reward). As long as we are worshipping God, our actions take on a super-human significance in that we are carrying out His will, something far greater than any mortal achievement or experience. But then, in an apparent anticlimax, we are promised an eternal period of our reward, which will clearly be limited to the scope of human experience.

It seems that having acted as loyal agents of God for so many years, we will be sent to “retire” for eternity with a meager spiritual “pension” which could never compete with the real, meaningful action of our erstwhile “career.” For us it might be more of a pleasurable experience than sweating away in exile, but in the broader picture it seems nothing less than being doomed to eternal mediocrity.

We need, therefore, to explain how the future period of reward and redemption will represent genuine progress from the period that precedes it.

Enter the Arizal, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the celebrated Kabbalist of 16th Century Tzefas, whose fresh insight into the mystical teachings of the Kabbalah gives the story of mankind a new twist.

Central to our discussion is the doctrine of Tikun, the global restitution of a primordial, spiritual defect which occurred at the outset of creation. Of course we all know that the world is flawed and that man is here to fix it, but Tikun depicts how and why this is the case, with a remarkably precise and vivid imagery.

Initially, we are told, there was light: God emanated and radiated His presence outwards. But since the Divine plan was heading towards the creation of finite beings, it was necessary that this light should be captured and crystallized in special “vessels” that would absorb some of the light’s sting.

Then, quite strangely, a sort of cosmic “catastrophe” occurred, a pivotal event which explains the whole drama of history and determines man’s place in it: The light proved too much for the vessels and they shattered.
As a result of this disaster, sparks of God’s light trapped in the fragments of these vessels were scattered throughout all the worlds.

To lift up the scattered sparks of light and to restore them to their home is the essential task of man in the process of Tikun.

This notion of the “breaking of the vessels” adds tremendous colour and depth to the two most pressing of all theological issues: the existence of evil, and man’s role in eliminating it. As long as the damage is not mended, an inner flaw persists in everything that exists.

For when the vessels were broken, some of the light diffused back to its source, but some fell downwards, providing a source of sustenance to the forces of evil. The aim of creation, therefore, is to extract the remaining sparks that are trapped in this world so as to restore the earlier, ideal order.

The point which now emerges so powerfully is that we are the architects of our own redemption. Gone is the notion of a human struggle and test, followed by a totally disparate era of Divine grace and relief.

Now salvation means nothing other than the cumulative effect of returning all the sparks to their source, through observing the mitzvos, which inevitably starves the forces of evil of their sustenance. The perfection of the future is no longer seen as an alternative or replacement for the struggle of history, rather, it is the natural result of that struggle.

Our “reward,” therefore, will be nothing other than the sense of satisfaction that our very own hands have brought the Divine plan to its conclusion.

God no longer “pays” us for our work with something that is spiritually inferior to the holy work itself; rather, “the reward for the mitzvah is the mitzvah itself” (Avos 4:2), i.e., we will be granted a thorough appreciation of the colossal significance of our own actions, which we performed as agents of God. Tikun thus sees every Jew as an active protagonist in the great messianic struggle.

Since an object’s financial value is a measure of its general worth and importance, it therefore gives us an idea of how many sparks are invested in the object.

So when the Torah tells us that the Jewish people left Egypt with “great wealth,” it means that they succeeded in extracting all the sparks that were buried in Egypt, ever since the breaking of the vessels, ensuring that the trapped Divine light returned safely to its source.

In the final analysis, therefore, God’s promise to “leave with great wealth” was not a footnote to the general notion of redemption, but rather, it represented the very purpose of the exile itself.

No wonder, then, that even if the Jewish people were willing to forgo this bounty, God nevertheless “kept His promise to the Jewish people”—that they would be the central players in healing the cosmos and restoring it to its original harmony.

Last updated: 3:09pm, March 15 2010