Why is Passover so central in Judaism?

By Rabbi Eli Brackman

What is the significance of the holiday of Passover? Why is the Exodus so central to Jewish life cycle? The history of the Jewish people has been turbulent with numerous exiles and liberations until today’s times. Why is the story for the Exodus from Egypt so central in Judaism?

In the opening to the Ten Commandments it equates the belief in G‑d to the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 20:2), “I am G‑d, your Lord, who took you out of Egypt”. The belief in G‑d and commemorating the Exodus are equally fundamental principles in Judaism. How is this so?

In the world today there is a perceived widening gap between the person and the cosmos. According to scientific studies, the cause of global warming is human related. Carbon dioxide and other air pollution that is collecting in the atmosphere like a thickening blanket, traps the sun's heat and causes the planet to warm up. Coal-burning power plants are the largest source of carbon dioxide pollution, producing 2.5 billion tons every year and automobiles are the second largest source, creating nearly 1.5 billion tons of CO2 annually, invented by Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz.

One may wonder whether Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz would have invented the gas-fuelled combustion for the automobile had they had known the affects it would have on global warming?

The world today cannot be imagined without the convenience of the car. In most modern cities, it would be almost impossible to live without the automobile - cities are designed with the car in mind for transportation.

This reflects a gap that exists between human convenience and the world one lives in. What might seem to be good for man could be catastrophic for the world.

In Judaism this divide is also manifest. Maimonides writes (Mishneh Torah, laws of Chanukah Ch. 3) that the purpose of the Jewish religion is to bring peace to the world, “Torah nitno la’asot shalom be’olam”. This means that the Torah is concerned about the peaceful existence of humankind. People should live in peace rather than in friction and enmity.

Indeed, the reason for the Rabbinical enactment of lighting Shabbat candles is to bring peace to the home. The great Mishnaic sage, Hilel the Elder, says (Talmud Shabbat 31a) that the fundamental principle of the whole Torah is, “that which is despicable to you do not do to your fellow. This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.” Rabbi Akiva echoes this concept. He says, the commandment in Leviticus (19:18), “Love your neighbour as yourself” is the “great founding principle of the Torah.”

The Midrash articulates this in different words (Genesis Rabbah 44:1), "The Torah's commandments were not given to mankind for any purpose other than to refine people". This reflects the above statements that the purpose of Judaism and its practises are to refine a person’s character. Indeed, if one becomes a more refined person, it will reduce the ego, creating less friction between people, more consideration and people will be able to live in peace with one another.

All the above reasons given for the practise of Judaism concerns the person as opposed to affecting the physical world. It is almost as if the ability to affect the world is outside the scope of the person. The person’s primary objective in life is oneself: how to make ones character more refined.

The view of classical Jewish thought is that a person’s deeds have the ability to affect the entire world, not just the self. However, this only refers to the human world, not the physical world itself. Maimonides writes (Mishneh Torah laws of Repentance), “one should view the person and the entire world as equal on a scale of merits and sins. By fulfilling a single positive deed one can affect the entire world positively by making it meritorious.”

Maimonides does not write that by doing a positive deed one is elevating the mundane fabric of the universe. This is consistent with the attitude that the world is itself refined and perfect. It is only the person that is born imperfect and needs refinement and perfecting.

The great German Jewish philosopher Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes that the commandments in Judaism were given to help discipline the person. The reason for the kosher dietary laws is for the person not to be affected by animals that are of lesser degrees of cleanliness.

According to Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed, the reason for the prohibition of incest is to contain man’s sexual passion. According to Jewish mysticism, the purpose of wearing Teffilin (phylacteries) is to refine the mind and heart where the Teffilin are laid.

The observance of Shabbat is to contain the person’s indulgence of materialism. However, all the above are spiritually egocentric: dealing with the person. There seems to be no concern for the world that the person lives in.

This view is the basis for a Midrashic exegesis. It says in Exodus (25:8), “make for me a tabernacle and I will dwell inside them.” The Midrash points out that the verse does not say, “I will dwell inside it” but rather “them”. The intent is that G‑d desires to dwell inside the person.

The great Chassidic Rebbe of Kotzk (1797-1859), fondly known as the Kotzker Rebbe, was once asked, where does G‑d exist? He responded, “everywhere,” but then qualified it with “wherever you let Him in”. This reflects the worldview of the Kotzker Rebbe. G‑d resides in the person. It is the purpose of the person in Judaism to allow G‑d to enter a person’s life.

One might see this somewhat 'pessimistic' view of the Kotzker Rebbe as a divergence from the conception of the founder of the Chassidic movement, Rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem Tov (1690-1760), that the world itself is infused with the Divine. The purpose of Divine commandments is to reveal the Divine in the world.

Herein lies the basis of the Habad school of Chasidic thought. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), founder of Habad school of the Chassidic movement, writes in his work, Tanya, the founding work of Chabad philosophy, that the purpose of the Divine commandments is not just to infuse oneself with G‑d, but to permeate the world with G‑d. He writes that according to the Midrash (Tanchuma, Nasso 7:1), G‑d desired to have an abode in the lower world, rather than the spiritual worlds. For this purpose He gave the Jewish people the Torah and its commandments through which the person who performs them becomes a channel for the Divine life force into the world. The ultimate purpose of creation and Judaism is to permeate the world with the Divine and elevate it.

This notion combines the purpose of the human being and the purpose of the cosmos into a single theory. Rabbi Shneur Zalman takes this a step further. The spiritual life force of the world is made up of the same life force as the person, Kelipat Nogah, which Kabbalistically is compared to a transparent shell, concealing its spiritual energy.

It is the purpose of the person to somehow break the shell and allow the spirituality to flow in the object. The Kelipat Nogah life force is a unified theory for the spiritual fabric of the entire universe and humankind. As this is unified force, affecting one aspect of it also has impact on the whole. Therefore by allowing the person to become permeated by the Divine, it directly charges the entire cosmos with the same spiritual energy.

This is a unified approach to the purpose of Judaism that combines the purpose of man and the purpose of the world into a singular theory. This is essential concept of the exodus from Egypt on a metaphysical level. The Hebrew word for Egypt is “Mitzrayim”, which comes from the Hebrew word, “Meitzarim”, boundaries. This refers to the spiritual boundaries of the person and the world collectively. It is the purpose of man to replicate the journey from Egypt in the self and thereby the world by deconstructing the spiritual limitations and concealments of the body and the cosmos and inculcate man and the world with the Divine.