For the week ending 23 April 2016 / 15 Nisan 5776


by Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett
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Symbolic Meaning of the Mitzvot of Pesach

The root of the symbolic meaning of the Pesach mitzvot, and indeed of all the mitzvot in the Torah, lies in the fact that it is the duty of all G-d-fearing individuals to strive to use their time wisely to do what it is good and right. Everyone should understand that the seven decades of the average individual’s lifetime are analogous to the seven days of Creation. Just as G-d was engaged for the first six days in creative activity, Man should also use the first six decades of his life for creative and productive interaction with the world. Just as G-d “rested” on the seventh day, so too should Man withdraw from material pursuits and connect with higher spiritual pursuits in the last decade of his life.

G-d’s removal of the Jewish People from Egypt is comparable to childbirth. Just as the fetus emerges from the darkness of the womb into the light of the world at the cost of the severe pains of childbirth, so too the Jewish People had to suffer the tribulations of servitude before emerging as G-d’s chosen people. This emergence took place in the springtime, for just as there are four seasons in the natural world, there are four stages in a man’s lifetime; our springtime is a time of emergence, growth and maturation into young adulthood, when knowledge, wisdom and understanding sprouts forth.

Unfortunately, this maturation is paralleled by the emergence of our physical and material desires. The prohibition against eating leavened foods (chametz) symbolizes our requirement to distance ourselves from these material temptations. For this reason when we bring a sacrificial offering to G-d we may not add leavening or honey, as the leavening represents succumbing to excessive physical temptation and honey represents the sweetness and pleasure that follows. One is not punished for giving in to negative physical temptation until the age of 13, or the beginning of his fourteenth year. This is symbolized by the total prohibition against eating, owning, or deriving any benefit from leavening which begins on the fourteenth day of the month of Nissan.

The Mishna tells us that we are to search for leavened food on the fourteenth of Nissan by the light of a candle, which represents the soul of Mankind, as the verse in Proverbs (20, 27) states, “A man’s soul is the candle of Gd.” It is our duty to use this candle to search out and eliminate this leavening which symbolizes our negative actions and motivations. However, the flame cannot be so strong as to injure us or burn our homes, nor too weak which would prevent us from finding the leavening in the first place. Our job is to control our relationship with the physical world, not to withdraw from or destroy it. At the same time we must be able to recognize our failings and correct them. The mitzvah is to refrain from eating leavening for the entire seven days of the holiday, symbolic of our requirement to control our physical existence for our entire lifespan of seven decades. It is no coincidence that the number seven appears in regard to a wide variety of mitzvot: seven days of wedding celebration, seven days of ritual impurity, seven days of mourning, the seven-year agricultural cycle, and others as well.

On the first and last days of Pesach, melacha, or creative activity, is prohibited. The first day represents the beginning of one’s life, before he is capable of creative interaction with the world, and the last day represents the last decade of one’s life, when one tends to withdraw from the material world and focus on fulfilling one’s spiritual goals. However, the middle decades, like the middle days of the holidays, connect us actively to the material world, and refraining from leavening reminds us to take care to manage our relationship with the physical world properly.

The matzah that we eat must be completely pure and free of any trace of leavening. Furthermore, we must guard the flour from any contact with moisture which might result in leavening from the time that the wheat is ground. This symbolizes that Man must protect his spiritual essence from the time that he begins to surround himself with the ‘daily grind’ of worldly affairs and the quest for his daily sustenance. We are also commanded to eat the matzah with bitter herbs in order to symbolize that for the sake of our spiritual essence we may have to endure a measure of bitterness and pain in our physical existence.

The Pesach sacrifice also represents the triumph of Man’s spiritual essence over the physical, as eating it at night, which symbolizes death, alludes to the freeing of the soul from the body. Eating it with a group alludes to the groups of friends and relatives who come to mourn the deceased. Finally, it can only be eaten roasted, since the aroma of roasted meat is swiftly dispersed, which alludes to the transient nature of physical existence.

What is clearly apparent is that the holiday of Pesach hints at Man’s creation, his lifespan, the conquest of his evil inclination, the pain associated with his physical existence and the eventual fulfillment of his goal of spiritual connection to G-d. This is why the holiday is described as applying to all generations. We are taught in the Talmud that everyone at the Pesach Seder should view himself as if he were actually part of the exodus from Egypt. This means much more than imagining oneself to be present at an historical event. Rather, it is the root of all the holidays and mitzvot of the entire Torah, as this injunction refers to the struggles and obligations over the entire lifespan of an individual.

After Pesach we are commanded to count seven weeks, culminating in the giving of the Torah at the holiday of Shavout. This is another reference to the seven decades of Man’s life, all of which should be directed to attaining the spiritual perfection which the nation experienced at the giving of the Torah at Sinai. It was fitting that G-d arranged this when the Jews shed the shackles of Egyptian idolatry and were thus prepared to receive the truth of the Torah at Sinai.

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