The Torah refers to Pesach as “chag ha-matzot,” the festival of unleavened bread. The Sages of blessed memory gave it another name, z’man cheiruteinu, the time of our freedom, because it sums up what Pesach is about: It is when God set us free from the slavery of Egypt.
You would think, then, that this would be a joyous festival in every sense. Freedom, after all, is something over which we should rejoice. The Torah, however, seems to have another idea.
Thus, regarding the other two pilgrimage festivals, Shavuot and Sukkot, the Torah actually commands us to rejoice: “[On Shavuot,] you shall rejoice before the Lord your God…. [On Sukkot,] you shall rejoice in your festival…; you shall have nothing but joy.” (See Deuteronomy 16:11-15.)
In fact, regarding Sukkot, we also are commanded to rejoice in Leviticus 23:40: “And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days….” The emphasis on rejoicing during Sukkot moved the Sages to give this festival another name, z’man simchateinu, the time of our joy.
Not so with Pesach. The Torah says nothing about rejoicing. Does this mean that Pesach is not a happy holiday? Is freedom something that we should be sad about?
Of course it is not. We should rejoice on Pesach (indeed, we must; it is a festival), but we must temper our joy; we must keep it somewhat muted and private, because our freedom came at a high price.
God took us out of Egypt with a mighty hand, with great and grievous signs and with wonders. In order to set us free, God had to kill other human beings and cause great suffering to many more.
In the Babylonian Talmud tractate Sanhedrin 39b, there is a midrash that speaks to this issue: When God finally decided to drown the Egyptian host, “In that instant, the ministering angels wanted to sing a song before the Holy One, but He rebuked them, saying, ‘The works of My hands are drowning in the sea, and you would sing a song in My presence!'”
As God does not rejoice when people die, even if they were wicked, so must we not, according to the Book of Proverbs (24:17-18): “If your enemy falls, do not exult; if he trips, let your heart not rejoice, lest the Lord see it and be displeased….”
The Torah has its own way of teaching this lesson. It requires us to return to our “enemy” lost items and to help him save his pack animal from suffering under a heavy burden. (See Exodus 23:4-5.) It adjures us not to hate the Edomite or the Egyptian. (See Deuteronomy 23:8.) True, there are exceptions (the Amalekites, for one; the Moabites for another), but God takes care of the exceptions in His own way. We are still here; they are not.
The message, then, is clear. All people are God’s creation, His children. In God’s eyes, all are equal.
And so, on Pesach our joy is tempered because people died and they were the “works of [God’s] hands,” a part of the human family. Our joy is diminished.
We observe this in several ways during Pesach.
As we have seen, God Himself, in His Torah, refrains from talking about rejoicing during Pesach. Yet He mentions it three times regarding Sukkot and once regarding Shavuot.
At the sedarim this coming week, we will remove drops of wine from our cups as each plague is recited. Our full cup of joy is diminished with each plague.
Then there is the Hallel, the psalms of praise. On Sukkot, the time of our joy, we recite the full Hallel from the first day until the last. On Shavuot, the time of the giving of the Torah, we recite it on both days. On Pesach, however, we recite the full Hallel only on the first two days. Our joy is diminished.
And then there is the matzoh itself, the unleavened bread. It is not the bread of joy, but of affliction. (See Deuteronomy 16:3.) Our affliction, however, ended with the Exodus. It is understandable that we should eat matzoh at least through the first part of the seder, which relives that affliction, but once we reach the moment of our freedom, we should return to eating leavened bread. Yet the Torah commands us to eat matzoh for the full festival. We are free and we are happy to be free. Our joy is diminished.
There is more of a lesson here, however, than simply not rejoicing over the fall of our enemies. On Pesach, we remember the Exodus from Egypt and the many wonderful things that God did for us back then. That kind of memory can be very intoxicating. It can cause us to think too much of ourselves and our place in the world. It can cause us to believe that we are somehow better than anyone else; why else would God have done what He did for us?
The Torah has something to say about that, as well: God did not take us out of Egypt for our sakes, but to keep His promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (See Deuteronomy 7:8.)
We have a special relationship with God, true. We are his “treasured possession,” but only because we have a mission to fulfill as His “kingdom of priests and holy nation.” (See Exodus 19:5-6.)
Our joy is muted on Pesach, as a way of teaching us that we are not better than anyone else, just different.
God created the human race. He did so by creating one human. We are not told what color this human was, or to what race this human belonged. We do not know what religion this human held. We do know that this “adam” was neither a man nor a woman, but both at the same time. And we also know that from “the adam” came the human race.
In other words, God created all humankind as equals. When the human race gets that message – in other words, when we do our job as His kingdom of priests and holy nation – then there will be no more wars. We will all enter the age of redemption together as brothers and sisters. Pesach is also about the future redemption.
Yes, we are happy that God saved us, but we are sad that people had to die in the process.
They may have been our enemies, but we are all the same family.