Saturday, April 30, 2016

Pesach - Fear and Faith

The most obvious question to ask about Pesach, the remembrance of Jewish slavery in Egypt, is why was it even necessary? Its origins go back to the Brit Bein Habetarim, the Covenant of Parts, which G-d forges with Avraham. And yet the same forefather who pleaded with G-d urgently for the sake of the people of Sodom never utters a single plea on behalf of his descendants. Why is that?

The covenant is preceded by a unique event. G-d tells Avraham that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars. And then we are told, VeHeemin, Avraham had faith in G-d and G-d considered it as a righteous merit. Religiously habituated readers may wonder what is so extraordinary that believing what G-d tells you should be considered righteousness. And yet, if we look back at the story of Avraham, it is the first time that faith is mentioned.

Indeed it is the first mention of Emunah, faith, in the history of mankind.

There were righteous men before Avraham. And yet they are not associated with faith. Noah does what he is told. He is a righteous man. But we are not told that he had faith in G-d.

The covenant that leads to slavery is preceded by the extraordinary invention of faith. Noah believes that G-d will punish the world. Avraham however believes that G-d will grant him an impossible blessing. The righteous men before Avraham may have feared G-d, but he had alone had faith.

As the familiar story of Moshe and Pharaoh unfolds, we see a similar duality. Righteous Egyptians, whether it is the midwives who refrain from killing Jewish children at Pharaoh's command or the servants of Pharaoh who feared G-d and send their cattle and servants into the house ahead of the hail, are described as fearing G-d. Pharaoh's test is also to learn to fear G-d.

However when it comes to the Jews, Moshe is concerned with their Emunah, faith. He questions G-d whether the Jews will believe him. G-d provides him with signs for that purpose. And when he arrives, the nation believes (Exodus 4:31). The climax of the redemption comes again when we are told that the nation believed in G-d and Moshe his servant after the Egyptians are drowned in the sea. 

The Egyptians are expected to fear G-d. But the Jews are expected to have faith in Him. It is enough for the Egyptians to stop the evil that they are doing and fear G-d. But more is being asked of the Jews. In Egypt they are powerless. They have little control over their bodies and their lives. Instead they are asked to believe in the impossible that in a hitherto unprecedented intervention, G-d will liberate them from their bondage in Egypt. And though their faith is often shaky, they do believe.

Faith is a test. It has true meaning only when it is a test.

Avraham brought faith into the world as an individual. His Jewish descendants were to bring it into the world as a nation. Human faith is imperfect. Avraham asked for a sign resulting in the covenant. He and Sarah both seemed doubtful that she would give birth to Yitzchak at such a late age. The faith of the Jews wavered with Pharaoh's threats and punishments. And yet this was its purpose.

For ages the world had been based on the threat of force. Adam and Chava sinned and were punished. The flood wiped out the world. The Tower of Babel was disrupted. But mankind did not improve. Like Pharaoh, fear proved too insufficient to prevent evil from being done.

Pesach changed the equation. Fear was no longer the purpose of the exercise. Instead of punishing Pharaoh as an end, G-d did so as a means to show that faith was stronger than fear. The world was no longer a place where evil thrived until G-d punished it, it was a world in which the faith of the righteous would ultimately prevail over mere fear of punishment. The world had a positive force that was oriented not toward the past or the present, but that looked toward the future.

History was no longer a series of failures and punishments. It had gained a redemptive purpose.

The suffering of the Jews in Egyptian slavery was not a punishment. It was covenant. Like Avraham's tests, its purpose was redemption, not only of the people, but of the idea of faith in G-d. It was meant to show that the world faced more than a choice between fear or lack of fear of punishment. But that through faith, human beings could take on spiritual powers that would enable them to transform the world.

Fear put people before the choice of sin or don't sin. And human beings, being what they are, will sin. Faith however takes us beyond the choice of resisting a particular temptation or weakness. Instead it asks us to believe in the transformative power of G-d. It shifts the focus from the negative to the positive. From resisting our flaws to manifestly proclaiming the power of G-d and following His will.

The redemption from Egypt was a larger shift in human affairs. It was the beginning of a journey that would transform the world.

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