Pesach: Cycles of Life

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    • Tzvi Chulsky 2 months ago

      “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt,” begins the answer to the four questions in the Haggadah,

      and God took us out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched forearm; and if the Holy One, blessed be He, had not taken our forefathers out of Egypt—הרי אנו ובנינו ובני בנינו משעבדים היינו לפרעה במצרים—then we, and our children, and our children’s children, would have been enslaved to the Pharaoh in Egypt.

      Put aside, for now, the fact that the text almost imperceptibly slides from us being liberated from Egypt to our forefathers being liberated—chalk it up to poetic exigency (although in our texts, that seems never to really be what it is).

      How could one say, year in and year out, with such certainty, that we would still have been there? After all, there were other slaves who had not come out with us. Are their descendants still slaves in Egypt? Even if they had been, is Pharaoh still around for them to have been slaves to him?

      Rav Kook “elucidates” this statement for us in a way that seems to improve nothing: “Had God not taken us out of Egypt, Pharaoh would never have died.” How likely is that? It may have been true temporarily—Pharaoh’s untimely death at the Red Sea was, after all, related to our exodus—but never? Even if we imagine that those times were completely different from our own and that all the midrashim are literally true, we still have nobody from that era who is alive today.

      Rav Kook’s idea is that something was, in fact, different then from now, but in a bit of a less tangible way. The years flowed just like they do now, one after the other, but people did not expect things to change. Each year, the Nile flooded, and each year, the land along it produced the same food, and the expectation throughout was that this would continue to be the pattern, into eternity. Slaves feared and obeyed overseers, overseers feared and obeyed managers, managers feared and obeyed nobility, and the nobility feared and obeyed the Pharaoh, and the expectation throughout was that this would continue to be the pattern, into eternity. As the sun rose and set, so generations came and went, and the land stood forever.

      Our exodus proclaimed something completely novel and incompatible: that Creation has a purpose, and that the world must be moved toward that purpose. It is this foundation—the idea of progress—that underpins the whole idea of morality. If the world never changes—if it is going nowhere—then what difference does anything make? It is precisely that the world is purposeful that underpins the possibility of the good—that which is harmonious with that purpose—and the bad—that which is not[1]. To get from the ten מאמרות through which the world was created[2] to the ten דברות, it was essential to pass through the ten מכות, to destroy the old approach—that which we call “Egyptian”—that Creation does not change—that it has no purpose.

      The post-Exodus world in which we live seems so natural now that it would be difficult to imagine something different. The history of the West, until recently, seems to have been a gradual, fitful progress to greater freedom and human dignity. In the last century, every generation has lived in a world radically different from that of the previous one. Change is in our air and water, and so we do not stop to think about it properly, to realize that this is a part of our gift to the world. The dominant movement in American popular culture is the Progressive movement, and the talk throughout the Western world is about social progress. Communists and fascists, academics and entrepreneurs are out to change the world. These are not ideas that would have been comprehensible before our exodus.

      If we look at Asia, an area less influenced by us, we see much circular symbolism, from the Taiji[3] to the swastika, the representation being that of a cycle. And Rabbi Oury Cherki points out that much of what was invented in the West was invented earlier in China, but in China, it did not lead to the same progress of technology and society. Rav Cherki talks of Chinese ships that sailed to Africa and Arabia—we assume he means the voyages of Zheng He and similar ones—that eventually stopped, without creating significant change in the world outside of China, nor really within. And in fact, according to a set of Chinese proverbs, the third-worst curse one can receive is “may you live in interesting times”—often interpreted as times of change[4].

      We, too, have cycles among our symbolism—the wedding ring and the egg on the seder plate come to mind—but they are not our main symbolism, and even when we use those symbols, it is important to avoid the trap of seeing life as a closed cycle. We must watch for an extra “dimension.” Certain patterns certainly repeat, but Rav Cherki’s metaphor is a spiral[5]. This was not a commonly held mode of thought anywhere at the time of our exodus, and Rav Kook says that had it not been for our exodus, Pharaoh would not have died; we would have remained slaves to the cyclic history of the world, unable to change the world or our condition, stuck in narrow places that we perhaps could refer to as מצרים.

      When we put the Torah back, we say the second-to-last pasuk of Eichah, which ends with the words חדש ימינו כקדם, which Artscroll translates as “renew our days as of old.” Perhaps the simplest way to understand it would be “renew our days as You did before,” although that would require some investigation into how exactly our days were renewed in the past. But with the approach brought here, perhaps we can interpret it as “renew our days of old.” Let us make sure that on a new cycle, we are in a new place, above the one where we were on the previous cycle.

      [1] Note that in the Ramchal’s Derech Hashem, the conclusion of the chapter on the purpose of Creation is the definition of “good” and “bad.”
      [2] Avot 5:1
      [3] also known as the “Yin-yang symbol”
      [4] The wisdom of this aphorism—as well as the rest from that set—is well worth its own essay. In general, the observations brought forth here should by no means be taken as an indictment of (pre-Communist) Chinese culture.
      [5] To get a picture with extra dimensionality, it would make sense to picture it not as an “outward spiral” but as an “upward spiral.”

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