Pesach: The Individual and the National

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    • Tzvi Chulsky 2 months ago

      How should the head of the household answer the four questions? The Mishnah[1] tells us: מתחיל בגנות ומסיים בשבח—“begin with disgrace and end with glory.” But what is the disgrace in our history? The gemara[2] records two opinions:

      רב אמר מתחלה עובדי עבודת גלולים היו אבותינו ושמואל אמר עבדים היינו
      Rav says that in the beginning, our ancestors were idol worshippers; and Shmuel says we were slaves.

      In the Haggadah, this machloket is taken seriously. The narrative actually begins with עבדים היינו לפרעה במצרים—“We were slaves to the Pharaoh in Egypt.” Then, after talking about some Sages staying up all night and how you know to talk about leaving Egypt at night and the discussion of the four sons, we suddenly circle back and start a new narrative in a completely different way: מתחלה עובדי עבודה זרה היו אבותינו—“In the beginning, our ancestors were idol worshippers.”

      These two pictures of disgrace reflect two mutually compatible (though often not acknowledged as such) views of Judaism: the individual and the national. When Judaism is viewed in terms of the individual, the “bad place to start” is misdirected and improper avodah. When viewing Judaism on an individual level, we focus on tefilah and middos and one’s own avodas Hashem. Viewing Judaism this way, slavery typically must be seen figuratively, and so we see much conversation about our enslavement to our yetzer hara, our enslavement to materialism, etc. As the vast majority of our last two millennia was spent purely in galut, where the national aspect of Judaism was irrelevant and foreign to us, most of what we are used to is this individual view.

      But the Tannaim lived comparatively close to a time when there was in fact a Jewish nation, and so we are presented also with the national view of Judaism, where the “bad place to start” is slavery to another nation. When viewing Judaism on a national level, we focus on Zionism and the physical preservation of the Jewish people. Many of the biggest recent figures that we think about in terms of “national Judaism,” from Mordechai Anielewicz to David Ben Gurion, did not know much Torah and were not interested in it. Sometimes we do not think of it as Judaism at all; and yet the compilation of the Mishnah, shortly after the destruction of the Jewish nation, may have been, in significant part, intended to preserve this aspect of Judaism.

      We have, in the past, referred to those subscribing to “individual Judaism” as intellectual descendants of Yehudah, and those subscribing to “national Judaism” as intellectual descendants of Yosef. The Haggadah is careful to acknowledge both approaches; indeed, each approach must incorporate the other to be properly channeled.

      If one were to subscribe exclusively to the “individual approach,” mashiach and geulah would cease to be important; the Land of Israel would cease to be important. And indeed, we see some movements in Judaism that resist the current migration of Jews into the Land of Israel, and other movements that more or less ignore it; we see among us those who daven for geulah daily but exhibit little interest in concretely bringing it about[3].

      If, on the other hand, one were to subscribe exclusively to the “national approach,” it would be the very familiar picture of the secular Jew who is ardently Zionist, serves in the Israeli army, contributes with his work to the thriving of the nation of Israel, but is not interested in Torah values. While such Jews help to preserve the nation of Israel as independent, many of them are behind the threat of that nation to enslave its millions of Jews to a sweeping bureaucracy and rogue supreme court, and to give critical land away to failed Arab regimes.

      A mixture is needed to channel the two views properly. If, when we focus on “individual Judaism,” we retain the awareness that settling the Land of Israel, maintaining the Jewish nation and actively working towards geulah in a direct way are mitzvot as well; if, when we focus on “national Judaism,” we retain the awareness that our morality stems from the Torah—not socialism or some other value system du jour; then we are far more likely to make a positive contribution to the history of our people.

      As we finish psukei d’zimrah in the morning, we reach a paragraph from Divrei Hayamim that starts with ויברך דויד about David saying a blessing to Hashem in front of the nation. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote that this is to bring our awareness to the fact that we are shifting from individual davening to communal davening. The following excerpts from Nechemiah and Shmot also involve the nation, after which point we move (through Yishtabach) to Barchu—which requires a minyan and is specifically a call to the community. As we finish psukei d’zimrah in our davening, let it be a reminder sometimes to shift our focus from the individual to the national and back. Both are essential, and the Haggadah certainly does not miss this point.

      [1] Pesachim 10
      [2] Pesachim 116a
      [3] In fact, it often gets very pointedly replaced with middos, as with the argument that our individual fulfillment of individual mitzvot will prompt Hashem to bring about geulah.

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