Thursday, March 28, 2019

Pesach in Chassidic Thought: Haste from God

(c) Dovid Sears

By Rav Itamar Eldar
Translated by David Strauss
(By permission of

            The matzot that we eat on the night of the Seder serve as a reminder of Israel's hasty exodus from Egypt. The haste of Israel's exodus from Egypt was twofold.

            The first haste was on the fifteenth of Nisan when in a single moment the Egyptians drove the Israelites out of the country. As Scripture states:

And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough which they brought out of Egypt, for it was not leavened: because they were driven out of Egypt, and could not delay, neither had they prepared for themselves any provision. (Shemot 12:39)

            The second haste we find in the words of Moshe and Aharon, on the eve of Rosh Chodesh Nisan, when they commanded the Israelites to prepare themselves to bring the paschal offering and eat it with matza and maror:

And thus you shall eat it; with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand, and you shall eat it in haste; it is the Lord's passover. (Shemot 12:11)

            This command implies that the matter of the haste was not only a result of the hasty expulsion, but the general atmosphere that the people of Israel were themselves commanded  to create – a feeling of urgency and haste.

            Chassidic thought has dealt in length with the matter of haste, and saw it as a sign and symbol of the mental state that is supposed to accompany the beginning of every spiritual process. In this lecture we will try to examine the various approaches to the idea of haste.


            R. Tzadok Hakoken of Lublin opens his book, Tzidkat ha-Tzadik, with the following:

Man's entry into the service of God must begin with haste, as we find that the Paschal offering brought in Egypt was eaten in haste, which was not the case with the Paschal offering brought in later generations. Because when a person begins to sever himself from all the desires of this world to which he is attached, he must guard the moment in which the will of God stirs up within him, and make haste in that moment to leave them, perhaps he will succeed. Afterwards, he can once again proceed with moderation and slowness as is the law regarding the Paschal offering brought in later generations. (Tzidkat ha-Tzadik 1)

            R. Tzadok Hakohen relates to the obligation to eat the Paschal offering in haste that applied to the first Paschal offering brought in Egypt, but not to the Paschal offerings brought in later generations. R. Tzadok argues that it is the beginning of a process that requires haste. The Paschal offering brought in Egypt was Israel's entranceway into the service of God. From there it was only a short step to Mount Sinai and the giving of the Torah, and to all the mitzvot that came in its wake, the opening point remaining forever the exodus from Egypt. At that point, the beginning of Divine service, it was necessary to act in haste, rather than in moderation, the time for which would arrive in the future.

            The words of R. Tzadok seem to be based on a double rationale: "Because when a person begins to sever himself from all the desires of this world to which he is attached." The people ofIsrael were sunk in forty-nine gates of uncleanness, and the two hundred and ten years of slavery had adhered to them. Custom, habit, and routine are stronger than any change, especially when they are seductive as they drag a person down. Israel's stay in Egypt was spent in slavery, but from what the Israelites say later, we learn about the meat pots that they had enjoyed in Egypt and the relative "security" in which they had lived there. In order to liberate them from all this, a clear and drastic step had to be taken that would leave their seductive routine behind, and allow them to step forward towards a new future. Had the people of Israel looked back for a moment as they fled from Pharaoh, in the manner of Lot's wife, they might have had regrets and returned. Because the exodus took place in haste, there was no turning back, and the movement was always forward. It was the haste alone that ensured a total severance from the straits of Egypt.

            The same applies when a person wishes to set out on a spiritual journey in the service of God, while he is immersed in the desires of this world. Here too we are dealing with a seductive routine, whose enticements appear at every moment, and the only way to liberate oneself from them, is by taking a drastic and decisive step that leaves everything else behind. There is no room here for gradation, for gradation would allow the gravitational force of matter to drag a person down to it.[1]

            It seems, however, that R. Tzadok is alluding here to another rationale that justifies haste: "He must guard the moment in which the will of God stirs up within him, and make haste in that moment." R. Tzadok is alluding here that the excitement and aspiration to walk in the path of God is a Divine gift that can be recalled. We must be careful, asserts R. Tzadok, about "missing the moment." When excitement stirs up in man, he should not push off its application, for just as it arrived as a surprise, so too is it liable to leave him.

            Occasionally, we are caught in the excitement of a new process. This may involve "a yearning to pray," and then we may say to ourselves: "When we get to … we will fulfill our desire," "Soon," "We'll just finish and then," We'll tidy up the house, and then pray." R. Tzadok teaches us that all such arguments cause us to miss the moment, to forfeit the window of opportunity that God in His loving-kindness had opened before us.[2]

            According to this, we can attach deeper meaning to the halakhic principle that a blessing over a mitzva must be recited "immediately prior to its performance." The problem is not merely a technical problem of an interruption between the blessing and the act. The blessing is the intention, the direction, the will, and the conjunction. A delay in the execution of the act may cause a person to miss the opportunity to direct toward himself the great light created at the time of the blessing, and for this reason, one must recite the blessing immediately prior to the mitzva's performance.

            It seems that to these two reasons we may add yet another reason for the need for haste at the outset of Divine service, as emerges from one of the famous stories of R. Nachman of Breslov: “The Sophisticate and the Simpleton.”

            This story tells of two childhood friends, each of whom had paved a way of life for himself, the one in simplicity and the other with sophistication. At a certain point, the king asked to see them. The king understands that his request to see these two ordinary citizens is unreasonable, and so he delicately sends a messenger to each of them, asking him to appear before him. Each of them responds in his own way:

As soon as the Simpleton got the letter, he said to the messenger who delivered it, "I don't know what the letter says. Read it for me."
"I will tell you what it says," replied [the messenger]. "The king wants you to come to him."
"You're not playing a joke on me," said [the Simpleton].
"It's absolutely true," answered the messenger. "I'm not joking at all.
[The Simpleton] was overjoyed. He ran and told his wife, "My wife! The king has sent for me!"
"Why?" asked the wife. "What reason could he possibly have to send for you?"
But [the Simpleton] did not have any time to answer. He joyfully rushed out and immediately left with the messenger. When he got on the coach, he found the clothing there, and this made him all the more happy. (Sippurei Ma'asiyot, “The Sophisticate and the Simpleton”)

            Upon receiving the news, the simpleton refused at first to believe; he was accustomed to the fact that people used to exploit his innocence and toy with him. But as soon as the messenger said that he was speaking to him in earnest, he immediately rushed off to go to the king. Even his wife, who wished to clarify how and why he was going, was unable to stop him. "He joyfully rushed out and immediately left with the messenger." R. Nachman begins with "immediately" and ends with "immediately, in order to emphasize the haste and diligence that accompanied the simpleton's actions.

This was not the manner of the wise man, who reacted to the messenger as follows:

Meanwhile, when the Sophisticate received his letter from the king, he replied to the sophisticated messenger who delivered it, "Wait. Spend the night here. Let us discuss the matter and make up our minds."
That evening, the Sophisticate made a great feast [for the messenger]. During the meal, the Sophisticate used his intelligence and philosophical discipline to analyze the message. He spoke up and said, "What does this really mean? Why should such a king send for an insignificant person like me? Who am I that the king should send for me? The king has his power and prestige. Compared to such a great, awe-inspiring king, I am lowly and despicable. How can the mind reconcile the fact that such a king would send for an insignificant person like me. I may be intelligent, but what am I compared to the king? Doesn't the king have other wise men? Besides, the king himself is certainly also very wise. For what possible reason could the king send for me?" He found this all very puzzling.
The Sophisticate, who was the Simpleton's friend, thought it over in this manner. At first, he was very puzzled and confused, but soon he thought he had a reasonable answer.
He said to the messenger, "I declare that, in my opinion, it is absolutely certain and logical that the king does not exist at all!"
[He explained,] "The entire world is mistaken, since they foolishly believe that there really is a king. Think it over! How is it possible that all the people in the world would submit to one man as their king? Obviously, no such thing as a king exists!"

            The wise man's initial reaction to the messenger was: "Wait. Spend the night here. Let us discuss the matter and make up our minds." Haste is from the devil, said the wise man, and I do nothing without first seriously considering the issue and all the related factors. R. Nachman teaches us that waiting and deliberation exact a heavy price, and that the wise man's doubts and uncertainties lead him to deny the very existence of the king. This causes him to miss the opportunity and decline further from one failure to the next.

            The king, as is usually the case in R. Nachman's stories, is the King, king of kings, and the king's call to the two people is God's request of those who fear Him to love, fear and serve Him with a whole heart. The simpleton's haste, and perhaps we might add, his irresponsible haste, is what brings him in the end to the king, whereas the wise man's consideration and deliberation bring him to a blind alley, which according to R. Nachman, is the necessary end of rational contemplation.

            In some Chassidic courts it was said they said that one should pray quickly, for when the wagon charges off at a high speed, the bandits do not have time to climb aboard. Times of waiting invite alien thoughts, and give doubts the opportunity to penetrate deeply.

            It seems, however, that R. Nachman is trying to teach us here an even more important principle. There is something strange and unreasonable about God's request to serve Him, and the manner in which we are asked to draw near to Him. R. Nachman wishes to argue that if we examine our faith with rational and intellectual tools, we will perforce arrive at a dead end, and demand unreasonable understanding. R. Nachman has no answer for the difficult question raised by the wise man, why would the King, exalted and elevated above all, ask to see us, and why does He need the service of man, mere flesh and blood. This question will of necessity bring us eventually to a denial of His very existence.[3] R. Nachman asserts that this question has no answer, for illogic is built in to the world of faith and our understanding of the connection between God and man. Therefore, the only way to overcome this difficulty is through inadvertence stemming from haste.

Had the simpleton answered his wife's question, he may have reached the same uncertainty as did the wise man. Haste, however, allowed him to proceed down a road that is unreasonable, illogical and incomprehensible. Only in this way can we arrive at the exalted and elevated, the road to which passes necessarily through a nullification of reason and inadvertence.

It is not very logical to leave the flesh pot, a secure home, and steady income – with all the difficulties that accompanied them – for the sake of imagined freedom, and head off toward a sea, that allows for no clear way of crossing, and toward a great and terrible desert, "in which were venomous serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water" (Devarim 8:15). Had the "steering committee" of Israel convened and deliberated about Moshe's request, it is highly doubtful whether the decision would have been taken, based on rational considerations, to respond in the affirmative to Moshe, and not to wait for a better opportunity. The people of Israel, however, did not have time to convene such a committee. Everything happened so fast, everyone was still under the great impression that Moshe and his plagues had left, and this haste did not allow the people of Israel to think rationally and responsibly. It stands to reason that it was this irresponsibility that saved them.[4]

R. Nachman teaches us that the beginning of God's service requires decisions that when considered realistically sometimes appear as irresponsible and illogical, and therefore the only way to make those decisions through strength is through inadvertence stemming from haste. Great things, R. Nachman teaches us based on the teachings of Chazal, come through inadvertence, and so too the redemption of the people of Israel and that of each individual.


            It seems that R. Natan, disciple of R. Nachman, delves even deeper into the idea of haste that is joined in an absolute connection to matza. He writes as follows:

For the matza is on account of their having left in haste and the dough of our fathers did not have time to become leavened before the King, king of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, revealed Himself to them and redeemed them. As it is stated: "And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough which they brought out of Egypt, for it was not leavened: because they were driven out of Egypt, and could not delay, neither had they prepared for themselves any provision" (Shemot 12:39). For they had faith in the providence of God, blessed be he, and therefore they did not prepare for themselves any provision, but rather they left in haste. Thus, matza is the aspect of knowledge of faith in providence, which is the essence of the great knowledge, when one merits Divine revelation, to see and to know that everything is exclusively by His providence, blessed be He. This is the aspect of haste, for haste is the aspect of above time, for He passed over the [designated] end, and took them out in great haste in no time, just a single moment, and immediately they came from Ramses to Sukkot, and they gathered together in a moment six hundred thousand from all of the land of Egypt, as Rashi explains on the verse (Shemot 19:4): "How I bore you on eagles' wings." For all this is the aspect of above time, that is, He lifted them above time, this being the aspect of providence which is above nature and above time. Through this they left in no time, without any preparations, in a mere moment, for the essence of the redemption was through the revelation of providence which is above time, the aspect of haste, because haste is the aspect of alacrity, which is a very good trait. (Likutei HalakhotNetilat Yadayim Shacharit, 2)

            The novelty in these words lies in the transfer of the idea of haste from the people of Israel to God. The climate of Israel's haste that comes to expression primarily through the eating of matza, is a reflection of "the governance of haste" with which God led Israel in this situation. "Divine haste," asserts R. Natan, consists of passing over the laws of nature, or put simply, it consists of miracles. Nature operates in an orderly and gradated manner. Causality is "the queen of nature," setting the pace and duration of every natural act.

            Time, argues R. Natan, is the great symbol of nature.[5] The essence of a miracle lies in the way it skips over time, in the way it skips over natural processes. Seas and rivers may dry up, but the uniqueness of the parting of the Sea was the haste that characterized the transition from one reality to the other. Providence that is "above time," says R. Natan, is providence that is "above nature." This is the great novelty of the exodus from Egypt.[6]

            This providence, according to R. Natan, is what gives Israel the "knowledge" and the "faith" that everything transpires by the will of God. Life that is lived in the consciousness of the reality of nature is life in which everything and every action requires preparation. This is life that takes into account causality and process that requires confrontation and preparation. Life that is lived in the consciousness of miracles frees us, in a certain sense, from the responsibility of making preparations: "Neither had they prepared for themselves any provision." In the world of miracles, the significance of preparation is reduced to almost nothing, and the stronger the power of faith grows, teaches us R. Natan, the smaller becomes the quality of preparation. The salvation of God arrives suddenly, because it reflects an alternate course to natural, gradual processes. It is, therefore, precisely there that unmediated Divine revelation is found.

            Bread is the expression of perfect natural reality. A reality that is gradually repaired, a reality of time and nature, of which bread is their fruit. Matza, on the other hand, veers from the natural order. Time does not take hold of matza, and thus, matza is the embodiment of miracles, and in essence it is also the point of contact with the Infinite. A miracle comes out of Ein, nothingness, and not out of Yesh, existence, because a miracle expresses the absolute disregard of the Yesh, of nature and its laws.

            Matza, so it would appear, lacks concreteness. It has no taste, nothing of the Yesh adheres to it, for the existent world operates in the dimension of time, and matza lacks time – it is baked in inadvertence, in a short moment. A second longer, and time would take hold of it, and transfer it all at once from the Ein to the Yesh, from the miracle to nature, from unmediated Divine revelation to Divine revelation having garments and barriers. Matza is the essence of Divine existence before it becomes "defiled" by the limits of time and matter.


            This distinction between nature and miracle, between unmediated Divine governance that finds expression in matza and Divine governance that passes through the world of matter and garments that finds expression in bread, brought R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev to a profoundly meaningful clarification. We shall try to follow him, step by step:[7]

"The wise son – what does he say? 'What are the testimonies, decrees, and ordinances which the Lord, our God, has commanded you?'… One may not eat desert [afikoman] after the Paschal sacrifice." In order to understand the wise son's question and the relevance of the answer, "One may not eat desert," to the question, we must start with a certain premise. This is the word "matza," it indicating the creation of the world and that the world has a Creator, who created it out of absolute nothingness, ex nihilo. For the word "chametz" bears the sense of "we do not delay (machmitzin) judgment," or "we do not delay (machmitzinmitzvot," machmitzin meaning delay. Thus chametz is something old, and the opposite is matza, that is, something new. Our Creator has shown us through the mitzva of matza that there is One who created the world, and who every day and every moment renews His world in accordance with His will, as He did during the exodus from Egypt when He performed unnatural marvels. For all ten plagues were unnatural. When we clearly understand this, we will not move our hands and feet to do anything, other than what brings glory to His name, blessed and exalted be He. We must fear Him with the fear of exaltedness since He is great and the ruler, and we must fiercely love Him when we see that He, blessed be He, loves us with eternal love. (Kedushat Levi, homily for Pesach)

            R. Levi Yitzchak's point of departure in this teaching is similar to the words of R. Natan. But while R. Natan identifies haste as distinguishing between "all at once" and "a process," haste for R. Levi Yitzchak distinguishes between "old" and "new."

            Time turns the existent world into something "old," that is, something that is permanent in its existence. Time is misleading in that it creates the illusion that "the world never changes" and that "there is nothing new under the sun." This is the perspective of an adult, who has gained perspective and looks upon the world and identifies within it "the force of inertia" that sustains it. The sun shined for our forefathers in days of old, it shined also for us yesterday, and today too we are witnesses to its shining. Therefore, there is no reason to assume that it will not shine tomorrow as well. This is the calamity of time, which applies to everything the "law of limitation." The first day of creation was the day on which everything was new and the consciousness was one of "who renews in His goodness," for the simple understanding is that the first day was the day of newness. R. Levi Yitzchak, however, teaches us that it is our blindness that does not allow us to see the daily renewal that transpires every day and every moment.

            The principle of creation is a dynamic principle, not in the historical sense, but in the existential sense. Matza, lacking time, lacking the element of "limitation," of "having been," proclaims newness. Matza symbolizes the renewed world, and it gives man the love and fear of God that stem from the existential feeling of "His anger endures but a moment; life is by His will" (Tehillim 30:6).

            R. Nachman writes that the holy convocations are the holidays on which God breaches the boundaries of nature and cries out loud: "I am here!" They allow man to newly recognize that there is no such thing as nature, and that everything is a miracle; that there is no routine, and that everything is will; that there is nothing old, and that everything is new.

            As soon as a person recognizes this, he dares not take a step "other than what brings glory to His name," for the entire world says: Glory, and every movement and every action and everything is new, here and now, from Him, blessed be He, and everything must turn to Him and come into being through Him.

[1] We often see this phenomenon with newly-observant Jews who wish to totally sever themselves from their old world, knowing that retaining partial contact with that world and leaving it only gradually will allow them to be seduced to return to it.
[2] R. Tzadok teaches us that this process involves a sort of jump beyond our capabilities and an intensification of light without the appropriate vessels to contain it. For that, however, there is the Pesach of later generations. The continuation of the journey must be done with moderation and gradation, and at this stage a person must build and fashion vessels that will be able to contain the great light that had illuminated at the beginning of the process. Haste causes a person to jump to a high level which will later require the building of ladder with gradations in order to be reached.
[3] Indeed, this question, regarding the abyss between the Infinite and the material, brought philosophers to the idea that "God has left earth," which is similar to a denial of His very existence.
[4] Many times in history in general and in Jewish history in particular, we find situations in which leaders have acted in "haste" that stems from faith and inner persuasion regarding the correctness of their ways, and have waived all moderate and realistic considerations.
A striking example of this phenomenon was David Ben Gurion's decision to proclaim the establishment of the State of Israel despite the gloomy predictions of an invasion of Arab armies, and the opposite advice that Ben Gurion had received from a good number of his advisors. His answer to them was not a realistic one. The debate did not revolve around an assessment of the situation, but rather the belief that a historic window of opportunity had opened up that may not be ignored. 
[5] The Ramban in his commentary to the Torah is in doubt about the relationship between time and light. It would seem that time is connected to light and stems from its appearance and disappearance – night and day = darkness and light. The Ramban, however, claims otherwise and writes: "When there is a Yesh, there is time" (Bereishit 1:4), and thus he tries to draw a connection between the very existence of Yesh and time that operates within it.
[6] We see this also with respect to the time of the exodus. Many commentators tried to bridge the gap between what was stated to Avraham "Your seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them, and they shall afflict them four hundred years" (Bereishit 15:13) and the two hundred years of actual servitude. Some suggest that when God heard Israel's cry he agreed to shorten the decree. Once again the haste and giving up of a gradual and natural reality describes the providential transition from a reality of nature – the name Elokim, to a reality of miracle – the Tetragrammaton: "And I appeared to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Ya'akov, by the name of God Almighty [El Shaddai], but by My name, the Lord [the Tetragrammaton], I was not known to them" (Shemot 6:3).
[7] The teaching is long, and therefore we shall divide it into several parts and relate to each section separately.

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