The month of Nissan has rolled around again. Let’s dig in and see if we can discover what Hashem wants from us during this time of year. What is the special quality of this month? Which mountain must we climb? Come, we have a long way to go.
Let’s take our first stop at the Bnei Yissaschar, who focuses on the etymology of the name of the month. He explains that Nissan comes from the word nes, miracle. Seemingly, this should be very easy to understand, for there is no month in the year when greater miracles happened than during Nissan. As a matter of fact, the Ramban writes that the supernatural display of the Exodus remains the one time in history that Hashem revealed His hand fully and completely, thus obviating the need to ever do so again.
But what is the significance of Nissan for the modern Jew? Though it is clear that Nissan was the month of miracles in the past, it is harder to see the significance of the month’s supernatural quality for us living in the here and now. Even if you say that the miracles of the future redemption will take place in Nissan (as the Gemara in Rosh Hashanah 11a indeed states), there still must be an area of growth particular to this month’s quality for all of the Jews sandwiched between the original and future redemptions. So what is it?
Since it is obvious that the unique mitzvos of the month reflect the uniqueness of the month, let’s turn to one of the two mitzvos D’Oraysa which we observe during Nissan, eating matzah at the Seder. Why do we eat matzah on Pesach? The Haggadah seems to be slightly contradictory on the matter. At the beginning of the Seder, we lift the matzah and declare, “This is the poor man’s bread that we ate in Egypt.” Apparently, matzah is a symbol of slavery. On the other hand, in the middle of the Seder we state, “This matzah that we eat is because our dough had no time to rise, because of the speed with which we were chased out of Egypt…” Add this to the fact that we recline (to display freedom) while eating matzah, as opposed to when we eat marror. Apparently, matzah is able to simultaneously represent slavery as well as freedom. If we can explain this duality, perhaps we can answer our original question.
Let’s turn to the second D’Oraysa mitzvah of the month, retelling the story of the Exodus at the Seder. The Gemara (Pesachim 116a) describes how this mitzvah is properly fulfilled. “You start [by describing] the lowly parts, and [after that you describe] the praiseworthy parts.” This means that we first describe how terrible it was in Egypt, and only afterwards do we describe the great salvation Hashem made for us. The Gemara continues, “How do we fulfill this requirement?” Rav says that we say “Originally (in Egypt) we were ovdei Avodah Zarah. [But Hashem redeemed us and brought us close to His Service.].” Shmuel argues that we recite Avadim Ha’yinu, “[Originally] we were slaves [to Pharaoh in Egypt. But Hashem redeemed us from there…]”
If you look in the Haggadah, you will see that we fulfill both opinions. The Vilna Gaon explains that they are both true. He wrote, “There were two exiles to which we were subject, an exile of the body and an exile of the soul. [We therefore thank Hashem for redeeming us from both.]”
Let’s take the Vilna Gaon’s idea and run with it. We are all familiar with the idea of a physical exile, but what does it mean to be in spiritual exile? Let’s analyze the phrase above, in which we described this idea. “Originally (in Egypt) we were ovdei Avodah Zarah.” What does “ovdei” mean? Most people would say it means worshippers, making the sentence read “Originally (in Egypt) we worshipped Avodah Zarah.” The problem is, the phrase Avadim Ha’yinu means “we were slaves,” meaning that the Hebrew root of the word, ayin veis dalet, does not mean worshippers, but rather “slaves.” This makes it a little more difficult to understand Rav. An idolater is somebody who (literally) idolizes his deity and ostensibly fulfills his commands out of free will. A slave on the other hand, is one whose physical actions are constrained and dictated by a master. So why does Rav call idolaters slaves?
The answer lies in a deeper understanding of what makes people worship idols (or do any sin, for that matter). What makes a holy soul decide to worship foreign gods? The answer is the yetzer hara. While sometimes we feel like serving Hashem and fulfilling His Torah, we all too often feel a compulsion to defy His will. Life is a constant struggle between the will of the yetzer hara and the desire to follow Hashem. The goal of every good Jew is to strengthen the soul day by day until it is the master over the body and its desires. However, what would happen if, G-d forbid, the body would gain supremacy? Essentially, the soul would be forced to concede to the body’s every whim. In other words, we would become slaves to our own desires. We stated above that a slave is one whose physical actions are dictated to him. Is there any greater example of a slave than one who is forced to act on his every desire because he cannot control himself?
Now let’s explain the duality of matzah. By now the answer should be clear. When the soul is a slave to the body, the desire to indulge must be fulfilled. The body’s orders are fulfilled without a second thought. A truly free man, on the other hand, can choose to eat poor bread. He is the master of himself and can decide in what he should indulge, in what amounts, and at which time. While it’s true that we suffered in Egypt from an exile of the body, we were also suffering from an exile of the soul. We were under the dominion of our bodies. Hashem redeemed us from this exile by raising us up to become His holy nation. By the time Hashem slew the firstborn, we were no longer forced to obey the body’s compulsions. We were free.
Now perhaps we can answer our original question. Nissan is the month of the supernatural. By fulfilling the Torah and mitzvos we can increase the power of the soul and enable it to dominate the body. Torah is above nature. Nissan is the time when we must focus on these supernatural abilities Hashem gave us through His Torah and mitzvos. All we need to do is take a few steps on our own and Hashem will surely bless us with added help from Above, just as He did in times of yore. Have a meaningful Nissan.Shaya Winiarz