Photo Credit: Jewish Press

During these weeks of the month of Nissan, including the upcoming holiday of Pesach, we will examine some of the writings of Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, zt”l, on this season of our redemption. The Gemara in Shabbat (87b) lists all of the miracles that were performed in Mitzrayim during the month of Nissan and the week of Pesach. The Gemara says that the death of the firstborn occurred at night, and the exodus began that same night before dawn – on Thursday. This means that the preparation for the korban pesach, including designating the lamb and tying it to the bedpost, had begun on Shabbat. We will discuss this further next week, on Shabbat HaGadol.

Rav Kook examined this Gemara in his book of insights into “agaddot,” parables found in the text of the Talmud, called Ein Aya. He says that in order to fully understand the magnitude of the miracle of Yetziat Mitzrayim, we must first appreciate how every nation is defined by the cohesive spiritual aspect of its cultural identity. That is to say, every nation in the world has characteristics that, in combination, constitute its identity which distinguishes it from every other nation. One essential spiritual aspect of the nation of Israel is our identification with Hashem, our G-d, and this characterizes us and makes us distinct throughout history – from ancient times until the present day.


The danger of the Egyptian exile was not from physical obliteration or the suffering that resulted from our bondage and servitude. The goal of Pharaoh in enslaving us, and that of the Egyptian nation by extension, was to root out this core of holiness that separated us from the other nations of the world. We see this exemplified when Moshe and Aharon come before Pharaoh and he declares to them, “Who is Hashem that I should heed His voice? I have never heard of Hashem and I will not set Israel free” (Shemot 5:2). In this declaration Pharaoh clearly establishes the stakes of the conflict he has decided to wage against Israel and our G-d.

But to take matters a step further, Pharaoh isn’t simply declaring war against Israel and our G-d – he is declaring absolute liberty from and sovereignty over the spiritual aspect of nations which Rav Kook described above. He is affirming that only the material, the discernible, physical reality is significant, and that any force operating from outside of nature has no power in his realm. When Moshe first began performing wondrous acts and when the plagues began to afflict Mitzrayim, Pharaoh’s response again and again was to have his magicians replicate these acts. Very well, he seemed to be saying, you can do fancy tricks – well, so can I, and I am still the lord and master of these realms.

In order for Hashem to defeat the power of Pharaoh and Mizrayim and take us out of our predicament, He had to both overthrow the audacity of Pharaoh and elevate the spiritual sanctity of Israel at once. Israel participated in this process by slaughtering the Pesach lamb, an object of veneration to the Mitzrim. In order to be liberated, Israel had to demonstrate above all that we had not been spiritually subjugated or assimilated into the nihilism of Mitzrayim, and that we were prepared to violate the norms of that perverse society and to risk our lives for a higher truth than what constituted the prevailing values of the civilization we found ourselves in.

At the same time – on the same night, Rav Kook emphasizes – Hashem performed a reckoning with the gods of Mitzrayim. Pharaoh wanted to demonstrate that he could enslave not only the bodies but the spirit of Israel. Hashem taught Pharaoh that if you choose a fight with the Master of the Universe, then not only your soul but the bodies of your people will be forfeited. For this reason, the culmination of the usurpation of the power of Mitzrayim was the slaughter of the firstborn. Israel is, Moshe announced to Pharaoh, the firstborn of Hashem. Our souls are designated to His service and our bodies participate in this service and are elevated as well. In exactly the way that Pharaoh sought to violate the firstborn children of Hashem, he and his nation in the end were violated.

Rav Kook says that this entire process was really only a reflection of the divinity that had all along been concealed and suppressed in the nation of Israel when we were subjugated. This light and glory that Pharaoh had worked so hard to extinguish shone forth beginning on Shabbat, because the mitzvah of Shabbat is what sets us apart from the other nations and demonstrates our commitment to Hashem as our only master. It reached its climax on Wednesday evening, the beginning of Thursday on the Jewish calendar, because the natural processes of every week conclude on Thursday, as on Friday we begin our Shabbat preparations. The Gemara describes how all of the miracles occurred in rapid succession over the course of that night, so that by Thursday morning we were already on our way. This is the clear demonstration that the natural order had been usurped and that even mundane day-to-day reality had been co-opted for the purpose of redeeming Israel.

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Avraham Levitt is a poet and philosopher living in Philadelphia. He writes chiefly about Jewish art and mysticism. His most recent poem is called “Great Floods Cannot Extinguish the Love.” It can be read at He can be reached by email at [email protected].