By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
After a winter when seemingly dormant trees stood bare, the song of birds was quieted, and flowers shriveled up and died, we begin to see life again. Branches bloom, grass turns green again, and robins scramble, seeking tasty worms. The sun shines brightly, warming our hearts and souls with a promise of hope and brightness.
Elderly and sick people who were unable to venture outdoors because of the cold or the snow, are now free to go about and enjoy the world Hashem created for us. Young and old soak in the pleasures of recreation, walking, throwing balls or biking as they use the lovely climate to strengthen their muscles and enhance their well-being.
Pesach is the yom tov of the season of spring.
It was during this period that Hashem announced that the time had come. He told our beleaguered ancestors that this month of Nissan was to be for them the first of the year. Hebrew months count from Nissan, even though Rosh Hashanah is in Tishrei. That month precedes the doom of winter, while Nissan heralds spring. It is fitting for our nation to begin counting months at the time that the world starts to get back to itself after lying in semi-hibernation.
As they were mired in seemingly endless backbreaking slavery, the Jews heard these words and they were musical. For 210 years, they had known subjugation and torture. Now, finally, that would change. The nation had appeared withered as a tree in the depths of winter, broken by pain, hunger and demoralizing servitude. Now, it would come to an end.
Hachodesh hazeh lochem. A new month, a new season, a new reality. Lochem, given to you, a personal gift that you would recognize and appreciate. From this month forward, you will never be the same. Every day will be part of a greater whole, each weekday leading up to Shabbos, and each Shabbos to Rosh Chodesh, which itself ushers in the tekufas hashanah. Every season will have meaning to you. No longer slaves, you will be an am kadosh.
At the Seder, we begin the tale of our redemption from Mitzrayim by recounting shameful episodes in our lineage and conclude with those worthy of praise. In the Haggadah, we begin the story of our redemption by going back to the beginning, speaking about the misfortune that befell our forefathers as our nation was forming. We speak of what they endured and then progress to their liberation and formation as a new people, for there is no spring that is not preceded by winter, no freedom that comes without agony, and no birth without pain.
Therefore, it is crucial that we include the obstacles and challenges strewn in our path from the very beginning.
Thus, the posuk states (Devorim 16:1), “Shamor es chodesh ha’aviv, v’osiso pesach laHashem Elokecha ki bechodesh ha’aviv hotziacha Hashem Elokecha miMitzrayim laylah – Watch the month of spring, and make in it the Korban Pesach to Hashem, because in spring Hashem removed you from Mitzrayim in the night.” Pesach is intrinsically tied to spring. We were taken out in this season and we must celebrate our delivery in this season. In fact, the Gemara (Sanhedrin 11a) understands from this posuk that the month of Nissan must be watched – “shamor” – to ensure that it is in the spring, and when it appears as if it will be in the winter, we must make a leap year, like this year, when we had two months of Adar.
Perhaps we can also explain that the reason the posuk interjects that we were taken out of Mitzrayim in spring and at night, “laylah,” is to reinforce the concept that we were enshrouded in slavery, darkness and tumah. We were removed from that dark situation and placed in “aviv,” spring, with our newly-gained freedom and soon-to-be rebirth as a nation.
Even after our formation as a people and even after receiving the Torah, there were ups and downs, as there are in our daily lives. The lesson of “Hachodesh hazeh lochem” reminds us that there is always opportunity for hischadshus, renewal, in our world. We should never despair. Cold will give way to heat, and sadness to joy. If things aren’t going right for us, we have to believe that there can be improvement and set ourselves to realize that goal. It may be difficult and it may take effort and hard work, but there is no goal that is unattainable for a person of faith.
Leading up to Pesach, we scramble, utilizing all our energy to clean our possessions. The drive to wash and vacuum every part of the house and clean every closet is widespread, even in instances where it is not halachically mandated. It hints to the fact that we remember our history and that before the geulah there was much hard work. The mekubolim reveal that the sweat that results from toiling to clean for Pesach purifies as a mikvah.
Rav Shloime Halberstam zt”l, first rebbe of Bobov, visited the home of a wealthy follower before Pesach, soliciting funds for the poor. The rebbe detected an aura of calm in the home. Although there were servants and maids everywhere, it was lacking that special feeling experienced in every Jewish home before yom tov.
The man proudly explained to the rebbe that he owned a Pesach house, where he and his family spend the eight days of Pesach. “That way, we don’t have to labor over cleaning the mansion. We sell the chometz in this house and move into a separate place, where we celebrate yom tov with minimum aggravation.”
The rebbe told the man that his grandfather, the Divrei Chaim of Sanz, would say that the mitzvah is not to have a clean, chometz-free home. The mitzvah is to get rid of the chometz in your home, as the posuk states, “Tashbisu se’or miboteichem.”
People seek to simplify mitzvos and make them easy to perform. They look for ways to sit back and enjoy the holy days with a minimum of exertion. They forget that to succeed in anything requires much effort. If we wish to benefit from the kedushah and brachos of the yom tov, we have to invest time and effort in the preparations. Otherwise, we risk losing the hashpa’os that Pesach offers.
The connection between the labor and exertion of bedikas chometz and the enduring struggle against evil is referenced in Chazal, who compare the yeitzer hora to se’or shebe’isah, the layer of chometz in the dough. Chometz represents immorality, and by eradicating it, we undergo a profound spiritual cleansing.
The toil and sweat of preparing for Pesach add much to our Jewish lives. Working hard to prepare for yom tov and make sure everything is in order turns us into more elevated and spiritually sensitive individuals.
One year before Pesach, a young man asked Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l if it was permissible to perform bedikas chometz using a flashlight. Responding, Rav Shach asked him how his father conducts the search for chometz. The man answered that his father uses the light of a candle.
The aged rosh yeshiva said to him, “If your father does bedikas chometz with a candle, why would you think to do it with a flashlight?”
The young man replied that people say that with a flashlight, one is able to better examine cracks and crevices, as it provides a clearer light.
With a wave of his hand, Rav Shach looked at the man quizzically and said, “Do you really think you can see better than your father?”
Grasp the candle tightly. It represents the search for impurity and illuminates the path to spiritual fulfillment, the fusion of Torah and mitzvos. The light of Torah endures. It has remained lit through so many generations, so many lands, and so many travails.
Our fathers and grandfathers searched for chometz with a candle for thousands of years. It may be harder to search with a candle. It may require getting closer to the crevices, being more careful, and cleaning up drips, but since when is Pesach about being easy? Since when do we look for shortcuts in performing mitzvos? The harder we work, the more effort we put into the baking of matzos, grating the maror, search for chometz, preparing the home, and making sure everything is in order, the more regal we will be as we sit at the Seder, celebrating our geulah and all the good we have been blessed with.
Rav Elimelech Biderman tells how Napoleon prepared for battle. Before attacking, the general would disguise himself and travel to the enemy’s land, where he would listen to the conversations and get a feel of the ebb and flow of life in the country. After learning about the people he would face, he would return home empowered to properly plot his assault.
Once, a camouflaged Napoleon and an aide sat in a tavern in hostile territory, listening to the people around them. Military tactics and information flowed like the cheap whiskey, and the leader was making mental notes when, suddenly, he detected a look on the face of one of the locals.
“Isn’t that Napoleon?” the expression seemed to say, and the fellow began to whisper to his comrades. Napoleon panicked, realizing that if he was recognized, he would be killed. Suddenly, his aide leaned over and slapped him across the face. “You fool,” he shouted, kicking Napoleon’s chair out from under him. The subordinate stood up and poured his drink on to his leader, continuing to insult him.
Napoleon was stunned, but within moments, he realized the wisdom of his aide. At the next table, someone immediately concluded that the unfamiliar face was clearly not the powerful general. After all, look how his friend was treating him.
When he safely returned home, Napoleon summoned his troops and told them the story of his aide’s quick thinking. “Sometimes,” he said, “what appears to be a blow is the kiss of new life.”
So too, says Rav Biderman, the g’nus, the shame and oppression of Mitzrayim, and the blows we endured, formed us into a people and prepared us for Kabbolas HaTorah.
It was the winter that allowed spring to burst forth.
Seventy-five years ago, when murder and destruction spread across Europe, a small group of yeshivos were carried on eagle’s wings to faraway Shanghai, where they spent those awful years in relative peace. In hot Shanghai, they flourished in learning and middos, their suffering bringing forth new kochos, gifting our people with a generation of gedolim and roshei yeshiva.
When the war ended, the full brunt of their situation finally hit them. Free to travel, they realized that few among them had parents or families waiting to reunite with them. There was nowhere to go back to. Everyone had been killed. Everything had been destroyed.
As a steady stream of talmidim headed to Eretz Yisroel and America, several remained behind, waiting for visas. For the first time, they were overtaken by despair. A group of Polish talmidim, students in the exiled Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin, received a personal letter from the Imrei Emes of Ger.
Understanding the challenge of finding strength when they felt like mourning, he sent them a missive filled with chizuk and encouragement.
The main thing is to know that everything comes from Hashem and no bad emanates from Him. Everything is for the good… As the seforim teach, “Vayehi erev vayehi voker yom echod” – both the darkness and kindness are from one source and for one goal: to illuminate the world for us later on.
We believe that just as the Tochechah, the prophecies foretelling difficult times, were fulfilled, so will the hopeful and comforting prophecies come to be. The hester ponim is a test, an illusion, and ultimately it will be very good.
The Imrei Emes quoted the Rambam’s Igeres Teiman, where he encouraged the beleaguered Jews of Yemen during a difficult time.
Rabbeinu Maimon writes that a cord of Torah and mitzvos connects heaven and earth; to the degree that a person grasps it will he himself be strengthened…
The rebbe signed it, “Ohavchem, the one who loves you, who shares in your pain, who looks forward to salvation and consolation.”
The eternal message, that g’nus leads to shevach, winter leads to spring, and darkness leads to light, is as old as creation. Vayehi erev vayehi voker yom echod.
Now, with winter’s end, with so many of us smarting from blows – challenges, hardships, sickness and discouraging news – some that only we know about, we grab on to the rope of hope afforded to us by this glorious month and the glorious yom tov.
We work hard during these coming days preparing for Pesach, and as we do so, we study and internalize the lessons the yom tov beholds. Although it may appear to be laylah, armed with emunah and bitachon we fortify ourselves with additional strength even when we think we have none left. We sense that we are in chodesh ha’aviv and that our travails will give birth to recuperation and success. Sickness will give way to health, failures will lead to achievements, losses will lead to triumphs, and golus will lead to geulah. Amein.