Wednesday, March 25, 2009

“To Be a Free People in Our Land”: A Passover Commentary by Yosef Hakohen

Dear Friends,

“Hatikvah” – the national anthem of the State of Israel – concludes with the following message:

“Our hope is not yet lost,
The hope of two thousand years,
To be a free people in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.”

From the perspective of our spiritual tradition, what does it mean “to be a free people in our land”? Our discussion on the meaning of this freedom will begin with the Passover story, for we refer to Passover in our prayers as zman cherusanu – the season of our freedom. For example, when we are ready to begin the Passover Seder, we chant the following words of thanksgiving to Hashem, the Compassionate and Life-Giving One:

“And You have lovingly given us, Hashem, our God, festivals of assembly for rejoicing, feasts and seasons for joy, this Festival of Matzos, the season of our freedom” (from the Kiddush – Blessing of Sanctification).

This freedom is to lead us to our own land, as the Torah records that Hashem told Moshe the following message before the Exodus, when Moshe stood at the burning bush on “the Mountain of God” (Mount Sinai): “I shall descend to rescue them from the hand of Egypt and to bring them up from that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8).

Hashem also reveals to Moshe at the burning bush another goal of the journey to freedom – a goal which will precede the entry into the Promised Land: “When you take the people out of Egypt, you will serve God on this mountain” (Exodus 3:12).

Later, Moshe was told by Hashem to give Pharaoh the following Divine message: “My firstborn child is Israel; so I say you, send out My child that he may serve Me” (Exodus 4:22.23).

A similar message was repeated later when Hashem told Moshe to tell Pharaoh: “Let My people go that they may serve Me (Exodus 7:26).

Why does the journey to freedom in our own land first lead to serving Hashem? The beginning of the answer to this question can be found in the following verse which reveals that the human being was created to serve the Divine purpose:

“Hashem God took the human being and placed him in the Garden of Eden to serve it and to guard it.” (Genesis 2:15)

To serve Hashem is to serve the Divine purpose for which we were created: to serve and to guard the Divine creation. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a noted sage and biblical commentator of the 19th century, elaborates on this idea in the following excerpt from his book, “The Nineteen Letters”:

“Your own inner awareness tells you, and the Torah states, that the human being’s purpose is to be a tzelem Elokim – a likeness of God. You are to be more than everything else; you are to exist for everything else. You can know God only through His acts of love and justice; and in turn, you too are called upon to act with justice and love, and not merely to indulge or endure. Everything bestowed upon you – mind, body, fellowman, material goods, other creatures, every talent and every power – all are merely means to action – l'avdah u’l’shamrah – to further and to safeguard everything.” (Letter Four)

The responsibility to further and safeguard everything expresses the purpose of all the mitzvos – Divine mandates – in the Torah. This idea is expressed in the following ancient teaching:

The Divine mandate to “serve” the Garden is a prototype of mitzvos aseh – the mitzvos of the Torah which call upon us to engage in actions which nurture and elevate the world, including ourselves. And the Divine mandate to “guard” the Garden is a prototype of mitzvos lo sa’asay – the mitzvos of the Torah which prohibit actions which damage and degrade the world, including ourselves. (“Tikunei Zohar” 55)

When we serve Hashem through the mitzvos of the Torah, we gain the freedom to become the human beings we are meant to be. Irving Bunim, a noted Torah educator of the previous generation, elaborates on this idea in his comments on the following words of King David to Hashem:

“I am Your servant, son of Your handmaid; You have released my fetters” (Psalm 116:16).

Irving Bunim explains that when we become the servants of Hashem, we are released from the “fetters” – restraining shackles – which enslave us. He writes:

“The fetters that bind us to ourselves are untied; we will not be mastered by our addictions, emotions, habits. Gaining inner freedom, we are released from psychological bondage to our fellowman, and ultimately from bondage to despotic governments. With the Torah, we become the Almighty’s personal servants, and are thus liberated from the inner, subtle chains of fear or the threat of meaninglessness in our lives. On many levels, we move freely to the goals of our faith.

“Whether mankind likes it or not, the realization grows that an uncommitted life, free of any higher goals or responsibilities, brings a bondage worse than slavery. The Eastern poet, Rabindranath Tagore, moved intuitively toward this conclusion when he wrote: “I have on my table a violin string. It is free...But it is not free to do what a violin string is supposed to do – to produce music. So I take it, fix it in my violin, and tighten it until it is taut. Only then is it free to be a violin string.’ ” (Ethics from Sinai by Irving Bunim, 6:2)

The spiritual discipline of the Torah channels all our energies into serving the Divine purpose; thus, it gives us the freedom to become the human beings we are meant to be. When we, the People of the Torah, are living in our own land, we can become a social model of this freedom and become “a light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6). The liberating message of the Torah will then go forth from our free people to all the nations, and the following prophecy will be fulfilled:

“For from Zion will go forth Torah and the Word of Hashem from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3).

On Passover, our people began the journey to ultimate freedom, and the conclusion of this journey will be in the land of Zion and Jerusalem. In this spirit, we open the Seder with the following words from the Passover Haggadah which express the yearning of our exiled people for the ultimate freedom:

“Now, we are here; next year may we be in the Land of Israel! Now, we are slaves; next year may we be free people!”

And in this spirit, we conclude the Seder with the following proclamation:

“Next year in Jerusalem!”

The month of Nissan begins on Wednesday evening March 25th. May we be blessed with a good and liberating month.

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen
Jerusalem (See below)

Related Teachings and Comments:

1. The words to Hatikvah were written in 1886 by Naphtali Herz Imber, and this poem became the anthem of the new Zionist movement. (An abridged edition later became the anthem of the State of Israel.) This poem refers to our yearning to return to the Land of Zion, but it does not refer to our spiritual raison d’etre in the Land of Zion. This was why Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook, a leading sage of the early 20th century, wrote an alternative poem entitled Ha'Emunah – The Faith – which he hoped would become the anthem of those returning to Zion. The poem opens with this proclamation: “Eternally there lives in our hearts, the steadfast faith to return to our holy land.” The following stanzas from this poem refer to our spiritual raison d’etre in Zion, and they are in the spirit of the above Passover teachings about freedom:

There we shall serve our God
With joy, happiness and song,
There we shall pilgrimage
Three times each year.

Torah of life is our desire,
Given from heavenly mouth,
Forever it is our heritage,
A gift from the desert.

2. In his book, The Nineteen Letters, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch discusses the universal significance of the Torah and its path of mitzvos, as well as the universal role of the People of Israel. Here is a link to my review of this book.

The Nineteen Letters is published by Feldheim.

3. In his book, Ethics from Sinai, Irving Bunim offers various commentaries on Pirkei Avos, the tractate from the Mishnah which discusses Torah ethics. The above excerpts were from the book’s commentary on the following teaching:

“The only free person is one who engages in Torah study” (6:2).

Ethics from Sinai is published by Feldheim.

Hazon – Our Universal Vision

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micha berger said...

The Satmar Rav z"l had a different translation of that line from the end of the seder as well as the end of Yom Kippur.

When Yaakov first meets Rachel, he is at a well with some shepherds, waiting for enough to come by to move the stone that protects the well. As she approaches, he asks the shepherds if all is well with his cousin Lavan, and they answer, “All peaceful, vehinei Racheil bito ba’ah im hatzon — and here is Racheil his daughter, coming with the flock.” (Bereishis 29:6)

A few lines later, “When he is still speaking to them, veRacheil ba’ah im hatzon — and Racheil came with the flock that belongs to her father.” (Ibid v 9)

Notice that one time “ba’ah” is used to mean that Racheil was on her way, the other that she had arrived already. Rashi clarifies with a grammatical point; it makes a difference which syllable gets the trop mark and stress. The first usage was “ba’AH“, with the stress on the second syllable, meaning “she is coming”. The second, “BA’ah” — “she came”.

Everyone assumes that the line is “Leshanah haBA’ah biYrushalayim — The coming year in Jerusalem”. But the Satmar Rav said this is a mistake.

We voice this desire at the close of Yom Kippur, shortly after the year began on Rosh haShanah, and on Pesach, shortly after the beginning of the year of months, the beginning of Nissan. We say it when a year just arrived. The line should not be said with the stress as “ba’AH” but rather say “BA’ah” — We are speaking of the year that just came!

Leshanah haba’AH biYrushalayim habenuyah!
May the year that just began be spent in a rebuilt Jerusalem!

The original poem "Tiqvateinu" also had a different refrain, much more traditional than speaking of our dream in terms of being a "free people":

Od lo avedah tiqvateinu
hatiqvah hanoshanah
lashuv le'eretz avoseinu
le'ir bahh David chanah

Still our hope is not lost
The ancient hope
To return to the land of our fathers
To the city where David camped.

Last, one can read 19 Letters for free, although in an older and stiffer translation and without R' Elias's footnotes. (Many in the Breuer's camp are heatedly divided over whether those footnotes truly reflect Rav Hirsch's thoughts. However, for that very reason many find his edition more usable in applying to one's own life.) See R' Drachman's 1899 translation in Google Books, which also has links for PDF or (a not fantastic) plain text download.

Happy Nissan!

Anonymous said...

Great comment. But don;t you mean "Leshanah haBA’ah biYrushalayim habenuyah!
May the year that just began be spent in a rebuilt Jerusalem!" with the stress on haBA'ah?!

Anonymous said...


The text I used is the one found in various editions of the Haggadah that I have in my home.