Nissan, the Month of Freedom
Rabbi Yehoshua says: In Nissan we were redeemed (from Egypt) and in Nissan we will again be redeemed (Rosh Hashana 11a)
The special energy of the month of Nissan — and more specifically the holiday of Pesach — is freedom. As we say in the prayers, Pesach is “zman cheruteinu” (the time of our freedom). Our national freedom though is not the entire picture. On the night of Pesach, our Sages demand of every individual to personally view himself as if he actually left Egypt (Pesachim 116a). In light of the fact that we are not presently enslaved, however, how are we to relate to this obligation?
To place our freedom in proper perspective, the Gemara tells us to contrast it with the past slavery by starting the Pesach Seder with our history of bondage. There is a disagreement between the Talmudic Sages Rav and Shmuel about exactly how to relate the story of slavery. As the Gemara says:
Start with shame and end with praise. What is shame? Rav says [to start relating the story from] “in the beginning our forefathers were idol worshippers” and Shmuel says [to start relating the story from] “we were slaves [in Egypt]”. (Pesachim 116a)
The Maharal explains that both Rav and Shmuel agree that the exodus from Egypt had an aspect of both physical and spiritual freedom. They differ only in which of these freedoms to emphasize on the night of the Seder. Shmuel holds that since physical freedom is more tangible, we should begin the Seder from when we were physically enslaved in Egypt. Rav on the other hand maintains that since spiritual freedom is more primary we should begin from when we were spiritually enslaved to worshipping idols. Based on this we can say that in addition to the physical freedom, it is also the spiritual freedom that is demanded of us to personally relive on Pesach.
Based on the above it is incumbent upon us to delve into the nature of spiritual slavery. Names in Judaism always express essence. Therefore, by studying the depth behind names we are able to get an understanding of the spiritual nature of the person, object etc. bearing that name. The root of the name “Mitzrayim” (Egypt) is “meitzar” (constraints). Rabbi Dessler explains that just as the physical Mitzrayim constricted us physically, our inner Mitzrayim, namely the yetzer hara (evil inclination), constricts and enslaves us spiritually. Based on this idea, the commentaries suggest that though the story of coming out of Mitzrayim is obviously true on a literal, physical level, it is also an allusion to a person’s own individual freedom from his spiritual exile. In this parallel Pharaoh represents the evil inclination, Moshe Rabbeinu represents the good inclination, while the Jewish People represent the soul that is essentially exiled from its spiritual source. Building on this theme the Siftei Chaim explains that if we delve deeper into how Pharaoh enslaved the Jewish People, we will have a better understanding of how to overcome our evil inclination. The following is one example of how this is so.
The Midrash tells us that Moshe Rabbeinu convinced Pharaoh to allow the Jewish People to rest on the day of Shabbat. Following Moshe’s plea to free the Jewish People, however, Pharaoh not only took away this privilege but also increased their workload. What can we learn about the inner battle between the forces of good and evil from the actions of Moshe and Pharaoh? The Gemara tells us that when a person repeats a transgression he gets so used to it that he no longer views it as a sin (Yoma 86b). Therefore, the Mesillat Yesharim says, the first step in spiritual growth is to designate a time to contemplate one’s actions in order to determine which areas need improvement. This time for introspection, also called “cheshbon hanefesh” (spiritual accounting of the soul), is meant to prevent sins from becoming instinctive habits.
Though ideally one is supposed to set aside time everyday for contemplation, Shabbat is the most opportune time for it. How is this so? Just as on Shabbat we can only enjoy what we prepared during the week, so too in the World-to-Come we can only bask in the things we accomplished in this world. In this sense, on Shabbat we get a glimpse of what our future olam haba will be like. When a person feels good and happy on Shabbat, it is a sign that he has had a productive and creative week. If a person feels uneasy or despondent on Shabbat, it is an allusion to the fact that he has not truly utilized his potential during the week. This is why Shabbat is known as m’ein olam haba (like the World-to-Come). Through experiencing Shabbat correctly we are able to see if we are spiritually on the right track.
Perhaps now we can understand the lesson behind the clash between Moshe and Pharaoh over the day of Shabbat. As mentioned above, taking time for introspection is the first step to spiritual freedom. For Moshe, who is the representative of the good inclination, the institution of Shabbat as the day of rest was the first step to freedom. On the other hand, for Pharaoh, who is the representative of theevil inclination, getting rid of the Shabbat and increasing the workload was the perfect way to combat any thought of autonomy. In a practical sense, our evil inclination uses the same tactic as Pharaoh, through busying our own lives with trivial things to such a degree that we barely have time to ask if what we are doing is right or wrong. It makes us live our lives through habit, doing today what we did yesterday, leaving us little opportunity for change. The challenge is to combat this onslaught through constant self-evaluation and introspection. This is the main inner battle between good and evil.
In one way or another every person is spiritually enslaved. From laziness to pride, from laxity in keeping mitzvot to submitting to our desires, we all have spiritual weaknesses we struggle with. Pesach — “the time of our freedom” — is the auspicious time to overcome our spiritual weaknesses and leave the bondage of our inner Mitzrayim. Through introspection and proper utilization of the spiritual opportunities of this time, we defeat the “Pharaoh” within and leave behind our internal “Mitzrayim”. This is one way we can literally fulfill the requirement of seeing ourselves as if we left Mitzrayim. May we all merit making the most of this most propitious time and thereby merit seeing the ultimate redemption speedily in our days.