We usually think of Purim as being the Jewish holiday of the year that represents the opposites of human existence. It is also thought of as being a time of wine and whatever else accompanies the consumption of that alcoholic beverage. But surprisingly enough Pesach also fits that template of opposites and wine consumption.
We are all familiar with the rabbinic law that ordains the consumption of four cups of wine (the more fainthearted amongst us use grape juice, if necessary) during the course of the Pesach seder. In that there is a striking example of the opposite attitudes that Judaism often introduces in contrast to general society. Most of the human race drinks wine in order to forget, to blot out troubles and cares and obliterate disturbing memories of the past.
Jews, however, drink four cups of wine on seder night in order to remember. The cups of wine are there to help us recall our centuries of bondage in Egyptian servitude and of the miraculous redemption that the Lord created for us. The Torah teaches us that Noach, after the tragedy of the flood, planted a vineyard and became drunk in response to the horrors that he witnessed as his entire generation was swept away by the punishing flood. So to speak, he attempted to drown his sorrows away in cups of wine.
His Jewish descendants would drink cups of wine in order to commemorate their slavery and tortures and mark their release from those evils. Pesach wine is remembrance while the wine of mankind generally represents the opposite – the desire to forget.
Another example of opposite values exhibited by the Pesach Hagadah is the fact that the name of Moshe, for all practical purposes, is missing from the entire Hagadah narrative. Imagine a description of the independence of the United States without the mention of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson! But the explanation for the absence of Moshe in the narrative of the Hagadah is firstly a confirmation of Moshe’s outstanding attribute – extreme modesty. It can also be seen as a fulfillment of Moshe’s statement to God to have his name erased from the book of the Torah and the narrative of Jewish history.
But I feel that perhaps the absence of Moshe in the Torah’s story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt is to avoid the cult of the personality. The world usually ascribes great events solely to human behavior and actions. However, great events are part of the unseen hand of heaven guiding the fortunes of nations and individuals.
The absence of Moshe’s name indicates that God took the Jewish people out of Egyptian bondage and not the greatness of any human being, even of the greatest of human beings, Moshe. Moshe is called “the servant of God” in the Torah. That is how Moshe always viewed himself. And that is how the Torah wishes us to also view him. When he was viewed as indispensable to Jewish existence, the trgagedy of the Golden Calf occurred.
A further example of the opposites that are part of the Pesach story and its commemoration is the constant reminder of the failures of the Jewish people that are intermixed in the Pesach holiday. Seder night is also the same night of the week as the ninth of Av, the day of the destruction of the Temples of Jerusalem.
Judaism commemorates its defeats and not only its victories and triumphs. In the general world, defeats are rarely remembered and certainly not commemorated ritually. But Judaism recognizes that failure is an integral part of human life and national existence.
The miraculous survival and resilience of the Jewish people is in no small way due to its ability to admit and commemorate its defeats and failures. It remains the key to the necessary self-analysis that is the precursor for correcting past faults and improving future behavior and actions. Someone who feels that he or she is never wrong, nothing is ever one’s fault, is a sure recipe for further failures, disagreements and disappointments.
The Pesach opposite tempered the joy of deliverance and independence with the realities of life, which always includes the possibilities of failure and error. There is no escape from this fact of human existence. Pesach comes to remind us of this. It provides us with an opposite view that is so characteristic of Jewish values and the Jewish view of life and history generally.
My best wishes to all of you for a chag kasher v’sameach