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Hasidus Meets America: The Passover Haggadah

Excerpted from Hasidus Meets America: The Life and Torah of the Monastryshcher Rebbe zt”l (1860-1938) and an Anthology of His Teachings, by Ora Wiskind, co-published by OU Press and Ktav Publishing

The Passover Haggadah
Todat Yehoshua

The Passover Haggadah recounts a process of transformation in which Jewish self-awareness is fundamentally altered.19 In his extensive commentary on the Haggadah, R. Yehoshua Heschel reads the state of exile, or galut, as the beginning point of a metamorphosis that will transform a seemingly random gathering of individuals into an enmeshed community. But for this to take place, there must be an awakening, the birth of a new dimension of awareness. This awakening is what made the Exodus possible; ultimately, it is what engendered the entity called God’s chosen people, a nation worthy of being redeemed. In the opening pages of his commentary on the Haggadah, he examines the inner workings of that transformation and summons core Hasidic concepts to bring it to light.

“The people picked up its dough before it could rise” (Exod. 12:34). A prelude to the dramatic events to follow, this verse, narrated so briefly, represents the commandment of biur hametz, the injunction to take action, that “no leaven be found in your homes” (Exod. 12:19).20 Following the Zohar, R. Yehoshua Heschel reads it allegorically. “Dough,” in a mystical sense, symbolizes the body, material existence. This verse, then, attests that in that final hour they struggled to elevate themselves, to “pick up their dough,” their physicality, just before it was too late. But haste was essential, before the “Other Side” of evil had time to distract them with anxiety about themselves. In a moment of greatness, they attained the ultimate state of bitul hayesh – annulment of their earthly, embodied, human existence. What made this moment possible is the metaphysical, eternal bond between the Jewish people and God. The connection is primary, organic, indestructible. And so the Exodus, for all time to come, planted within the Jewish people the power to shrug off concern for the body and its pleasures, to forget (if only for a moment) what they lack, the pain and suffering of earthly life, to put aside egotism and selfishness. On this reading, the attainment of what Hasidic teaching calls hitpashtut ha-gashmiyut (freeing oneself from corporeity) signifies a vital, founding stage in every spiritual journey toward freedom, from the historical Exodus to every private story of exile and hoped-for redemption.21

Thus, urgency to “remember the day you left Egypt all the days of your life,” far more than a memory of the historical past, reverberates into the present, into the psyche of every living Jew. R. Yehoshua Heschel describes the self-perception that the Haggadah seeks to cultivate. These lines from the first pages of his commentary resonate with contemporary relevance.

[Remembering] is what ensures our survival throughout our  wanderings, uprooted again and again, from one exile to the next. Wherever we go, we are persecuted and despised, scorned and demeaned by all. Yet we must not falter, must never believe that we are the lowest of nations. The day we left Egypt – this memory must imprint our consciousness, . . . the great lengths to which God went to redeem us from there, to make us His treasured, unique nation. This alone will guard us from being swallowed up by our surroundings, assimilated and lost in alien cultures; this alone empowers us to keep on hoping, never to despair that salvation is near.22

Paradoxically, R. Yehoshua Heschel says, centuries of Jewish existence amidst the nations “as a lamb among wolves” is the most cogent testimony of God’s power on the stage of history. The striking prooftext of all this that he offers is a theologically laden Talmudic passage. The ominous, terror-striking eventuality of Divine occlusion – “I will hide My face on that day” (Deut. 31:18) – is preempted by a second counter-narrative: “Rav Yosef said, His hand is outstretched, guarding over us, as it is written, ‘I have covered you in the shadow of My hand’ (Isa. 51:16).”23 The powerful images in the Haggadah of God’s “strong hand” and “outstretched arm” gesture to this complex reality. Although present-day “heretics” continue to avow that “ours is the nation whose Master turned His face from it,” in truth, hester panim means just the opposite: it attests not to abandonment but to concealed, eternal Divine presence. Thus, he concludes, “‘While they are in the land of their enemies, even so, I shall never reject them utterly’ (Lev. 27:44). God’s ‘outstretched arm’ bears witness to this promise, that the Face will not be hidden forever. His hand secretly shelters and protects us from annihilation in this exile; it buoys our hope that, in the end, God will return and comfort us.”24

19. This section is based on my discussion in: “A Hasidic Commentary on the Passover Haggadah for the New World,” Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 31 (2023), 233–260.
20. His reading al derekh ha-hasidut is based on a passage from Zohar 2.40b, which he notes.
21. Todat Yehoshua, 15–16; 29. R. Yehoshua Heschel returns to this theme later in his commentary, pp. 96–99; see my discussion below. His understanding of “worship through corporeity” and the complex interrelationship between consciousness, materiality and spirituality are clearly influenced by Habad Hasidic thought.
22. Todat Yehoshua, 29–30; see Hebrew Sources, p. 157. He writes cogently of this in his memoirs as well. See my discussion in “Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel Rabinowitz of Monastryrishche: Contemplations of a Hasidic Leader on Judaism in Troubled Times” (Hebrew), Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought 25 (2017), 197–202.
23. Hagigah 5b. On the striking statement in that Talmudic passage that “whoever has not experienced hester panim [the hiding of God’s face] is not one of them [the Jewish people],” see Todat Yehoshua, 37; see also his commentary on the Talmud, Yalkut Yehoshua, 95.
24. “Heretics” would avow that “ours is the nation whose Master turned His face from it” (alluding to Hagigah 5b). Todat Yehoshua, 29–30.