Rosh Chodesh Nisan Torah Essay: Pesach, Rosh Hashana of Emunah

This article is by Dr. Dodi Fishman Tobin, Director of Matan Bet Shemesh and coordinator of the Matan Advanced Tanach Summer Institute.

Tags: Haggadah Seder
Matan Women's Institute for Torah Studies

Judaism הגדה של פסח
הגדה של פסח

The late Slonimer Rebbe, in his masterwork Netivot Shalom, deems Pesach the “Rosh Hashana of Emunah”, for clarity of emunah (faith in G-d) was the ultimate objective of the exodus from Egypt, and is the spiritual objective of our seder night. Pharaoh personified the pinnacle of denial of G-d in the world, as seen in his response to Moshe’s request, in the name of G-d, to free the Jewish people:  

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר פַּרְעֹ֔ה מִ֤י יְקֹוָק֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶשְׁמַ֣ע בְּקֹל֔וֹ לְשַׁלַּ֖ח אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל לֹ֤א יָדַ֙עְתִּי֙ אֶת־יְקֹוָ֔ק וְגַ֥ם אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֹ֥א אֲשַׁלֵּֽחַ:

And Pharaoh said: 'Who is the LORD, that I should hearken unto His voice to let Israel go? I know not the LORD, and moreover I will not let Israel go (Ex 5:2).

Pharaoh’s arrogance is succinctly described in Ezekiel 29:3. There, Pharaoh is described as believing, "לי יאורי ואני עשיתני" -My river is mine own, and I have made it for myself.  Rashi explains the word עשיתני as referring to Pharaoh’s view that through his own strength and brilliance, he has made himself a great and powerful ruler. The Malbim’s interpretation depicts Pharaoh as one who considered himself a god. עשיתני means “I created myself.”

In response to Pharaoh’s hubris, G-d sought to instill within the Jewish people and all of Egypt a complete and unequivocal faith in G-d:

וְיָדְע֤וּ מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ כִּֽי־אֲנִ֣י יְקֹוָ֔ק בִּנְטֹתִ֥י אֶת־יָדִ֖י עַל־מִצְרָ֑יִם וְהוֹצֵאתִ֥י אֶת־בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִתּוֹכָֽם:

And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch forth My hand upon Egypt, and bring out the children of Israel from among them. (Ex 7:5)

The name of G-d used in this verse is the Tetragrammaton – יקוק, and it is this name of G-d that Pharaoh claims not to know in Exodus 5:2 above. The Netivot Shalom proposes that Pharaoh may have actually believed in the existence of G-d, for in Genesis 41:16, 28, 32, Joseph attributed his correct interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream to G-d, using the name Elokim. Moreover, when Pharaoh recognized Joseph’s interpretation as the correct one, he deemed Joseph a man within whom the “spirit of Elokim” dwelled (Gen 41:38).

In other words, Pharaoh may have recognized the aspect of G-d’s leadership in the world called Elokim,which the Vilna Gaon explains is G-d’s leadership of the world within the laws of nature. What Pharaoh denied was the attribute of G-d reflected in the name יקוק. According to the Vilna Gaon, this name reflects G-d’s leadership of the world through His acting upon nature, such as through revealed miracles.

The Tetragrammaton reflects G-d’s personal leadership of the His people Israel, what we call “Hashgacha Pratit” - Divine Intervention. It was this aspect of G-d that Pharaoh needed to acknowledge; to understand that G-d, and not he, is the force behind all of reality, at every moment, and that he can overturn any aspect of reality at His will.

To this end, G-d brought not one, but ten plagues. In his book Gvurot Hashem, the Maharal of Prague explains that the progression of the plagues served to counter every aspect of Pharaoh’s irreverence. Before each group of three plagues were effectuated, G-d elucidated that they were being brought so that Egypt would “know that I am the Lord” (Ex 7:17, 8:18, 9:14). Each group of three plagues affirmed G-d’s dominion over another realm of reality. Specifically, the plagues of blood, frogs and lice were plagues that impacted the ground. The plagues of wild beasts, cattle disease and boils, altered the space between the land and the sky. Hail, locusts and darkness were plagues that affected the sky itself. 

The Maharal also looks at each plague individually and elucidates the role of each in proclaiming G-d’s dominion. For instance, blood was a plague that affected the water, the element that lies at the world’s deepest foundation. Lest Pharaoh contend that G-d’s dominion ended there, G-d sent a second plague of frogs, affirming that He rules over all creatures that are amphibious. The plague of lice, which emerged from the ground, reflected G-d’s dominion over the land. The plague of wild beasts pronounced G-d’s control over those things that lived upon the land. The plague of cattle disease, which permeated the air with a terrible stench, pronounced G-d’s domination over the air above the land, and so on, until the plague of darkness, which affected the sources of light in the highest heavens, and the Slaying of the First Born, which affirmed G-d’s dominion over the most elevated entity of all, the soul of man. Finally, after witnessing G-d split the Reed Sea, the Israelites achieved utter clarity in their emunah:

And Israel saw the great work which the LORD did upon the Egyptians, and the people feared the LORD; and they believed in the LORD, and in His servant Moses (Ex 14:31)

It is this emunah of the Israelites that we are charged to awaken within our souls on seder night. The mishna in Pesachim 10:5 states that we must strive to re-experience the exodus from Egypt, based upon G-d’s directive in Exodus 13:8-

“And thou shalt tell thy son in that day, saying: It is because of that which the LORD did for me when I came forth out of Egypt.”

The medium through which we are meant to re-experience the Exodus, and thus reaffirm our emunah, is by the telling of the story, and praising and blessing G-d for His miracles and salvation. Yet, if the goal of the seder rituals is to infuse us with emunah, why doesn’t G-d simply bring wondrous miracles, year after year, as He did on the eve of the Exodus?

Rav Chaim Friedlander, author of the Siftei Chaim, explains that our nation in Egypt was extremely depleted both physically and spiritually, and the revealed miracles were necessary to imprint upon their souls complete faith which they could then pass down through the telling of the Exodus story, from generation to generation. In subsequent generations, G-d does not perform miracles that deviate from the laws of nature, nor is this part of His grand plan.

Rather, G-d created the world in such a way that we face a perpetual nisayon – a continual test of faith. G-d gave us free choice, and He wants us to use it, to seek and reveal His dominion throughout reality, and to strengthen our emunah, without the help of miracles. Rav Eliyahu Dessler maintains that it is surely easier to have emunah when you witness a revealed miracle, but choosing to have faith is emunah at a higher level. Indeed, the Jewish nation has exhibited the ability to withstand the nisayon of emunah even in the darkest of times, through crusades, inquisitions, pogroms, the Holocaust, wars and more.

The Netivot Shalom explains that Pesach is the the first of all holidays in the Bible, because emunah is the foundation for Jewish life. Without the clarity ofemunah, Am Yisrael could not have received the Torah, and could not have entered Eretz Yisrael. Likewise, in our own personal lives, our spiritual growth must begin with the foundation of emunah.  This year on seder night, may we strive to fortify our emunah, and set a secure course for our spiritual growth throughout the year. 

The Edythe Benjamin חיה בת שלמה, beloved mother of Barbara Hanus, Rosh Hodesh Nissan Torah essay

Dr. Dodi Fishman Tobin, who wrote this article, is the Director of Matan Bet Shemesh and the coordinator of the newly established Matan Advanced Tanach Summer Institute. She holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Fairleigh Dickinson University, an M.A. in Bible from Bar Ilan University, a B.A. in Psychology from Barnard College, and is a graduate of the Matan Advanced Bible Program.