“Hitting Bottom”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

The Al-mighty had told Moses and the Jewish people to prepare for redemption. In Exodus 12:3, the Israelites are instructed to take a lamb on the 10th of Nisan, and in Exodus 12:6, they are told that on the 14th of Nisan, “bayn ha’arbayim,” the lamb was to be slaughtered and prepared for the Pascal offering. That night, the 15th of Nisan, the lamb was to be eaten at their first Passover seder.

The expression “bayn ha’arbayim,” literally means “between evenings.” Therefore, according to tradition, the lamb was slaughtered on the 14th of Nisan from immediately after noon, when the sun first starts setting, until sunset. That evening, the 15th of Nisan, was to be a major celebration where families were to eat the Pascal sacrifice. Specific instructions were given regarding the celebration. The Pascal sacrifice was to be roasted over fire and eaten with matzot and maror (Exodus 12:8). Anything left over from the Pascal offering (Exodus 12:8-9) was to be burnt by morning.

As noted above, the slaughtering had already begun at noon of the 14th of Nisan. The celebration and the eating of the sacrifice was to begin at nightfall, and the announced redemption was scheduled to take place at or about midnight. One might assume that with more than four hours to eat, the Al-mighty would give the Jewish people a chance to relax, to lie casually on their lounge chairs and eat the Pascal sacrifice slowly and patiently, savoring each bite.

But instead, the Torah states rather forcefully (Exodus 12:11): “V’cha’cha toch’loo o’toh: maht’nay’chem cha’goo’rim, nah’ah’lay’chem b’rahg’lay’chem, oo’ma’kel’chem b’yed’chem. Vah’ah’chahl’tem o’toh b’chee’pah’zoan, Pesach hoo la’Hashem,” This is the way you shall eat it: your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand. You shall eat it in haste, it is a Pesach-offering to G-d. No casual lounging around here, no slow chewing, no leisurely conversation, everything must move quickly, fast, hastily. You must be ready and outfitted to leave Egypt, dressed in your traveling clothes, your knapsacks on your backs, your walking sticks in hand, and of course, your durable hiking boots. Don’t forget to take the Zantac tablets because you will be eating everything very quickly. (For someone like myself who loves lamb chops, it seems like a terrible waste of a great dining opportunity!)

What is the reason for this haste? The Zohar (the mystical interpretation on the Bible) tells us that over the years and centuries of enslavement, the Jews in Egypt had reached the 49th level of impurity, one level away from oblivion. Had they sunken any more into their impurities, they would have been totally irredeemable. Therefore, once the redemption was announced, the Israelites had to leave Egypt post-haste, before they were contaminated any further.

Our rabbis in the Midrash describe how low the Jews had sunk, depicting their decadent celebrations of “Zevach Ha’dam,” the wild orgies of blood and gore that they experienced with their Egyptian masters. The Midrash says that each evening, after the daily brutal regimen of slave labor had concluded, the Egyptian masters would “invite” their Jewish slaves to the amphitheater for an evening of entertainment. Together, master and slave, watched as the gladiators fought the animals, and as animals attacked each other. To add some spice to the program, unarmed human slaves–probably Jews–were sent to do “battle” with the fierce, ferocious animals. By the end of the “show,” the entire audience was in a drunken alcohol-induced stupor and frenzied from the extraordinary scenes of violence, but there was more to come. The base of the arena was now covered with corpses of animals and human beings, blood flowing freely throughout. The Jewish slaves together with their Egyptian masters would descend to the lower levels of the coliseum to drink the blood and eat the flesh of the victims!

Had the Israelites remained in Egypt for even a few moments longer, they would have been spiritually obliterated. Therefore, the Torah demands (Exodus 12:11): “Vah’ah’chahl’tem o’toh b’chee’pah’zoan,” You shall eat it [the Pascal offering] in haste–eat it and flee before you reach the point-of-no-return as your passions for decadence and violence take control.

An outside observer would probably think that it was kind of G-d to redeem the Jews before they reached the point of no-return. But why did He wait so long and not redeem them sooner?

It is no coincidence that we often hear today about addictive personalities who have “hit bottom.” In order to recognize that they are in need of help, alcoholics and drug addicts often need to come to their own realization that they have no further place to go, except up, and the only way to accomplish that is to take control of their lives and turn themselves around.

The Divrei Shmuel offers an interesting analogy of a seed that is planted in the ground. Its husk needs to completely disintegrate before the seed can take root. However, if the seed itself disintegrates, it is lost forever.

Contemporary medicine employs similar paradigms. Inoculations and vaccinations often utilize the disease itself to build up resistance to the full-blown disease. The great ethicists of the 18th century frequently employed the expression: “Yeridah l’tzorech aliyah,” stating that, at times, a spiritual descent to the lowest levels was necessary in order to bring about a spiritual ascent to the highest levels.

Not everybody needs to hit absolute “bottom” in order to realize that they need help. But everybody must come to the conclusion that if they truly want to help themselves, they must recognize that they have no place to go, but up, because they simply can not go down any further and survive.

G-d’s merciful intervention, through the Exodus from Egypt, enabled the Jewish people to break loose from their destructive passions, their harmful fixations, their horrible habits, and move ahead to forge new values in the hope of reaching the Promised Land.

While there is no guarantee that if we behave similarly we will ever reach the Promised Land (after all, the generation of the Exodus did not enter the Land of Israel either) the obvious conclusion is that those who do not move ahead, move backward.

Let us pray that this Passover holiday will help us all move ahead quickly toward the ultimate redemption.

May you be blessed.

The final days of Pessach will be observed on Sunday evening, April 8 and on Monday and Tuesday, April 9 and 10, 2007. Wishing all our friends a sweet and joyous holiday.