Passover is an intriguing holiday.
According to Pirke Avot, the collection of pithy sayings collected by the Talmud, Shmuel HaKatan (Samuel Junior) once said that ‘When an enemy falls, be not glad and when one stumbles, let not your heart be joyous.’ This seems to be the very antithesis of human nature. After all, when those who oppress finally fall, is there not a cause for celebration? And is not Passover the time when we celebrate the demise of the Egyptian regime where Israelite slavery was the norm? In other words, the Seder commemorates the Exodus from Egypt, of course, but at the expense of the demise of Pharaoh’s reign and kingdom. How we not celebrate?
The Rabbis had the same problem. It is a natural inclination to say, ‘They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat!’ which is the joke told among Jews about many of our holidays. But the Rabbis urge restraint. To this end they wanted to minimize any joy at the Egyptian’s defeat. That is why, when the Seder was created, they included the removal of 10 drops of wine from the kiddush cup. The wine is a symbol of joy and diminishing it literally diminishes our joy.
The very famous midrash teaches this by saying, “In that hour, the ministering angels wished to utter a song of praise before the Holy One of Blessing, but God rebuked them saying, ‘My handiwork is drowning in the sea and you want to sign a song before me?!’(Babylonian Talmud 39b)
I think what the Rabbis were teaching us is twofold: they understand the human inclination to celebrate at one’s enemy’s downfall but, at the same time, to work to develop our inclination to kindness – an inclination we all have. To do so is to emulate the Divine and the Divine within us.
Want to know the real miracle of Passover? It is the most graphic illustration of a holiday in which we can celebrate the demise of Israel’s enemy and yet, we make every effort to diminish that impulse and, instead we celebrate the freedom. And one freedom we exercise every moment is the freedom to celebrate the tzoris of others. That is a miracle each of us can not only experience but create.
Have a wonderful and joyous Pesach celebrating with your family and friends and may this be a season of miracles.