I recently gave a Powerpoint presentation on “Passover’s Magic Number: 4” in which I shared the following cartoon (http://www.jr.co.il/humor/pass93.htm):
Anyone who has ever attended a Passover seder can relate to this humor. We’ve all sat through seders that seemed to go on and on even as our stomachs grumbled and we wondered when the matzah ball soup would finally be served.
As funny as this cartoon is, it hints at a serious lesson: whatever is worthwhile in life is worth waiting for. This is certainly true when it comes to freedom. In fact, this teaching about delayed gratification is deeply embedded in the story of our liberation from Egypt. The Torah’s account of the Exodus reminds us how long we were in slavery, how the night the Angel of Death passed over Egypt was a night of vigil, and how the ongoing celebration of Passover would be delayed by forty years. During the seder, too, we taste salt water, bland greens, bitter herbs, charoset (a sweet fruit and nut mixture), and of course, matzah. We wait a long time before the prepared meal, often a masterpiece that has taken days to prepare, makes its way to our tables. It is a meal worth waiting for, and wait we do. So it goes for freedom: nothing is sweeter than freedom and, boy, is it worth waiting for!
The Torah reading for the first day of Passover, when it falls on Shabbat as it does this year, comes from Exodus 21, verses 21 through 51. It is there that we read (verses 40-41): “The length of time that the Israelites lived in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years; at the end of the four hundred and thirtieth year, to the very day, all the ranks of the Lord departed from the land of Egypt.” Four hundred thirty years before the Exodus, our ancestors made their way to Egypt in search of relief from famine. There they found a government and a society that welcomed them. There they prospered. But only for a while.
Most of our sojourn in Egypt was marked by oppression and misery beginning with a pharaoh who “knew not Joseph.” It is legitimate to ask why we suffered for hundreds of years. I will not touch that question here. Suffice it to say, it was our reality and there wasn’t much we could do about it. We had to wait for hundreds of years before God would charge Moses with the task of confronting Pharaoh and that God would ultimately kill the first born of Egypt before Pharaoh would “let our people go.” It would have been better had we not suffered at all, but in the end our freedom was worth waiting for. This despite occasional protests from the masses that it would have been better to die as slaves in Egypt than to withstand the hardships that increased once Moses stood up to Pharaoh and that would continue through the 40 year trek through the wilderness. By the time we made it to the Land of Israel, the Israelites understood how precious their freedom was and how it was worth the wait.
Immediately following the recounting of the length of time we were in Egypt, the Torah tells us (verse 42) “That was for the Lord a night of vigil to bring them out of the land of Egypt; that same night is the Lord’s, one of vigil for all the children of Israel throughout the ages.” On the eve of our liberation, we did not simply pack our bags and leave. Our hasty departure followed a night in which our people at the pesach offering while the screams of the terrified Egyptians arose all around them. That night, a night of vigil, must have felt like an eternity. Because their liberation was delayed ever so slightly, the first taste of freedom was ever so sweeter.
What often gets lost in the telling of the Exodus is what the Torah tells us in verse 25: “And when you enter the land that the Lord will give you, as He has promised, you shall observe this rite.” When would that be? Forty years later! After the first Passover, the next one didn’t happen for another forty years. Perhaps this is because in verses 43 through 49 we learn that males could partake of the pascal offering only after they had been circumcised upon entering the Holy Land.
Or maybe the 40-year gap between the first and second Passovers existed to remind us how some things are worth waiting for. In this case, what was worth waiting for was taking possession of the land that God had promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Settling the land was the final act of their liberation. Imagine the feeling of stepping into the Land of Israel that first time! No one would have argued that they should return to Egypt, such was the thrill of witnessing this chapter in their people’s history.
No wonder the very first ritual our ancestors performed in Israel was the same one they had performed on the eve of the exodus. The Passover sacrifice bookended the experience of our liberation. This time, like the first time, was well worth the wait. As we sit down for our seders with family and friends in a free and open America and then delay taking our first bite of matzah, but even more so as we delay partaking of our sumptuous seder meals, let us remember all that has come before us and how special this moment is.
Let us drink four times to freedom. It was well worth the wait!
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!