Why Pe­sach is a time to toast the Mes­siah

Rabbi Yitzchak Scho­chet ex­plains why many Cha­sidim will be drink­ing four cups of wine on the last day of Pe­sach

The Jewish Chronicle - - JUDAISM -

AS THE fi­nal hours of the eight­day fes­ti­val of Pe­sach draw to a close, many Cha­sidim gather for a fi­nal round of matzah and four cups of wine. This cus­tom, in­sti­tuted by Rabbi Is­rael Ba’al Shem Tov (16981760), is a spe­cial cel­e­bra­tory meal known as seu­dat Mashiach — or the mes­sianic feast. The whole fes­ti­val of Pe­sach brings to the fore of our con­scious­ness the con­cept of re­demp­tion. At the Seder we re­flect on how we were en­slaved in a for­eign land from which no man had ever es­caped, let alone a na­tion, yet against all odds we were lib­er­ated.

To­day, we see a world rid­dled with chaos, war and famine, and yet again be­lieve that we are in an ir­re­deemable state. But the mes­sage of Pe­sach is one of hope, de­liv­er­ance and the ful­fil­ment of the dream for a bet­ter to­mor­row.

This spe­cial cel­e­bra­tion takes place specif­i­cally on the last day of Pe­sach, for this is a day which is added only in the di­as­pora. The essence of the added day is that in the di­as­pora and the time of ex­ile, the Jewish peo­ple trans­form the mun­dane hours into a day of ho­li­ness. On the last day of Pe­sach, this means trans­form­ing th­ese hours into a fes­ti­val of free­dom and re­demp­tion. This process of trans­for­ma­tion is the very essence of the mes­sianic re­demp­tion, con­vert­ing the very mun­dan­ity of our ex­ile it­self into re­demp­tion, so that God­li­ness is re­vealed through­out.

More­over, the haf­tarah that is read on this day is the pas­sage from Isa­iah that be­gins, “This very day he will halt at Nov,” pre­dict­ing the down­fall of Sen­nacherib. A twofold prob­lem arises with this: first, the down­fall of this Assyr­ian in­vader took place on the first night of Pe­sach, not on the last day. Sec­ond, it is only the open­ing verses that speak of this sub­ject, while the bulk of the haf­tarah speaks of mes­sianic re­demp­tion.

Yet the very fact that we read this on the last day ob­vi­ously re­flects the cor­re­la­tion be­tween the main theme of the haf­tarah — the ul­ti­mate re­demp­tion and the eighth day of Pe­sach. Just as the first day cel­e­brates the re­demp­tion from the first ex­ile, the last day cel­e­brates the fu­ture re­demp­tion from our fi­nal state of ex­ile. The two are in­ti­mately con­nected, the be­gin­ning and end of one process, with God in the fu­ture re­demp­tion show­ing won­ders “as in the days of your ex­o­dus from Egypt” ( Micah 7:15).

Sadly, the theme of Mashiach has come off the boil, and for many it is more an ab­stract the­o­rem than a prac­ti­cal re­al­ity. In­deed, in re­cent times, even as the Lubav­itcher Rebbe of righ­teous me­mory gen­er­ated a world-wide Mashiach aware­ness cam­paign, some fol­low­ers’ dec­la­ra­tion of him as the Mes­siah re­sulted in other peo­ple be­com­ing sus­pi­cious of — if not in­deed turned off — the whole con­cept.

For oth­ers still, it is only in times of ex­treme suf­fer­ing that they grasp at that last pos­si­ble rem­nant of hope. They do not per­ceive our cur­rent state of af­fairs as an “ex­ile”, be­cause we may not be en­dur­ing the same level of tyranny as be­fore. But look around you, at the home­less and the in­firm; at young or­phans and des­per­ate wi­d­ows and wid­ow­ers; at war­rav­aged coun­tries, and of course the per­pet­ual ter­ror that Is­rael en­dures.

Surely, it is the ul­ti­mate am­bi­tion of ev­ery sen­si­ble hu­man be­ing to want to live in an era of greater sta­bil­ity. Pe­sach chal­lenges us to step out of our per­sonal com­fort zones and yearn for a bet­ter, safer and ma­te­ri­ally and spir­i­tu­ally health­ier world.

One might won­der why we should be wor­thy of a mes­sianic re­demp­tion to­day when it did not hap­pen in gen­er­a­tions far greater than our own. Yet it is pre­cisely the de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of our own times and con­di­tions that lends more value to ev­ery­thing we do, for “one thing in dis­tress is bet­ter than a hun­dred in ease” ( Avot de Rabbi Nathan 3:6).

Great­ness is de­fined not only by the quan­ti­ta­tive ac­com­plish­ments of man but is also rel­a­tive to the times and con­di­tions of the gen­er­a­tion: “a very small act in this gen­er­a­tion is equal to many great mitzvot in oth­ers” ( Sha’ar Hag­ilgulim [ The Gates of Rein­car­na­tion], 38).

Fi­nally, there is the an­cient proverb, we are “like a midget stand­ing on the shoul­ders of a gi­ant”. Even as ear­lier gen­er­a­tions may have been greater, the com­bined good of their deeds and that of our own adds to a sum to­tal that ne­ces­si­tates that now, more than ever be­fore, we should merit the com­ing of Mashiach.

This is why the Ba’al Shem Tov im­ple­mented the “mes­sianic feast”. Be­cause, while be­lief in Mashiach is a car­di­nal tenet of the Jewish faith, en­shrined as one of Mai­monides’s thir­teen prin­ci­ples of faith, none­the­less ab­stract be­lief is not enough. Our aware­ness must be trans­lated into ac­tion.

As with all the gas­tro­nomic rit­ual as­so­ci­ated with the first nights of Seder, so too by par­tak­ing of this spe­cial meal on the last night and in­gest­ing the food helps to in­ter­nalise the mes­sage, whereby the yearn­ing for Mashiach per­me­ates not just the sub­con­scious but also the phys­i­cal body in a very real and tan­gi­ble way.

Hav­ing re­cited the words “Next year in Jerusalem” at the con­clu­sion of the Seder, it is in­cum­bent upon us all to turn that dream into re­al­ity. Yitzchak Scho­chet is rabbi of Mill Hill United Syn­a­gogue

PHOTO: AP

Matisyahu, the Cha­sidic singer, whose lyrics in­clude the cry “I want Mashiach [the Mes­siah] now”

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