Passover: Mysticism vs. Reality


Moshe Ben-Chaim





"Passover" conjures up many associations; the 10 Plagues, matza and maror, the four cups, Mah Nishtanah and the Haggadah and much more. But if asked what the essence of this holiday is, what would you say? 


To recap, the Jews descended into Egypt by Joseph's invite to provide during the famine. After Israel and his twelve sons passed, the Children of Israel succumbed to Egyptian idolatry and were punished. Sforno (Gen. 15:13) says the Prophet Ezekiel blamed the Jews' idolatry as the cause of the bondage in Egypt: "But they rebelled against me and would not hearken to Me; they did not — every man — cast away the detestable things of their eyes, neither did they forsake the idols of Egypt; then I said I would pour out My fury upon them in the midst of the land of Egypt (Ezek. 20:8)." 


God promised Abraham the land of Israel for his seed to spread monotheism. A land identified by monotheists accomplishes this. But the Egyptian Jews first required repentance. The Egyptians too required lessons, as God is concerned with all His creations. 

The 10 Plagues were intended to demonstrate to Pharaoh and his people that their mystical beliefs were false. The three sets of plagues revealed that God alone rules over all. He rules over the Earth's primary elements of water and soil (blood, frogs, lice), over events (mixture, animal deaths, boils), and over the heavens (hail, locusts, darkness). This comprises all of creation, teaching that God alone created and rules the universe. (Firstborn Deaths was intended to eliminate the leaders and continuation of that culture.) The plagues exposed Egypt's idols as false, as Pharaoh never summons his astrologers, but always calls Moses to remove the plagues. Some Egyptians saw the light; others paid a hefty toll.


Prior to their exit, God commanded the Jews to reject of the Egyptian god by killing the lamb. They were also commanded in circumcision. These commands corrected the Jews' religious ideas and restrained harmful lusts adopted in Egypt. Now the Jews were ready to be freed. But the danger existed that they would indulge freedom, without recognizing the objective of the Exodus: to accept a rational religion at Sinai. Rashi teaches that the Jews trusted God would provide for them in the desert into which they journeyed. Yet, in that very verse (Exod. 12:39) the Jews were baking the dough they carried out of Egypt. We wonder how Rashi can say they trusted God, while also baking the dough! And why did God oust the Jews with such speed, that the dough didn't rise, limiting it's potential to matza and not bread?


The Jews did not take the dough primarily for consumption; they desired to embody the image of a free people. Eating real bread was merely the means to this image. However, freedom per se was not God's plan, so He rushed the Jews out and inhibited the dough from rising. Thereby, matza became the icon of this holiday. It embodies God's thwarting of the Jews' desire to embody an image of freedom, without religious direction towards "reality." God desires mankind to follow his mind and what experience teaches us: to follow what is "real," not what is imagined. The fantasy of mysticism could not prevent or halt the Plagues, the primary message to Egypt and the sinful Jews. 


"Exodus" means to leave. We can blindly follow our peers like our ancestors, or we can leave false, mystical notions behind and follow God's words. Sadly, many religious Jews proliferate mystical beliefs. Yet, the Torah rejects mysticism: 


“So says God, ‘To the ways of the nations do not learn, and from the signs of heaven, do not fear, for the nations fear them. For the statutes of the nations are futile, for a tree from the forest they cut, the work of an artisan with an adze. With silver and gold they adorn it; with nails and pegs they strengthen it so it does not disconnect. They are like a sculpted palm tree and they cannot speak, they are carried about for they cannot walk: do not fear them, for they cannot harm and they also cannot do good.”  (Jeremiah 10:1-5)


Jeremiah equates astrology to idolatry. Thereby, Torah unequivocally rejects mysticism as idolatrous. No powers exist outside God. And mysticism refers to all beliefs in powers unsupported by reason or experience. It doesn't matter if the object is a rabbit's foot, or a mezuzah. Maimonides teaches, those who believe the mezuzah has powers, are fools. (Hilchos Mezuza 5:4) 


The 10 Plagues offer an eternal lesson: they distinguished Egypt's false mysticism from God's reality. We can gain from this message if we apply it to ourselves. We should review our beliefs and abandon all mystical notions, despite the number of Jews and even Rabbis who might endorse such mysticism. Let us follow God's words, not mortal man's whims.