Passover: Mysticism vs. Reality

Rabbi 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 their 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-bound 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 elements of water and soil (blood, frogs, lice), God judges man (mixture, animal deaths, boils), and God controls the heavens (hail, locusts, darkness). This comprises all of creation, teaching that God alone created, rules and judges the world. (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 exodus, God commanded the Jews to reject of the Egyptian god by killing the lamb. They were also commanded in circumcision. These 2 commands corrected the Jews’ religious ideas (rejecting idolatry) and restrained harmful lusts adopted in Egypt (circumcision). 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 for food, 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 for consumption; they desired to embody the image of a free people, explaining Exod. 12:34, “they rolled the dough in their garments, carried on their shoulders.” The dough was a badge of sorts paraded on their shoulders. They placed it in their clothing, as clothing expresses man’s dignity. Egyptian bread was merely the means to this image. However, freedom per se was not God's plan, so He rushed out the Jews, inhibiting the dough’s rising to prevent the Jews’ identification with free Egyptians. 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. Freedom alone was not God’s plan. We don’t refer to God as our freer, but as our redeemer: He “replaced” our negative status with a positive state, not merely removing bondage. God desires mankind to follow his mind and what experiences teache us: to follow what is real, not what is imagined. Egypt’s mystical forces could not 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: 

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 imagined mystical forces from God’s created 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.