• June 15, 2024
  • 9 5784, Sivan
  • פרשת נשא

The Passover Teachings of Rav Shagar

The Passover Teachings of Rav Shagar

Rav Shimon Gershon Rosenberg zt”l (known to the Israeli public as “Rav Shagar”) was a creative Rosh Yeshiva and writer. He combined in his essays classic Hassidic ideas with modern values and arrived at original interpretations of the mitzvot. We will study three essays of Rav Shagar on the holiday of Pesach.

March 8, 2015 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
The Passover Teachings of Rav Shagar: Lesson 1
Class description

Hello Everyone, Yesterday we began studying Rav Shagar’s essays on Pesach. In his essay “זמן של חירות” Rav Shagar explored the notion of the “freedom” which we celebrate on Pesach. Pesach is referred to as זמן חירותנו in the holiday prayers, but what sort of freedom are celebrating? Ever since the destruction of the Temple ( if not earlier) we have not enjoyed complete political freedom, and even if today we do , baruch Hashem, have a state of our own, we still await משיח and the rebuilding of בית המקדש. So what are we celebrarting? Some people view Pesach as a holiday which commemorates the past. On Pesach we are thanking Hashem for our miraculous redemption from slavery. Some people say that Pesach is about the future. On Pesach we are celebrating our destiny and future deliverance. Rav Shagar disagrees with both of these interpretations of the holiday. A holiday which focusses on the past leads to pointless nostalgia and yearning for lost glories. A holiday which focuses on the future leads to frustration and disappointment. Rav Shagar says that Pesach is a celebration of our imperfect present. Freedom means being at peace with one’s condition in the here and now. He explains this idea by telling the story about a friend of his. Rav Shagar had a friend who was poor, but once a year his friend would check into an expensive hotel for two days. Rav Shagar could not understand his friend’s habit. What sort of pleasure could his friend derive from mingling with the wealthy for two days? By being in such company he was only accentuating his own poverty. Rav Shagar’s friend explained to Rav Shagar that he has missed the point completely. For those two days a year this friend felt himself to be in harmony with his real essence. For two days a year this friend was free to feel as he needed to feel, and he needed to feel rich. This was not an escape from poverty, it was the creation of a state of existence. And even if this freedom was limited to a period of two days this did not make it any less real. Rav Shagar sees the question of how to understand the meaning of Pesach expressed in a dispute in masechet Pesachim regarding the blessing which we say as part of the Hagadah. משנה מסכת פסחים פרק י משנה ו ….וחותם בגאולה רבי טרפון אומר אשר גאלנו וגאל את אבותינו ממצרים ולא היה חותם רבי עקיבא אומר כן ה’ אלהינו ואלהי אבותינו יגיענו למועדים ולרגלים אחרים הבאים לקראתינו לשלום שמחים בבנין עירך וששים בעבודתך ונאכל שם מן הזבחים ומן הפסחים כו’ עד ברוך אתה ה’ גאל ישראל: Rabbi Tarphon says that the blessing of the Hagadah is a blessing of thanks to Hashem for having taken us out of Egypt. Rabbi Akiva says that the blessing is a prayer that Hashem should deliver us and rebuild the Temple. Our practice is to say a hybrid blessing which contains both elements with an important addition: רמב”ם הלכות חמץ ומצה נוסח ההגדה ברוך אתה ה’ אלהינו מלך העולם אשר גאלנו וגאל את אבותינו ממצרים והגיענו ללילה הזה לאכול בו מצה ומרורים כן ה’ אלהינו ואלהי אבותינו יגיענו למועדים ולרגלים אחרים הבאים לקראתנו לשלום שמחים בבנין עירך וששים בעבודתך ונאכל שם מן הזבחים ומן הפסחים שיגיע דמם על קיר מזבחך לרצון ונודה לך שיר חדש על גאולתנו ועל פדות נפשנו, ברוך אתה ה’ גאל ישראל. In between Rabbi Tarphon’s blessing over the past and Rabbi Akiva’s prayer for the future we thank Hashem for bring us to this day in order to eat matzah and marror. Today’s state of affairs is far from perfect. We still don’t have a בית המקדשwhere we can offer the קרבן פסח but we still thank Hashem for bringing us to this day. Our gratitude for the present is the product of our understanding that the redemption from Egypt led to our freedom from human slavery so that we can do Hashem’s will. Rav Shagar makes an important point which I think originates with the Ibn Ezra. The mitzvoth which we do at the סדר פסח were not given to us a result of the Exodus. The opposite is true. The Exodus occurred so that we could perform the mitzvoth. The mitzvoth are not the result of history. The mitzvoth determine the course that history takes. The Ibn Ezra makes this point in his commentary to the Chumash: שמות פרק יג (ז) מַצּוֹת יֵאָכֵל אֵת שִׁבְעַת הַיָּמִים וְלֹא יֵרָאֶה לְךָ חָמֵץ וְלֹא יֵרָאֶה לְךָ שְׂאֹר בְּכָל גְּבֻלֶךָ: (ח) וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה יְיָ לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם:[1] אבן עזרא שמות פרק יג (ח) בעבור זה אמר רבי מרינוס, פי’ בעבור זה, היה ראוי להיותו הפוך זה בעבור שעשה ה’ לי. והביא רבים כמוהו לדעתו. ולפי דעתי, אין אחד מהם נכון, כי איך נהפוך דברי אלהים חיים. וטעם הפסוק הפך מחשבתו, כי אין אנו אוכלים מצות בעבור זה, רק פי’ בעבור זה, בעבור זאת העבודה שהוא אכילת המצה ולא יאכל חמץ שהוא תחלת המצוות שצוה לנו השם עשה לנו השם אותות עד שהוציאנו ממצרים. והטעם לא הוציאנו ממצרים רק לעבדו, ככתוב בהוציאך את העם ממצרים תעבדון את האלהים על ההר הזה (שמות ג, יב), וכתוב אשר הוצאתי אתכם מארץ מצרים להיות לכם לאלהים (במד’ טו, מא): If the mitzvah to eat matzah on Pesach is to commemorate the haste of the Exodus, the pasuk should have said בעבור שה’ הוצאתני ממצרים אני אוכל זה Rabbi Marinus, quoted by the Ibn Ezra says that indeed the pasuk is written “backwards” but he says other pesukim in the תנ”ך have similar “syntax errors.” The Ibn Ezra says that the pasuk means what it says and Rabbi Marinus failed to understand its message. The message is simply that the mitzvoth of the Torah are “ahistorical.” The seder is the celebration of our doing being able to perform the mitzvoth in our imperfect present. The blessing that we say at the seder refers to all three “times”- past , present and future. Our past was glorious and it is not forgotten. It is part of our present. And we are promised a glorious future as well. And even if the future redemption has not yet happened its promise illuminates our present. The Seder which we celebrate every year with only matzah and marror is a reflection of the future Sedarim where the קרבן פסח will be eaten as well. Today’s סדר פסח is not perfect but it is worthy of celebration, we can say והגיענו ללילה הזה לאכול בו מצה ומרורים because we can celebrate the harmony of doing מצוות. Thanks to everyone who participated in the shiur. Stuart Fischman

[1]13:7 Since matzahs must be eaten for [these] seven days, no leaven may be seen in your possession. No leaven may be seen in all your territories. 13:8 On that day, you must tell your child, ‘It is because of this that God acted for me when I left Egypt.’

March 15, 2015 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
The Passover Teachings of Rav Shagar: Lesson 2
Class description

Hello Everyone, Yesterday we had our second shiur in the series of shiurim devoted to studying Rav Shagar’s teachings on Pesach. The book containing Rav Shagar’s essays about Pesach is titled זמן של חירות –דרשות לחג הפסח and the shiur which we studied yesterday is titled “המצה בתורת אדמו”ר הזקן:שיעור על אמונה ואורח חיים.” The אדמו”ר הזקן was the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, whose name was Rav Shneiur Zalman of Liadi and he is also known as the בעל התניא . The shiur’s theme is based on a passage from the ספר הזוהר which describes מצה as the “medicine which gives “סוד האמונה- the “secret of אמונה .” What does the ספר הזוהר mean when it refers to the “secret of אמונה?” Are there two types of אמונה (faith), esoteric and exoteric? The Ba’al HaTanya says that there are indeed two types of faith, the faith that even non-Jews can possess and the faith that is unique to the Jews. Belief in God can be achieved by the study of Nature. After examination of the world and all its phenomena a person can realize that everything that exists owes its existence to God the Creator. Many of our greatest thinkers (Rav Sadiah Gaon, Rabbeinu Bachya and the Rambam) held that this sort of inquiry is obligatory. They held that it is incumbent upon every Jew to arrive independently at the conclusion that there is a God. Rav Yehudah HaLevi in his ספר הכוזרי was the notable exception to this approach to the mitzvah of belief in God. Rav Yehudah Halevi pointed out that when Hashem “introduced Himself” to the Jews at Mount Sinai he did so as follows: שמות פרק כ פסוק ב אָנֹכִי יְיָ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים…. Why did God introduce Himself as the One who took us out of Egypt and not as the Creator of the entire world? Rav Yehudah HaLevi explains that if Judaism was meant to be a religion based on logic and rational study then Hashem would have said that He was the Creator. But philosophers disagree among themselves about many issues. On the other hand the Jews who were present at Mount Sinai were witnesses to the miracles of the Exodus and so knew of the existence of God. The Ba’al HaTanya elaborates on these two approaches to belief in God. The person who believes that God is the Creator believes in creation יש מאין- “something from nothing” –ex nihilo. This is of course the foundation of Jewish belief and the non-Jew who arrives at this realization is praiseworthy. However there is something lacking when a person’s relationship with God is limited to belief in a Creator. Basing himself on a teaching of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the Ba’al HaTanya says that finding God’s presence in the world via the realization that He is the Creator is analogous to establishing a relationship with another person via a conversation. Hashem created the world via His speech. When we look at the first chapter of ספר בראשית we see that as Hashem spoke things came into existence. The words “ויאמר א-להים….” are the words of creation. The Ba’al Shem Tov taught that these words of Hashem are still with us. Should these words cease to exist the world would disappear. Hashem’s words are what we can find of Hashem in the world. But the Ba’al HaTanya points out that words are not the same thing as essence. We can certainly identify a person via his speech. But we all know that language does not transmit the entirety of our feelings. Language can identify a person but it does not convey the entirety of the person’s personality. When a person reaches belief in God via the study of the world this person has only identified a pale reflection of God without grasping anything of His essence. The Ba’al HaTanya’s son took this idea even further. Once a person realizes that all he has grasped is a pale reflection of God’s essence he will be seized with the most profound depression. How could anyone find happiness in a world which is separated from Hashem? However, it is when a person is in the depths of this depression that he receives Divine illumination and is able to grasp the deepest secrets of the Torah. To sum the subject up; most medieval Jewish philosophers held that the ideal form of belief in Hashem is the belief in God the Creator which is the product of study. The Ba’al Hatanya ( following Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi) felt that this sort of belief is not ideal because it only leads to a feeble grasp of Hashem’s essence. What sort of belief leads to a greater grasp of Hashem’s essence? What is the “secret of belief,” what is the belief which is unique to the Jewish people? The Ba’al Hatanya explains that “Jewish” belief is the belief which we have as an inheritance from our ancestors who lived according to Hashem’s mitzvoth. They have bequeathed to us a way of life which allows us to address God as “Father.” We do not know “about” God-we are His children and can claim to “know Him” the way a child knows his or her parent. We know Hashem via His Torah. When we sit down on Pesach to eat matzah we are doing His will. It may be that the non-Jew who has studied theology and the natural sciences may have a better grasp philosophy than a Jew. He may be able to discuss nuances of belief more eloquently than a Jew. But only Jews can approach God’s essence by living a life infused with God’s presence. Such a life is a life dedicated to doing God’s will which is the Torah. That is why matzah is “medicine” for the “secret אמונה ” of the ספר הזוהר. By eating this simplest type of bread, flour and water without any yeast, we are engaged in an act which brings us closer to Hashem. This is the “secret אמונה” of the Jews. I hope you enjoyed the shiur. Thanks to everyone who attended. Stuart Fischman

March 22, 2015 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
The Passover Teachings of Rav Shagar: Lesson 1
Class description

Hello Everyone, Yesterday was the final class in the series of shiurim devoted to the teachings of Rav Shagar zt”l about the holiday of Pesach. The title of yesterday’s essay is “גאולה וקבלת עול מלכות שמים” and in it Rav Shagar explores the meaning of “redemption.” “Redemption” is the condition of being saved or rescued from disaster. If a person is seriously ill he lives in a state of uncertainty and even terror. He does not know what the future holds in store for him, he is facing imminent death. And then he recovers. His fear leaves him and he can resume his previous mode of living. One could say that in essence nothing has changed for this person. He enjoyed good health before he was ill and he enjoys good health now. But this is wrong, something very profound changed in this person’s life due to the illness and recovery. Before the illness this person took his good health for granted, he never thought about it and never considered its significance. However, once he fell ill and his very life was endangered, having recovered his health he will never take his health for granted again. The joy that he feels at having recovered his health and the gratitude that he feels is redemption. It is an awareness that he did not possess prior to his illness. One could say that suffering from illness is a worthwhile price to pay to gain the perspective of appreciation and gratitude that comes after one recovers from a life-threatening condition. Pesach is the holiday of redemption. The Rambam writes that the mitzvah to relate the story of the Exodus, the mitzvah of Haggadah-והגדת לבנך – includes the obligation to thank Hashem for delivering us. Our condition upon leaving Egypt was similar to the condition of the person who survived a serious illness. Just as that person went from being healthy to being sick and then was healthy again, the Jewish people went through “stages.” We were free, then we were slaves and finally we were free again. What changed for the Jewish people as a result of the period of being slaves in Egypt? The change was that we became a redeemed people. We became a nation that felt a degree of gratitude to God which we would not have felt had we not been freed by God from bondage. Redemption can be experienced by individuals as well as by the nation as a whole. Here is a well-known passage from the Gemarah: תלמוד בבלי מסכת פסחים דף נ עמוד א והיה ה’ למלך על כל הארץ ביום ההוא יהיה ה’ אחד ושמו אחד אטו האידנא לאו אחד הוא אמר רבי אחא בר חנינא לא כעולם הזה העולם הבא העולם הזה על בשורות טובות אומר ברוך הטוב והמטיב ועל בשורות רעות אומר ברוך דיין האמת לעולם הבא כולו הטוב והמטיב…. In this world, in our current state, we address Hashem with various names based on how we perceive Him. There is a name by which we refer to His mercy and a different name by which we refer to His justice. We have a blessing by which we thank Him for His goodness and a different blessing by which we acknowledge and accept His judgements, however painful we may find them. In the future things will be different, “… God will be One and His name will be One,” The Gemarah asks about this verse, “Is He not One now?” The Gemarah answers that now we say one blessing when we hear good news and a different blessing when we hear bad news. In the future we will only say the blessing on hearing good news. What does this passage say? It says that in the future all the tidings which we hear will be understood to be good. But, Rav Shagar asks, why isn’t that the case now?[1] Rav Shagar says that now we live in a state of perpetual unfulfillment. People constantly regret choices that they did not make and options that they did not explore. We lack the ability to be at peace and in harmony with the present. We cannot appreciate what we have because we allow ourselves to be plagued by “if only…” This is the state of being enslaved to the Yetzer Hara. He mentions a parable told by Rabbi Nachman. Rabbi Nachman once said that the Yetzer Hara is like a man who goes around with his hand closed and asks people to guess what he is hiding. Each person who is approached guesses that the Yetzer Hara has in his hand the object of his own greatest desire. People follow the Yetzer Hara around to see what he actually has in his hand, but when he finally opens his hand it turns out to be empty. The Jews are oppressed by evil governments and by our own personal evil inclinations. In the future we will be delivered from both of these oppressors. Then we will be able to live the lives that we wish to live. We will be free of the fears and anxieties which plague us daily. We will be in harmony with ourselves. Then and only then will we be able to accept ourselves and our surroundings with equanimity. We will be able to accept that everything that happens is the result of Hashem’s will which is purely good. We will no longer categorize the events which we encounter as “good” or “bad.” Then we will comprehend truly that Hashem is One and all that He does is good. Rav Shagar ends the essay with one more discussion on redemption and freedom. Hashem did not free us from the Egyptians in order to enslave us to Him. Hashem freed us from the Egyptians in order to give us His laws with the understanding that following His Torah is the truest freedom. People tend to think that freedom is the condition which allows us to willingly enter into covenantal relationships with other parties. He writes (basing himself on the writings of Sartre and “post-modernists”) that the contemporary, secular notion of freedom is very different from the freedom that was given to the Jews by Hashem. In secular society people define themselves via their relationships to others. There is no firm sense of “I” in our society.[2] People live in a constant need to re-identify themselves. But, Rav Shagar asks, without a sense of “I” how can there be freedom? Here is a quote from the Wikipedia article cited in footnote 2 concerning Sartre’s conception of freedom: One convinces one’s self, in some sense, that he is bound to act by external circumstance, in order to escape the anguishof freedom. Sartre says that man is condemned to be free: whether he adopts an ‘objective’ moral system to do this choosing for him, or follows only his pragmatic concerns, he cannot help but be aware that they are not – fundamentally – part of him. Moreover, as possible intentional objects of one’s consciousness, one is fundamentally not part of oneself, but rather exactly what one, as consciousness, defines oneself in opposition to; along with everything else one could be conscious of. By accepting Hashem’s Torah we are made free because now we are able to act in accordance with our innermost nature. In other words, the Torah allows each person’s “I” to be expressed. Rav Shagar, quoting authorities as disparate as the Ba’al HaTanya and Rav Yitzchak Breuer zt”l,[3] explains that the Judaism sees self-awareness not as that which preceded the acceptance of Hashem’s Law but as the reward for accepting the Law. Self-awareness, the acquisition of a firm, confident sense of “I” comes after redemption. When we say every day שמע ישראל ה’ א-להינו ה’ אחד we are accepting Hashem’s sovereignty and proclaiming His Oneness as it will be made manifest in the future. We accept Hashem unconditionally and accept all that He does as being good. This is a redeemed life. The person is not dependent on anything. His identity is his own, it is preserved within him and in any circumstance the person can invite the Infinite to be with him. Thanks to everyone who participated in the shiurim. I hope I did justice to the teaching of Rav Shagar. I posted copies of the original essays on the web-page of the shiurim and I encourage anyone who can to take the time to study the originals. Rav Shagar’s essays contain a wealth of ideas and I could not cover all of them in the space of one hour. חג כשר ושמח Stuart Fischman

[1] It may be that Rav Shagar’s interpretation of this passage is based on what the Talmud and Rambam say about the Messianic era-אין בין העוה”ז לימות המשיח אלא שעבוד מלכויות בלבד” The simplest explanation of the Gemarah would be that in the future the only news will be good news. But that would presuppose a fundamental change in the function of the world, and the Talmud says that this will not be the case. Therefore we are left to say that the what will change is not the tidings but our attitude towards those tidings.

[2] For discussions of Sartre’s views on individual freedom ( about which I know absolutely nothing) see the following: http://www.iep.utm.edu/sartre-p/


[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Breuer

Rabbi Dr. Stuart Fischman graduated from Yeshiva University in 1980 and the dental school of Columbia University in 1985. In 1989 he began studying and teaching at Yeshivat Hamivtar and now studies and teaches at Yeshivat Machanaim in Efrat. He has rabbinic ordination from Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg.