Pesach is a holiday that is uniquely rich in mitzvos. The search for chametz, and its burning; the seder, with its many mitzvos, and the prohibition of chametz for the remaining days of the holiday. And these many observances have one central purpose; for through them we keep alive the memory of the Exodus from Egypt, even after these thousands of years.
It is noteworthy, however, that even in Egypt itself, even before the Jews had left, they observed these mitzvos. For on that first Pesach night, as the Jews sat in their homes sheltering from the mashchis that smote the first born of Egypt, they too observed the seder, eating the korban pesach with its attendant matzoh and the maror. And – in fact – chazal tell us that it was in the merit of those first mitzvos that our people performed, that they were redeemed. It seems that the miracles of redemption had to be earned, through the observance of mitzvos.
And it is therefore somewhat surprising that later, on what we now observe as the last day of Pesach, when the Jews stood on the banks of the Red Sea, with their backs to the water and the armed might of Egypt before them, in the prelude to what would turn out to be a series of miracles that would dwarf even those of the Exodus – as we say in the Hagadah, for in Egypt the Egyptians experienced only ten makkos, and at krias yam suf they experienced fifty makos – they were not asked to perform any mitzvos at all.
But, of course, the fact is that there was a mitzvah that Hashem demanded of them at that time. And since the miracle they were about to experience was greater than the miracles they had witnessed in Egypt, the mitzvah they were called upon to perform was commensurately more difficult. And that mitzvah was: daber el bnei yisroel veyisau; speak to the children of Israel and let them travel; let them march on, straight ahead, headlong into the sea. Only then, did the sea split.
Let us consider this more deeply. It seems that in order for hakadosh baruch hu to perform a miracle for us we have to do something for Him first. And this is in keeping with a general principle – that hakadosh baruch hu conducts Himself toward us in a way that reflects how we conduct ourselves toward Him. This formulation is given a very striking formulation by the Midrash, based on the phrase in tehllim: Hashem tzilcha; which, in its simple translation, means that Hashem is the shade under which we shelter. But the Midrash renders it: Hashem is your shadow; for just as one’s shadow moves exactly in tandem with oneself, so too the ribono shel olam conducts Himself in a way that mirrors our very own behavior.
And since Hashem tzilcha, it follows that in order for Him to perform a miracle for us, we have to perform a miracle for Him. But how can we do that?
Well, what is a miracle? It’s an event in which the natural order – the laws of physics – are violated and overpowered by a spiritual force, the force of hakadosh baruch hu’s intervention.
Now each person has within himself something that belongs to the spiritual part of the world, to the realm of ruchniyus; and that, of course, is the neshamah, which is a spark of the divine. And each person also has a body, which is part and parcel of the physical, natural world. Now our rabbis teach us that the neshamah’s whole purpose, the whole reason for its descent into this world, is to purify the body, by overcoming it, and bending it to the purpose of the neshamah. Which it does, of course, through Torah and mitzvos.
And therefore every mitzvah is, in a sense, a miracle, because every mitzvah represents the overcoming of the body by the neshanah; the triumph of the spiritual over the physical. And, in keeping with the principal that Hashem tzilcha, it was necessary for us to observe mitzvos first, for the miracle of the Exodus to be possible.
Now not all mitzvos are equal in this regard. Some mitzvos are relatively easy to perform, and the body, our physical nature, doesn’t resist them at all – or hardly at all. Other mitzvos are extremely difficult, and require tremendous discipline; the neshamah has to work very hard to overcome the body for those mitzvos. And we have a special word for that type of work, for that type of spiritual effort; we call it mesiras nefesh. And it follows from what we have said that the greater the mesiras nefesh, the greater the miracle; and the greater the miracle that it can evoke from hakadosh baruch hu.
Now, none of this is my chidush. In fact, it is almost an explicit Gemara. The Gemara relates that Abaye asked: Why is it that the generation of R’ Yehudah bar Ilaah, whose Torah scholarship was inferior to ours, merited to experience miracles that we don’t experience? And he answered: Because they demonstrated mesiras nefesh, learning Torah under conditions of extreme hardship. Because their Torah learning was so difficult, was undertaken under such difficult circumstances, it was more of a miracle. And so it evoked greater miracles from the ribono shel olam.
We understand, therefore, that for a transcendent miracle such as krias yam suf, therefore, an ordinary mitzvah would not do. What was needed was a mitzvah that would require tremendous mesiras nefesh, that would fly in the face of the body’s most powerful instinct, that of self-preservation. And therefore the Jews were asked to march directly into the sea, when every instinct must have screamed against it. And with that transcendent act of mesiras nefesh, they evoked the splitting of the sea.
Rabosai, the generation for which we have just said Yitzkor, excelled above all in the quality of mesiras nefesh. A generation that experienced the horrors of the churban in Europe, that was buffeted by tremendous pressure to assimilate here in America – and yet remained committed to Yiddishkeit, and brought up children committed to Yiddishkeit – that is an unbelievable mesiras nefesh, that we can hardly fathom. And therefore that generation merited a miracle. A miracle, that after a churban such as no other people on earth has known, there has been a resurgence of Torah and Yiddishkeit around the world; and that a people demoralized and destitute have built a proud Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisroel.
Now it is not demanded of us, thank G-d, to show that sublime level of mesiras nefesh. But we are still asking the Ribono shel Olam to perform miracles for us; and therefore we still need to perform miracles for Him; even if they are small miracles.
Each time we do a mitzvah when it is a little bit difficult; each time we give tzedakah when natural parsimony is resistant; each time we make time for Torah study when there are other things that we would like to be doing; each time we extend ourselves further than we might naturally be inclined – that is a miracle; the miracle of the victory of the spiritual over the physical, the neshamah over the guf. And if we perform enough such miracles, then hakadosh baruch hu, in turn, will perform miracles for us as well, and show us yeshuos venechamos, bimeheira beyameinu amen.