Yeshayahu Leibowitz on Passover

The following is from Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s commentary on the Torah reading Accepting the Yoke of Heaven, pages 65-67. Leibowitz uses the portion of Bo to illustrate fundamentally different approaches to the Passover holiday.


The sidra of Bo is the sidra of the exodus from Egypt. And this sidra discusses two Pesach’s, in regard to the great event which, in fact, was the beginning of the history of the Jewish people: the Pesach of Egypt, the one-time event which occurred that night between the 14th and the 15th of the month of Nissan, the first month at the time; and the Pesach forever, which was meant to recall to us the exodus from Egypt, and which for years involved the bringing of the Paschal sacrifice. Nowadays, we have but a remembrance of that remembrance: the Pesach Seder which is conducted to this day by the majority of the Jewish people, including those Jews who do not observe it as a Torah mitzva, and not in the form which the halakha sets down.

But it is just the difference between the Pesach forever, where a sacrifice was to be brought, and our Pesach, which is the clear evidence of basic problems of Jewish existence in our times. Here I will permit myself to present this by relating an event, or, to be more exact, a discussion, in which I took part a few years ago.

This was a seminar organized by the IDF, a seminar for senior military officers, which was held in the intermediate days of Pesach in one of the major bases of the IDF, and I was invited to participate in it. The topic of the seminar was contained in its title: “Judaism, Jewish People and Jewish State,” and this already tells one what the discussions were all about. The deliberations were very earnest; various viewpoints and opinions and approaches were presented, but all the participants treated the topic seriously, as something close to their hearts, even though they did so from various angles and with, different approaches.

I made note of the major and serious fact that a gap has been, created between those Jews who observe the mitzvot and those who: do not, a gap which is not only ideological, but is—even against their will—existential. Two Jews cannot dine at the same table if one—and only one—of them observes the laws of kashrut; and families which observe the mitzvot cannot intermarry with families which do not, because one of the two prospective spouses (either the male or the female) insists on the observance of the laws of nidda and tevila, whereas the other prospective spouse rejects the religious discipline of marital life. Nor can Jews who are all aware of their. being Jewish, and who know that their fellows are Jewish, work together in the same workplace—because of Shabbat. But the kitchen and the table, sex and marital life, and work, constitute the realities of human life; thus we see that we cannot live .our lives in common.

One of those taking part in the deliberations, a senior IDF officer, pointed to Pesach as a national heritage which we have in common. Even if we have different attitudes toward Pesach, we all observe the Seder, in one form or another, because we all are conscious of the history of the Jewish people, which started—either historically or symbolically—with the Pesach event, and which we all wish to continue. These words were said in total sincerity and with great emotion. To this, I answered him: Imagine that I was not invited here today, to this seminar in one of the IDF bases, but would instead have used the Pesach holiday to tour the country, and my wife and I would have been hiking right now. And let us say that today is a very hot chamsin day, and thirst and the heat bothered us, and we would have, by chance, come upon the settlement where you live, and we would have entered your farm. Do you know that today we could not even drink a cup of water in your home, because of the chametz in your dishes? You are the commander of my sons and grandsons in the army, and today I could not drink a cup of water in your home. Pesach today is not a common heritage for us, and, if anything, the festival expresses a deep rift between us.

The man responded to this with deep emotion: It is true that you have mentioned a fact which is frightening, and nevertheless—we have a common awareness of Pesach. After all, we all regard Pesach as the symbol of the beginning and the continuation of the history of the Jewish people, and we are all united in our desire and in our aim of being a continuing link in this historical chain.

I was forced to point out his error to him, even in regard to this awareness. I told him: I understand and can feel the sincerity in your words and the profound emotion contained within them. For you, Pesach is indeed a great symbol of the history of the Jewish people. But for my wife and myself, Pesach is not a symbol, but a reality. Pesach is not expressed in the fact that we, using certain symbols, in this form or that, remind ourselves of the beginning of the history of the Jewish people. The significance of Pesach for us lies in the fact that for seven days we actually live a different life than all the other weeks of the year; for before Pesach we, or to be more accurate, my wife, transforms the house in order to prepare it for this festival.

For you, Pesach is a sentimental matter, and I am not trying to belittle it: sentiments are of great importance. Nevertheless, for you it is only a sentimental matter, whereas for us, Pesach is an existential issue—an issue dealing with our existence in the present, on this day and at this hour—and not a remembrance of an event which may be historical, or again, may be legendary, of 3,500 years ago.
Pesach thus presents us with the most profound problem which confronts the Jewish people and Judaism today.