Passover's 4 Steps to Breaking Bad Habits
During the Passover Seder we recount in detail the plight of the Israelites as slaves in ancient Egypt, and we celebrate their eventual salvation. However, the Seder is not just about commemorating past events. The Talmudic sage Rabban Gamaliel II called upon us to include a personal element in the rituals of the Seder. “In every generation, a person must see themselves as if they personally left Egypt,”1 he instructed, leaving it to us to figure out how to make this ancient tale of redemption relevant to us today.
One suggestion was offered by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn of Lubavitch, the third Rebbe of Chabad, also known as the Tzemach Tzedek. He viewed the rabbinic instruction to drink four cups of wine (or grape juice for those who avoid alcohol) during the Seder as a framework for achieving personal freedom.2
Each cup was instituted to reflect another expression G‑d used to promise the Jews that they would be rescued from Egypt and become a nation with the power to determine their own destiny.3 If we follow this path, the Tzemach Tzedek writes, it can lead us on a personal journey towards freedom from any negative practices that hold us back.
Here is my personal understanding of those four 4 steps to breaking bad habits, based on G‑d’s 4 promises:
G‑d’s first expression of redemption to the Israelites was, “I will take you out” of Egypt. Before you get clean, you must get out of the mud. The first step to breaking free from a habit is to simply stop doing it. Medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides says, “A sinner should abandon his sins,” and suggests that you control your thoughts before they trigger a repeat offence.4 Immediately stop, even if you have already gone at it again.
After the Israelites left Egypt, they were ill at ease with their new identity. G‑d promised: “I will save you,” and supplied them with protective clouds of glory and manna from the sky. The second step on the path to breaking free is to immerse yourself in an alternative, positive reality. When dropping an old habit, adopt a new one to take its place and fill the void. Happiness researcher Gretchen Rubin says that it is much easier to form new habits after a change in life. Adopt your new activity steadily and continuously so it becomes the new you.
G‑d gave the Israelites the holy Torah on Mount Sinai as a roadmap to living a meaningful life. The expression, “I will deliver you,” alludes to the study of Torah, which spiritually and intellectually transforms you. The third step on this journey is to establish the ethical reasoning of your decision and an understanding of the new person you are trying to become. As the Israelites said after receiving the Torah, "naaseh v'nishma” (“we will do and we will understand”). After you “do” by adopting a positive activity, the next step on the journey to change is learning and understanding.
As the Israelites wandered through the desert, G‑d promised them that He would bring them to the Promised Land. Knowing that they would have a place to call their own allowed them to establish an emotional connection with their new selves. This positive emotional bond is reflected in the expression, “I will take you as a nation.” The fourth step on this path is to not only rationalize and understand the person you want to become, but to also fully internalize the change within you, because emotion plays a big part in influencing the decisions we make.
“Through the story we are redeemed from Egypt,”5 the Tzemach Tzedek once commented. You have the power to make the Passover narrative your own success story.
2.Ohr HaTorah, Shemot, vol. 1, p. 185.
4.Mishneh Torah, Laws of Teshuvah, 2:2.
5.Rebbe Rayatz, eve of 20 Kislev 5692; Sefer Hamaamarim 5710, p. 197.
The Four-fold Promise of Redemption
Looking deeper, we see that the first three expressions--"I will bring you out," "I will save you," "I will deliver you"--primarily relate to taking the Children of Israel out from a physical subjugation. However, the primary goal of the deliverance from Egypt was to bring them to spiritual freedom through receiving the Torah, as stated by G‑d in His first revelation to Moses at the burning bush, "When you will bring out this Nation, you will worship G‑d on this mountain (Mount Sinai)." This is referred to in the fourth expression: "I will take you, for me, as a Nation, and I will be, for you, the L-rd."
This same process of expanding familial closeness applies to territorial proximity as well. Since many families lived in one area, they decided that their combined land would become the territory of their new unified nation. The unifying forces were familial closeness, a single language, and a single territory.
This was not the case with the Nation of Israel. Everything was given to them by Divine command. G‑d said to Abraham, the father of the Nation, "Go out from your land and your birthplace… to the land [that will become Israel] which I will show you." This means that the formation of the Country of Israel was by Divine decree. The force which unifies the Nation is G‑d's commands; it flourishes only when the Nation of Israel is serving G‑d, may He be blessed. Therefore, it is impossible to separate the Nation of Israel and the Land of Israel from G‑d, and from the fulfilling of His Divine Command, the Torah. Therefore, the holy Zohar proclaims, "G‑d, the Torah, and Israel are one."
What is the significance of the spiritual deliverance being phrased by the term, "I will take you?"
Let us discuss the term, "And I will take." Our Sages of blessed memory state (Tractate on Marriage, page 2b): "Why do we find that marrying a woman is called "taking," as the verse says, ‘When a man takes a woman?’ [The Talmud answers:] Since it is written in the Torah [in Genesis] that G‑d made Adam fall asleep and took part of his side and [from it] made a woman, and called her Woman [in Hebrew, "Isha"] because she was taken from a Man [in Hebrew, "Ish"]. [The Talmud continues:] This is comparable to a person who has lost an object. [Who searches after whom?] The person searches after the lost object [i.e. the lost object does not search for its owner]. Therefore it is the nature of a man to go after a woman. [The man lost part of his side and searches for the woman] and therefore, it is written, "When a man takes a woman [in marriage].
[The Talmud continues] We learn from this that when a person comes to complete a part which is missing from them, we use the term "taking", as our Sages of Blessed memory say, "If a man proposes with the words, ‘You are the one I have taken,’ [instead of the ordained form of, "You are betrothed to me"], this is also considered to be a binding marriage. It is probable to say this is the reason the word to take [in Hebrew, "lakach"] contains the same letters as a part [in Hebrew, "chelek"].
This concept of woman being part of man also applies to the soul. It is written that the soul in its source was attached to G‑d and indeed it is called "a part of G‑dliness from above" (Job 31:2), until it became distanced from Him and descended to become enclothed in a turbid physical body in this world. So too the Nation of Israel is called a part: "For His Nation is a part of G‑d." (Deut. 32:9) In the subjugation and exile in Egypt, the Children of Israel became distanced from G‑d. They descended to the lowest level and sank into the 49 gates of impurity. Therefore, the fourth term of deliverance mentioned in the verse above is "taking"; i.e. G‑d takes back his lost object, the Divine Soul which dwells within the Children of Israel, and reattaches it to the source from which it was hewn.
This also lets us understand the order of the four cups of wine on the night of the Passover Seder dinner. For it is written in the Zohar, that the four cups correspond to the four letters of the Name Havayah (the Tetragrammaton: yud, hei, vav, hei). ...the fourth cup corresponds to the deliverance term of "taking", for then G‑d brings back a part of His Soul to the Rock from which it was hewn.
With regard to the word Teshuva [i.e. repentance; lit. return to G‑d] it is written that it can be rephrased as, "Tashuv hei [i.e. return the hei.) This is because the [last] letter hei from the Tetragrammaton represents the Nation of Israel and the letter vav represents G‑d. When the Nation of Israel and the Shechinah are in exile, this hei is separated from G‑d. Therefore, the Sages of Blessed memory, say, "Teshuva [i.e. the return of the hei] is so great, since it brings the deliverance near." This also agrees with what we have explained, that the fourth cup corresponds to the letter hei. When we repent and we return to G‑d, there is a union of all four letters of the Tetragrammaton and this brings the complete deliverance. May it be the will of G‑d that we should soon see these words in their fulfillment and completeness.
Muswell Hill Synagogue
Firstly, God proclaimed that he would ‘bring you out from under the burdens of Egypt’. This is physical redemption, simply a lightening of the load, and a relief from burden. To Hirsch, this is a first and necessary step on the way to true freedom. Once material stresses are lifted from off a person, he/she can then feel freer to consider the spiritual.
Secondly, God would “deliver you from your bondage”. Here Rabbi Hirsch understands ‘bondage’ not to mean physical slavery but rather the mentality of slavery. The next step after a relief from burden was to shake off the damaging philosophy propagated by Pharaonic Egypt that we have no control over our destiny. In Egypt, a caste system was created where everyone had their place and there was next to no social mobility. Here God freed and redeemed us from being enslaved to man and to nature.
Thirdly, God declared, “and I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm”. This according to Hirsch is where “man must become aware of the source of his freedom”. In other words, so far freedom has been negative – from physical burdens, from a slave mentality. Now freedom is something positive, freedom to appreciate God rather freedom from any burden. This difference between positive and negative freedom was discussed by Sir Isaiah Berlin in his ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ and most recently from a Jewish perspective by Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his Hagada (Essays, p68). With this third step, God reveals himself as the Creator of our freedom, and paves the way for a specific bond with the Jewish Nation.
Lastly, God explains, “I shall take you to Me for a people”. The previous three representations of redemption could be experienced by all of mankind. This fourth one however, was indicative of the election of the Children of Israel to take the concept of redemption and explain it to the world. For this the Jewish people would need to regulate themselves as a nation according to the word of God. Religion would not just be something of the private domain, remaining with the individual. Rather, it would be interchangeable with the constitution of the nation. Our happiness and satisfaction as a nation will truly come when we live as a nation according to the Torah and its mitzvot.
So the four cups of wine that we drink at the Seder, are stations along the path of freedom and redemption, each one leading us closer to our goal as a people – to be God’s people.