Paths to Freedom: A Mystical Passover Companion #1 - Speech as Liberation
(כג) וַיְהִי֩ בַיָּמִ֨ים הָֽרַבִּ֜ים הָהֵ֗ם וַיָּ֙מָת֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ מִצְרַ֔יִם וַיֵּאָנְח֧וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל מִן־הָעֲבֹדָ֖ה וַיִּזְעָ֑קוּ וַתַּ֧עַל שַׁוְעָתָ֛ם אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים מִן־הָעֲבֹדָֽה׃ (כד) וַיִּשְׁמַ֥ע אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־נַאֲקָתָ֑ם וַיִּזְכֹּ֤ר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־בְּרִית֔וֹ אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֖ם אֶת־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽת־יַעֲקֹֽב׃ (כה) וַיַּ֥רְא אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַיֵּ֖דַע אֱלֹהִֽים׃ (ס)

(23) And it came to pass during those many days that the king of Egypt died. And the Children of Israel sighed from their labor and they cried out. And their groaning rose up to God from their labor. (24) God heard their moaning, and God remembered God's covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. (25) God saw the Children of Israel, and God knew.

The story of liberation from Egypt begins, not with plagues and wonders, but with a voice — with the pained, wordless cry of the Children of Israel, who had been suffering generations of slavery. In the Biblical narrative, it is the people’s cries that become the catalyst to draw God to respond and begin the process of salvation.

But the Zohar - a primary Kabbalistic work - offers a slightly different take on the nature of the people's initial sigh of pain. The Zohar's mystical viewpoint locates God at the center of all reality and all events of the universe - even, in the very experience of pain and suffering. Through a novel reading of the Hebrew grammar used to describe the Children of Israel's sigh, the Zohar identifies the presence and involvement of the Divine within that sigh itself.

וַיֵּאָנְחוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיִּתְאַנְּחוּ לָא כְּתִיב, אֶלָּא וַיֵּאָנְחוּ, כְּלוֹמַר, נִתְאַנְּחוּ לוֹ לְמַעְלָה שֶׁהָאֲנָחָה הָיְתָה בִּשְׁבִילָם לְמַעְלָה.


אָמַר רִבִּי יִצְחָק, תְּלַת עִנְיָינֵי הָכָא: אֲנָחָה, שַׁוְעָה, צְעָקָה. וְכָל חַד מִתְפָּרְשָׁא מְאַחֲרָא. אֲנָחָה: כְּתִּיב, וַיֵּאָנְחוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. צְעָקָה: דִּכְתִּיב, וַיִּצְעָקוּ. שַׁוְעָה: דִּכְתִּיב, וַתַּעַל שַׁוְעָתָם. וְכָל חַד בִּלְחוֹדוֹי מִתְפָּרְשָׁא, וְכֻלְּהוּ עָבְדוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל. אָמַר רִבִּי יְהוּדָה, צְעָקָה וְשַׁוְעָה עָבְדוּ, אֲנָחָה לָא עָבְדוּ, מַשְׁמַע מִדִּכְתִּיב וַיֵּאָנְחוּ וּלְמַעְלָה הָיְתָה הָאֲנָחָה בִּשְׁבִילָם.

"And the Children of Israel sighed,"
it does not say “וַיִּתְאַנְּחוּ — they caused themselves to sigh” but rather “וַיֵּאָנְחוּ — they were sighed”, in other words they caused a sigh for [God] above, meaning that there was a sigh on High on their behalf.


Rabbi Yitzchak said, there are three matters here: A sigh, a groan, a scream. Each one is distinct from the other. A sigh: as it says, "and the children of Israel sighed." A scream: As it says, "and they screamed." A groan: As it says, "and their groaning rose up." Each one is distinct, and Israel did each of these. Rabbi Yehudah said, they screamed and they groaned, but they did not sigh. This is implied by what is written, "וַיֵּאָנְחוּ - and they were sighed", and the sigh was on their behalf on High.

In keeping with the Zohar's teaching about the Divine nature of this sigh, the Chassidic master Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Ishbitz (1801-1854) presents this as a model for all processes of salvation: the first step of redemption involves feeling the lack and pain of our situation, and crying out in prayer to be redeemed. In his rendering, this prayer itself is sent to the person by God.

(א) ויאנחו בני ישראל מן העבודה ויזעקו ותעל שועתם אל האלהים מן העבדה. בכאן מתחלת הישועה, כיון שהיו זועקים מיד ותעל שועתם שהתחילה הישועה, כי עד כאן לא היה בהם שום התעוררות לזעוק ולהתפלל. ומכיון שרצה השי"ת להושיעם התעורר בהם זעקה וזה הוא התחלת הישועה כשאדם מתעורר לזעוק לה'. וכמו שאמר דוד המלך ע"ה (תהלים ס"ו,כ') ברוך אלהים אשר לא הסיר תפלתי וחסדו מאתי, היינו כיון שנמצא בו תפלה מאיר השי"ת חסדו, שמקודם שרוצה השי"ת להושיע אין האדם רואה את החסרון שלו, ואינו יודע כלל מה הוא חסר לו, אבל כשהשי"ת רוצה להושיע מראה לו שורש חסרונו, וממילא יראה כי כל הסתעפות חסרונותיו הם רק משורש הזה, ושולח לו כח תפלה וצעקה להשי"ת ומתחיל להרעיש על זה להשי"ת, ואז השי"ת מאיר לו חסדו.

And the Children of Israel sighed from their labor and they cried out. And their groaning rose up to God from their labor. At this moment, the salvation began. Once they started to cry out, then immediately "their groaning rose up" - meaning that it catalyzed the salvation. For until this moment they had no awakening to scream and pray. And because the Holy Blessed One desired to redeem them, [therefore] the scream was awakened within them. And this is the beginning of redemption, when a person is roused to scream to God. Similar to what King David, peace be upon him, said (Psalm 66:20), "blessed is God for not taking away God's prayer and kindness from me." Meaning that if there is prayer within him, then God will shine kindness upon him. For before God desire to bring salvation a person does not even acknowledge their own lack, and they are not at all aware what they are lacking. But when God desire to redeem them, God shows a person their lack, and the person therefore becomes aware that all of the outgrowths of their lacking derive from this primary root. And God sends the person the strength to pray and scream to God, and they begin to make a lot of noise about this to God - and then God shines kindness upon them.

These teachings convey a radical message about the Children of Israel's pain when they cried out to God. Their deep sighing was not merely expressing their own pain. It was somehow the result of something Divine; something within God (in the Zohar's rendering), or something that God woke them up to that enabled them to feel that pain and give it voice. In a sense, while they may have thought that this was a moment of total desperation and utter pain, it carried within it a seed of the already budding redemption. Just the mere act of experiencing and expressing their pain meant that they were no longer numb or resigned to the reality of servitude. There was a spirit of freedom somewhere deep inside that sighed and cried, and knew that things could be different, that they had to be different. This became the first step on their way to freedom.

For additional Passover resources, see R' Ami's video recordings that offer spiritual frameworks and guidance for each of the steps of the Passover Seder here.

Thank you for reading Lesson #1 of Paths to Freedom: A Mystical Passover Companion. If you are following via the e-course, be on the lookout for Lesson #2 in your inbox in the coming days.