Though Pessah celebrates the birth of the Jewish people, it bears little resemblance to Yom Ha'atzmaut or the Fourth of July. A little thought experiment will bring home Pessah's uniqueness.
If, God forbid, Israel were to be overrun by Arab armies or destroyed by an Iranian nuke, no one would celebrate Israeli Independence Day the following fifth of Iyar. What would be left to celebrate? The state born in so much hope would no longer be, and its flash on the firmament but a grim reminder of the precariousness of Jewish existence at all times and in all places.
Yet more than 3,000 years after the redemption from Egypt, Jews everywhere still gathered this year around the Seder table, though the bright promise of that moment of national birth has never yet been realized. The servitude of Egypt was hardly the last. The Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman exiles followed. The Promised Land flowing with milk and honey has been ours for but a brief portion of our national existence. Jews have celebrated Pessah hiding in caves from the Romans, in dark cellars evading the Inquisition.
Even in the Nazi death camps, Jews collected kernels of wheat grain by grain in order to bake matzot. Despite working endless days at backbreaking labor, on a diet about half of subsistence level, Jews traded away their major source of sustenance for less nutritious matzot. Others who could not find matzot exchanged their bread and soup for raw potatoes to avoid eating hametz, even after being told by rabbis that the commandment to preserve their lives required them to eat bread.
Like our forebears in Egypt, Jews in the death camps had their spouses and children ripped from their arms; they lacked a moment to breathe or call their own. It took no act of imagination for them to comprehend the words of the Haggada: "They tortured us; they oppressed us; they subjected us to unbearable pressure."
Yet they still recited praises to God for having taken us "from slavery to freedom, sorrow to joy, from mourning to festive days, from darkness to great light, from slavery to redemption."
A survivor of Buchenwald recalls a Seder in the spring of 1945 in a bloc comprised mostly of Jewish children between nine and 16. He describes listening as one young boy recited the Four Questions to an older boy. In another bunk, he heard a young boy telling his friends the story of Pessah. (See David Adler, "Pessah in the Death Camps," Jewish Observer, March 1965.)
How could they have done so? Why did they do it? A famous commentary on the Haggada asks the question: If someone were released from prison and subsequently imprisoned again, would he invite his cell mates to gather with him to celebrate the day of his initial release?
THE TORAH refers to the holiday as Hag Ha'aviv or Hag Hamatzot. But we call it Pessah, in remembrance of God's skipping over the houses of the Israelites when He killed the Egyptian firstborn.
And so has He always skipped over us. Those who oppressed, enslaved and murdered us filled the planet with sound and splendor (Mark Twain, "Concerning the Jews"). But in the end they vanished, and the Jew remained.
Every Jew knows, on account of the redemption from Egypt, that no matter how bad his present situation, next year he will be free, and if not next year, the one after that. And even if he personally does not survive - like all those who perished in Egypt or in the death camps - the Jewish people will survive to celebrate Pessah in happier circumstances.
But hopes for our collective future are only part of the matter. The redemption did not end with going out from Egypt, but with Sinai. Through the miracles of Egypt and the giving of the Law, God revealed a realm of the spirit beyond the power of any tyrant to touch.
The matza reminds us that our freedom is ultimately spiritual. Matza, writes the Maharal, is the symbol of our freedom precisely because it is spiritual bread. It consists only of its absolute essentials: flour and water. Any additional ingredients render it unfit. The spiritual world is one of simplicity and unity; the physical world, by contrast, is one of structures piled on one another, a world of building blocks amalgamated together.
Because the freedom gained was spiritual in nature, it has never been fully lost. We ceased to be slaves to slaves and became servants of the Holy One, Blessed Be He. The pharaohs in each generation attempt to intrude on that relationship, but there remains a point beyond which they cannot harm us.
With their celebration of Pessah in the death camps, Jews expressed their defiance and contempt for their Nazi oppressors no less bravely than did their ancestors when they took sheep, which the Egyptians worshiped, and slaughtered them prior to leaving Egypt.
"You can starve us, you can kill us, but you cannot destroy the most essential aspect of our being," they silently proclaimed. "For you cannot deprive us of the knowledge of a world filled with purpose, a world in which every aspect of physical existence, even the greatest physical degradation, can be filled with holiness."
The redemption revealed a world of spirit, and our access to it. And that revelation remains with us in all times and all places.
That is why Pessah is our true day of independence.