It is ten days before Seder night as I write, and this piece will not appear in print until after the Chag. Under the best of circumstances, it is a trick to write a column of this nature so far in advance. How do I know that whatever I write about today will not be hopelessly outdated by the time it appears? And if not outdated, perhaps dwarfed in importance by events that have taken place in the intervening three weeks.
There is something particularly strange about writing so far in advance in Nisan, HaChodesh HaGeulah, the month of Redemption, in which we were gathered together in the blink of an eye and taken out of Egypt on eagles’ wings. One of the crucial lessons of Pesach is that the whole created world can be redeemed in an instant.
Writing in Nisan on the assumption that Mashiach will not come in the next two weeks is not as bad as writing a column to appear right after Tisha B’Av (one of the days traditionally given for the arrival of Mashiach) that begins, "Tisha B’Av has passed once again, and Mashiach is still not here." But it is not unproblematic, as the following story from Rabbi Paysach Krohn’s Along the Maggid’s Journey illustrates.
Rabbi Sholom Eisen, zt"l, was the leading Yerushalmi authority on the halachos of the four species in his time. Jews used to wait in long lines to show Rabbi Eisen their esrogim and lulavim for weeks before Sukkos.
One year a young man brought his esrog to Rabbi Eisen a few weeks before Sukkos. After commenting on the overall beauty of the esrog, Rabbi Eisen nevertheless detected under a magnifying glass a small portion that was missing. The young man pointed out, however, that since the first day of Sukkos that year would fall on Shabbos, when we do not take the four species, there would be no problem. The defect of chaseir (a missing portion) only applies to the performance of the d’oraisa mitzvah of taking the four species – i.e., on the first day of Sukkos or in the Bais HaMikdash.
Rabbi Eisen told him, however, that to purchase the esrog would raise an issue of apikorsus (heresy). He pointed out that several weeks still remained until Sukkos, during which time Mashiach might come and the Bais HaMikdash be rebuilt. The assumption that the Bais HaMikdash will not be rebuilt in that time, said Rabbi Eisen, has a scent of apikorsus about it.
ON PESACH we do not just celebrate our redemption as a nation, but as individuals as well. The celebration of our past redemption reminds us that we are still not completely free as long as we are in the shackles of our yetzer hara. Our search for chametz in every nook and cranny of our houses finds its parallel in the search for the se’or she’b’isa, the yetzer hara, that hides in the crevices of our hearts.
Just as Nisan, the month of Redemption, reminds us that national redemption might be no more than a blink of an eye away, so too should it remind us that change on the individual level can also take place in an instant. As the Gemara says, even when an infamous sinner marries a woman on the condition that he is a complete tzaddik, we must suspect the possibility of a valid marriage, for perhaps he determined in his heart to do complete teshuva (Kiddushin 49b).
A Jew must never assume that he will be the same person tomorrow that he is today. He must know his areas of weakness, and no less so his areas of strength, but neither those strengths nor weaknesses determine the person that he will be tomorrow or the day after.
When the Rambam describes the various forms of foretelling that are forbidden by the Torah, he does not write that foretelling is forbidden because it doesn’t work. Rather the problem with foretelling is that it is based on extrapolating from the person that one is today to what such a person will be like in two weeks. A Jew should never view himself as being static and incapable of change.
Rabbi Chaim Zaitchik in Sparks of Mussar describes a meeting between the Alter of Novardhok and a maskil. The two entered into an intense conversation about Torah and Mussar. But when the maskil told his servant to saddle the horses in preparation for their journey, the Alter of Novardhok refused to confuse any further. The maskil, who had been enjoying the opportunity to talk to such a deep Jewish thinker, could not understand why the Alter stopped speaking so suddenly.
The Alter explained to him that for him discussion was not a means of passing time, but for the sake of discovering the truth and acting upon it. Had the maskil shared that attitude he would at least have had to consider the possibility of embarking on a new course as a result of their conversation. "But from the order to your servant," said the Alter, "it is obvious that your mind is set, and our discussion is just idle talk to pass the time. That is not my way of doing things."
The message was clear: For a Jew, any conversation that does not contain within it the possibility of dramatically altering one’s course in life is not serious.
Hopefully by the time this column appears, it will be completely besides the point in light of the great changes that we have experienced as individuals and as a nation since it was written.