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The Secret of Passover: Freedom from Speech
By Rabbi Shlomo Zalmen Bregman
THE MOUTH IS EVERYWHERE
When one thinks about the themes commonly associated with the holiday of Passover, ideas such as freedom, miracles, and Hashem's intervention in nature and history usually come to mind. What about getting control of our mouths and our faculty of speech - do you think of these as a central theme of Passover?
While this may surprise some people, there is an intimate connection between the holiday of Passover and using our speech correctly. To someone well-versed in Torah, it is evident that this theme is absolutely everywhere. Consider the following examples:
(1) How did the Jewish nation get to Egypt in the first place? It had to do with the mouth! Our national sojourn in Egypt began with the enmity and conflict between the sons of Jacob, concerning which the Torah says (Bereishis 37:2), "Yosef would bring evil reports about them to their father." This eventually led to Yosef being sold as a slave to Egypt...and as they say, the rest is history.
(2) How did Moshe, the savior of the Jewish people, end up in the land of Midian where he experienced the revelation at the burning bush? Through the mouth! Specifically, he killed the Egyptian by uttering a mystical Name of Hashem, and then fled for his life.
(3) The entire Exodus took place through someone who had a challenge with the mouth. As Moshe told Hashem (Shemos 4:10), "Please, my L-rd, I am not a man of words, not since yesterday, nor since the day before yesterday, nor since You first spoke to Your servant, for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of speech."
(4) Who was the enemy of the Jewish people in the Passover story? Of course, the answer is Pharaoh. Many people are unaware that his name is a combination of two Hebrew words, "Pe-Rah," which means "evil mouth."
(6) When Pharaoh realized that the Jews were trapped at the Red Sea, he commented, "the Wilderness has locked them in (Shemos 14:2)." In Hebrew, this phrase reads, "Suh-gar Aleyhem Hamidbar." However, in the Nesivos Shalom, the Slonimer Rebbe points out that these words can be rendered, "Suh-gar Aleyhem Ha'mi'daber," ie. that the speech was closed for them!
(7) The Torah says that Pharaoh made his Jewish slaves work "B'farech," which means "with crushing harshness (Shemos 1:13)." Amazingly, the word "B'farech" is a combination of two words, "Peh-Rach," which means, "with a soft mouth."
(8) If one pauses to take notice, it is evident that virtually all of the celebrated mitzvahs of the Passover Holiday pertain to the mouth. For example, (i) we eat Matzah, (ii) we avoid consuming Chametz, and (iii) a major aspect of Passover is the Seder, whose central focus is the symbolic foods we eat. At the Seder, (iv) we are also occupied with the recitation of the Haggadah, a word that means "to relate" or "to tell over." Moreover, (v) the central section of the Haggadah is known as "Maggid," in which we fulfill the Torah commandment to relate the story of our exodus from Egypt. In fact, the mitzvah of verbally relating the Passover story is so important that Jewish Law requires that we verbalize it even if don't have anyone else to talk to!
(9) What's the Hebrew name of the Passover holiday? That's an easy one, it's called, "Pesach." R. Chaim Vital and others point out that in Hebrew, "Pe-Sach" means "mouth that speaks."
All of these references to the mouth and faculty of speech scattered throughout the Passover story and observances surely are not a coincidence, but what do they mean?
I would like to suggest a novel explanation to the question above, based upon an essay found in the Sefer Matnas Chaim written by the famed Mashgiach of the Lakewood Yeshiva, R. Mattisyahu Salomon, shlita.
During their experience with slavery in Egypt, the Jewish people were tested to see whether they'd be able to keep a secret. Sadly, our ancestors failed the test. Moshe killed the Egyptian who had been abusing a Jew, and he hid the body in the sand. Unfortunately, word spread as to Moshe's actions, and this led Moshe to flee for his life. In response to this turn of events, Moshe utters the famous phrase (Shemos 2:14), "Achein Nodah Hadavar," which means "surely the matter is known." The simple meaning of these words is that Moshe is reflecting upon the fact that his killing of the Egyptian has become public knowledge. However, there is a deeper truth revealed here. Based on the Midrash Tanchuma and Shemos Rabba, Rashi explains that Moshe had lived with a long-standing question in his mind, and it was resolved from this episode. He had been puzzled as to why Hashem had allowed the Jewish people to suffer in Egypt with such back-breaking labor. After all, what sin had they committed worse than those trespassed by every other nation in the world? But when he saw there were informers among the Jewish people, and that they simply couldn't hold their tongues and keep their secrets, he now understood why they suffered so.
Fortunately, the Jewish people were granted an opportunity to rectify the sin of the revealed secret. When Moshe first returned to Egypt to redeem the Jews, after his decades spent in Midian, Hashem gave him information to convey to the people. Part of the message was that on the eve of their future redemption, in one year's time from now, the Jews would request of their Egyptian neighbors that they give them their valuables possessions...and that they would acquiesce. The tricky part was: the Jews had to keep this a secret!
Of course, many people find it difficult to keep a secret, even for a moment. So how can one hold his tongue for a whole year? And can an entire nation of millions of people do so, without a single person slipping up, not even once? While the task may seem impossible, the Torah makes it clear that this time around, the Jewish nation was equal to the task. On the eve of their redemption, they requested the valuables from the home of each Egyptian, and they were granted them. Had even one Jewish person ‘spilled the beans' and revealed the secret, even once over the preceding year, the Egyptians would have hidden these valuable items in the walls of their homes, just like the Amorites had done to prevent the invading Jews from taking the spoils of war in the times of Joshua.
Therefore, the commentaries explain that since the Jewish people had kept quiet and maintained their secret, they thus atoned for the original error of "Achein Nodah Hadavar," the spilled-secret which had once imperiled the very life of their future redeemer. Additionally, by keeping the secret, they had earned themselves an inestimable merit that would serve as one of the keys to their forthcoming redemption. As it says in the Midrash Tanchuma (Balak 16): in the merit of four things the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt: (1) we didn't change our names, (2) we didn't change our language, (3) we didn't engage in sexual immorality, and (drum-roll please...) (4) we didn't reveal our secrets!
THE TAKE AWAY
I believe that our national experience with keeping secrets and guarding the sanctity of speech both explains and gives rise to the great emphasis placed on the mouth throughout the holiday of
Many people go through the motions during Passover, and although they make an effort to attend the Seders and keep the other laws of the holiday, they don't feel that these eight days inch them closer to their potential. Sadly, many people end up the same Jew at the end of Passover as they were at the beginning. By focusing on the message of the above essay, this year can truly be different and leveraged into a springboard for real growth. This year, as you're downing your Four Cups of Wine and searching for the Afikomen, think about the intimate connection between Passover and speech. That connection is real and ever-present for Jews who know where to look.
I will close with a blessing:
May we all be as careful with what comes out of our mouths during the holiday of Passover as we are with what goes into it!
Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Bregman is Founder of the Jewish Executive Learning Network (JELN.org), a Lakewood-based organization that shares the beauty of Torah study with young professional men in their 20's and 30's in the New York City area. His classes are available in video and MP3 formats through JELN.org and TorahAnytime.com. In addition to his communal work, Rabbi Bregman manages his own law firm, specializing in Business Law and Trusts & Estates. He may be contacted at Director@JELN.org.