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What I Learned About Passover

April 25, 2024

Happy Passover for those that celebrated on Monday! Michelle and I recently attended a dear friend's seder and I read some interesting thoughts on Pesach that I thought you might find interesting, too. With the author’s permission, I’m happy to share it with you:

Kedusha and Bina

By Oren Litwin

The beginning of the Passover seder is the Kadesh, where the holiday is sanctified over wine. A key part of every Shabbat and holiday, the Kadesh (from the word kedusha, holiness) is particularly relevant to Pesach; we were freed for a purpose, after all, and at Mount Sinai we were commanded by God to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

This is a stark contrast with our experience in Egypt. The mystical tradition tells us that Egypt was actually sunk at the 49th level (out of 50) of tum’ah, spiritual profaneness, and was dragging the Israelites after them. It would make sense if we were called on to be holy as a response. However, the Or HaChaim says that the opposite of the 50 levels of tum’ah are actually 50 levels of binah, “understanding.” The Talmud (Nedarim 38) says that Moses achieved the 49th level with the giving of the Torah. This seems strange; why is binah the opposite of profaneness? Shouldn't it be kedusha?

Bina has a more precise meaning than simple understanding. Whereas chochma, typically translated as "wisdom," refers to the initial flash of insight that bursts into the mind, bina is the process of taking that initial insight and developing it analytically, unfolding it outward to its full potential. This has parallels in other realms than the intellectual. In the physical realm, the process of pregnancy is described as a bina process, since the mother receives the initial seed (chochma) and creates a fertilized zygote, nurturing it until it becomes a full-fledged baby. Similarly, God giving us the Torah is chochma; our receiving it and putting it into practice is bina.

(Incidentally, this is why standard Jewish symbolism refers to God as male, and the Jewish people as female.)

How is bina connected with kedusha, holiness? We can perhaps draw inspiration from Rabbi Dov Linzer’s discussion of the Nazarite, the Jewish ascetic. Rabbi Linzer distinguishes between two kinds of kedusha. The kedusha of the Nazarite is essentially selfish, a sanctity of social isolation; but the kedusha of the priests and of the prophets is one of service, of using their elevated spiritual state in order to elevate those around them as well. This approach can also clarify God's command for Israel to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation”: we are called on to practice the holiness of the priests, so that holiness is used to elevate those around us.

In this light, the connection between kedusha and bina is profound. When we cultivate our own holiness in a bina process of growth and development, we can reach the point where our holiness can elevate those around us as well. Through this elevation, the latent potential of the entire world can be developed and unfolded, nurtured in a vast process of bina—the crowning expression of which was the giving of the Torah. That is the mission to which we are called on Pesach—not merely to be physically free, but to draw down to ourselves and the world an ever-unfolding, endlessly nurturing divine flow of holiness.

For those that celebrated Passover on Monday, may this Pesach be a time of breaking through the constraints in your life, and of profound personal growth that can inspire those around you as well.

Antoine