Knight of Nights – Rav David Milston
“It is a night of watchfulness to the Lord for bringing them out from the land of Mitzrayim: this is the Lord’s watch-night, for all the Children of Israel in their generations.” (Shemot, 12:42)
The verse quoted above is of course referring to the first night of Pesach, which is traditionally known as ‘Leil Shimurim’ (translated for the time being as ‘a night of watchfulness.’) But what is the real meaning of this phrase?
The Ramban identifies the Hebrew word ‘Shimurim’ to be a derivative of ‘Lishmor’ – literally meaning to guard. Thus, the initial part of the verse indicates that God has guarded this night – or better still, ‘kept it aside’ – ever since He first decreed exile upon Abraham’s descendants. Since God always had this redemption in mind; since He had ‘penciled in the date,’ the verse concludes with the instruction that Am Yisrael must always keep this day and its commandments in memory of His lovingkindness.
Alternatively, the Ramban suggests the word ‘Shimurim’ is being applied in a similar manner to which it was employed in Parashat Vayeishev, when we are told that Ya’akov, upon hearing Yosef’s dreams – “shamar et hadavar.” Rashi indicates that the meaning of the word there is that Ya’akov waited expectantly for the day when Yosef’s dreams would be fulfilled. In the same manner, our verse indicates that Hashem eagerly awaited the time when the people of Israel would be worthy of redemption. This was the night He had waited for.
In contrast, the Ibn Ezra comments that ‘Leil Shimurim’ should be understood literally, as we have translated it – a ‘night of watchfulness.’ God watched over the children of Israel to ensure that the final plague, the killing of the firstborn, passed over them. According to this interpretation, the phrase ‘Leil Shimurim’ is not that different from the name Pesach, which also describes how God ‘passed over’ the houses of Am Yisrael when killing the Egyptian firstborn.
The Kli Yakar takes the theme of the Ibn Ezra a stage further and explains that on that very night Am Yisrael kept God’s word by offering the Paschal lamb, an act that demanded tremendous courage. In exchange, the Almighty protected His people from the ‘Angel of Death.’
This very same mutual commitment exists today, throughout the year, but particularly on this night, when the Almighty protects us even more than usual.
That is why we refrain from reciting many of the ‘protective’ Psalms we normally say before retiring at night.
The Or HaChaim HaKadosh has another explanation. He says that this particular night was always ‘reserved’ – ‘shamur,’ for miraculous occurrences, and he lists five examples:
Avraham defeated the four kings with his 318 men. (Bereishit 14:15)
Hashem killed the firstborn at midnight. (Shemot, 12:29)
In the days of Hizkiyahu HaMelech, the angel Gabriel smote the army of Sancherib on that very same night. (Melachim Bet, 19:35)
King Achashverosh could not sleep on that night. (Esther, 6:1) This event also led to Haman’s downfall.
The future redemption of the Jewish people.
The Or HaChaim masterfully explains how each part of our verse refers to one of the miracles listed above.
However, the most intriguing comment I have seen to date is that of the Beit HaLevi:
“The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah, 18:11) states, “In this world, He performs miracles for the Jews at night, for they are transient miracles. In the future, He will perform miracles for them by day, for they will be permanent miracles.”
As previously mentioned in Parashat Vayishlach, night symbolizes exile. We must therefore assume that redemption at night signifies continued exile and a ‘debt’ of banishment has to be carried forward to be repaid at some future date. In contrast, the final redemption will take place during the day, symbolizing the end of the long expulsion.
Am Yisrael were redeemed from Egypt at the end of 210 years of slavery, as opposed to the original 400 years that were decreed. The reason for this ‘early’ redemption was because they were spiritually degenerating so fast that they may very well have become irredeemable had the Almighty waited any longer. Thus, the final redemption promised to Avraham has yet to happen, because the decreed exile was not fulfilled in its entirety.
This realization illuminates the following midrash in Midrash Eichah (3:5):
“He satiated me with bitter herbs, He filled me with gall.” (Eichah, 3:15) “He satiated me with bitter herbs” refers to the night of Pesach; “He filled me with gall” alludes to the night of Tisha B’Av.”
It is interesting to note that the first day of Pesach and Tisha B’Av always fall on the same day of the week. This ‘coincidence’ suggests that the hastening of the redemption from Egypt, with its concomitant debt of exile, contains the seed of the disaster of Tisha B’Av (i.e. as a direct result of being exiled earlier than planned, we were expelled again on Tisha B’Av in order to settle outstanding exilic debts.)
This only strengthens our belief in the ultimate redemption, because the Brit bein HaBetarim as described to Avraham Avinu has yet to be fulfilled.
In this vein, the Gemara in Berachot (12a) states:
“Whoever does not say ‘emet veyatziv’ (it is true and upright) after saying Shema in the morning, and the parallel ‘emet v’emunah’ (it is true and believed) at night, has not fulfilled his obligation, as the verse says, ‘To tell Your kindness in the morning and Your faithfulness at night.’ (Tehillim, 92:3)
The two berachot both deal with similar concepts. Why did Chazal formulate two distinct versions?
In the light of the above ideas, we can explain as follows:
Redemption that takes place in the morning is everlasting. Redemption that takes place at night is transient. Yet it does serve to increase our faith in the ultimate redemption. Therefore, the beracha we recite in the morning reads: ‘It is true and upright,’ alluding to that which is everlasting. In contrast, the beracha we recite at night is ‘It is true and believed,’ for it alludes to the ultimate redemption, which demands our faith.
The Vilna Gaon asks why eggs were chosen to symbolize the Chagiga sacrifice on the Seder plate. The Chafetz Chaim, in his commentary to the Shulchan Aruch, notes that the age-old reason for using eggs (a traditional Jewish symbol for mourning,) acts as a reminder of the destruction of the Temple and the mourning of Tisha B’Av. But why commemorate this mourning on Pesach, in the middle of the festivities?
By remembering Tisha B’Av, which stemmed from our premature redemption from Mitzrayim, we indicate the original promise made to Avraham at Brit bein HaBetarim is yet to be fulfilled, thus reinforcing our belief in the coming of Mashiach.
This exceptional piece by the Beit HaLevi offers us a very different interpretation of ‘Leil Shimurim.’ This night is a night of ‘watching’ for a number of reasons:
On a negative note, this night has to be watched because it indicates that more exilic time is to follow, because we left Egypt prematurely, and outstanding debts need to be paid.
It is also a night of watching because we are still waiting and watching for the final redemption. The partial fulfilling of a specific prophecy only strengthens our resolve and belief that the final redemption is still to come.
Alternatively, we could suggest that because Hashem implemented the exodus 190 years before its time, we can always be sure that He is watching over us, and will never let the nations of the world destroy us, even if it means altering a master plan for humankind.
In conclusion, I would like to humbly offer a homiletic explanation to the meaning of the phrase ‘Leil Shimurim’ – ‘a night of preservation’:
The first night of Pesach is essentially the first ever celebration of Am Yisrael’s independence. And how do we celebrate? No fireworks; no military parades. The entire emphasis of this night is on the future, on education.
The central commandment of the evening is about educating our children and ourselves how and why we came out of Egypt. We are told we must ask questions, our children should be encouraged to ask questions, and we are to answer each child in relation to their particular personality.
We look to the past in order to march into the future. We thank the Almighty for all His lovingkindness; we know the achievements of the past are inspiring, but minimal if there is no future.
The future depends on our children; who they are, and what they become. We can only retain and strengthen what we have if we preserve our values and our beliefs, and there is only one way to do this: education. ‘Leil Shimurim’ is a night of preservation. Our independence was a wonderful gift; our role in this world a unique honor, but we must preserve it. On this night, the start of the National New Year, we display our secret weapon of survival and success – education.
In the idyllic Jewish Government, the main emphasis of the fiscal budget is neither Defense, nor Hi-Tech. It is Education. The Prime Minister will be in charge of the education portfolio, because that is the only way to really fulfill our long-term objectives in this world.
In truth, we cannot afford to wait for the ideal to emerge. We need to revolutionize our priorities immediately. The world is developing at such speed, values are disintegrating, and education is regressing. If we do not direct our children, teach them values, ideology, belief, and meaning, then there can be no hope for the future. This is not just a Jewish message. It has to become a universal message too.
The Jewish people have inexplicably survived 2000 years of exile. With the Almighty’s help, our beliefs and our stamina have kept us alive. These beliefs have been passed on from generation to generation. They have been taught and continue to be taught from father to son and from mother to daughter.
And so, this night really symbolizes not only our exodus but also our future. It is our ‘Leil Shimurim,’ our night of preservation.