Jewish History is made up of constant tension between spirtual activism and conservatism. Spiritual dynamism is what keeps people excited and gives them a sense of national mission. Nonetheless, without a strong sense of conservatism, the normative core of Torah observance can be threatened. We are still living in a conservative reaction to the events of the 16th and 17th centuries. The spiritual activism of the cabbalistic school in Tzefat catapulted a depressed world Jewry into messianic expectations. New rituals were initiated, new modes of thought developed and a pre-messianic agenda taken up. While this atmosphere does not have a direct correlation to Shabbatai Tzvi, it greatly facilitated his success. With his exposure as a fraud, world Jewry set itself squarely against religious activism.
After (Shabbatai Tzvi), there was the great peril that the nation might spurn altogether every vestige left it from the treasure of living spiritual inspiration. The result would have been sole dependence on a study of texts and the zealous performance of actions, the commandments and the customs. The people would have become bowed in body and crushed in spirit. In the end they would have been unable to survive from a lack of vitality and uplifting of spirit.
(Derekh haTchiya 1909)
Rav Kuk felt that the peril was abated by Hassidut and spiritual Zionism, the latter of which would likely bring about a messianic or pre-messianic era. The forces of conservatism were, in fact, greatly alarmed by the risks brought by these movements. Ninety years after Rav Kook wrote the above, I fear the conservative forces are nearing a victory which will bring about the "crushing of our spirit". We cannot allow this to happen - we must attempt to renew our national spiritual quest. We must try to sing shira.
Our problem is that we are not sure how to sing shira. We live in a skeptical, cerebral culture. Our society values scholarship. Thus, when we come in contact with the rarified and lively talmudic brand of scholarship, it generally hits a resonant chord. We are comfortable with book learning and have no difficulties doing it. Our difficulties begin when we try to use it to quench our spiritual thirst - we will necessarily feel unsatisfied. We are much less comfortable with prayer, meditation and other modes of spiritually nourishing communion with the Divine. It is not an area that has many referents in contemporary Western culture - while most of the world prays, one only finds systematic approaches to spirituality among the culturally marginal. Even as we look to our own traditions for guidance, we feel the tremendous depth of spiritual galut. Distance between G-d and us was first imposed from above and subsequently redoubled by our fears and inadequacies.
I am perplexed by how little excitement exists about the amazing times in which we live. Fifty years after the creation of the state of Israel, thirty years after the return of Jewish sovereignty over the Temple mount and a decade after the mass migration of the isolated Jewish communities of the former Soviet Union and Ethopia, we become skeptics who see the problems created by all of these events. Even if we continue to sense the Divine hand in our days, we return to our scholarship mode - categorizing, dissecting and ultimately emasculating the power of these events.
If this is true of events we have witnessed in our own day, can it not be all the more so when it comes to the seminal events we shall sit and discuss in two weeks' time. I have spent more than one Seder relishing the intellectual stimulation involved in the pilpul and chiddush of analalyzing the Maggid. It need not, however, be that way. A few years ago, I decided that the Hallel in the middle of the Haggadah was not supposed to be an anti-climax but just the opposite. The point of Yetziat Mitzrayim was for the Jews to reach the existential state of shira - spontaneous emotional outpouring of gratitude towards G-d which brings one to dveikut. Likewise, I beleive, the Maggid is meant to bring us to the appropriate mindframe for Hallel.(e.g., this is the way I understand the attempt to multiply the amount of plagues at the sea - to increase our gratitude and set us in the appropriate mood)
The Seder itself provides one of the few systematic models at coming to true worship of G-d. One first has to mildly release the sense of total self-control that is engendered by following familiar paths. In the case of the Seder this is accomplished by drinking wine (music and meditation were preferred by the prophets to reach a similar state). We then think about the tremendous kindness that G-d has done for us throughout our history. If we are not inhibited, shira is a natural response. This is not an experience that need be limited to the Seder night (each birkat hanehinin can be a mini-seder) but it is a good place to start. Thus the festival of our spiritual liberation contains the seeds for spiritual self-liberation.
If Nissan is an auspicious time for the geula, then it is perhaps also an auspicious time to do our small part in regaining our national spirituality.