Passover and Non-Attachment

Marc Erlbaum
7 min readApr 24, 2019

The key to happiness in life, according to mystic tradition, is non-attachment. It is the clinging to our presumed needs and seemingly inherent passions that render us forever needy and unfulfilled. And it is the ability to transcend these ego-based urges and hungers that will allow us to find contentment and satiation. We require far less than we desire because we are in reality far more than we seem, and deem ourselves, to be. If, and when, we will be what we ultimately are, we will recognize that what we need from without us is little, and that what we contain within us is immense. We will transform our clinging fist to an open palm, aware that our potential to give is far greater than our compulsion to grab.

Passover is the story and process of detachment. In the beginning, God created a world of limits because without limits, limited beings could not exist. Within the orb of the sun, for instance, no individual flames can be identified or said to exist. In His desire for a creation, and for beings who He could give to and nurture, God therefore hid His infinity and constructed a realm of seeming limits. These confines were created in love, so that we, each of us an individual flame, could come to be. With time, however, we forgot that the boundaries erected around us were only a framework for our existence, and that there was a source and force of our being that was not constrained by the limitations which were created only to allow us to be. We thus became lost and enslaved within the construct that was made to serve and support us. We became attached to the world, mired in it, forgetting that we were the very reason for its origin.

Attachment in hebrew is expressed by the term “daas.” Daas literally means “knowledge,” but on a deeper level it indicates fusion and unification. This is why intimacy is conveyed by the phrase “to know biblically,” because when the Bible writes that “Adam knew Eve,” it means that he was intimate with her. To truly know something is to be intimately familiar with it. To be truly intimate with someone is to know the person fully, to unite with the person beyond a mere physical act.

Daas, as knowledge, intimacy, and attachment, can be, and is meant to be, very positive and holy. But it can also be destructive. When we attach in the wrong ways, to the wrong things, and for the wrong reasons, our attachment above can be severed, and we become lost in our attachment to things below. This is enslavement. This is Egypt, in hebrew Mitzrayim, which is an idiom of “meitzarim” or “limitations.”

Pharoah, the king of Egypt, “did not KNOW God” (Exodus 4:2). He had no daas or attachment to the root and source of all. He was the king of attachment to limitations. His daas was “daas tachton,” lower daas, attachment to the limitations below. He enslaved us and would not let us go. Passover is the breaking of the bonds of daas tachton. We must break the chains of daas/knowledge that convince us that we are weak and limited. If we KNOW that we are slaves, then we will always be enslaved. When we detach ourselves from this lower consciousness and come to remember, to KNOW again, that we are children of the infinite, we will be aware that there are no chains or limitations that can bind or restrict us.

Therefore, there are multiple references in Torah to Passover’s connection to a concept called “Geneivas Daas,” which is idiomatically translated as “deception,” but which literally means the “theft of Daas/knowledge” and can be understood as the breaking of the bonds of destructive attachment.

The most common example of this type of “stealing” or “deception” on Passover is the custom of “stealing the afikomen”. Half of one of the matzos from the seder plate it set aside during the seder, and there is a custom for the children to “steal” it and hide it from their parents. It is an unusual custom, and many wonder what lesson we are imparting to our children by encouraging them to “steal” and “deceive” their parents. But with the previous explanation of “Geneivas daas,” we see that there is a profound message underlying the custom. It is our “daas,” attachment, that has rendered us slaves, and we must break the bonds of our daas if we want to be free.

Similarly, we find a confusing detail in the story of our departure from Egypt. After the tenth plague, Pharoah and Egypt are finally broken, and the Jewish people are freed. But three days later, Pharoah and his army chase after the Jews and eventually catch up to them at the Sea of Reeds. God splits the sea so that the Jews can escape, and then destroys the Egyptian army when they attempt to continue their chase by following the Jews into the seabed. But why did Pharoah chase the former slaves once he had set them free? What was it that changed his mind?

Looking closely at the conversation between Pharoah and Moses, we see that Pharoah did not in fact change his mind at all. What he had agreed to was not a full release of Moses’ people. He said “go worship the Lord as you have stated” (Exodus 12:31). What is it that Moses had stated? That he and the people would go into the desert to serve God for 3 days, and then that they would return. No where had the request changed. Clearly at this point, after the ten plagues and Egypt’s complete defeat, Moses could have said to Pharoah that he and the people were never coming back. There was nothing Phaoroah could have done at that point to stop them. Yet Moses refrained from changing the terms. Why?

The Chassidic masters explain that Moses knew that in order to attain true freedom, it was necessary to employ “geneivas daas,” deceiving Pharoah and breaking the “daas tachton” that he represented. Pharoah cannot be convinced to let the slaves go, even in defeat. Attachment to the limitations of the lower world can never be won over and elevated. This type of daas must be broken against its will because its will will never be changed. Attachment is the very root of exile — it cannot be a party to redemption but it must be broken and left behind.

Two other famous Torah stories similarly connect this concept of “Geneivas daas” with Passover. The story of Jacob deceiving his father Isaac to “steal” his brother Esau’s birthright occurred on Passover. Though the text does not explicitly state that the meal Isaac was served was a seder meal, we see that he requested two goats, clearly more than he could eat himself. The sages reveal that one was for the Paschal lamb, and the other was for the traditional chagigah/holiday offering. Further we see that when Esau comes to feed his father after Jacob has already accomplished his deception, he begs Isaac to eat of his meal as well, but Isaac says that he is unable. Why? Because he has already eaten the afikomen, and it is forbidden to eat anything at the seder once the afikomen has been consumed.

Finally, the culmination of the story of queen Esther occurs on Passover as well. Esther is hesitant to go ask King Ahasueros to spare her people because she has not been summoned and one who appears before the king without his summon is liable to death. The language of the Megillah writes that she nonetheless appeared before him “lo k’DAAS,” without his knowledge. And rather than simply requesting his assistance, she then invites the king and Haman to a meal in which she will deceive the wicked Haman and covertly win the liberation of her people. At the meal she serves Haman and the king cups of wine, then invites them for a second meal the following night where she serves them wine again. What are these two meals where wine is served? They are seder meals (a central feature of which is the four cups of wine), and the Jews’ salvation is once again accomplished on Passover through “deception” or “geneivas daas.”

It should be made clear that in no sense and in no instance is Torah implying that lying or deception are sanctioned in business or interpersonal affairs. Emes/truth and tzedek/righteousness are the foundations of Jewish legality and morality. The fundamental truth that is imparted by Passover and these seminal stories of our tradition is a subtle spiritual truth which, like many things powerful and essential, can be blinding if it is stared at directly. There are aspects of us which don’t want to go free. There are parts of us that are comfortable in our attachment and our enslavement. Sometimes we enjoy clinging and being caught up because it seems to liberate us from the responsibility and possibility of being divine.

But we are divine. We are unlimited. Passover enables us to steal away from the attachment and confinement to which we subjected and abandoned ourselves. We are free, and we are never subject to slavery unless we choose to be.