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Rabbi Yaakov Hillel
Rosh Yeshivat Ahavat Shalom
From Slavery to Freedom
“And afterward, they will leave with great wealth” (Bereshit 15:14)
The Fire of Exile
At the beginning of sefer Devarim, Moshe compares the land of Egypt to a smelting pot. “Hashem took you and brought you out of the iron crucible, out of Egypt, to be His inheritance, as you are today” (Devarim 4:20). There is great depth to this metaphor, as the Arizal explains; for just as gold and silver must be melted in a furnace, in order to remove their impurities, so the Jewish people had to be enslaved for over two hundred years in Egypt, in order to reach perfection. (Shaar HaKavanot, Derushi HaPesah, p. 79b). It turns out, then, that everything that happened to Klal Yisrael in Egypt was precisely orchestrated by Hashem, in order to perfect us and prepare us to become His unique nation, loyal to Him, His Torah and His mitzvoth.
We can understand this better through the words of the Hagadah: Blessed is He who keeps His promise to Yisrael. Blessed is He. For Hashem foretold the end of the bondage to Avraham at the “Covenant between the Pieces,” when He said to Avraham: ‘Know you that your children will be strangers in a land not their own. They will be enslaved there and will
be oppressed for four hundred years. However, I will punish the nation who will oppress them, and afterward they will come forth with great wealth.’ This promise made to our forefathers holds true also for us. For more than once have they risen against us to destroy us; in every generation they rise against us and seek our destruction. But the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hands. Most people read this as Hashem’s promise to redeem us from the nations that afflict us. However, we can also read the words as implying the opposite: “This promise made to our forefathers holds true also for us” – that is, Hashem’s promise to Avraham, that his descendents will be enslaved, also applies to us. Hashem promises that Klal Yisrael will be enslaved again and again – numerous times! – just as they were enslaved in Egypt. This is because, ultimately, exile is for our own good; for were it not for the hatred that the nations show us in exile, and the suffering we experience among them, we would have assimilated long ago and completely disappeared. However, due to the exile and the nations’ oppression, we not only maintain our identity as a people, we reach perfection and elevate the entire world, as well. This is true of all the exiles that we experienced in our history – the Babylonian exile, the Persian, the Greek, the Roman, and that of Yishmael. All are alluded to in the verses in Sefer Daniel that describe Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Daniel 2:31-35): You, O king, saw a great image, an image which had a large base with unusual splendor, was standing opposite you, and its form was frightening. The image had a head of fine gold, its breast and its arms were of silver, its belly and thighs were of brass, its legs were of iron, and its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. You were watching until a stone was hewn without hands, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them into pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the brass, the silver, and the gold, crumbled together, and became like the chaff on the threshing-floors of the summer; and the wind carried them away, and no place was found for them; and the stone that struck the image became a huge mountain, and filled the whole earth. Each level and material represents not only a different exile, but a different negative spiritual force that enslaved Klal Yisrael. The Babylonian exile corresponds to the golden head of the idol. The breast and arms of silver was the Persian. The brass was the Greek exile and the feet of iron and clay is the present exile of Rome and Yishmael. Klal Yisrael went from one exile to the other; yet by keeping mitzvoth and surviving as Jews, we destroyed each nation that oppressed us, from the top down – the Babylonian, Persian, and Greek, until today, when we are in the process
of destroying the exile of Rome and Yishmael. However, according to R. Moshe Cordovero (Tomer Devorah, chap. 1, 9th midah), when even the heels of the idol will collapse, Hashem will rebuild it and destroy it again. That is the meaning of the stone in Nebuchadnezzar’s vision, which struck the feet first. This is because even though we destroy the nations, exile after exile, Hashem must still destroy the entire force of evil from the world, before the Moshiach can come. From our perspective, however, it is precisely by enduring these exiles and remaining true to our Jewish values – despite the nations’ false promises and temptations – that the pure soul of Klal Yisrael can emerge. Furthermore, when the nations collapse, all the good that is in them becomes redeemed and uplifted, while their negative aspects crumble to dust, as in the vision. When the Moshiach comes, nothing will remain of them at all. (The Ramak explains this often. See, also, Alimah, “Ayin kol tamar,” 11 and 12, p. 43a,b,c.). Thus, at the end of each exile mentioned above, Hashem redeemed Yisrael and destroyed the nation that enslaved us. This is the meaning of Hashem’s promise to Avraham: “Afterward, they will leave with great wealth.” Meaning, it was not merely the riches of Egypt that they plundered, nor the gold and silver they collected after the splitting of the sea; rather, it was the sparks of holiness that they took out with them, and the rich, spiritual edification that they gained by passing the test of the Egyptian exile, and all those that followed. According to this, we can say that it was not merely the exodus from Egypt that bestowed great riches upon Klal Yisrael, but the very suffering they experienced in the exile itself. Through this, they gathered, uplifted and rectified the fallen sparks of holiness and attained perfection, as we will explain.
Exile’s Higher Purpose
In several places in sefer Shemot, we find verses that connect the redemption from Egypt with the bond we formed with Hashem to be His servants. For instance (Shemot 3:12): “[Hashem] said [to Moshe]: Surely I will be with you; and this shall be the sign that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve Hashem on this mountain” and (ibid. 6,7): “Say to the Bnei Yisrael: I am Hashem. I will bring you out from your forced labor in Egypt and free you from their slavery. I will liberate you with an outstretched arm, and with great acts of judgment. And I will take you to Myself as a people, and I will be to you as a G-d." This implies that the very enslavement to Pharaoh in Egypt was a necessary step in becoming servants of Hashem. However, the connection is still unclear. After all, Hazal tell us that Hashem created the entire world for the sake of Israel and the Torah, and that the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai was like a wedding between
us and Hashem – we were the bride and He was the groom. Yet, is this any way to treat a new bride in preparation for her wedding? To throw her into the pit of Egypt, where she became more and more corrupted by the day, descending to the fortyninth level of impurity – to the point that the angels protested at the Red Sea (Zohar 2:170b): “Why are you saving the Jews and drowning the Egyptians!? Both of them served idols equally!” Why did we require such a long and hard exile? Wouldn’t it have been better to dress in beautiful garments before Matan Torah, as befitting a bride – not to be thrown into the dungeon like a slave. The answer lies in the purpose of our deliverance from Egypt, which was “to serve Hashem on this mountain.” In other words, to receive the Torah and become avdei Hashem. But since the yoke of Torah is extremely heavy, and whoever seeks to uphold it must be ready to devote his life to it entirely, as Hazal say (Berachot 63b): “The Torah only exists in a person who kills himself over it,” therefore, Hashem had to subjugate us to the painful exile of Egypt as a training ground – a place that taught us how to truly become servants of the King. For to the same degree that we bore the yoke of Pharaoh’s servitude, we must subjugate ourselves to the will of Hashem and His Torah. For this reason, the Tikunei Zohar compares the servitude in Egypt to the struggle to learn Torah (in the additional tikunim following tikun 9): They made the lives of [the Israelites] bitter with hard labor involving mortar and bricks, as well as all kinds of work in the field; in all their service, which they made them serve with rigor (Shemot 1:14). “Hard labor” (avodah kasha) alludes to kushiya (questions on the gemara). “Mortar” (homer) alludes to kal v’homer (a type of Talmudic interpretation). “Bricks” (levenim) alludes to the process of halachic clarification (libun halakha). “Work in the field” alludes to [the study of] beraita. “All their service” alludes to [the study of] mishnah. [“Which they made them serve with rigor (b’perach).” We could explain this according to the Talmud (Sotah 11b), that says that the Egyptians made the Bnei Yisrael work with a peh rach – a soft mouth. In other words, we had the option of avodah b’parech – hard, physical labor, or avodah b’peh rach – to serve Hashem through toiling at Torah.]
This passage implies that when a person applies himself to Torah study with the same degree of commitment and diligence that the Jews served the Egyptians, he actually removes any harsh decrees that would require him to go into exile. It is as though he has substituted a far more elevated and enlightening type of bondage for an equivalent, back-breaking one. But this is only if his level of effort is the same in both cases. For this reason, the Levites were never enslaved in Egypt, because from the beginning of their arrival in Egypt, accepted upon themselves the yoke of Torah; thus, they chose peh rach instead of parech.
The Meaning of the Hagadah
We can use this principle to understand portions of the Pesah Hagadah: And the Egyptians did evil unto us and made us suffer. They set upon us hard work. So we cried unto the Hashem, the God of our fathers, and Hashem heard our voice and He saw our affliction and our burden and our oppression. There are three aspects of enslavement alluded to in this verse: The Egyptians did evil unto us, refers to Pharaoh’s plan to enslave us forever, to the point that we would never be able to escape the bondage of Pharaoh and his people. And made us suffer refers to the slave drivers whom he appointed over us to afflict us. They set upon us hard work refers to the back-breaking physical labor that Klal Yisrael was subjugated to in Egypt. Yet, as we explained above, each scenario actually helped refine the Jewish people, and enabled us to become true servants of Hashem. The Egyptians did evil unto us. This is the first principle. It means that a Jew must become a servant of only one master, and that his period of servitude will last forever, without any expectation of release. As Dovid HaMelech said (Tehilim 116:16): “I am your servant, the son of your maidservant, You have opened my bonds.” Meaning to say, Dovid thought of himself as a slave, the son of a slave. It was as though he was born into slavery, so that even when he was released from his bonds, he did not seek to escape – his sense of servitude was that innate and inbred. This is the most complete form of service to Hashem. It was a level we learned while in Egypt, due to the fact that the “the Egyptians did evil unto us.” And made us suffer. This is the second principle. It means accepting the unequivocal rule of one’s master, or those appointed by him. In Egypt, these were the slave drivers set by Pharaoh over the Jews. We suffered under their hands, yet
from them, we learned how to accept unconditionally the authority of our parents, our teachers, our rabbis and the leaders of each generation. They set upon us hard work. The third principle in avodat Hashem is our willingness to accept the heavy and constant yoke of the commandments, which every true eved Hashem must uphold day and night, without end. This attitude we also learned from the “hard work” the Egyptians subjugated us to. And [Hashem] saw our affliction. This, the Hagadah tells us, was the forced separation of husbands and wives in Egypt. The intense labor and the resulting exhaustion led to the annulment of periyah v’reviyah [matrimonial relations to fulfill the mitzvah of bearing children]. Yet, here too, there was an eternal lesson. A servant of Hashem knows how to control his lower desires. He does not transgress the boundaries set by Hashem during the “unclean” days of the month, and even when marital contact is permitted, he follows the rules laid down by the Shulhan Aruch as to how, when and how often. (See Ketubot 61b and Shulhan Aruch, Orah Hayim 240.) And our burden. This was the drowning of our children, says the Hagadah. From this, we learned mesirat nefesh – our absolute dedication to raising our children in the path of Torah and mitzvoth; for we know that spiritual death is far more severe than mere physical death. And our oppression. This refers to the Egyptians crushing our lives. For even if a person suffers repeatedly in life, there are always periods of relief between the waves of oppression, in which he can recoup his strength and hope. However, the Egyptians never ceased pressuring us; the suffering was continual and unending. Yet, here too, we learned an important principle in serving Hashem, as Hazal say (Berachot 64a): “Talmidei Hachamim know no rest, not in this world or in the next, as it says: ‘They go from strength to strength’” (Tehilim 84:8). Zaddikim work so hard at Torah and mitzvoth because they realize the value of each second of life. Every moment bears its own, unique potential for achieving perfection, and to waste a single instant means losing its eternal possibility for good. So we cried unto Hashem, the G-d of our fathers, and Hashem heard our voice and He saw our affliction and our burden and our oppression. Going back a verse, we can ask the following question: Does Hashem need our cries in order to hear us? Certainly, He is aware of everything that occurs on earth – and even more so, everything that happens to Yisrael, His chosen people, as the verses say: “I am with them in their suffering” (Tehilim 91:15) and “In all their afflictions, He is afflicted” (Yeshayahu 63:9).
However, perhaps the answer is that when our cries ascended, Hashem heard that we had finally learned the lesson of Egypt. When we reached that ultimate level of suffering, we conveyed to Him the message that we could now transfer our total dedication to the service of Hashem. And now that we knew how to serve Him with utmost self-sacrifice, we were ready to be delivered.
The ear that heard…
With the above in mind, we can understand a mitzvah pertaining to an eved Ivri – a Jewish indentured servant – who chooses not to go free after the sixth year. If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall work for six years, and in the seventh year, he shall go out to freedom without charge… But if the slave says, "I love my master, my wife, and my children. I will not go free," his master shall bring him to the judges, and he shall bring him to the door or to the doorpost, and his master shall bore his ear with an awl, and he shall serve him forever. (Shemot 21:1, 5-6). Why should this man’s ear be singled out for such punishment, Hazal ask? Why not afflict some other limb of his body? Furthermore, why does he receive such a punishment for his decision? We don’t find a person’s ear being pierced for failing to put on tefillin or eating non-kosher food, or for transgressing any of the other mitzvoth, which we also heard at Sinai. Hazal answer (Kiddushin 22b): “This person heard Hashem declare at Mount Sinai, ‘The children of Yisrael are servants to Me; they are My servants’ (Vayikra 25:55), yet he went and sold himself to someone else – let the ear that heard Hashem’s word be pierced through!” In other words, by accepting upon himself the authority of someone else, he automatically lessened the authority of Hashem and the Torah in his life. For it is impossible to divide servitude in half; one cannot be a true servant of two masters. If a person’s commitment to the true Master of the world is only partial, it means that there is a flaw in his wholehearted dedication to Torah and mitzvoth. This person chose not to hear Hashem’s words at Sinai, “Bnei Yisrael are My servants, and not the servants of servants.” Thus his ear gets pierced. I always learn a strong piece of mussar from this idea. Most people devote only a fraction of their time and effort to avodat Hashem. There is so much more they could do, if they applied themselves. If only they realized that their very lives depend upon their connection with torah, they would totally devote themselves
entirely. Tremendous potential and inner strengths could be revealed. If a person is willing to do everything to save his physical life, how much more should he be willing to save his eternal life. The verse says that the Torah is “not in heaven” (Bamidbar 30:12). But if it were in heaven, add Hazal, we would have to find a way to ascend there and bring it down. That is, if we realized how our very lives depend upon serving Hashem, we would find a way to climb even to heaven to get the Torah; we would exert ourselves beyond every effort to bring Torah into our lives. Think of the suffering and hardship the Jewish people experienced during the Holocaust, running, hiding, struggling to survive. Or those Jews who were sent to Siberia, to work under brute slave-masters in the labor camps, day and night, without sufficient food or warm clothing. Yet, they survived. Why can’t we do the same in serving Hashem? Why is it so hard for us to rise above our mediocrity and give it our all? After all, it was to learn this precise truth that we descended to Egypt, to be slaves to Pharaoh for over two hundred years and serve him with backbreaking labor.
The Only Free Person
There is something more we need to understand. If, at first, we were slaves to Pharaoh and the Egyptians, until Hashem finally delivered us to make us His servants, then when did we ever experience freedom? If we simply went from one master to another, when did the yoke of servitude ever leave us? Yet Pesach called zman herutenu – “the time of our freedom.” How can that be, if we never tasted freedom for an instant? Hazal said (Pirkei Avot 6:2): “The only free person is one who engages in the study of Torah.” They learn this from the verse (Exodus 32:16): "And the tablets are the work of G-d, and the writing is the writing of G-d, engraved on the tablets." Do not read the word as "engraved (harut) on the tablets,” Hazal say, but as "freedom (herut) on the tables.” Yet a person bound by the commandments seems to be more of a slave than a free man. Nowadays, a Torah observant person is called a “dati,” which implies that he is limited in his actions and the choices he can make. Specifically, his life must conform to the Shulhan Aruch – the Code of Jewish Law. On the other hand, a non-observant Jew is called “hofshi,” which means “free,” for there are no outside limitations imposed upon his life; no one telling him what he must do. If these definitions are correct, how can a servant of Hashem actually be considered free?
Perhaps, the meaning of freedom is deeper than we generally understand it, so that it is really only the oved Hashem who is free, while the irreligious individual is really totally enslaved. To understand this, we first have to establish a general principle: G-d created human beings with an intrinsic duality – with a body and a soul, a spiritual side and a physical one. Physically, we are drawn after “earthy” delights – the desires and temptations of this world. Spiritually, however, our souls are a portion of the Divine, and constantly yearn to ascend and become attached to their Creator. This dichotomy results in a constant battle between the body and the soul; one pulling upward and the other pulling down. Now, the physical world is bound by limitations – those of time and space, of matter, entropy, and physical laws; all of which result from the concealment of Hashem’s presence. The spiritual world, however, transcends all limitations, as its source is the infinite being of Hashem. Thus, one who strives to serve Hashem, whose vision is turned Upward, as it were, to cling to the Infinite Source of life, not only becomes spiritually purified, but becomes free from the bonds of this world, as well. This is called hitpashtut hagashmiyut – the divestment of physicality. (See Rabbenu Bahaya on Shemot 3:5). Meaning to say, when the soul and body of an oved Hashem become purified, he becomes free from all the base desires of this world. He is considered free because he is no longer enslaved and addicted to the lower desires of this world. His soul clings to its supernal root in Hashem, and transcends all limitations; this results in freedom from all manner of physical enslavements as well. As Hazal have said (Kallah, chap. 8): “The only free person is one who is engaged in Torah study.” However, a person who is a slave to his every base desire and longing, who is sunk in the muck of this world, not only sins physically, but drags his soul down as well. He lives in the prison of the material world, and has sold himself to the evil inclination. This is the precisely opposite of what the world thinks, that a person committed to Torah and mitzvoth is somehow enslaved, whereas everyone else is free; for there is really no greater enslavement than that of being subjugated to one’s lower inclinations. Fortunate is a person who chooses to be a servant of Hashem and be truly free, than one who chooses to be a slave to his own lower inclination, and every passing fancy of this world.
The Servant of a King
This is what Hazal meant when the said (Shavuot 47b): “The servant of a king is also a king.” Since a ben Torah is bound, heart and soul, to Hashem, he not only
rises above limitations of this world, he becomes ruler over it. Indeed, the Ohr HaHayim writes (Shemot 14:27) that this was a condition Hashem made with the world at the very beginning of creation; that the entirety of creation – the sun, the moon, the earth and all that is upon it – should be subservient to the will of Zaddikim, in the merit of the Torah that they study. There is no greater freedom than this – the freedom to transcend one’s lower inclination. It brings release from the restrictions of this world, and enables us to live a spiritual life, attached to Hashem’s own transcendent essence. We rule over the world, rather than be ruled by the world. Yet, this is only possible for a person who commits himself, body and soul, to being a true eved Hashem – an eternal servant of the Holy One. Let us adopt the tremendous lesson of our Rabbis statement: “In every generation a person must regard himself as though he personally left Egypt.” And take upon ourselves to be complete servants of Hashem, learning His Torah and keeping His mitzvoth with all our hearts and souls – to become a complete eved Hashem.
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