Parshas Acharei Mos
Exodus - What Does it Mean to Be Free?
We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. But Hashem our G-d took us out
of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Had the Holy One
Blessed is He not taken our fathers out of Egypt, then we, our children,
and our children's children would still be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.
So even if we are all wise, understanding, experienced, and
knowledgeable of the Torah, it would still be a mitzvah to recount the
Exodus from Egypt. The more one tells about the Exodus from Egypt, the
more he is praiseworthy! (Haggada Shel Pesach)
Remembering the Exodus from Egypt is a major foundation in the Torah;
our daily service is replete with opportunities to do so. At the very
least, we are obligated to remind ourselves of the Exodus twice daily -
once in the morning and once in the evening. No other occurrence in our
national history - not even the revelation at Sinai where we received the
Torah - receives such exalted treatment. What is so essential about
remembering our departure from Egypt that its commemoration is
critical to our daily lives as Jews?
In the above quote from the Haggada shel Pesach we are taught that,
"Had the Holy One Blessed is He not taken our fathers out of Egypt,
then we, our children, and our children's children would still be enslaved
to Pharaoh in Egypt." How can we assume that more than three
thousand years later things would still be the same?
The Divrei Chaim zt"l notes that there is a slight transposition in the
wording of the Haggada: It begins by saying we were slaves (a'vadim) in
Egypt; it concludes by saying we would still be enslaved (mi-shu'badim).
He explains that slaves refers to bondage and physical slavery, while
enslaved refers to the enslavement of the soul and spiritual confinement.
What the Haggada means is this: Had Hashem not taken us out - but
rather Pharaoh would have let us go on his own, then although we
would no longer have been slaves, we would still have been enslaved - we
would have remained slaves of the soul. What is the nature of this
spiritual enslavement? In what way would we not have been free - to this
very day - had our freedom been granted by Pharaoh and not by
Let us examine for a moment the passage in the Torah that describes
how Hashem took us out:
It was when Pharaoh sent the nation forth, G-d did not lead them by way
of the land of the Philistines, which is close; for G-d said, "Lest the
nation have a change of heart when they see war, and they will return
to Egypt." So G-d led the nation around, along the way of the desert by
the Red Sea... (Shemos/Exodus 13:17-18)
Taken simply, the Torah explains that Hashem took us to Eretz Yisrael in
a roundabout manner rather than the more direct route in order to
avoid war. The Philistines were a combative nation, and would have
been sure to go to battle over the Jews' "invasion" of their land. Such an
immediate war at the outset of the Exodus would likely cause them to
regret having left Egypt and inspire them to return.
The difficulty in this approach is that in actuality the alternative route
through the desert led them into war with Egypt almost immediately!
Within seven days, the Jews were entrapped in the desert (which was
supposed to be their haven from war), with the Red Sea on one side,
and the mighty Egyptian army on the other. Their immediate reaction?
They regretted having left!
They said to Moshe ". . .What have you done to us to take us out of
Egypt? Didn't we tell you in Egypt, 'Let us be, and we will serve Egypt' -
for it is better that we should serve Egypt than that we should die in the
The circuitous route seems to have only hastened the very issue Hashem
sought to avoid! Only a week after leaving, they were face-to-face with
the army of the superpower to whom they had been enslaved for
centuries; a war potentially far more deadly than any war with the
Philistines could have been. While it is true that Hashem ultimately saved
us from our Egyptian pursuers in a miraculous revelation of His infinite
power, He could just as easily have saved us from the Philistines.
One more question: From the Torah's description, it seems that our
sojourn in the desert was incidental to not taking the shortcut through
Philistia. Yet wasn't the whole point of leaving Egypt in order to reach
Mount Sinai, upon which Moshe had been told prophetically we would
receive the Torah?
Some Mefarshim explain that in fact Hashem's intention was not to save
Israel from war and undue fear but precisely the opposite: To drag them
into an immediate confrontation with their former masters, and to
achieve final, total independence at the Red Sea. The Jews had already
been physically liberated from Egypt; now the time had come to free
them spiritually and emotionally.
This liberation would come through witnessing the final downfall of the
power that had until now made an almost indelible mark upon their
souls as the nation before whom all nations trembled. Two hundred and
ten years of slavery to a nation so dominant that until now no slave had
ever escaped had to leave its mark. Even if the Jews were permitted to
leave, they would do so with a great regard for Egypt's power. They
would look up to the Egyptians, not perhaps for their "kind treatment"
of their slaves, but for their world-dominance as a military power.
The expression "to return to Egypt" can refer to seeking help and
support from Egypt:
Woe is to those who descend to Egypt for aid; who rely on their many
chariots and the immense power of their horsemen, but did not desire
Israel's Holy (G-d), and did not consult the Lord. (Yeshaya/Isaiah 31:1)
They who go and descend to Egypt, and did not consult Me - to be
powerful in Pharaoh's power, and be safe in Egypt's shadow. (30:2)
Egypt is human, not divine. Her horses are flesh, not spirit. G-d will
stretch out His arm: Helper will fail and helped will fall. (31:3)
The prophet does not see "returning to Egypt" as the physical return of
a nation, but rather the reliance on their power and patronage - running
back to Pharaoh for support when times were tough. Hashem declined
to take them through Philistia, where they would likewise encounter
war, lest they return to Egypt to petition Pharaoh for military assistance!
They had left Egypt with Pharaoh's consent (albeit coerced), and (had
Pharaoh not given chase) they would not have been in opposition to the
idea of returning to him to ask for his patronage in establishing their
long-sought freedom. (R' Yoel Ben-Nun, Megadim vol. 3)
This, perhaps, is the enslavement which would have remained long after
the slavery had ended. Like a child who, even as a mature adult, always
looks up to his parent as an authority figure to whom he defers, had we
not witnessed Egypt's destruction we would have eternally felt a sense
of awe and reverence for their power, and would have looked towards
them as a model and a patron for establishing ourselves as a nation. In
order to experience total freedom, Hashem deliberately led us to war
with the very nation before whom we trembled, so that we would
witness first hand Hashem's total domination, and subjugate our hearts
to Him alone. This recognition is what lead us to sing at the Red Sea:
On that day Hashem saved Israel from the hand of Egypt; Israel saw
Egypt dead on the seashore... and the people revered Hashem, and they
had faith in Hashem... then they sang... (Shemos 14:30-31; 15:1)
Witnessing the destruction of Egypt, our souls were liberated from
relying on their physical dominance, and we were left free to cast our lot
completely with Hashem.
Similarly, Chazal (our Sages) teach, "There is no free man except he who
studies the Torah (Avos 6:2)," the Torah frees the soul and gives man the
ability to act independent of his physical desires and instincts.
A woman once approached Rabbi Amnon Yitzchak. "Rabbi, I am willing
to keep Shabbos, as long as you can find me halachic permission to
smoke. I am a chain smoker, and not smoking for 24 hours is simply not
an option." "You are permitted," he told her matter-of-fact. "What?!" she
exclaimed, "I have made this proposal to many great rabbis, and they all
told me it is forbidden to smoke on Shabbos. And you say it is
permitted?!" "You are permitted," he repeated. "You are permitted not
to smoke on Shabbos. Shabbos will teach you that you are not enslaved
to your habit, that you can go 24 hours without smoking, because your
soul is stronger than your body, and can overcome its petty cravings. The
Torah will give it the chance."
Leaving Egypt, we lacked the emotional wherewithal to sever our bonds with
our powerful masters. By decimating the Egyptians before our eyes, Hashem
gave us the ability to overcome our immature need to look to them for
patronage. It's as if to say: "There's no going back - now you've got the
ability (with My help) to stand on your own two feet."
Our souls are "the G-dly portion" within each of us. Sometimes in our
own lives, we experience a similar phenomenon: the inability to move
forward, to get over past pitfalls and shortcomings, and realize we can
overcome the immature need to succumb to our physical/emotional
whims and impulses. Perhaps this is why, in the Torah's narrative,
Hashem's guiding them by way of the desert, where they would ultimately
receive the Torah, is presented as incidental to not travelling through
Philistia. It's not to say that Mattan Torah was, G-d forbid, an
afterthought. Rather, it metaphorically teaches us what is accomplished
through receiving the Torah and subjugating oneself to its precepts: the
soul's ability to overcome its enslavement to the body's vices, just as
through the Red Sea incident the Jews were able to finally see that they
were not eternally enslaved to Pharaoh but to Hashem.
We are commanded to recall the Exodus from Egypt every day so that
we never forget its message: Our goal in life is to overcome the need to
look towards someone else (Pharaoh) or something else (our bodies) for
patronage and domination. We must realize that true freedom, attained
through Torah study and mitzvah adherence, means having the strength
to say, "I can (with Hashem's help) overcome what some might call the
dominant power of 'human nature.'
Have a good Shabbos, and a Chag Kasher ve-sameach.
****** This week's publication has been sponsored by R' Moshe
Wajsbaum, in memory of his grandmother Reizel Leah bas R'
Avraham Turin ob"m. And in honour of his son Sruli's Bar Mitzvah on
Erev Pesach. May they see lots of Nachas from him. ******
Text Copyright © 2005 by Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Torah.org