Begun in Shame 1
Two opinions in the Gemara dispute how it is done, but all agree on the essential premise. The mitzvah of retelling the Exodus story begins in the murkiness of ancient shame, and only then proceeds to national triumph.
Rav instructs us to begin by mentioning the idolatry of our earliest ancestors. Shmuel moves up the shame to the period of our slavery in Egypt. Neither opinion strikes us intuitively as correct. Why should we not begin our account with the panoply of wonders which Hashem performed for us in taking us out of Egypt? Would it not be more effective to launch into a description of how Hashem made a mockery of the usual restrictions of natural law, by His wholesale violation of them?
Come to think of it, why should we see our servitude as shameful? We were led into it by Divine decree, but not because of some terrible transgression we had committed.
These questions strike us as significant only because we have accustomed ourselves to a mistaken notion about the mitzvah of sippur yetzias Mitzrayim. Many of us believe that we best perform the mitzvah by focusing on the wondrous miracles that HKBH performed for us. This is a mistake. The essence of the mitzvah is relating how we became Hashem’s chosen people! It is therefore crucial that we begin with our shame, with the nadir of our ancient past. By emphasizing our lack of worth, we appreciate our election in a very different manner.
Because we were unworthy of being selected, His choice is all the more important – and all the more enduring. Hashem chose us because His Will dictated it. There was no cogent “reason” for Him to pick us. Will knows of no reason, and needs no reason. It just is. He chose us as an expression of Divine Love, which flows from His inscrutable Will. Had we been worthy, had there been some compelling argument to choose us, G-d’s love for us would have been a contingent love. It might waver or vanish if that reason ever disappeared. Because we were selected without any reason justifying the choice, we can rely on the eternal continuity of His Love.
It is for this reason as well that Hashem seems to inappropriately call us “my first-born son” while we were still mired in the degradation of Egypt, when we had not done anything yet to recommend us to that distinction. Would it not have been more appropriate to wait until we had earned the title through our mitzvos before awarding it to us?. Had He done so, however, our appointment would seem predicated on our good behavior. HKBH wished to make the point that our election was not contingent on anything. It was an act of His Love, an outgrowth of His inscrutable Will.
There was indeed no shame in their forced labor in Egypt. The Jews had no control over the circumstances that led to their being pressed into service. A Divine decree, foretold to Abraham, dictated the labor and the oppression. This is not the shame about which we speak.
The shame was in where the servitude had taken them. Prior to the Exodus, the Jewish spirit had been swallowed up entirely by the Egyptian beast. Jews had no sense of independent existence and identity. They allowed themselves to become slaves in spirit, not just in practice. This loss of self-worth was not part of the Divine decree, and very much a source of shame. (This loss of personal significance is the real meaning of the statement that they had become mired in the 49th level of tumah. )
The Exodus changed this for all time. No subsequent oppressor would ever be able to completely subordinate them. While they might be successful in inflicting all kinds of harm upon them, from then on they would never be able to vanquish them in spirit.
This discussion sheds new light on the dispute between Rav and Shmuel that we mentioned above. The two do not simply choose between two large stains on the Jewish national record. They disagree about the defining attributes of the Jewish soul and essence.
To Rav, the most important element of being Jewish is belief. Understanding Hashem and His Oneness precedes all other considerations of Jewish life. Rejection of that belief – in a word, idolatry – is the polar opposite of any Jewish accomplishment. There can be no greater shame, no more extreme departure from what is appropriate to us. We begin the story, says Rav, by recalling our roots in the idolatry of our ancestors.
Shmuel’s reasoning dovetails neatly with our words before. The Egyptian servitude did not just outrage our freedom and dignity. It left us asphyxiated for Jewish air. It smothered and suffocated, denying us our own identity, and imposing in its place a perverted Egyptian one. To Shmuel, what makes us fundamentally different from all other peoples is kedushah. There could be no greater Jewish shame than to be firmly and seemingly inextricably ensconced in its opposite, in the degradation of Egyptian culture. We begin, therefore, with “We were slaves to Pharaoh.”
It is safe to say that between the two opinions, we have arrived at what it takes to be a Jew. Emunah and kedushah are the twin foundational elements of Jewish life.
Probing deeper, we realize that the two are bound up with each other. Emunah is part of the fabric of the Jewish neshamah. When we find ourselves plagued with questions, criticisms and doubts about our belief, something has robbed us of our natural birthright, or the certainty resident in the Jewish soul. The culprit typically is a shortfall in kedushah, which will dull the luster of the Jewish neshamah, and mute its primal call.
Happily, the opposite is also true. When we grow in kedushah, we can expect greater clarity and brilliance of our emunah.
These two all-important elements of Judaism were addressed in the events just prior to the Exodus. We were instructed in two mitzvos, both of which involved blood. Smearing the blood of the Paschal offering on our doorposts was a powerful demonstration of our belief in G-d. We not only accepted G-d’s Existence, but understood that His Providence extends to all individuals, and selects between the innocent and the guilty. The blood of circumcision showed them determined to pay a price to incorporate the values of kedushah, starting with the curtailing of license and passion.
We can offer yet one more approach to our topic, one which takes the ignominy of our early history, and stands it on its head.
Sophistication takes time. Complexity, generally, goes hand in hand with a longer process of development. Simpler animals are far more functional at birth than more advanced ones. None emerges less complete and more dependent upon others for care than humans. A day old baby is no competition for a foal of the equivalent age. It takes far longer to become half an adult human than half a horse.
Inanimate objects, on the other hand, inherently possess all the qualities we find useful and interesting. We never wait for them to grow up or mature. It seems to be a rule of nature that those who arrive at the top of the organizational ladder begin as slow starters.
So it is within human civilization. The Jewish people, destined to achieve the best that HKBH had in store for the human race, would also have to undergo a slow development. Their humble, faulty beginnings actually point to their great potential. They can now be understood as part of the global rule concerning growth and development. What the Jews would ultimately possess spiritually was so important and deep, that none of it was present during the infancy of our people.
The beginning in shame turns out not to be so shameful at all.
1. Based on Nesivos Shalom, pgs. 252-253
2. Pesachim 116A
3. Shemos 4:23
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein and Torah.org