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 Hashem?
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 desert! (14:11-12)
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