Congregation Ohave Shalom - Young Israel of Pawtucket

Haggadah: Of Slaves and Slavery

by: Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner

The Haggadah tells us, "Would Gd not have taken our forefathers out of Egypt, we, our sons, and the sons of our sons, would be slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt."

Is this truly so? World powers discover that they are no longer "world powers" regularly. How many nations have risen and fallen, some of them several times, in the past 3400 years? Could it be that we would still be in Egypt, had we not been taken out so long ago? It is likely that we would not; what is the author of the Haggadah telling us?

Let's look at the first half of the phrase, and notice the emphasis of the author. He does not say, "Would we not have been taken out." Rather, he specifies, "Would Gd not have taken our forefathers out of Egypt." The emphasis is on Gd, and on our ancestors. Why?

First, note that Gd had to be the one to take us out. Surely, we could have been emancipated by a well-meaning Egyptian leader. Perhaps some conquering monarch would have invaded, and freed us. However, this would not have been a true freedom. We would have been slaves yet, only to a different master. Our debt would be transferred, and we would owe our existence to a different character of flesh and blood, some other Pharaoh.

Second, note that it was not enough for just anyone to be taken out of Egypt. Rather, our ancestors had to be the ones removed from Egypt. Would Gd have waited and removed us from Egypt, instead, it would have been too late. The slave mentality, the breaking of the human spirit, would have become so engrained and so innate in our personalities, that it could not ever have been broken. Would Gd have taken us out, we would simply have found ourselves other masters.

This is also seen in the wording of the end of the Haggadah's statement. "Would Gd not have taken our forefathers out of Egypt," we are told, "our sons, and the sons of our sons," would be enslaved. Not only our grandparents, not only our parents, and not only ourselves - but all future generations, too, would have been unable to emerge from slavery.

Note the end of the text, though. The Haggadah does not only say that we would still be enslaved. It says that we would still be enslaved to Pharaoh, in Egypt. Egypt is more than a nation in the Middle East, just as Pharaoh was more than a single ancient ruler. What is Egypt, and who is Pharaoh?

We are told, regarding the time of Mashiach, "And those who are lost will come from the land of Assyria, and those who are outcast, from the land of Egypt (Yeshayah 27:13)." Does this truly refer only to exiles from Assyria and Egypt? What of the rest of our exiles?

Assyria and Egypt are not only the physical nations called by those names, but rather they are paradigms.

The Talmud Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin 10:4) tells us that the "lost in Assyria" are the Ten Tribes, who were exiled from Israel. The "outcasts of Egypt" are the members of the generation which died in the desert, before they could enter Israel.

The exiles to Assyria represent one type of exile. They are the people who had an opportunity, who were given the Torah, were given the land of Israel, were given the opportunity to live the Torah.

The outcasts of Egypt, though, never made it into Israel. They were never given the opportunity to implement our Torah, to practice our Mitzvos. They died before the blossoming of the flower of the Jewish nation - and that is who we would have been, had Gd not taken us out. It is not enough to say that we would have been exiles somewhere, even slaves somewhere. We would have been slaves in Egypt, slaves in a land which knows no Torah, stillborn in our religious development.

Further, we would have been enslaved to Pharaoh. Again, Egypt would have fallen at some point in the timeline, and we would have been physically freed, to be indebted to another master. What is the reference to Pharaoh, then?

Pharaoh is an archetype, the model for a general type of person. Pharaoh, as we discussed several weeks ago, was the ultimate egotist. His nation was in revolt, his people were dying, their economy was sinking, and none of this mattered. In the words of King Yehoyakim (Taanis 26a), as prophesies were read of the demise of his nation, "Ana Malka!" "I am still king!" This is the only thing that matters to a Pharaoh. Let Gd bring blood, and he will have his sorcerers turn more water to blood, taking water from people it could have saved. Let Gd bring frogs, and he will have his magicians bring more frogs, exacerbating his nation's already-strained state. Pharaoh is only concerned with one thing - himself. He asks, "Who is this Gd, that I should listen to his voice?! (Shemos 5:2)"

When Gd gave us the Torah, when we stood at Sinai and heard, "I am the Lord, your Gd," this Pharaoh-like ego was removed from us. We were taught of a Divine system of right and wrong, of a Torah and its Mitzvos, of a life and a code of ethics and an allegiance which denied us Pharaoh's luxury, his blindness to all other beings.

Would Gd not have taken us out of Egypt, then, we would never have been freed. A mortal ruler would have come and emancipated us, to be sure. However, we would still have been indebted to that leader, and we would never have succeeded in removing the slave mentality from our system.

Further, we would still be outcasts in Egypt, for we would never have received the Torah, never had the opportunity to live a life of Mitzvos. We would still be enslaved to a Pharaoh, too, in our own egos. We would never have known a life of Torah ethics and Torah laws.

Baruch haMakom, Baruch Hu! We must truly thank HaShem, now and forever, for rescuing us from Egypt!

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