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From Slavery to Freedom

Harav Yaakov Medan
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Translated by Kaeren Fish


          The purpose of this shiur is to provide a new answer to a question which, although addressed by many commentators, has disturbed me for many years. The question is as follows:

       Everyone agrees that the story of the exodus is a great and impressive one, containing a plethora of inspiring themes: liberation from slavery, the end of terrible suffering, the appearance of Am Yisrael on the stage of history, the giving of the Torah, and Eretz Yisrael as the destination. As God says to Moshe in Egypt,

I shall take you out from under the suffering of Egypt and I shall save you from their slavery... and I shall bring you to the land which I promised... (Shemot 6:6)

          The entire course of history shifts; our counting of time starts from a new beginning ("This month shall be for you the first of the months").

        However, this Divine promise diminishes greatly when it reaches the ears of Pharaoh:

And they said: The God of the Hebrews has called upon us; let us go on a journey of three days in the desert and we shall sacrifice to the Lord our God. (ibid. 5:3)

Pharaoh's response accordingly addresses only this limited request:

They are idle, therefore they cry, saying, "Let us go and sacrifice to our God." (5:8)

          Likewise throughout the argument and throughout the duration of the ten plagues. Let us examine only the most outstanding examples. Following the plague of wild beasts (arov), Pharaoh's will breaks and he agrees to them sacrificing, but only in Egypt: "Go and sacrifice to your God in the land" (8:21). Later on: "I shall send you and you shall sacrifice to the Lord your God in the desert, only do not walk too far." Clearly, Pharaoh is concerned that they will escape and not return. But instead of Moshe addressing this concern with clear and upright determination - "Indeed, our wish is to leave Egypt and to go to the land of our forefathers" - as we would expect, he continues to quibble with Pharaoh about the place where the sacrifice will take place and the nature of the three-day journey.

        Similarly, after the plague of locusts, Pharaoh - fearful of a large-scale escape - agrees to send the men while retaining the elderly, the women and the children as hostages. Again Moshe answers that they, too, are needed for the celebration and the sacrifice. The same phenomenon repeats itself after the plague of darkness, where the argument concerns the sheep and cattle.

          What is the reason for this evasiveness? What glory and honor does such deception add to the greatness of the "strong hand and outstretched arm"? Would it not have been more appropriate for Moshe to present the revelation at the burning bush in its entirety? At the burning bush, God had revealed His true plan:

I have surely seen the affliction of My nation which is in Egypt, and I have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their pain. And I have come down to save them from the hand of Egypt and to bring them up from that land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey. (Shemot 3:7-8)

          Lest we claim that Pharaoh would not agree to this (as the end of the story proves: "And it was told to the king of Egypt that the nation had escaped... and he pursued after the children of Israel" [ibid. 14]), we must ask: Is there anything stopping God from continuing to strike Egypt with plagues until he would capitulate? Is there some limit to God's "strong hand and outstretched arm," such that Pharaoh had to be approached in such a roundabout manner?

         My aim is not to provide a direct answer to the question, but rather to demonstrate that the assumptions upon which it rests are mistaken. Let us retrace our steps, back to the burning bush:

It happened in those many days that the king of Egypt died. The children of Israel sighed from the labor and cried out, and their plea reached God from their labor. God heard their weeping, and God remembered His covenant with Avraham, with Yitzchak and with Yaakov. (2:23-24)

          These verses describe the suffering of Bnei Yisrael, but we are not told that the Holy One came to redeem them out of mercy. Rather, He redeemed them because of His covenant with the forefathers:

In order that the righteous one (Avraham) would not say, "You fulfilled the promise that 'They shall enslave them and afflict them,' but You did not fulfill the promise that 'Afterwards they shall go out with great wealth.'" (Shemot Rabba 11:5)

         The slavery and affliction are only one side of the contract that was sealed at the berit bein ha-betarim (covenant between the pieces, Bereishit 15). God hears the cry of Bnei Yisrael, sees that the first part of the contract has indeed been fulfilled, and knows that the time has come for the fulfillment of the second part - "And the fourth generation shall return to here" (Bereishit 15:16). When God reveals Himself to Moshe at the burning bush, He appears with this name: "And He said, I am the God of your father, the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzchak, the God of Yaakov" (3:6). Because of the covenant with the forefathers -

I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt, and I have heard their cry... And I have come down to save them from Egypt and to bring them up from that land, to a good and spacious land... (3:7-8)

These, then, are the three foundations of the redemption from Egypt:

1) the remembrance of the covenant with the forefathers;

2) the fact that its first half has already been realized - "And they shall enslave them and afflict them;"

3) the need to fulfill the second half - the inheritance of Eretz Yisrael, in answer to Avraham's question, "By what shall I know that I shall inherit it?"

           At this stage we shall skip over a number of verses and move on. Moshe asks what name of God he should relate to Bnei Yisrael, and receives two answers. For himself: "I am what I am" (which is God's Name - see Shevuot 35a); for Bnei Yisrael: "The Lord, the God of your forefathers, the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzchak and the God of Yaakov, has sent me to you" (3:15). The same name is related to Bnei Yisrael a number of times, as we shall discuss further on.

        However, all of this represents only one side of the redemption. When God sends Moshe from the burning bush to Egypt, He tells him: "And now go, and I shall send you to Pharaoh, and (you, Moshe, shall) take My people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt" (3:10). Although the content of this verse may be understood as a single unit, as the Rashbam explains (namely, God is sending Moshe to Pharaoh in order to take Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt), Chazal and Rashi understand it as two separate units (pay careful attention to Rashi on verses 10-12). This division becomes clearer if we include verse 9 in God's demand:

A) And now behold, the cry of Bnei Yisrael has come to Me.

B) And now go and I shall send you to Pharaoh, and take My people...

Moshe himself resists both missions (verse 11): "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should take Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt?"

           God, in turn, gives two answers: First, "For I shall be with you, and this is the sign for you that I have sent you." Second, "When you bring the nation out of Egypt you shall serve God upon this mountain." (I divide God's answer here in accordance with the Massoretic notes and the cantillation, and not as Rashi understands it.) Again Moshe asks what God's name is, and receives - as stated above - two answers.

         These two missions become even more prominent at the beginning of Parashat Vaera: "And God spoke to Moshe... Therefore say TO BNEI YISRAEL" (2:6). Immediately thereafter, "God spoke to Moshe, saying, Come and speak TO PHARAOH king of Egypt" (6:10). Once again Moshe objects on both counts: "Behold, BNEI YISRAEL did not listen to me, how then will PHARAOH listen to me..." Again the two missions are joined together: "He commanded them [to go] to Bnei Yisrael and to Pharaoh, king of Egypt, to Bnei Yisrael out of the land of Egypt." A further proof, which we will discuss below: "These are Moshe and Aharon whom God told to bring Bnei Yisrael out of the land of Egypt by their hosts," "It was they who spoke to Pharaoh, king of Egypt, to bring Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt - these are [the same] Moshe and Aharon" (6:26-27).

           Thus we deduce that there were two missions, two aspects of the exodus, and two levels of redemption.

          We have already discussed the first - the mission to bring Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt, based on both the covenant and their excessive suffering. The purpose of this mission is, first, the cessation of the slavery and affliction, and, second, inheritance of Eretz Yisrael. This redemption, at the center of which stands the nation of Israel, the descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, requires an elevation from the depths of Egyptian slavery to the heights of freedom of Eretz Yisrael. For this reason the first appearance here is by Aharon - the lower personality, closer to the nation, who loves everyone and brings them closer to Torah. It is he who has the power to elevate Bnei Yisrael. But Aharon draws his power to elevate them from Moshe: "These are Moshe and Aharon whom God told to bring Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt."

           Let us now try to examine the second mission. This is not the mission to avenge the insult to Israel and the three forefathers, who are represented faithfully by Aharon who draws his strength from Moshe, but rather the mission to avenge the insult to the Holy One, as it were, represented by Moshe - the "man of God." Since Moshe is unable to bring God's word down to the depths of Egypt (at most he can bring it down to Mt. Sinai), Aharon has to help him to bring his message down to the level of Pharaoh: "It was they who spoke to Pharaoh, king of Egypt... they are [the same] Moshe and Aharon."

         Bnei Yisrael are not a party to this battle, and the focus of the battle is not God's promises to the forefathers or the suffering of their descendants; nor is its purpose the inheritance of Eretz Yisrael. In this battle two sides face each other: two kings, two masters, two claimants. This is a battle of "two who grasp a single garment," each claiming that it is his alone, and the wishes and intentions of the garment itself have nothing to do with the claim. On one side is the King and Savior of Israel ("represented," as it were, by Moshe, and his continuation - Aharon), who claims that Am Yisrael "are My servants... they shall not be sold as slaves" (Vayikra 25:42). Against Him stands the king of Egypt, who has stolen God's slave, or son, and retains him as his private property.

             To recapitulate, the first mission is contained in the verse, "And now behold, the cry of Bnei Yisrael has come before Me." The second appears following it: "And now go, and I shall send you to Pharaoh, and take My nation" (3:10-11).

          Moshe is hesitant concerning both missions. What will he say to Pharaoh, who wants to continue holding on to Bnei Yisrael? How will he lead the nation and elevate them from the impurity of Egypt? Will they follow him? How will they rise to his level of leadership? As Moshe claims later on, "Behold, they will not believe in me and will not listen to my voice" (4:1).

           God provides two answers (here again our interpretation does not correlate with that of Rashi, but the verse is open to many interpretations, "as the anvil shatters the rock"). God's answers appear not in the order of Moshe's questions but rather following the order of God's words throughout (see above 3:10-11, 16-18; 4:5, 21-22; 6:6, 11, 26-27; the scope of this shiur does not allow for further elaboration).

            Concerning Moshe's question as to how he will lead Bnei Yisrael, "Behold, they will not believe in me," God answers: "For I shall be with you, and this will be the sign for you that I have sent you" (3:12). God keeps His promise at Sinai:

And God said to Moshe, Behold, I come to you in a thick cloud in order that the nation will hear when I speak to you, and THEY WILL BELIEVE IN YOU ALSO forever." (19:9)

        Concerning Moshe's question as to the nature of his mission to Pharaoh, God answers (3:12): "When you bring the nation out of Egypt they shall serve God upon this mountain." This answer, too, is connected to the burning bush and to Sinai: Your demand from Pharaoh is not an exodus from slavery to freedom but rather from one slavery to another. God's claim to Bnei Yisrael precedes that of Pharaoh. They must be brought out of the slavery of Egypt to the service of God.

[Thus, those who proclaim, "Let My people go," are missing the point - the phrase always appears in the Torah as, "Let My people go that THEY MAY SERVE ME." We are not talking about an exodus from slavery to freedom, but from slavery (to man) to slavery (to God).]

            Moshe still is not satisfied; he asks what God's name is, and receives two answers. One - "I am what I am" - is a name that is connected with the selection of Am Yisrael to be God's portion. [See Ramban on Onkelos - "I shall be with whom I shall be." In other words, I shall be with he who I choose. Compare God's revelation to Moshe in the crevice of the rock (33:19) - "I shall show grace to whom I shall show it, and I shall have mercy upon whom I shall have mercy." I shall not elaborate further here.] The second answer, as stated above, is that He is "the God of the forefathers," Who fulfills His promises to them.

          Moshe again receives two instructions: first, "Go and gather the elders of Israel," an instruction that includes His name as the God of the forefathers, the suffering, and Eretz Yisrael (3:16-17). Immediately thereafter, Moshe is told, "You shall come, you and the elders of Israel, to the king of Egypt and you shall say to him: The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has appeared to us. And now let us go on a journey of three days in the desert that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God" (verse 18). The crux of the mission to Pharaoh is that Bnei Yisrael are not meant to be slaves of Pharaoh, but rather servants of God. And the heart of the service of God is sacrifice.

         Here we come to the solution to our original question. "But I know that the king of Egypt will not allow you to go... and I shall send My hand and I shall strike Egypt... and thereafter he will send you" (verses 19-20). Thus we may deduce that THE PLAGUES ARE A PUNISHMENT NOT FOR ENSLAVEMENT AND AFFLICTION, BUT RATHER FOR HAVING STOLEN THE SERVANTS OF GOD. Thus, "You shall say to Pharaoh: Israel is My first-born son. And I said to you, Send My son that he may worship Me, and you refused to send him. Behold, I shall kill your first-born son" (4:22-23). This is not a matter of redemption of Israel, but rather of the appropriation of God's son and servant. As a punishment, measure for measure, the first-born sons of Egypt will die. The plagues in Egypt, culminating in the death of the first-born, are not related to the redemption of Israel for their own sake. Rather, they are the weapons in the battle of the kings.

          Indeed, this is the content of the plagues. They appear not as a punishment for the enslavement of Israel, but rather as a punishment for defying the Holy One, as Pharaoh said, "I do not recognize God" (5:3). The plagues are a "lesson" in knowing God: "By this shall you know that I am God; behold I shall strike..." (7:17). Lest Pharaoh think that just as Egypt belongs to him, so Israel belongs to him - he receives his answer: "I shall place a division between My nation and your nation" (8:19); "And God distinguished between the cattle of Israel and the cattle of Egypt" (9:4). Lest Pharaoh think that he can still force his will upon the God of Israel, he receives his answer: "In order that you may know that there is none like Me in all the land" (9:14). Therefore, the entire argument between Pharaoh and Moshe focuses only on the three-day journey and the acceptance of the service of God at the end of those three days.

          Those three days are described in Parashat Beshalach: "And Moshe and Israel traveled from Yam Suf, and they went out to the wilderness of Shur, and they walked for three days in the desert and found no water" (15:22). The Zohar explains:

"Water" refers only to Torah, as it is written, "O all who are thirsty, let them go to water." There, after three days, the nation should have received the Torah. But they could not drink the water of Mara because it was bitter. So "He (Moshe) cried out to God, and God showed him a tree."

           The Zohar explains: "A tree" refers only to Torah, as it is written, "It is a tree of life for those who grasp it." God showed him how to sweeten the bitter water using the tree - which is Torah. Because of their complaint, the revelation was not entirely complete; it was postponed by a few weeks, during which time Amalek arrived and cooled the fiery flame in the midst of which Torah was given.

          But let us rather elaborate on that which WAS given at the end of those three days. After those three days, the nation accepted the yoke of heaven (15:25):

There He made for them a statute and a judgment, and there He tested them. And He said: If you will listen to the voice of the Lord your God...

What then would be their reward?

All the disease that I brought upon Egypt, I shall not bring upon you.

           From this negative formulation we may deduce the positive: If they would not accept the yoke of God's kingship, they would be struck with the plagues of Egypt. For, after all, the entire significance of the plagues was a punishment for stealing God's servants. If, following the exodus from the slavery of Egypt, the nation would refuse to assume His yoke, then this is precisely the punishment that would be due them. But since they assume the yoke of God's service, He promises: "All the disease that I brought upon Egypt, I shall not bring upon you."

          There are two levels of redemption: from slavery to freedom, as promised to the forefathers, and from slavery to slavery, which is the sole business of the Master of the Universe, Who selected Israel as His portion. I could elaborate further and demonstrate that, corresponding to these two purposes, there were two actions of coming out of Egypt, which in turn correspond to the two laws of Pesach - matza and maror. (This answers the famous question of how the matza is meant to remind us of that the dough of Bnei Yisrael had no time to rise, if they were commanded to eat matza already in the context of the pesach sacrifice in Egypt - 12:8.) They likewise correspond to the First and Second Temple, as well as several other phenomena.

           In the Haggada, we "begin with denigration and conclude with praise." The gemara disputes the meaning of this:

Rav said, This refers to the historical process whereby "At first our forefathers were idolaters, and now God has brought us close to His service." Shemuel said, [It refers to,] "We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and God brought us out of there." (Pesachim 116a)

         Jewish ethics teaches that the two redemptions are, in fact, one. The only person who is free is he who accepts upon himself the service of God. The corollary is also true: in order to accept the service of God, a person must be free. This is what Rav Kook taught (Orot Ha-kodesh, 3, p. 35): "This is the supreme freedom... which is itself expressed in the Divine servitude to the Lord, God of Israel."

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