The Festival of Freedom:The Revelation of Morality
Why did the people of Israel, before their appearance as a nation, first have to endure such terrible slavery in Egypt? The simple explanation is that Israel’s mission is to rectify the moral state of the world, and in order to do so, it must experience firsthand the suffering and the pain that human beings can cause to one another.
Thus, we find several instances where the Torah invokes our experiences in Egypt when instructing us about interpersonal relationships. For example:
“You shall not oppress a stranger – for you know the soul of a stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9), and:
“If a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).
Similarly, the Sages said that before God began to smite the Egyptians, He instructed Moshe to command Israel concerning the mitzvah of releasing slaves. Thus, even before they gained their freedom from Egypt they resolved that once they become free and have slaves of their own, they would never torment them. On the contrary, after six years they would send slaves free and grant them generous gifts.
Indeed, an amazing thing happened at the Exodus. All other peoples who had overthrown their enslavers became haughty and enslaved their former masters. Israel, however, did not try to enslave the Egyptians, even after they had been completely defeated; they only sought their own freedom. This was the first time that freedom appeared in the world as a moral value.
This is why Passover is called the Festival of Freedom, or, as the Sages termed it in the liturgy, “zman ĥerutenu,” “the season of our freedom.” It is no coincidence that Passover is the first of the pilgrimage festivals: it embodies the foundation of human freedom and consequently of moral responsibility for every individual and societal act. Perhaps this is also why the years of Israelite kings’ reigns were counted from the beginning the month of Nisan, so that the idea of freedom be fundamental to Israelite sovereignty.
Spiritual liberation from Material Enslavement
Israel and Egypt are diametrically opposed. Egypt was an extremely materialistic society with a pagan worldview. The nation of Israel, on the other hand, is unique with its spiritual and abstract worldview. Thus, only Israel was able to accept the abstract belief in one incorporeal and non-physical God. Consequently, Israel’s relationship to the material world is also pure and refined, and Jews are thus naturally modest and circumscribed in their sexual mores. The Egyptians, on the other hand, due to their emphasis on the physical and their materialistic worldview, were strongly attracted to promiscuity and sexual transgression. Thus, the Torah commands:
“You shall not do like the deeds of the land of Egypt, in which you dwelt” (Leviticus 18:3).
The Sages interpreted this to mean that no nation committed deeds more abominable than the Egyptians did (Torat Kohanim ad loc.), especially the last generation that enslaved Israel (based on Maharal’s Gevurot Hashem ch. 4).
The Egyptians of that period indeed accomplished some amazing material and administrative feats by creating a stable regime, an advanced irrigation system, and a sophisticated economy (in part due to the help of Joseph, Jacob’s son). However, these material accomplishments were disconnected from the spiritual world and even opposed to it. Their worldview was extremely idolatrous. They did not believe in the existence of an independent, spiritual soul, but thought that the soul is contingent on and subservient to the existence of the physical body. This is why the Egyptians went to such great lengths to embalm corpses; they thought that one’s existence hinges solely on his physical reality. Death, in their view, merely means that one is no longer able to move or speak, but is no different from life in every other respect. Accordingly, they also invested enormous effort in building the pyramids, which are glorified cemeteries for the body.
To be sure, the material world has an important place in Judaism as well. However, a worldview based solely on physical existence will necessarily be idolatrous and amoral. This is because all of the paradigms provided by nature are amoral. There may be beauty and wisdom reflected in the amazing regularity of the laws of nature, but they do not possess morality. The strong prey on the weak just as the powerful enslaves the poor. The pagan worldview, instead of striving toward a higher level, sanctifies material existence with all its brutality and injustice. In contrast, a faith-based and spiritual worldview is characterized by constant striving toward improving the world, fighting evil and empowering justice. This is how the prophet Isaiah described the ultimate redemption and the Mashiach’s leadership:
“But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the land; he shall smite the land with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. Righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist, and faithfulness the girdle of his loins. The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid… the cow and the bear shall graze, together their young shall lie down. The lion shall eat straw like cattle… They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:4-9).
Thus, the Exodus from Egypt was not merely the emancipation of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt. Rather, it was the liberation of all mankind from the chains of materialism. This is why it is so important to delve into the Exodus, to the extent that we are commanded to see ourselves, every year on the Seder night, as though we ourselves left Egypt. We have also been commanded to remember the Exodus every day and every night. To a certain extent, Shabbat and all holidays were established to commemorate the Exodus, for at the Exodus the spirit of man was freed from the bonds of material existence. Since we have not finished liberating ourselves from the bonds of the material world – the chains of the evil impulse and its lusts – from a spiritual perspective, we still need to continue leaving Egypt. Hence, it is a mitzvah to delve into the Exodus.
At the Exodus, the Material World Became a Vehicle for God’s Divine Presence
The way this world is ordered, its material aspects gain prominence first and easily reach their complete, powerful expression. Spiritual elements, however, remain hidden; it takes a long time before their significance becomes discernible. It was thus natural that the Egyptians initially overpowered Israel, for Egyptian might had already come to full fruition, while Israel was still like an unborn embryo. Since Israel’s strength could not be yet expressed, the Egyptians exploited Israel’s weakness and enslaved them to fuel their glory and their lusts.
But this was also for the best. Spirituality cannot be expressed in the world without a material basis, and this is exactly what we gained from being enslaved in Egypt. During the entire period that the Egyptians enslaved Israel and thought that they were overpowering us completely, in reality we were drawing and absorbing their power, as it is written:
“The Israelites were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceedingly mighty; and the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:7).
The more the Egyptians tried to enslave and subdue us, the more we increased, as it is written:
“But the more they tormented them, the more they multiplied, and the more they proliferated” (Ibid. 12) until we numbered 600,000 adult men. Maharal explains (Gevurot Hashem chs. 4 and 12) that this was the number necessary for the establishment of the nation of Israel. Once we numbered 600,000, an aspect of the divine was revealed within us, the Egyptian empire collapsed, and we left Egypt to receive the Torah at Sinai.
Not only were we blessed with fertility in Egypt, we also left Egypt with great wealth, compensation for many years of slavery. Thus, Israel began its course with a solid material foundation. This is the meaning of:
“When you go, you shall not go empty-handed; rather, every woman shall ask of her neighbor and of she who lives in her house silver and gold vessels and clothes; and you shall put them upon your sons and your daughters, and thus you shall despoil Egypt” (Exodus 3:21-22).
The Egyptians got their just desserts; had they chosen to be righteous, they would have taken care of the Israelites and helped them multiply and prosper. They would have benefited from this doubly, as they did when Joseph contributed to Egypt’s success during the difficult years of famine. But they chose evil, cruelly enslaving Israel, and consequently they were punished with ten plagues. The name of God was thus sanctified in the world, for the wicked were brought to justice and Israel left to eternal freedom.
These essays were taken from Rabbi Melamed’s highly popular series on Jewish Law and thought, “Peninei Halakha:Pesach”, and were translated from Hebrew. Three books from the series – Pesach, Tefila, and Z’manim— have already been translated into English, and can be read in their entirety at: http://en.yhb.org.il/har-bracha-publications/peninei-halachah/