David Walk

We Were Slaves?

This Wednesday evening, when we begin retelling the story of the Exodus from Egypt, our first statement in this effort is: We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt! How are we to react to that announcement? Probably, the best response should be, ‘Really, how come I don’t remember it?’ Clearly, this dramatic statement requires context or explanation.

Let’s begin our inquiry with: What’s a slave? And what does the statement that we were slaves mean to the people seating around our Seder table? Especially kids, what are they thinking?  The Rambam makes the following suggestion: My son, in Egypt, we were all slaves like this maidservant or that slave. On this night, the Holy One, Blessed be He, redeemed us and took us out to freedom (Laws of Chametz U’Matzah 7:2). Cool! So, Maimonides clearly had slaves living in his neighborhood, which made it easy to explain slavery, but most of us don’t have slaves living on our block to point out. 

According to Anti-Slavery International there are 46 million people living in slavery in 146 countries around the world, but the vast majority of them are out of sight to most of us, unless you attended the World Cup last year. So, how do we accomplish the Rambam’s advice? We could show excerpts from some movies before the Chag to our kids, like Emancipation, 12 Years a Slave or Amistad. Don’t even consider Disney’s Song of the South, which makes slavery look just Zip-A-Dee-Do-Dah.

Rav Avraham Twerski ZT”L, whom we miss dearly, wrote in his Haggadah (From Bondage to Freedom, p. 9-10):

I am indebted for the inspiration for the theme of this Haggadah to a young man who underwent treatment for a severe drug problem. At his first Seder at home, his father began reciting the Haggadah, ‘We were slaves unto Pharaoh…’ The young man interrupted, ‘Father, when were you ever a slave? I was a slave to drugs, and there has never been so demanding and inconsiderate a taskmaster, so absolute an enslavement, as addiction to chemicals.’

So, perhaps, we can point out drug addicts. Sadly, most of us know more people with addictions than we are aware of individuals who are labeled slaves by international law.

Another great spiritual guide who departed us recently, Rav Adin Steinzaltz ZT”L also discussed this issue, and wrote:

The fundamental reality of servitude is that the toil of the slave is totally and absolutely for another. The person’s efforts are never a result of decisions made by the individual…Inevitably, the servitude invades one’s soul (NEFESH). The slave loses independent existence…One who has no free will, either because of servitude or because the individual never developed an independent personality, in either situation this individual is unable to be a BEN CHORIN, a free individual. Under these circumstances, even when the yoke of slavery is removed, this person has not become a BEN CHORIN. This individual has merely become an ownerless slave…True freedom is a result of acquiring an independant and freely chosen identity. It includes the acceptance of a framework of an independant ethical system…If so, the slavery of Egypt didn’t end with the departure from Egypt.’

Rav Steinzaltz then quotes a famous Hasidic statement that it was easier to take the Jews out of Egypt than to take Egypt out of the Jews. The Exodus began a many stepped process of shedding the slavery and acquiring a true personal identity, which is the real and only freedom. This is why the Torah uses four different terms of redemption, which, according to many authorities, formed the basis for our tradition for drinking the four cups of wine.

The terms are V’HOTZEITI, ‘and I will take you out’; V’HITZALTI, ‘and I will save you’; V’GA’ALTI, ‘and I will redeem you’; V’LAKACHTI, ‘and I will take you’ (Shmot 6:6 & 7).  This is important because becoming a BEN CHORIN is difficult and time-consuming. So, first the actual slave labor ended (probably around Rosh Hashanah, Tishre 1), then we actually walked out of Egypt (Nissan 15), next we crossed the Yam Suf (Nissan 21), and, finally, received the Torah at Har Sinai (Sivan 6). It takes many steps because breaking the servitude and developing a new personality is not easily accomplished.

Did you ever sing AVADIM HAYINU, HAYINU; ATAH B’NEI CHORIN, B’NEI CHORIN (We were slaves; now we are free)? Well, I did, and, of course, that’s wrong. Our text doesn’t say that we became B’NEI  CHORIN. Why not? For that I’d like to refer to something Rav Soloveitchik said. The Rav was discussing the famous debate between Rav and Shmuel, who argued whether the essential slavery was physical (building store cities) or spiritual (idolatry). However, the Rav concludes that they only argue about the AVDUT (servitude); they agree that the essential GEULA (redemption) was only spiritual. That’s why at the beginning of MAGID we don’t mention that we became free, but when we recount the embarrassing (G’NUT, degrading) reality that once upon a time our ancestors were idolaters, we do say, ‘And now we have been brought close to Divine service!!’

The reason for that missing mention of freedom at the beginning of the retelling should now be obvious: We were not free souls yet when we marched out of Egypt. As Rav Steinzaltz would say, ‘We were wandering slaves!’ Becoming truly free took time and required challenging experiences, and it only happened when we had achieved a spiritual identity at Mt. Sinai. It’s not easy being free (or green).  

So, perhaps, the truly critical question at the Seder isn’t ‘What is slavery?’, but is ‘Are we slaves?!’ Do we freely choose our actions and choices? Have we become slaves to ideas, decisions, choices, lifestyles which we have copied from some alien culture? We have indeed left Egypt, but have arrived at Mt. Sinai and taken the first baby steps of freedom? I don’t know. But I strongly believe that it’s worth asking!! Have a Chag Sameach, and a CHAG SHEL B’NEI CHORIN!!

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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