You Call This Living?

According to Professor James Kugel, the rabbinic sages understood the words of Torah to be “omni-significant”, namely, that its text is meaningful in ways that span beyond its literal meaning. Objectively, this means that when the sages read the Torah, they were forever in search of clues for unexplored meaning. Unusual phraseology, seeming superfluity, words with multiple meanings all offered potential for unfolding God’s divine message. Already, in the earliest rabbinic commentaries on the Ten Commandments, the sages seemed perplexed over the content of the opening statement of the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage (me’beit avadim)” (Exodus 20:2). One frequently asked question centered on the necessity for noting that God both brought the children of Israel of Egypt and “out of the house of bondage”. Either phrase would have been sufficient, so why have both?

The later phrase “out of the house of bondage” prompted some interesting interpretations. Rashi, based on a midrash (Mekhita d’Rabbi Yishmael Bahodeh 6, Horowitz Rabin edition p. 222), infers from a comparison between this verse and the verse: “and [God] rescued you from the house of bondage from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 7:8) that the children of Israel were not “lowly” slaves but rather, royal slaves, slaves with a pedigree, Pharaoh’s slaves.

Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (12th century Spain) saw in this phrase a rationale which explained our obligation to perform God’s commandments. Since God’s rescued us from bondage, out of gratitude, we should observe God’s will.

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak Me’Berditchev (Ukraine 19th century), true to the Hasidic tradition, searches out the religious psychological meaning found in these words. Being in a “house of bondage”, to him, represents a mental state.  This leads him to ask why God did not reveal the Torah to the children of Israel before He redeemed them?

“One who serves out of fear serves ‘slavishly’, while one who serves out of love is attendant like a child to a parent. So, if the Torah had been given before the exodus from Egypt, the children of Israel would have accepted it out of fear lest God not redeem them from Egypt and so their attitude toward the Torah would have been ‘slavish’. Accordingly, God brought them out of Egypt and only afterwards did they receive the Torah, so that their service would be out of gratitude and love, like that of a child to his or her parents.’ (adapted from Kedushat Levi Yitro ‘Anokhi’ 1)

The aim of this message is clear. There are two approaches to service to God, to being Jewish, to life. One is directed to outcome, living life solely in search of rewards and the avoidance of punishment. This leads to an attitude of seeing life as a burden, a yoke which were it not for the outcome would be avoided. The other, preferred alternative, is one of love and gratitude, from which springs forth joy and happiness. The choice is obviously in our hands.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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