Some years ago on a Sunday evening, the Staum family was sitting together in the living room. Our (then) five-year-old son Shalom was listening intently to a children’s tape which dramatizes the events of the exodus from Egypt. The tape included a song with the lyrics, “We are free! We are free! No longer slaves to Pharaoh, we are free!” Shalom asked me, “Who was free?” When I explained to him that Bnei Yisroel were free, our (then) three-year-old daughter Aviva Rochel chimed in, “I also free. I not two-and-a-half anymore! I free!”
“One more plague I shall bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; after that he shall send you forth from here. Please speak in the ears of the people: Let each man request of his fellow and each woman from her fellow silver vessels and gold vessels” (Shemos 11:1-2).
Rashi, quoting the Medrash, notes that G-d requested that Moshe appeal to the Jews that they request valuables from their Egyptian neighbors so that Avraham Avinu would not have a complaint against G-d, as it were, that He carried out in full measure the prophecy that his offspring would be oppressed but not the companion promise that the Jews would leave their captivity laden with great wealth (Bereishis 15:14-15).
Was G-d only concerned that Avraham would have a justifiable complaint? Doesn’t any decent person, let alone G-d, strive to keep his word?
The Dubner Maggid offers a novel explanation based on a parable: There was a child prodigy with uncanny musical talent who was invited to play his violin in a prominent symphony orchestra. At the end of a month of performances, the conductor handed the young wunderkind a sizeable check. The young boy arrived home crestfallen. When he handed his father the check, the father immediately understood his son’s deep disappointment. He set up an appointment to meet with the conductor in his office. The father explained, “Although you have been most generous and have paid my son well, he does not yet understand the value of paper money and checks. In his mind, all of his hard work was paid off with a silly piece of paper. Therefore, I am requesting that you give him a bag of lollipops and give me the check. I will put the check into a savings account so that when he matures he will be able to enjoy the fruit of his labor. But until then, he will feel more satisfied with a couple of sweets.”
When G-d promised Avraham that his children would emerge from Egypt laden with great wealth, he was not referring to material wealth. Rather, he was referring to Torah, the greatest treasure in the universe and the very purpose of creation. However, at the time of the exodus, the nation was spiritually immature and could not yet appreciate the value of the supreme treasure they were destined to receive.
To the Jews at the time of the exodus, receiving the Torah was tantamount to an immature child receiving a check. G-d was concerned that Avraham, their loving father, would argue that just as the first portion of the prophecy was fulfilled in a manner that the Jews could comprehend, so too the conclusion of the prophecy should be fulfilled in a manner that they could comprehend and appreciate. So the real treasure was detained until they were spiritually mature enough to appreciate its value at Sinai. In the meanwhile, G-d granted them material wealth to placate their father.
The narration of the haggadah on Seder night commences with the declaration, “This is the bread of poverty that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt.”
Ibn Ezra notes that matzah was the actual food that the Egyptians served the Jews when they were enslaved because it was satiating and cheap. Yet, at the conclusion of the narration, when we elucidate the central foods of the Seder – the Pesach sacrifice, matzah, and marror – we describe the matzah as the food that symbolizes redemption. The haggadah states, “Matzah. Why do we eat this unleavened bread? Because the dough of our forefathers did not have time to become leavened before the King of kings, the Holy One, Blessed is He, revealed Himself to them and redeemed them…”
What is the true symbolism of the matzah? Is it the food of lowly tormented slaves or is it the food of a dignified and proud freed nation?
The transition that transpired at the exodus was not one of slavery to freedom. Rather it was a profound shift from one form of servitude to another. The Gemara (Megillah 14a) explains that the celebration of the exodus was based on the fact that now the nation was free to serve G-d. “Praise Him – the servants of G-d, and not the servants of Pharaoh.”
The Shelah Hakadosh notes that the purpose of the Egyptian bondage was to ingrain in the burgeoning Jewish nation the concept of complete subjugation to a higher authority. The servitude to Pharaoh, with all of its barbarism and cruelty, laid the groundwork for their acceptance of the yoke of G-d with complete devotion and subjugation. Thus, although the exodus redeemed the Jews from tyranny, it did not exonerate them from servitude. Rather they were able to be slaves to the Master they desired, G-d.
It is only when a person wholeheartedly dedicates himself to Torah, with all of its dictates, laws, and expectations, that he can truly experience freedom from the lure of materialism. The exodus from Egypt, which allowed the Jews to accept upon themselves the yoke of G-d, granted them the ability to transcend their desires and earthly whims.
Matzah is the bread of slaves! At the beginning of the haggadah the matzah represents our involuntary slavery to Pharaoh, while at the end of the seder it represents our joy at the opportunity to become G-d’s slaves!
The Gemara (Berachos 4b) relates that there is an obligation for one to juxtapose prayer with a detailed mention of the redemption. The Gemara states that one who fulfills this law is guaranteed a place of residence in the World to Come.
Rabbeinu Yonah explains that G-d redeemed us from Egypt solely so that we could become His Servants. Therefore, immediately after mentioning the exodus we must daven, the greatest expression of our subservience to G-d. There cannot be a pause between redemption and prayer, just as there was no lull in our subservience at the time of the exodus. The subservience to Pharaoh was immediately transformed into complete subservience to G-d. One who appreciates this concept will live his life in complete subjugation to G-d, and will inevitably merit a portion in the World to Come.
The holiday of Pesach celebrates our freedom, albeit not freedom from servility. Our greatest national joy is the opportunity to carry the banner of Torah aloft, the greatest spiritual treasure.
Perhaps we could not appreciate the Torah’s value at the moment of the exodus, but at Sinai we recognized that it was then that we were receiving the true wealth promised to Avraham Avinu. By becoming slaves of G-d alone, we had, and have, the opportunity to penetrate and free ourselves from the shackles of physicality and hedonism, to which our culture is enslaved!