By Rabbi Yaakov Menken
The Shem MiShmuel, a Chassidic Rebbe and scholar, offers a beautiful
insight into an apparent contradiction in the Haggadah. The Haggadah says,
"Had the Holy One, Blessed be He, not taken our forefathers out of Egypt,
then we and our children and our children's children would remain
subservient to Pharaoh in Egypt."
First of all, the Pharaohs are long gone, so it is unlikely that the
Jewish people would have remained as servants in Egypt even had the Exodus
never occurred. But in addition, if we do not wish to set this passage
aside as simple hyperbole, then it appears to contradict a central element
of traditional Jewish thought: that the entire world was created for
Torah, to permit us to pursue spirituality and to come close to G-d.
Without Torah, the world would lack all purpose. So according to the
Midrash, G-d created the world with a condition in mind: "if Israel does
not accept my Torah, then I will return [all of creation] to 'tohu
vavohu,'" referring to the initial state ("without form and void")
mentioned at the beginning of Genesis. So had He never removed us from
Egypt, then the Torah would never have been given, and the world would
have quite literally come to an end!
If so, then both Pharaoh and Egypt would have ceased to exist, along with
So the Shem MiShmuel offers an answer based (quite appropriately) on
Chassidic thought. He explains that 'tohu vavohu' is not simply the
absence of anything, but is rather is a creation of its own, a
pre-developed state. Had Israel not accepted the Torah, then the world
would have returned to 'tohu vavohu' in order to emerge again, but not as
a place for Torah.
That world, explains the Shem MiShmuel, would be a "bad" world, as it
were, dominated by the physical, without opportunities for spiritual
development, or approaches to the ultimate good found in G-d and Torah. So
although human souls would exist in that world, they would have no
opportunity for growth or self-perfection.
This is precisely the environment that Pharaoh sought to create for the
Jews in Egypt, oppressing them with physical work and leaving them no time
for other pursuits. So although those forces might appear in different
garb, they would still dominate the Jews today had we not left Egypt. This
is what the Haggadah means, that "we and our children and our children's
children would remain subservient to Pharaoh in Egypt."
Besides the fascinating outlook on the Haggadah and our world, the Shem
MiShmuel's explanation should help us to appreciate and focus upon the
opportunities that we have. We do not live in a "bad world," so
overwhelmed with physical work that we have no time for the spiritual. We
can and must find opportunities to pursue the eternal, even in our busy
Pesach is an especially good time for growth and change. "In each
generation, every person is obligated to see himself as if he went out
from Egypt, as it says [in the Torah], 'you shall tell it to your sons on
that day, saying "because of what HaShem did for me during my departure
from Egypt."' Not only our forefathers did the Holy One, Blessed be He,
redeem from Egypt, but even us He redeemed with them." Our Sages taught:
Pesach offers us the opportunity to break free of whatever bonds have held
us until now, and to grow beyond all limitations.
May we all take advantage of opportunities for growth, those that we find
on Pesach, and those offered every day of the year!
A Happy and Kosher Passover,
Rabbi Yaakov Menken
Text Copyright © 2004 by Torah.org.
The author is the Director of Project Genesis - Torah.org.