By Rabbi Aron Tendler
Born To Be Free!
The 210 years that the Jews were in Egypt provided the time and the
circumstances for the sons of Yakov to grow from a family of 70 into a nation
of 3 million. Additionally, the sequence of slavery, affliction, and
redemption molded the basic character of the nation and prepared them to
receive the Torah.
If the children of Yakov had remained in the land of Canaan, or had they
remained among the elite of Egypt as Yoseph had intended, the family would
have quickly assimilated into the surrounding society and their Jewish
identity would have been lost. Instead, the family of Yakov was isolated and
then persecuted so that the demarcation between Jew and Egyptian would be
clearly established and maintained, especially by the Egyptian. Not only was
the Jew forced to live apart from the standard Egyptian citizen, but because
the Jews were second class the dominant society discouraged any kind of
acceptance or assimilation of the Jew into Egyptian society.
At the incident of the Burning Bush, G-d told Moshe that the final proof that
it was G-d Who had sent Moshe to redeem the Jews from slavery would be, "All
of you will then become G-d's servants on this mountain." (3:120). The
giving of the Torah would be the ultimate proof.
Why was Mattan Torah - Revelation a greater proof of G-d's existence than the
Ten Plagues or the splitting of the Yam Suff - Red Sea? It seems that the
miracles preceding Revelation were far more spectacular and impacting than
Revelation itself. It was after the splitting of the sea that the verse
says, "…And they believed in G-d and in His servant Moshe." (14:31. It was
following the plague of Darkness that the verse states, "Moshe was also very
respected in Egypt, both by Pharaoh's officials and by the people." (11:3).
Why then is the giving of the Torah considered the ultimate proof of G-d's
control over the Exodus, more so than all the preceding events?
There is nothing more difficult than changing human nature. Who and what we
are is a complex equation of nature and nurture. Nature involves both
genetics as well as our G-d given talents, character strengths, and spiritual
challenges. Nurture involves all aspects of our upbringing and involvement
with family and society. Due to these complexities, it takes courage,
strength, determination and time for a single person to change themselves.
To change an entire nation or society should certainly require even far more
courage, strength, determination and time.
The Bnai Yisroel were in Egypt for 210 years. According to Chazal - the
Rabbis, the slavery began in earnest with the death of Levi in 2332, and the
extreme persecution and affliction began with the birth of Miriam in 2362.
That means that the actual period of overt slavery lasted 116 years of which
85 years involved severe persecution. Besides the 116 year of overt slavery,
the Bnai Yisroel were apart from Eretz Yisroel for 210 years. Therefore,
most Jews knew only Goshen as their home. Eretz Yisroel was the stuff of
legends and family lore. (To gain a contemporary perspective on the affect
that 116 years of slavery can have on a population, keep in mind that the
USSR was under communist influence for only 70 years).
At the time of Revelation the Jews had to be of a certain frame of mind and
attitude. They had to be a freethinking society able to willfully and
willingly accept the Torah. They also had to have attained the level of
national unity described by Chazal as, "one man with one heart."
On the one hand the Jews had to have evolved out of their "nurtured" slave
mentality to become truly free. On the other hand they had to be confident
enough in their own newly gained freedom to understand that everyone was
equally important and interdependent upon each other. In order for them to
serve G-d as humanities teacher they would have to be unified and single
minded in their collective resolve to serve humanity.
A freed slave is not automatically a free man. He may be freed of his
obligation to work for a specific person or family, but his thinking and
self- image will still be that of a slave. The best example is the history
of the Black community following their emancipation from slavery. It has
taken almost 150 years for both the Black community and the general American
society to accept each other as equals. To become the "Kingdom of Priests
and a Holy Nation" that G-d expected, demanded selflessness, generosity, and
a sense of responsibility for others that is not part of the slave mentality.
The slave is overwhelmed by the notion of freedom to the extent that he
doesn't know what to do with his freedom. As history has recorded, most of
the freed slaves in America stayed on the plantations that were familiar to
them, rather than venture out into a world they didn't understand.
Imagine telling a newly freed slave that in addition to his being freed from
bondage, he must choose to become responsible for the well being of his
former masters! In essence, those were G-d's exact expectations for the Bnai
Yisroel. In addition to their gaining freedom from the Egyptians, they were
to accept the Torah that would catapult them into the position of teaching
the rest of the world, including their former masters, about G-d. In deed
and word, the Jew would have to embrace the non-Jewish world and become their
"Kingdom of Priests!" It was unrealistic enough to think that the Jews
would overcome their slave mentality in time to willfully accept the Torah.
It was doubly unrealistic to think that the Jews would take their new- found
freedom and give it up by becoming responsible for the rest of humanity!
Yet, this was the expectation for the Jews at the time of the Exodus and the
transformation from slave to free man to kingdom of priests had to happen in
a little more than a year!
Moshe's mission as the Redeemer began approximately one year before the
actual exodus. The giving of the Torah took place seven weeks after the Jews
left Egypt. That means that Moshe has a little more than one year to alter
the attitudes and thinking of the Jews, from slavery to freedom. How was
this seemingly impossible evolution going to take place?
In this week's Parsha there are two instructions that were essential for
transforming the Jew. Following the plague of Darkness, G-d instructed Moshe
to ask the Jews to do Him a favor. "…Let each one request from his friend
gold and silver articles…" (11:2). My father Shlita explained that this was
fundamental to the transformation of their slave mentality. Can you imagine
the newly freed Black man approaching his former master and requesting to
borrow his fine china and silver, in order to properly celebrate their
freedom? A freed slave still thinks and feels like a slave. The freed slave
does not feel equal to his former master, regardless of the rhetoric of
revolution and social change. By asking the Jews to act like equals to their
former masters and request from them gold and silver vessels, G-d advanced
their evolution out of the slave mentality.
The second instruction involved the Korban Pesach - the Pascal Lamb. First
of all, the mere notion of taking the Egyptian god and tying him up to their
bed-post and then slaughtering and eating it advanced their feelings of
freedom. Secondly, the Korban Pesach had to be eaten entirely, and in order
to do this, individuals and families would join together according to the
number of people necessary to consume the entire Korban. (12:2-3).
The lesson of the Korban Pesach was that their newly found freedom involved
first of all, the doing of Mitzvos. Secondly, to serve Hashem properly
requires two essential components: family, and community. ; The Jew can not
live alone. In order to do the work of a Jew, we must work together as "a
single man with a single heart."
Copyright © 1997 by Rabbi Aron Tendler
and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation,
Valley Village, CA.