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From Bondage to Servitude
by Chaya Shuchat
On Passover, we celebrate our freedom from Egyptian bondage. The Jewish people, enslaved under the mastership of Pharaoh for two hundred and ten years, left Egypt to finally become their own masters. Well, not quite! It would appear that the Jewish people left Egyptian slavery to accept upon themselves a different type of servitude. Moses was instructed: "When you take the people out of Egypt, you will worship G-d on this mountain"[1]. Would the Jewish people ever achieve total independence? Or would they forever be bound to an overseer, human or divine, defining and restricting their every movement and decision?

The redemption of the Jewish people from Egypt marks the birth of the Jewish nation[2]. However, it was not a birth only in the historical sense. Upon leaving Egypt, the Jews underwent a profound transformation, one that changed their very essence. During the Egyptian exile, the Jews, crushed under the burden of slavery, had gradually absorbed the spiritual coarseness of their Egyptian neighbors and masters. At the time of the Exodus, the Jews had sunk to the 49th (of 50) levels of impurity. Yet a mere seven weeks later they accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai and became identified as a Holy Nation, a Torah nation whose entire existence was permeated with G-dliness. In order to accomplish this major shift, it was necessary for the Jewish people to completely annul their previous existence and then recreate themselves in a totally new form. This metamorphosis was effected by a three-step process involving self-nullification, followed by integration and finally transcendence. 

To understand how this three-step process works, it is useful to consider the analogy of a student undertaking the adoption of a discipline radically different from, and opposed to, any previously encountered or experienced by him. At the outset, the pupil does not possess the tools to master the discipline on his own accord.  He must find himself a teacher and prepare himself to receive the teacher's guidance and direction. Were he to approach the teacher with his previous conceptions intact, he would be unable to absorb the new concepts being relayed to him. Rather, he needs to clear his mind of its previous paradigm and allow this radically new thought-system to penetrate.

Yet once the new idea has taken root in his mind, the student must use his own tools of intellect and reason in order to fully integrate the new philosophy into his own thinking.  The ultimate goal of the student is to make the teaching a part of himself, and to attain a mastery of it to the same degree as his teacher. Initially, the master's level of understanding seems far beyond the student's. Yet with effort, the student can transcend the limitations of his own intellect and reach a level that previously seemed unattainable.

Upon their exodus from Egypt, the Jewish people were not merely absorbing a new teaching, they were redefining their very existence. These three steps, of self-nullification, followed by integration and finally transcendence, allowed them to shake the confining role that Egyptian slavery had imposed upon them and to adapt to their new role as G-d's Holy Nation.

Self Nullification

The first step was undertaken when, as soon as they left Egypt, the Jewish people chose to subjugate themselves to G-d. This type of self-abnegation was necessary for them in order to erase the unholiness they had imbibed in Egypt, where many of the Jews had absorbed the idolatrous customs of their Egyptian masters. In order to be fit to receive the Torah, they needed to rid themselves of their previous existence, which was in direct opposition to the Torah. Thus, their first step was to bond with G-d unequivocally, through submitting to His Will with a sense of selflessness and complete trust. They pledged their acceptance of the Torah with the words “NaaseH veNishma[3]: “We will do, and then we will understand.” Their primary response, “We will do,” was a pledge to unquestionably carry out G-d's Will.

In Egypt, they were subservient to Pharaoh. In the desert, they would subjugate themselves to G-d.  On the surface, they were exchanging one form of servitude for another. But there is a profound difference between subjugation to a human master and submission to G-d. A human master is himself subject to the limitations of his own character and influence. G-d has no limitations, and thus, submission to Him is the first step toward overcoming one’s own human limitations.

Integration

At the same time, the purpose of service to G-d is not just to break our character and strip us of our identity. The aim is to fully integrate the Torah into our own personalities, as the Talmudic Sages state[4]: "There is no free person, but one who studies the Torah." The more we grow in understanding of Torah, the more it becomes part and parcel of who we really are. The true nature of a Jew is defined by his soul, whose desires and needs are in perfect congruence with the demands of the Torah. A lifestyle outside the boundaries of the Torah may on the surface appear to be more “free,” but internally, in order to feel truly comfortable and liberated, the Jew’s soul needs the structure and discipline of a Torah lifestyle.

Transcendence

After these two steps of self-nullification and integration were complete, the Jewish nation was ready for its final transformation. Through receiving the Torah, the Jewish people completely transcended their previous existence. Before, they worshiped G-d as human beings attempting to bridge an unattainable gap between Creator and created, Divine and human. At Mount Sinai, G-d removed this final barrier[5]. The Jewish people became truly free of their human limitations, and made the full leap of uniting with G-d, without any obstructions whatsoever.

These three stages are reflected in the three names of Passover. The Torah refers to it as "Chag HaMatzot[6]- the festival of Matzot”. In the festival prayers, the festival is called "Zeman Cheiruteinu - the Season of Our Freedom.” The most commonly used title, though, is Pesach, or Passover, a reference to G-d leaping over the Jewish homes and saving them from the plague of the firstborn.

In the Torah, a name is not merely a reference used for the purpose of identification.  Rather, a name actually describes an object's inherent characteristics. Each of the three names of Passover reflects on a different element of the festival’s inner meaning. Each name indicates a phase that the Jewish people passed through on their way to achieving complete independence and spiritual elevation. Matza, the flat, tasteless cracker, is the symbol of self-negation. "The Festival of Freedom" refers to the process of integration, as we come to appreciate that our servitude to G-d is not a denial or repression of our personality, but its consummate expression. This yields a feeling of profound liberty and pleasure in our divine service. The final step is "Passover," the transcendence of human limitations to become one with the Divine.

It seems paradoxical that the path towards greater self-fulfillment and satisfaction begins with matza, representing self-negation. How can setting aside our own reason lead to greater wisdom? Can subjugating our passions and desires yield a feeling of freedom and liberty? The Torah teaches that every Jew is inherently righteous. Torah lifestyle does not demand any "breaking" of human nature; rather, it seamlessly blends with the innate desires of the Jewish soul. The ultimate freedom is when we follow G-d’s demands but no longer feel subservient. "Passover" indicates such transcendence – a leap beyond our human limitations so that the G-dly directives feel inherently right and proper: a leap that allows our G-dly soul to transcend our human fallibilities.

Based on an address by the Rebbe, Acharon Shel Pesach, 5737 (1977)[7]             


 FOOTNOTES

[1] Shemot 3:12.

[2] Ezekiel, ch. 16 and commentaries

[3] Mishpatim 24:7

[4] Avot 6:2.

[5] Prior to the giving of the Torah, there had been a strict line of demarcation between the physical and the spiritual, so that there could not be a fusion of the two.  At Mount Sinai, G-d removed this barrier, allowing spirituality to descend to the physical world, and physical objects to become elevated to holiness.  (Tanchuma Vaeira 15, Shemot Rabba 12:3).

[6] Mishpatim 23:15; Tissa 34:18; Emor 23:6; Re’eh 16:16.

[7] Likkutei Sichot, vol. 17, pp. 71ff

 

 


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