Like many kids, I hated high school. I was shy and something of an outsider–being the oldest daughter of new-to-America immigrants had its challenges, specifically that I didn’t know a lot of social “rules”. I had my circle of friends, but I still felt out of place.
Then there was the academic aspect. I had little-to-no interest in my secular studies, pulling in decent grades with little-to-no effort. I was cruising, without even one iota of care for my secular classes. I did care (a lot!) about my Jewish classes. I listened to every word and took detailed notes. I took “yahadus” as my only elective (si, no habla Español and I’m just fine!), and memorized the schedule of the Rabbi who taught that class so I would know where to find him when I ducked out of math or science for 20-minute breaks. (He grew used to seeing me walk in and would say, in his heavy accent, things like: “We were going to learn something else now, but thanks to Miss Hakakian who has joined us, I will tell you what I said in shul this week. It is something so amazing that if this the only thing you learn this year, your father’s tuition would not be wasted. You can thank Miss Hakakian later…”
I ended up not attending 12th grade at my high school and going to a local Seminary instead, but as I spoke my dilemma out with my parents over and over and over and over (my poor siblings still recall the late night “discussions” that got rather loud) my father often recalled for me the story of Hagar when she fled from Avraham’s house. She’s met by a malach who asks her why she has left. Hagar replies that she has left because of the actions of Sara Imainu. The malach accepts this answer—this is, after all, a reasonable excuse for leaving–but poses a follow up question: to where do you now plan on going? Hagar replies that she is returning to her father’s house. The malach doesn’t find this acceptable at all and sends her back. The key, my father said, was not only to have a valid reason for leaving, but to have a good destination.
This message is a central message in the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim as well…
Throughout the day and life of a Torah-observant Jew, it seems that there is a great emphasis on Yetzias Mitzrayim. Kiddush on Shabbos and Yom Tov, Teffilin, Shavous, Succos, Shema, Pesach…All these mitzvos (and more!) have the added reason given that they are done as a זכר ליציאת מצרים. At times, it doesn’t even seem to connect, yet we stick that phrase in still. For example, Kiddush on Shabbos night. Shabbos commemorates and witnesses the fact that Hashem created the world and remains its sole Master. Why must we add in זכר ליציאת מצרים? What makes this so integral to our observance?
As we’ve discussed in other articles, the Jewish calendar is full of mystical hints and messages. One of the hints in our calendar is that the first night of Pesach will always be on the same day of the week as…Tisha B’av. Indeed, this connection is found in Chazal as well. The possuk in Eicha (read on Tisha B’av) says:
השביעני במרורים הרוני לענה
Hashem has sated me with marrorim, bitterness, and has given me wormwood (another bitter herb) to drink.
The Midrash there explains that the beginning of the possuk refers to the marror of Pesach night, and the ending refers to Tisha B’av itself. On the surface it would seem that no two nights could be further apart in tone and feeling, but as we learn further, we will see what connects these two nights.
Let’s go back to our first question: what makes Yetzias Mitzrayim connected to so many mitzvos in the Torah? The possuk (which we quote at the seder) tells us:
והגדת לבנך ביום ההוא לאמור בעבור זה עשה ה’ לי בצאתי ממצרים And you should tell your son that day [on the day that he asks about observing the laws of Pesach] that for the sake of this did Hashem take me out of Egypt.
Rashi comments there: בעבור שאקיים מצוותיו כגון פסח מצה ומרור הללו—in order that I should keep His mitzvos, such as this Pesach, Matzah, and Marror [did Hashem take me out]. When our children question our observance, our answer to them is that it is only for this observance that Hashem took us out of Mitzrayim. Giving this over and shaping our children with this belief is the one of the central obligations of the Seder: We did not redeem ourselves, nor were we even worthy of Hashem’s redemption. He took us out amidst miracles and wonders for this–that I should keep His commandments. We mentally accept and put ourselves in the mindset of having left Egypt ourselves, and we accept the obligation of keeping the mitzvos. For this reason, there are so many seemingly unconnected mitzvos that come back toזכר ליציאת מצרים.
The specific possuk cited above refers to the question of the Rasha-the wicked son. (There are four sources in the Torah for teaching our children about Yetzias Mitzrayim, and they are attributed to four different sons. This possuk is attributed to the Rasha.) In laying our answer out as such we are showing him that there are two options in life, Pesach or Tisha B’av. Let’s explain.
It all really goes back to the beginning where it all started: with Avraham Avinu, who chose the path of recognizing Hashem and filling the world with Kiddush Hashem. All of Avraham’s actions were for the purpose of spreading the ways of Hashem in the world. When Avraham’s children called out to Hashem for salvation, Hashem saved them so they could continue Avraham’s task: בעבור זה עשה ה’ לי.
When Lot was captured in the war between the kings, the meforshim tell us that the kings were happy to have caught him because of his relationship and even his resemblance to Avraham. They saw it as a victory against Avraham and his message of G-dliness (some of which Lot preached too, based on what he learned from Avraham). The possuk tells us that Avraham went to save Lot to prevent this chillul Hashem: ויחלק עליהם לילה…ויכם- Avraham divided himself against them (i.e., he partitioned his army against them), and he struck them.
The Yalkut Shimoni writes that the specific word ויחלק is used to imply that Avraham did this at the time that divides (ח.ל.ק.) the night—that is, midnight. Chazal teach us that this night was in fact Pesach night. And so, the Midrash, continues:
אמר הקב”ה אביהם פעל עמי בחצי הלילה אף אני פועל עם בניו בחצי הלילה
Their father acted for me in the middle of the night; I, too, will act for his children in the middle of the night.
The second middle of the night, where Hashem acted, is, of course, the night of Yetzias Mitzrayim, when Hashem actively saved the Yidden and ordered them out of Mitzrayim, in Avraham’s zechus, and for the reason of continuing Avraham’s job of spreading G-dliness in the world.
Had we not been redeemed from Mitzrayim, Avraham’s mission would have been abandoned, and we, B’nai Yisrael would have gone the way of all other nations and faded into obscurity. Hashem saved us so that we would keep the mitzvos, and as we imagine ourselves each year as if we too are being redeemed, our obligation to fulfill the purpose of our redemption is renewed. Thus, when Hashem commands us to sanctify His name by doing mitzvos, the underlying reason for our obligation comes back to Yetzias Mitzrayim. We weren’t able to save ourselves, nor did we deserve from our own merit to be saved. Our destination, the job that Hashem was entrusting us with, was the reason for our miraculous redemption.
We tell the inquiring Rasha that there is an alternative, too. If we accept the obligation and fulfill the mitzvos, we have justified our redemption through the marror of Pesach (השביעני במרורים). If not, we are only left with the second half of the possuk we quoted earlier: הרוני לענה, the drink of wormwood (a bitter herb), which refers to Tisha B’av, the symbol of galus. If we try to escape our obligation and think ourselves free from the עול מצוות, the suffering and bitterness of galus and avdus will fall back upon us.
Today, there is no slavery or blatant exiling of Jews. However, there is a mental state of servitude that restricts us from growing. The word Mitzrayim comes from maitzar, a narrow and restrictive path. Mitzrayim was the quintessential galus, and the slavery we experienced there showed us that all galus is as restrictive as slavery. As a slave has no time to think about ideas and spirituality, a mindset of galus is a mental block in growing closer to Hashem. Chazal tell us that galus Mitzrayim never ended-the slavery and restriction is included in every galus we’ve experienced since and will only be fully resolved with the coming of Moshiach and the final geula.
We left Mitzrayim to serve Hashem and to accept His Torah, not to be free. This purposeful reason for leaving is what allowed us to leave the mental and spiritual constraints of galus. As we say in the Haggadah,
ואילו לא הוציא הקב”ה את אבותינו ממצרים הרי אנו ובנינו ובני בנינו משועבדים לפרעה במצרים
Had Hashem not brought us out, us and our children and children’s children, would still be enslaved to Paroh in the restrictive atmosphere of Mitzrayim.
We had to leave Mitzrayim, and in truth would have physically left anyway by now, but our destination is what made the Exodus great.
This post was meant to go up before Pesach. It was written and was in the last phases of editing on Erev Pesach, but I couldn’t quite finish on time. As it happened the message came alive for me on Pesach night. My older sons were eager to ask questions of my father, looking for ways to earn praise (and credit towards an afikomen prize, of course). At some points, they were really grasping at straws, but my younger son hit on a great question: Why do we celebrate being free tonight? We’re not free! We left Mitzrayim and aren’t slaves there anymore, but we’re Hashem’s slaves now. We’re not free! As we explained the answer to him, the words resonated with truth and I felt so fortunate to be part of the Am Hanivchar, the nation Hashem chose to be elevated, to be His. We told him to imagine himself and a non-Jew walking into a store. The non-Jew is ‘free’ to eat and do whatever he wants. You, however, are actually free—free from the whims and wants of your physical body. Your mind is trained to think and evaluate and assess what you want and desire. You’re not ruled by your body. You are fully free to choose. The Torah gave us that freedom, not just the actual cessation of slavery. Chazal teach אין לך בן חורין אלא מי שעוסק בתורה –no one is freer than one who learns Torah. We’re free from the pull of this world and aren’t hapless slaves to our desires. בעבור זה עשה ה’ לי. That is how Hashem gave us our freedom: by making our destination עבודת ה’.
In the last post, we spoke about the new reality that B’nai Yisrael accepted when they left Mitzrayim. The Ramban, too, talks about Yetzias Mitzrayim elevating us and removing us from the natural order of the world. We see that when B’nai Yisrael came to the Yam Suf, they cried to Hashem to save them from the Egyptians because they saw no natural options. Surrounded on three sides by predators, they didn’t see a fourth option of walking into the sea. But Hashem tells Moshe, “Why are they elongating in prayer? Let them go forth into the sea!” Nachshon Ben Amindav was the first to accept this true freedom of knowing that Hashem is guiding us, B’nai Yisrael, to existence on a different level, free from natural boundaries and free to spiritually soar. He walked into the sea, trusting He who created nature to save him, and led our nation to true freedom.
Our souls, our personal חלק אלוקא ממעל, are made to soar. For a short life time (short relative to all of eternity!) it is constrained by our physical bodies and given the job of growing despite, through , and because of the physical limitations imposed on it. Throughout the journey of our lifetimes, we are meant to use our bodies, but not to be enslaved by them. The koach, the spiritual strength, of Nissan is to break through our personal maitzarim (restrictions) and grow by leaps and bounds, more than we thought ourselves capable of, achieving true freedom by coming closer to the Torah.
The symbol of Nissan is a lamb, leaping and skipping not aimlessly, but to follow its shepherd, just as B’nai Yisrael faithfully followed Hashem and leaped and skipped speedily up the levels of tu’mah to tahara, utilizing the power of this month to grow unnaturally quickly so that they could reach the destination of Matan Torah.
May we too be zocheh to tap into this power and break through our personal limitations;
To absorb the message and mission of the matzah and marror;
May we merit to bring the Geula Shelaima this Nissan, so that we don’t have a Tisha B’av of galus this year;
And may we become true עבדי ה’ and בני חורין.
Truly, Clearly, and Sincerely,
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The ideas regarding the Tisha B’av and Pesach are primarily from Rav Dr. Salomon Breuer.
Ideas were also taken from an article from Rav Moshe Shapiro (written by his talmid).
The ideas about Nissan and the ability to break through restrictions are brought down by many sources. Specifically, I recall learning about it from Rabbi Tatz’s shiurim years ago.
The idea that a sheep is not just passively a follower but can teach a lesson of choosing to follow is from Rebbitzen Heller.
Other meforshim (Ramban, Yalkut Shimnoi, etc) are named in the article.