Pesach - From Slaves to Princes

Rabbi Arieh Berlin

Man is a "creature of habit" and habits are hard to change. We get used to certain ways of living. It can be very frustrating when holiday time arrives and we know we can get up a little later than normal - but our bodies automatically wake us at the normal time. And sure enough when we return to work, it's difficult to wake up on time again.

The Bnei Yisrael had been slaves in Mitzrayim for two hundred and ten years. All they had known was slavery and hardship. After all this time, Hashem decided to bring them out in order to be His chosen people. How would they be able to transform themselves from being slaves to becoming free men? We have seen throughout history how slaves who escape from their master, often keep their previous barbaric habits, treating others worse than they themselves were ever treated. As it says in Mishlei, one of the things that makes the earth tremble is a slave who seizes sovereignty 1.

Towards the beginning of the Hagadda (in Avadim Hayinu), we say "If Hashem would have not taken us out of Mitzrayim, then we and our children and grandchildren would all be slaves to Pharaoh in Mitzrayim". Many commentators point out that history has shown great empires of the past have all fallen. How then can the author of the Hagadda suggest that had Hashem not intervened, we and our offspring would still be there? It seems ludicrous to suggest that we would still be slaves to the Egyptians today, some 3000 years later. What could this passage possibly mean? A well-known explanation 2 given is that the Egyptian exile was unique. In the Torah, Egypt is called Mitzrayim, which comes from the root of meitzar- constriction and distress. It also signifies 'boundary'. This expresses the oppressive and destructive nature of the Egyptian exile. On a spiritual level Mitzrayim was known as a spiritual Gehenam. Another significant matter is that Pharaoh, the title of Egyptian kings, in Hebrew means 'to lay open or untie' - implying that the goal of Egyptian rule was to break down defences leaving it open to the yetzer hara.

Once this power gains full control, spiritual redemption is no longer possible. At that time the Bnei Yisrael were on the forty-ninth level of tuma (impurity). Had Hashem not brought us out when He did, even though we might have physically left some years later, we would never had acquired a sense of mental and spiritual freedom. Today we would still be functioning with the same kind of mentality that our forefathers had during their bondage in Egypt (assuming we would have maintained any kind of national identity at all, which is unlikely).

This is what the Hagadda means, that we would still be slaves. We understand therefore that at precisely the right moment, Hashem took us out to become free people who could then gain spiritual freedom. It is for this reason that there is such an emphasis on speed. We eat matza because the bread did not have time to rise. The difference in time between dough becoming matza and then bread is very short, symbolising this fact that had we been left for even a moment longer, we would not have survived spiritually.

However our original question stands. How did we cope with such a quick transformation from being slaves to becoming free men? What stopped us from slipping back to our previous habits? There is a well-known story concerning a dispute between some gentile philosophers and the Rambam. These philosophers maintained that one of the main reasons for the difference in ability between man and animal is that man has been trained and animals have not. However, if one were to train an animal it could achieve what man could. The Rambam argued against this, and to prove their theory, the philosophers invited the Rambam to come and witness two cats trained as waiters. The Rambam watched as these two cats, dressed in suits and walking on their hind legs, entered the room with a tray of drinks. No one could believe how disciplined they were until…. just as they were about to pour out the wine, the Rambam pulled out a small box and released a mouse. One of the cats saw the mouse, threw down the bottle of wine it was holding, and ran after the mouse. Once the philosophers saw this they conceded to the Rambam that even though one can train a cat to act like a waiter, its natural inclinations cannot be changed. The Alter 3 of Kelm explains regarding the above story, that the only way one can change one's habits, is through Torah and mitzvos. This is the key to our question.

If we look at what happened just before the Exodus, we find that the Bnei Yisrael were given a group of mitzvos. Rashi in Parshas Bo 4 states that the time had arrived for the fulfillment of the oath that Hashem would redeem His children. They did not possess any mitzvos with which to be busy with, so Hashem gave them two mitzvos - Bris Mila (circumcision) and the Korban Pesach. The commentaries tell us that the reason these mitzvos were given is to teach us one vital point. When Hashem made us free, it wasn't just the casting off of chains, in fact all that happened was that we changed owners. Till now we were slaves to Pharaoh, and now we are avadim (servants) to Hashem.

The Maharal 5 explains that Bris Mila is a sign that we are servants to Hashem. However just having a sign is not good enough, we need to actually serve as well. This is the reason why Hashem gave the Korban Pesach as well.

So on one level we have an answer to our question. There was never an issue of becoming worse than our masters. All we were doing was changing who our Master was. Looking at the nature of these mitzvos we can see in a physical way how Hashem helped us in this transformation. The Sefer Hachinuch enumerates nine different mitzvos involved with the offering of the Korban Pesach.6 The purpose of some of these mitzvos seems hard to understand.

1) The meat had to be completely roasted.

2) Nothing was to be left over until the morning.

3) No bone was to be broken.

4) No meat was to be taken outside, and it all had to be consumed within the group.

Why did Hashem give us all these laws concerning how to eat the sacrifice? What message was Hashem telling us? The Sefer Hachinuch 7, when explaining the reason behind these mitzvos, gives one theme that ties them all together and answers our question. Other than us remembering the miracles that Hashem did for us they also teach us a lesson in how to act like royalty. A poor man would never eat meat in such a manner. If a poor man has a piece of meat, he would cook it rather than roast it, making it into a stew to maximise its use. Roasting would cause it to shrink. Hashem was telling us to cook it the way a prince would. The same is true with the other mitzvos. A poor man leaves meat over to use it throughout the week and tries to get out every last morsel. He would certainly break the bone to get to the marrow because for him having a nice piece of meat is a rare occurrence. He would surely want to go outside and show everyone what he has.

This was probably the first time most of them had even eaten meat. But this experience was to be a royal meal filled with mitzvos. There would be no chomping of bones like barbarians. Cooked in the precise manner, so that every step took on a sense of spirituality. There were messages of dignity and restraint. No more were they starving prisoners, grabbing any available food. We see from this how Hashem gave us a taste of freedom whilst we were still slaves. These most intricate details and sophisticated acts forged slaves into princes.

Every Pesach we have an obligation to re-enact and internalise the fact that Hashem took us out of Mitzrayim. Part of this realisation involves understanding the way it was done. It was through the fulfilment of these mitzvos that enabled Bnei Yisrael to ascend to Kabbalas HaTorah - the receiving of the Torah. It has been our dedication and commitment to the mitzvos that has kept us going as Hashem's servants. Even though we are now in exile, as we look back to the Exodus, we know that the time will come when Hashem will return us to Yerushalayim and we will all be able to bring the Korban Pesach, may it be B'mheira v'yameinu, speedily in our days.


1 Mishlei 30:22.
2 Michtav M'Eliyahu Vol. 2, pg 17.
3 Lekach Tov Bereishis pg 110.
4 Shemos 12:6 in the name of R' Masya ben Charash based on a passuk in Yecheskel.
5 Gur Aryeh 12:6.
6 Mitzvos 5 - 8, 13 - 17.
7 Mitzvos 7,8,15,16.

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