Fleeing from Freedom

  • Rav Itiel Gold
Dedicated in memory of Irit bat Yitele z”l,
whose yahrzeit is 6 Shevat
By Family Rueff
Dedicated in memory of
Miriam Heller z"l
whose yahrzeit is 7 Shevat,
By her niece, Vivian Singer.
Throughout the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the people of Israel watch the process of their liberation from the sidelines. God and Moshe contend mightily with Pharaoh. One after the other, the plagues strike the Egyptians without harming Israel, who are not required to do anything in order to be saved. Israel, at the beginning of their journey, is like a baby, who is not required to do anything in order to merit protection and the satisfaction of its needs.
However, all of this changes at the last minute, with the smiting of the firstborns:
And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and there shall be no plague upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt. (Shemot 12:13[1])
For the first time, the plague is liable to harm Israel together with the Egyptians. In order to be saved, Israel now must act–by sacrificing the Paschal offering and putting its blood on the doorposts of their houses.
In this way, a new relationship begins to take shape between Israel and God, in which abundance and protection are now conditioned on the actions and conduct of the people. This is a more mature attitude toward the people of Israel. When a child undergoes the natural process of maturation, he moves from a passive place to an active one, from the satisfaction of his needs without any striving on his part to independent conduct that requires action and effort in order to attain the good. The child's parents are supposed to start conditioning the abundance: "If you do …, you will merit …." This conditioning is based on a belief in the child's ability to strive and grow and attain benefit through his actions.
This is the dramatic transition that takes place during the plague of the smiting of the firstborns. God apparently wants from Israel, at least in the final plague, some mature and active conduct that will make their redemption possible. Infantile satisfaction of needs must transition into effort and responsibility.
From this point on, the Torah will further develop this idea. The people of Israel will receive many commandments and will be required to act and grow in order to receive God's abundance. In this way, goodness will reach them not by way of God's grace, but by way of their own merits.
We must, however, try to understand why this demand for action on the part of Israel comes precisely in the form of the Paschal offering. What in the set of commandments relating to that sacrifice makes the Exodus from Egypt possible?
Strange Eating
The idea of offering a sacrifice as the basis for creating a mature connection with God is self-evident. The gap between man and God is huge, and the sacrifice, as its name [korban] implies, involves getting closer [hitkarvut]. Man succeeds, as it were, in bringing something of his own to God, thereby creating a mature bond with Him. So it was from the days of Kayin and Hevel, Noach, and the patriarchs, all of whom offered sacrifices. Later in the Torah, the people of Israel will be asked to appear before God three times a year with a sacrifice that facilitates this closeness (Shemot 23:14-17).
However, there are some unusual commands with respect to the manner in which the Paschal sacrifice must be eaten, which dramatically distinguish it from a regular sacrifice.[2] First, it must be eaten with matza and bitter herbs: “And they shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; with bitter herbs they shall eat it” (v. 8).
Eating the matza is, of course, unrelated to the fact that Israel's dough did not have a chance to rise, an event that will take place only after the eating of the Paschal sacrifice (v. 34). We are dealing here with a matter of principle to eat the Paschal sacrifice with matza and bitter herbs. In general, we connect eating with a pleasant and even joyful experience. "There is no rejoicing without meat and wine," points out the Gemara (Pesachim 109a). It seems, however, that the experience of eating the Paschal sacrifice is supposed to be difficult and bitter.
The matza, bread generally eaten by the poor (Devarim 16:3), imposes on the eating an atmosphere of poverty. This is true despite the fact that, objectively speaking, when they ate of the Paschal offering the people of Israel were rich, their houses filled with the gold and silver that they had received from the Egyptians (Shemot 12:34-35). Apparently, what we have here is more about a feeling of mental poverty, which the people are supposed to experience.
Eating bitter herbs reinforces the difficulty in the eating experience. The bitter herbs clearly correspond to the description of the bondage: “And they made their lives bitter with hard service” (Shemot 1:14).
If so, the eating of the Paschal sacrifice takes place in an atmosphere of poverty and bitterness. This is very far from the classical atmosphere for the partaking of a sacrifice, which is supposed to be one of exaltation and joy.
The manner in which the Paschal sacrifice must be eaten is also remarkable:
And thus shall you eat it: with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste, it is the Lord's Passover. (Shemot 12:11)
Once again, in contrast to mundane eating which generally takes place in a relaxed manner, here Bnei Yisrael must, unusually, eat the Paschal offering in haste. If we examine the word chipazon [haste] in the Bible, we find it in the context of the flight of the weaker side, the loser, from his enemy. Thus, for example, we read about Mefiboshet, the son of Yehonatan the son of Shaul:
He was five years old when the tidings came of Shaul and Yehonatan out of Yizre'el, and his nurse took him up, and fled; and it came to pass, as she made haste [be-chofza] to flee, that he fell, and became lame[3] (II Shemuel 4:4).[4]
Similarly, in the war between Aram and Israel, this root is used to describe the actions of the retreating army: "And, lo, all the way was full of garments and vessels, which the Arameans had cast away in their haste [be-chofzam]" (II Melakhim 7:15).
But what is the connection between the experience of flight and panic and the Exodus from Egypt? After all, this is an event filled with splendor and elevation, in which the people of Israel merit their independence. One might have expected that the Paschal offering would be eaten in a festive and joyful way. Why the need to eat the sacrifice amidst tense preparations for the journey, with walking shoes on their feet and walking sticks in their hands? Surely the redemption is not supposed to take place in haste, as Yeshayahu tells us:
For you shall not go out in haste, neither shall you go by flight; for the Lord will go before you, and the God of Israel will be your rearward. (Yeshayahu 52:12)
Isaiah is apparently trying to draw a contrast between the future redemption and the unideal redemption from Egypt, which took place in a state of haste and flight. But why did the Exodus from Egypt take place in that way?
It should be emphasized that as with the matza, so too with the experience of eating in haste, we are dealing with a pre-ordained plan to eat the Paschal offering in this manner, even before the constraints imposed by the Exodus itself. From the outset, the commands regarding the Paschal sacrifice were meant to shape the experience as one of poverty, bitterness, and flight. What is even more surprising is that of all the events of the Exodus, the Torah chooses to preserve in our memory the experience of haste:
You shall eat no leavened bread with it; seven days shall you eat unleavened bread therewith, even the bread of affliction; for in haste did you come forth out of the land of Egypt; that you may remember the day when you came forth out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life. (Devarim 16:3)
Apparently, the experience of haste touches upon the essence of the Exodus and therefore must be preserved for generations. But why? Why is the most festive day in Jewish history etched in our memory precisely through the eating of the bread of affliction? Why, of all the events connected to the redemption from Egypt, should one remember the hasty exodus?
Flight from Bondage
The difficulties that we have raised stem from the simple assumption that the people of Israel strove to be free. It follows then that the night of Pesach should have been an uplifting and joyful experience for them. It seems, however, that the mental reality of the people was far from this. An example is found at the beginning of the next parasha, at the time when the people are standing on the shore of the Sea of Suf:
And they said to Moshe: “Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you dealt thus with us, to bring us forth out of Egypt? Is not this the word that we spoke to you in Egypt, saying: ‘Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians?’ For it were better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness.” (Shemot 14:11-12)
It turns out that the people were less eager than we may have imagined to leave Egypt. Already there, a sharp debate arose between the people and Moshe about the Exodus. Moshe pushed for it, whereas the people feared it and asked Moshe to desist from his attempts at getting them out. Echoes of Israel's attraction to Egypt are heard later, when the people encounter difficulties in the wilderness: "We remember the fish, which we were wont to eat in Egypt for nothing" (Bemidbar 11:5). This opposition to the Exodus is also reflected in the lack of interest demonstrated by the people regarding Moshe's speech, at the beginning of Parashat Vaera: “And Moshe spoke so to the children of Israel; but they listened not to Moshe for impatience of spirit, and for cruel bondage” (Shemot 6:9).
Following this disregard, Moshe stopped trying to persuade the people. But now, at the time of the plague of the smiting of the firstborns, when Pharaoh is on the verge of breaking, it becomes necessary to go back to the people and mobilize them for their liberation. It seems, however, that even at this stage, the people of Israel are not happy with the prospect of leaving Egypt. At the moment of truth, we discover that they do not leave Egypt willingly, but rather they are chased out: “Because they were thrust out of Egypt, and could not tarry” (Shemot 12:39).
The phrase, "and could not tarry,"[5] indicates that that is precisely what they wanted at the time of their departure–to tarry, to remain a little longer in Egypt. In the end, the Exodus itself was the result of forced expulsion at the hands of the Egyptians. Until the last moment, Israel remained in the mindset of slavery, and they left only because their masters commanded them to do so. Had it been up to them, they might have chosen to stay.
This fact is confirmed by their failure to prepare provisions for the journey:
And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough which they brought forth out of Egypt, for it was not leavened; because they were thrust out of Egypt, and could not tarry, neither had they prepared for themselves any victual. (ibid.)
Why, in fact, did Israel not prepare food for the journey? After all, they were supposed to prepare for the Exodus, at the same time that they were eating of the Paschal offering: "With your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand" (v. 11). How is it possible that they put on their walking shoes and took their staffs in their hands, but did not prepare food for themselves?
There is no escape from concluding that while they ate of the Paschal sacrifice, in order to be saved from the plague of the smiting of the firstborns, the commands regarding the girding of their loins, the staffs in their hands, and the shoes on their feet were apparently ignored. They did not really intend to get up and go anywhere. For this reason, they also did not prepare food for the road, but unfortunately, they were thrust out of the country.
If in the story of the Exodus in the book of Shemot this matter is only implied, in the book of Yechezkel the prophet presents this perspective explicitly:
In that day I lifted up My hand to them, to bring them forth out of the land of Egypt into a land that I had sought out for them, flowing with milk and honey, which is the beauty of all lands; and I said to them: “Cast you away every man the detestable things of his eyes, and defile not yourselves with the idols of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” But they rebelled against Me, and would not listen to Me; they did not every man cast away the detestable things of their eyes, neither did they forsake the idols of Egypt; then I said I would pour out My fury upon them, to spend My anger upon them in the midst of the land of Egypt. But I wrought for My name's sake, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations, among whom they were, in whose sight I made Myself known to them, so as to bring them forth out of the land of Egypt. So I caused them to go forth out of the land of Egypt, and brought them into the wilderness. (Yechezkel 20:6-10) 
It turns out that the people were strongly connected to Egyptian culture ("the detestable things" of Egypt). So much so, that when God arrived with the tidings of redemption, they preferred slavery within the culture, over freedom without it. In the wake of this, God almost gave up on the idea of the Exodus from Egypt, which He would have done had it not been for the concern that His name would be profaned.
All of these sources present us with an astonishing picture–the people actually want to stay in Egypt, and God and Moshe take them out by force, against their will! Therefore, the Egyptians must also be drafted, in order to expel them by force: “And the Egyptians acted with strength against the people, to send them out of the land in haste” (Shemot 12:33).
The Flight from Freedom
How can we explain this strange phenomenon of slaves who prefer a life of bondage over liberation and redemption, and who wish to adopt the culture of their masters, instead of their God who promises redemption?
In order to understand this, we must appreciate the complexity of the experience of freedom. On the one hand, it is an appealing and magical experience. Freedom allows us to live our lives to the fullest and realize ourselves. But with freedom comes responsibility. The free man is required to manage his own life and has no one upon whom to rely. If he fails, he has no one to blame but himself. It is a potentially threatening experience. The slave may be limited, but he is free from self-guilt and from the need to assume responsibility for his life. All of us, in one form or another, occasionally enjoy a sort of bondage–to a framework, a career, a country, or another person–so we can momentarily transfer responsibility to someone else. Freedom is not a simple challenge.
For years, the people of Israel had been living with a consciousness of bondage so severe that they were afraid to raise their heads and take responsibility for their lives. The desire for freedom was completely foreign to them. When Moshe approached them with the vision of liberation, they turned their backs on him and preferred to dig themselves deeper into the experience of bondage and the culture with which they were familiar.
If force alone was required to subdue Pharaoh’s hard heart, here a much more complex action was needed. Israel's heart needed to be opened to liberation. Due to the complexity, this is postponed until the plague of the smiting of the firstborns. Only now, when it has become necessary to bring the people of Israel into the process, are they required to awaken their desire for liberation, to walk after God and away from Egyptian culture, through the eating of the Paschal offering. But their attraction to slavery and to their familiar surroundings does not disappear so quickly. Two desires wrestle each other in the hearts of Israel – to draw closer to God and to liberation, and to remain with the familiar.
God foresees the opposition of the people that will out in their moment of truth. That is why He commands haste. A "pincer movement" will be carried out. On the one hand, the Egyptians will expel them. On the other hand, even before that, Israel will undergo an experience of flight and urgency. The meal in which they will eat the Paschal sacrifice will be conducted, not in leisure, but rather in tense alertness in anticipation of departure. When the Egyptians begin the expulsion, the Israelites will already be ready to flee. Otherwise, the powerful forces that draw them to Egypt will overcome them. Israel's flight is first and foremost from themselves–from the magnetic internal forces that draw them into slavery. Only afterwards do they run from the Egyptians themselves, who arrive late in the night and create the actual haste.
This is also the way to understand the eating of the Paschal sacrifice together with matza and bitter herbs. In the eating of the Paschal sacrifice there is holiness and drawing closer to God. But during the eating, the people must feel the bitterness and slavery in which they are still found. Otherwise, the Pesach celebration will paint a false picture, as if it were possible to draw near to God and also to stay in Egypt. The introduction of bitterness and poverty into the eating connects Israel to the real place where they are. Even though they are celebrating with God, their mental state is still one of poverty and bitterness. They must escape from this place, and in a hurry.
In the end, despite all the preparations for haste and the emphasis on the bitterness of Egypt, the forces of attraction to slavery retain the upper hand. The people of Israel do not reach a state in which they tensely await their departure, and so they do not prepare food for the journey. In the end, the people of Israel do not leave Egypt of their own free will. God draws them out by force, through the action of the Egyptian expulsion.
Haste for Later Generations
            Of all the memories of the Exodus from Egypt, the Torah chooses in particular to preserve for all generations the hasty departure through the eating of matza (Devarim 16:3-4). The memory of the Exodus from Egypt preserves not only the experience of leaving slavery for freedom, but also the bitter truth that our ancestors wanted to remain slaves. Were it not for the panic and the expulsion, we, as a nation, would have remained in mental bondage to this very day:
Had the Holy One, blessed be He, not taken our forefathers out of Egypt, we, and our sons, and the sons of our sons, would still be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt. (Pesach Hagada)
            Presumably, the wheels of history would have changed the situation and we would no longer be physically in Egypt. But inside, we would still be drawn to slavery.
            We must recognize the bondage that is a force within us. At the beginning of our formation as a people, this force controlled us. God had to subdue not only Pharaoh, but also this human drive. From that time on, we have been asked to contemplate this force and try to contend with it. The matza and the bitter herbs return us every year to that experience of haste, when we had to flee from ourselves, from the destructive and enslaving forces within us. At the beginning of our national history, God showed us how to do this. Now the expectation that we pursue freedom in every generation has passed over to us.
(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] Unless otherwise specified, references in our study of this parasha are to Shemot 12.
[2] The eating of the Paschal sacrifice involves many laws, some of which do not seem to accord with the laws governing sacrifices. Rav Amnon Bazak, in his article "Mashma'uto shel Korban Pesach," explains how the eating of the Paschal offering is considered a sacrifice, with the house turning into an altar. In light of this understanding, we can explain most of the laws governing the Paschal sacrifice as part of the laws of the classical sacrifices. Thus, for example, the lintel of the house substitutes for the horns of the altar, upon which the blood is placed, and the prohibition of taking the blood out of the house brings to mind the prohibition of taking a sacrifice out of the Temple. In this study, we will not get into the details of the various laws governing the sacrifice, which are well-explained in Rav Bazak's article. We will relate only to those laws that are especially exceptional in their divergence from the laws governing the classical sacrifices – eating the Paschal offering together with matza and bitter herbs and eating it in haste. These laws cannot be explained in the framework of the laws of sacrifices, even according to the explanation offered by Rav Bazak (the eating of the matza connects, in his opinion, to the Thanksgiving offering which is brought together with matza, but the eating of bitter herbs has no parallel in any sacrifice; from here it may be concluded that the eating of matza is also unique to the Paschal sacrifice and comes to give it a characterization that is different from that of an ordinary sacrifice).
[3] It is interesting that in this verse as well we see a connection between haste and Pesach: "… as she made haste [be-chofza] to flee, that he fell, and became lame [vayipase'ach]."
[4] See also Tehilim 48:6; 104:7.
[5] The unusual term, "tarry," sends us to the identical term appearing in the account of Lot's fleeing from Sedom. The mental situation of Lot seems to be similar to that of Israel in Egypt–at the moment of truth, despite the fact that the world is collapsing around him, there is a desire to tarry, to remain a little longer in a place that is familiar to him. There too, in the end, forced expulsion was necessary: "But he tarried; and the men laid hold upon his hand, and upon the hand of his wife, and upon the hand of his two daughters; the Lord being merciful to him. And they brought him forth, and set him outside the city" (Bereishit 19:16). It is interesting that there too we find the eating of matza (v. 3), a fact that leads Rashi to understand that the entire event took place on Pesach!