Lecture #15c: Letter 89 - Part I - Slavery (part c)

  • Rav Tamir Granot


By Rav Tamir Granot


Shiur #15c: Letter 89 – Part I – Slavery (part c)



3. From Slavery to Freedom


The mishna (Pesachim 10:4) states that the narrative of the Haggada “begins with disgrace and concludes with praise.” In the gemara (197a), Shmuel explains that the “disgrace” referred to here is the passage, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt…” Most of the commentaries understand the rationale of commencing with this disgrace as aimed at intensifying the “praise” at the end; the great change and the miracle that God wrought is highlighted with great clarity against the backdrop of the original gloom and degradation. In contrast, Rav Kook, in his wonderful article on the Haggada (Olat Ra’aya 2), understands the disgrace – i.e., the slavery – not only as a negative background and contrast, but also as positive in its own right. In order to emerge into freedom, Am Yisrael must experience slavery and elevate the sparks within it – meaning, they must internalize the positive values that it offers. In this way, even after the Exodus, the “quality of slavery” will be able to serve as a sharp spice to temper the huge power of freedom and the dangers which it entails. This was God’s wisdom in decreeing for Avraham’s children, “They shall enslave them and oppress them” (Bereishit 15:13); only through slavery can one achieve true freedom:


It must be recognized how the slavery of Egypt and the Exodus from Egypt are the subjects of two modes of life: life of preparation (i.e., the slavery) and life of purpose (i.e., the freedom of the Exodus). However, one must recognize that all the disadvantages of the life of preparation lead us to acquire such assets as will bring about our perfection when the time comes for the life of purpose. And were it not for the powers which appear to us to be lowly and disconnected from a consciousness of goodness and happiness, which we acquired during the time of preparation, specifically through what we perceived then as small things, it would not be possible for us to arrive at a truly elevated level when the time of purpose came. At that point, life should be full of every type of goodness, every piece of knowledge and every manifestation worthy of filling life with light as it merges with the great whole, which grows ever more illuminated and gathers everything into its lofty and elevated purpose.


It is for this reason that [the mishna] says we “begin with disgrace and conclude with praise” – to indicate that the disgrace itself requires praise. We start with the disgrace of “We were slaves…” While slavery did certainly cause some bad, some corrupt qualities, and – needless to say – trouble and suffering for those undergoing it at the time, it also engendered the quality of submission and subservience to He Who is worthy of subservience, to be true servants of God, to be able to nullify one’s own will and one’s own inclinations in order to accept the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, for which Am Yisrael are noted. Through this, they brought about – and are destined to bring about – great goodness for themselves and for the world. This license, too, was acquired through the experience of slavery and the habit of subjugation. Once its impurities are purified and the quality of degradation that lowers man’s worth is removed through the spiritual elevation of God’s great Name and the glorious majesty of life full of all types of goodness with which God will bless His people at the end of days, how fitting and complementary to the general quality of the nation will be that impression of slavery, the purified essence which will remain after the refinement. Only this can then perfect the absolute freedom, such that a person will be so free that he may, in his absolute freedom, also subjugate himself at the proper place, and to be a slave in a place where slavery is true freedom: “Do not fear, My servant, Yaakov.’”


The acceptance of the yoke of subservience to another human being is a habit that instills the spiritual quality that facilitates the acceptance of the yoke of Heaven. The difference between subservience to God (“They are My slaves”) and subservience to another person (“to be sold as a slave”) lies not only in the importance or the beneficence of the respective master. True acceptance of the yoke of heaven – even on its lower level, as the acceptance of a yoke – is a spiritual act that releases a person from materialism, from following the dictates of his whims, and from dependence on social or psychological laws.


However, there is more to this. In order to achieve the sort of freedom that reveals our essence, we need the negation of aspects of the ego and our lower, individual wants. Revealing essence is connected to humility, openness, and listening. A person’s essence is also illuminated and nourished by its connection to and drawing on the society, the nation, and reality in its wholeness. This point of nullification also often runs through a movement of self-nullification – whether vis-א-vis the nation, by accepting its yoke, or in relation to individual authorities – a rav or tzaddik. This is not slavery in the lowly sense – degradation of the self. Here we are speaking of a spiritual movement that has its source in a great personality, a broad and open spirit seeking to emerge from its self-centered limitations. For this reason, we need the quality of subservience, acceptance of a yoke, readiness to listen with humility rather than argumentativeness and highlighting of the “I,” and devotion to the general cause, even against the private wishes of the “I.”


It is undeniably true that all of these spiritual movements are meant to facilitate the development and full revelation of essence, but they pass through the “corridor of subservience,” which we encountered already long ago in Egypt. The main principle that runs through Rav Kook’s entire teaching - that there is no quality or trait that does not have its time and place – applies here too. Of course, slavery is not an end in itself. Taken alone, it is a negative quality, representing a lowly state of the soul. However, it is an essential stage; the emergence from slavery to freedom requires that there first be a state of slavery.


To return to our discussion from the previous lecture concerning children: Education may be compared to the descent to Egypt, with parents playing the role of “Divine Providence” for their children. The subjugation dare not be too long. It must be directed towards its aim – freedom! However, the positive quality – the positive spark of acceptance of authority, submission – is an important spice mediating the freedom of the adolescent, lest it become a nihilistic or egoistic journey.


Slavery and Freedom in History


We can now return to the letter, which – in my opinion – should be understood within the same categories. Slavery as an ideal is certainly negative, but it does have a function in the social and historical sense, in the moral, cultural and psychological molding of those who have not yet achieved cultural maturity.


In this respect, there is a great difference between Israel and the other nations, and also among the other nations themselves. The transition through the corridor of slavery was decreed not only upon the Canaanites; Bnei Yisrael passed through it as well. However, the proper time for its end was set down according to God’s perfect wisdom. We emerged from Egypt at the time when we were ready – at least somewhat ready – to accept our liberty. And thus there appeared in the world the idea of true freedom – freedom that facilitates the revelation of essence.


However, for a lowly and materialistic culture with a deficient morality, full of vulgar lust, freedom would simply nurture rotten fruit – and, paradoxically, would prevent any progress. Such was the culture of the Canaanites, which the Torah describes with unparalleled disgust. Precisely in the middle of the Torah (Vayikra 18), the upholding of God’s covenant with us and our inheritance of the land is made conditional upon distancing ourselves from Canaanite culture, to which the Torah attributes the worst abominations. Avraham made the potential match for his son conditioned upon the prospective bride being from his own (Semite) family, and not from Canaan (the cursed Hamite nation). Esav seems to have been rejected mainly because he married unworthy Canaanite wives, thereby connecting himself to a culture that the Torah specifically and vigorously commands that we distance ourselves from completely. This matter can be verified on the basis of historical information, but this is of little importance: the license in the Torah to implement slavery in relation to the Canaanites unquestionably arises from their spiritual and moral baseness. For them, as Chazal explain (“One who is cursed does not join with one who is blessed”) and Rav Kook expounds, slavery is a blessing, because it prepares them for their freedom. This is not a racist statement, which would be absolute and unchanging; rather, it is an anthropological and historical statement.


The encounter between Avraham and his servant and between Am Yisrael in general and their servants is an encounter between the first culture to burst forth into the world of freedom and one which is immersed in the depths of the degradation of slavery. (Here, “slavery” is meant in the sense of subjugation to human nature and lusts and the inability to rise to moral and religious freedom.)


The Existential Significance of Redemption from Slavery


The most basic meaning of the Exodus from Egypt is the acquisition of freedom – in both the political sense and in the spiritual, cultural sense. As many of the Chassidic masters taught, the Exodus from Egypt (Mitzrayim) is the exodus from a strait (metzar) – that is, emergence from limitation. As the paired form of the word “metzar,” a literal understanding of the name Mitzrayim would be, “Place of limitation.”


In his article entitled “Redemption, Prayer and Torah Study” (at the end of his book Divrei Hagut ve-Ha’arakha), R. Soloveitchik teaches that slavery pushes a person to such depths of existential descent that he does not even recognize the perversion of his situation; he feels that his life is the way it should be. In this situation, R. Soloveitchik teaches, he does not even suffer the slavery; suffering is an existential state in which a person is aware of the absurdity of his situation. The Hebrew slave, setting off to gather straw with which to fashion bricks and unaware that this situation is not normal, does not suffer. He is simply in pain – a state that animals can also experience. For this reason, nothing is said of Bnei Yisrael’s outcry in chapter 1 of Sefer Shemot, in which we find the extensive and painful description of the slavery in Egypt. It is only with the appearance of Moshe Rabbeinu, suddenly illuminating the absurdity and distortion of the Israelite situation, that we read, “Their cry rose up to God from the labor” (Shemot 2:23). It is only the consciousness of Moshe (who is termed “Voice” in the Zohar) which turns the scream of pain into a cry of suffering that rises heavenward.


The repeated complaint of Bnei Yisrael in the wilderness – that they prefer the luxury of slavery in Egypt to the hardships of freedom in the desert – is an expression of how deep the depression of their consciousness was during their slavery in Egypt.


It is also for this reason that the redemption from Egypt is an act of God, who is the source of their freedom – indeed, the source of all freedom and the only reality which is truly free. Every other mode of existence is dependent on its source, its circumstances, natural factors, culture, etc. Only God is above all conditions and all limitations; He is complete freedom, and hence achieving true closeness to Him means acquiring free, non-dependent existence. This is the secret of the profound connection between the Festival of Freedom (Pesach) and the Festival of Weeks (Shavuot). Freedom is a pre-condition for the accepting Torah and the Kingdom of Heaven, on one hand; on the other hand, acknowledging God’s Kingship and cleaving to Him complement and promote freedom itself.


It is true that Bnei Yisrael were not always able to live as a free people. The Torah warns repeatedly that preservation of our freedom is dependent on remaining separate from the other nations – a condition which, in historical terms, was not always maintained. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the secret of our survival through history lies in our ability to live our unique, essential national life without disappearing into the other nations either politically or, more importantly, spiritually and morally.


Rav Kook expresses the development of this idea as follows:


Choice and Freedom in Israel: The power of free-will in its fullest sense is given to Israel. From the beginning of creation, from the lowest rungs of existence to the highest, each creation is increasingly distinguished by its essential freedom, its freedom of will. It is one of the wonders of the One of Perfect Thought that every creation is redeemed from the bounds of slavery – that is, from the chains of force and lack of free will. Among humans, this quality of freedom expands in accordance with the value of the inner balance. There is as yet no true freedom in the world; the world is not yet redeemed from the chains of its slavery. But there are stages upon stages through which individuals may acquire freedom through their inclination towards good, their deeds and aspiration, and their divine choice and freedom…

The nations in the general sense are bound more by the binds of force than individuals; the combination of the element of slavery within each individual when taken as a whole becomes like an iron yoke.

Israel was raised to freedom through the Exodus. This was divine freedom, liberation of the will, freedom of the personality. This is precisely the divine element that should enlighten the entire world with the light of divine freedom. That light must be acquired step by step, until the divine element derives from every aspiration to freedom, which is expressed in the divine service of Hashem, the God of Israel. “They are my slaves, whom I took out of Egypt. They shall not be sold the sale of a slave…” (Orot Ha-kodesh 3, p. 35) [1]


The purpose of culture is to free oneself completely from the state of enslavement. However, culture must travel a long road before it achieves this end. As in other areas, trying to force the attainment of the ultimate aim before it is actually reached can cause great harm to culture and to the aspiration for freedom itself.


4. The Ideal of Freedom at the End of Days


The previous paragraph leads us to the last of the questions which we posed at the outset: How are we to know the proper “measure”? How can we know how to calibrate our attitude towards historical and normative reality (or natural slavery and legal slavery), which we view as a means, as an educational process, rather than as a moral ideal? And how can we know when the proper time has come? Owing to the length of the discussion on this question, which pertains to slavery but also to our attitude towards other issues raised in this letter, we shall devote another lecture to it after we study the second part of the letter.


In conclusion I wish to quote Rav Kook’s beautiful commentary in his siddur, Olat Ra’aya, on the blessings “Who has not made me a gentile” and “Who has not made me a servant,” providing further illumination of our theoretical discussion and a summary of it:


“Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the universe, Who did not make me a servant.” Just as there is great praise for Your not having placed me outside of the holy circle of the light of Israel and the glory of the splendor of its sanctity within the depths of my soul,[2] so there is great praise for Your having granted me a soul of essence, a soul of purpose, with its own free will, with its own aim in life and in reality – the soul of freedom and liberty which moves within me in its holiness. And that I was not lowered to be a creation with the quality of slavery, lacking independent life and an original will, having been created only to serve as a vessel, through which the holy, elevated, essential will within the soul that is free and pure can be achieved. Therefore, I offer great praise to God for this kindness to me: for not having made me a slave![3]


Translated by Kaeren Fish

[1] This is similarly articulated in the following passage: “We follow this inner light of freedom: ‘Engraved (charut) upon the tablets – do not read engraved (charut), but rather freedom (cherut).’ We continue to travel and emphasize more and more our freedom and inner peace that we acquired through the revelation of the divine presence, that same freedom that we acquired through the great and unique wonder at which we became a nation – when Hashem redeemed us and redeemed our forefathers from Egypt to eternal freedom” (Olot Ra’aya 2, p. 245).

[2]  The reference here is to the previous blessing – “Who did not make me a gentile.”

[3]  A similar explanation is offered by Rav Kook in Olat Ra’aya, commenting on the significance of mentioning the Exodus as a basis for the yoke of the commandments.