SALT - Monday, 16 Nissan 5781 - March 29, 2021

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  • Rav David Silverberg
 
            The second chapter of hallel (Tehillim 114) begins, “When Israel left Egypt, the house of Yaakov from a foreign land, Yehuda became His sacred one; Yisrael, His dominion.”
 
            The Radak explains this verse as underscoring the transformation wrought by the event of the Exodus.  Benei Yisrael had spent hundreds of years in Egypt, which at that time was overrun by paganism and immorality, and yet, “hayeta Yehuda le-kodsho” – they emerged as a “sacred” nation.  Despite having been submerged for so long in a corrupt, decadent society, they left as a people proudly and fervently committed to God.  Moreover, “Yisrael mamshelotav” – they went from being subjugated to Pharaoh, to being subjugated to only the Almighty.  After having lived under the dominion of Egypt and its tyrannical monarchy, they now lived under God’s dominion, bound exclusively to His rule and subjected exclusively to His authority.
 
            Rav Moshe Chaim Litch-Rosenbaum of Kisvarda, in his Lechem Rav commentary to the siddur, adds that this verse speaks in praise of Benei Yisrael.  The fact that this transformation was made demonstrates that the only hindrance had been their state of enslavement in Egypt.  Once they were freed from bondage, they committed themselves to the ideals of kedusha and to the service of the Almighty – showing that this had been their desire and wish all along.  And thus the verse here lauds Benei Yisrael for the fact that as soon as they left Egypt, “hayeta Yehuda le-kodsho, Yisrael mamshelotav” – they became a sacred, religiously-devoted people, because this had always been their aspiration, which had gone unfulfilled only because of their condition of exile and oppression.
 
            This interpretation brings to mind the Midrash’s comment (Yalkut Shimoni, Beshalach, 234) that when Benei Yisrael found themselves trapped against the sea, the prosecuting angel came before God to argue against their miraculous salvation.  The angel noted that Benei Yisrael had worshipped idols in Egypt just like the native Egyptians, and so they did not deserve to be miraculously saved.  In the Midrash’s words, “Master of the world!  Did Israel not worship a foreign deity in Egypt?  And You are going to perform miracles for them?!”  The Midrash proceeds to relate that God responded to the angel, “Fool!  Did they worship it willfully?  Did they not worship it due to subjugation and insanity?!  You are comparing the unintentional to the intentional, and [an act committed] under duress to a willful [act]?!”  God Himself testified that Benei Yisrael’s genuine desire even in Egypt was to faithfully serve Him, but the grueling conditions they suffered led them to worship idols.  Indeed, once Benei Yisrael were released and left Egypt, they devoted themselves to His service.
 
            The Gemara in Masekhet Berakhot (17a) presents various supplications which different sages would recite after their standard prayer, one of which, recited by Rabbi Alexandri, was, “Master of the worlds!  It is revealed and known to You that our will is to fulfill Your will.  But what stops us?  The ‘yeast in the dough’ and the subjugation of the [foreign] kingdoms.  May it be Your will that You save us from their hands, that we may return to wholeheartedly perform the statutes that You willed.”  What prevents us from acting as we should, from living lives of sanctity and genuine devotion to God, is “the yeast in the dough” – a euphemistic reference to our sinful impulses – and foreign influences.  On Pesach, when we celebrate our freedom from foreign rule, we refrain from the “yeast of the dough,” from leaven, the symbol of our evil inclinations.  We are to demonstrate – and, perhaps, ensure – that our innermost wish is to faithfully serve God.  We express our wish to be freed from these two forces – external pressures, and our natural weaknesses – so that we can “wholeheartedly perform the statutes that You willed,” which is to be our primary objective and aspiration in life.