SALT - Motzaei Shabbat, January 30, 2021


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  • Rav David Silverberg
           We read in Parashat Yitro of God’s revelation to Benei Yisrael at Mount Sinai and the pronouncement of the Ten Commandments, which begin, “I am the Lord your God who took you from the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves” (20:2).
            Rashi, commenting on the term “beit avadim” (“house of slaves”), notes that theoretically, this expression could be understood in two different ways.  One is that Benei Yisrael were enslaved by masters who were themselves slaves, and they are thus said to have been trapped in “the house of slaves,” under the oppression of slaves.  This would mean that Benei Yisrael were subservient to Pharaoh’s subjects, who were themselves subservient to Pharaoh.  However, Rashi writes, the correct interpretation is that the term “beit avadim” refers to Benei Yisrael’s status of slavery in Egypt.  It means that they were held in a place of enslavement, where slave labor was imposed on them.  Rashi proves this interpretation of “beit avadim” from a verse in Sefer Devarim (7:8) in which Moshe tells Benei Yisrael, “He [God] redeemed you from the house of slaves, from the hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt.”  This verse shows that Benei Yisrael were released not from a state of subservience to other slaves, but rather from subservience to Pharaoh, and the term “beit avadim” refers to their having been enslaved to the Egyptian king.
            Rav David Tzvi of Neustadt, in his Chemdat David, raises the question of why this might be significant.  Why did Rashi find it necessary to clarify – and prove – that “beit avadim” means Benei Yisrael were slaves to Pharaoh, and not slaves to Pharaoh’s subjects?
            Rav David Tzvi suggests that this point is significant because our nation’s state of servitude in Egypt models for us our state of subservience to God after the Exodus.  Already in God’s initial prophecy to Moshe at the burning bush, when He first made it known that He would be bringing Benei Yisrael out of Egypt, He informed Moshe, “…when you take the nation from Egypt, you will serve God on this mountain” (Shemot 3:12).  God released Benei Yisrael from Egypt so they would serve Him instead of serving Pharaoh.  As such, the slavery endured in Egypt is representative of the state “slavery” in which we have been privileged to be ever since, as servants of God.  And for this reason, Rav David Tzvi of Neustadt explains, it must be emphasized that Benei Yisrael were slaves to Pharaoh himself, and that his taskmasters and overseers were assigned merely to enforce His commands.  Our ancestors in Egypt were directly under Pharaoh’s authority, even though in practice, this meant obeying his appointed officials.  Correspondingly, Rav David Tzvi explained, we must always see ourselves as servants of God Himself, even though we heed the guidance and directions of His “officials” – the scholars entrusted with the sacred responsibility of interpreting and applying His law.  Rav David Tzvi decries the phenomenon he observed of people investing too much authority in their religious leaders, and forgetting that the leaders’ role is to ensure our obedience to God.  Rashi emphasizes that Benei Yisrael were slaves only to Pharaoh to remind that our only subservience is to God Himself, and not to any other person or being.  Even when we find ourselves bound to another person’s authority, this must be solely for the ultimate purpose of serving and fulfilling our duties to our Creator.