What is a ‘Kur Habarzel’?

And so we sit by the Seder and tell the story of how Hashem took us out of Mitzrayim. That’s terrific, really nice. But what do you answer Moshele or Sarale if they ask, “But Tatty, Abba, Mommy, Ima —I don’t get it. Didn’t Hashem put us into Mitzrayim? Why are we thanking Him for taking us out?” That is a pretty good question, wouldn’t you say? Do we know what the answer is?

Hashem told Avraham Avinu (Avram at the time) that his descendants would be enslaved in a foreign land (Bereishis 15:13). Even assuming that this was a necessary punishment to Avraham Avinu to compensate for some lack of perfection that might ultimately be negatively reflected in his descendants (see Maharal’s Gevuros Hashem at great length), can we really feel a sense of gratitude at a freedom from a slavery imposed by the Emancipator Himself?

Hashem clearly wants us to recall our slavery in Egypt as well as our Exodus. The Mishnah (Pesachim 10:4) tells us, “We start the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim with our degradation,” and, according to one opinion, that is the meaning of the passage beginning “Avadim hayyinu” —that we were slaves in Egypt.

Curiously, the Torah also speaks of a most beneficial effect of the slavery; it was a “kur habarzel” —a smelting furnace used to purify iron. This phrase is used in Devarim 4:20, in Melachim I 8:51, and in Yirmiyahu 11:4. Why is this so? In what way did it purify Bnei Yisrael? We are told that Bnei Yisrael worshipped avodah zarah perhaps no less than the Egyptians by the end of their stay in Egypt, that they had sunk down to the 49th of the 50 levels of impurity. Is that the smelting furnace of which we speak?

The mefarshim speak of the slavery as an experience that forced Bnei Yisrael into a refinement from a certain baseness that all human beings possess —i.e., animalistic tendencies and ta’avos, physical needs and desires. This is expressed in Malbim’s explanation of the ‘kur habarzel’ concept, as well as in Kli Yakar on Shemos 13:16.

What is the magic? How did the slavery in Egypt refine us? Was the slavery really spiritually beneficial, the way these mefarshim make it sound?

One answer might be the idea that  the Chovos Halevavos states in Sha’ar Habechinah, that a beneficial effect of pain (and a beneficial effect of infants and babies and children undergoing pain as they grow up) is that pain curtails our ga’avah; we feel less arrogant, less entitled to what we see as our just due, making us appreciate the good in our lives. And it humbles us by clarifying that we are not the masters of our own fate. These are the spiritual benefits of pain, he says. Perhaps we can extrapolate and apply that concept on a national level, to the national psyche of the Jewish people. A Nation humbled can produce a Nation of people interested in Hashem’s will, not their own self-gratification. Thus, the kur habarzel.

But I would suggest a deeper reason, a more fundamental one, one that takes us to the core essence of a Jew’s relationship with Hashem. The Shelah Hakadosh (Masechess Pesachim, Matzah Ashirah 21) writes, “Hakadosh Bauch Hu’s will was for Bnei Yisrael, on a national level, to undergo and internalize the experience of submissiveness, of servitude, so that their essence as avdei Hashem be easier for them to absorb… That is why we find that Eretz Yisrael is still sometimes referred to as Eretz Canaan, as Canaan is from the root of keni’ah (submissiveness), since Canaan is the quintessential eved…”

(This actually allows us to better understand the concept that Chazal teach us, that the Yetzias Mitzrayim experience creates a situation where “You (Bnei Yisrael) are My servants, and are no longer servants to servants (i.e., to Pharaoh).” Yes, we have substituted one slavery for another, but they differ from each other as Heaven differs from Earth.)

The real meaning of the Shelah Hakadosh is reflected in understanding the very core of Klal Yisrael’s existence. The Tanya (see Chapters 2-3) writes that the seat of our animalistic tendencies is in the heart —the seat of our emotions, our ego, our sense of self. That am the center of my existence, at the root and core of everything that I do. But the Jewish people—every Jew—must, and can, find it within him or herself to rise above that. The seat of the nefesh Eloki, the spark of G-d found within us, is in our seichel, our understanding, which is our ability to perceive and relate to things outside of ourselves —beyond my sense of self— i.e., Hashem; that the root and core of our existence is, at its most basic level, geared towards ratzon Hashem—the will of Hashem. The Jew represents a creation whose raison d’être —very purpose of existence— is doing the will of Hashem.

But for that to happen, for that unnatural existence to exist —and it is unnatural for a living organism with an ego and sense of self to dedicate its very existence to a Higher Being, and totally self-negate itself— required a kur habarzel to purify and refine the very crux of one’s reality. And that is precisely what slavery does. For a slave indeed lives for its master. A slave’s essence is to do the will of whoever owns it. A slave lives with total self-negation.

And Hakadosh Bauch Hu said to Avraham Avinu: Your children, who will become a Nation dedicated to my existence, whose very existence will indeed be bound up with Mine, will first undergo centuries of slavery, so that embedded in the very nub of their selves will be a self-negation, enabling the ultimate self-negation, the Jewish Nation.

And so the Jewish Nation came into being at Yetzias Mitzrayim. After searing the ability to self-negate into the National consciousness, we were then taken out of Mitzrayim, freed from servitude to Pharaoh but retaining the ability to be avadim. Only now could we be avdei Hashem.

Rabbosai, Ladies: Do we think truly of ourselves as avdei Hashem? As people whose every move, action, and calculation has only the Master in mind? People whose only reason for existence is to do the will of Hashem?

If the answer is yes, or even if you are working towards that and would like to “get there,” then you are ready to celebrate and thank Hashem for our cheirus (freedom) from Mitzrayim while acknowledging that it was all part of His Master Plan—shiebud and cheirus. For that process seared the ability to be avadim into our souls, and then transferred that ability to His service. After all, we could have been like Canaan, who was cursed with eternal servitude and remains cursed to this day. We give thanks, celebrate Pesach, and joyously thank Hashem for giving us a Torah whereby we became “Avadai heim asher hotzeisi osam mei’Eretz Mitzrayim” —which we now understand can, must, and should be done with full understanding of the irony that it was He who brought us there in the first place.

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