“Praise Hashem, you servants of Hashem…” (Tehillim 113:1). “That is to say — servants of Hashem, and not servants of Par’oh” (Megillah 14A). This implication is actually codified in halacha; the Gemara describes the objective geulah status even of Purim as less than complete if we are still “avdei Achashveirosh”(which is why we do not say Hallel on Purim). But exactly what is this pithy phrase telling us? Is it indeed either/or? And if yes, why?
A person likes to think of himself as “free.” Modern man feels free: free to choose, free to arrange his life as he sees fit, free to express himself, free to decide upon any number of lifestyle choices. Free to “find himself” and decide how his potential might be best manifested. Free to “find fulfillment.”
But it is not so. It is a mirage, an illusion, a fantasy. When Klal Yisroel was being formed, it was crucial to create an entity which would have seared into its national consciousness that it is not free, and how it is not free.
Par’oh is not just the physical, historical, Par’oh. Par’oh is our chometz, our yetzer hora, our confining ourselves (the root of the word Mitzrayim is to be confined) to our physical wants and desires. Par’oh is our ego (“who is G-d that I should listen to His commands?”), our self-centeredness, our pride. Our sense of self, our demanding self-gratification and, that modern magic word excusing a multitude of sins — self-fulfillment. The Rambam writes to his son that Par’oh is not a figure from the past, whose history we read about on seder night; rather, he is constantly lurking within us as the yetzer hora, seeking to conquer us, and confine our true potential, which is connecting to and uniting with Hashem.
We asked where it was that Hashem “told” Bnei Yisroel on the night of yetzias Mitzrayim that “Bnei Yisroel are My servants, and not servants to servants (Par’oh).” How and where did the doorpost hear words apparently unspoken? In the very scenario played out that night! Take a lamb! Tie it to your beds! Dare the Egyptians to do something to you! Study carefully what I mean when I say to slaughter it! Form groups! Register! Be ready to leave Egypt at a moment’s notice, but sit down, eat a festive meal, and do not even peek outside!
What does all this mean? It comprises one momentous “statement”: “You are My servants!” This is precisely how Hashem “told” Bnei Yisroel that statement whose actual words indeed appear only in Vayikra: “…for Bnei Yisroel are MY slaves…”
Hashem was teaching THE lesson Bnei Yisroel had to learn in order to be Bnei Yisroel. It is a cruel fantasy to think one can have two masters, that one can live in two worlds. The Am Hashem has one master — and at yetzias Mitzrayim, when being freed from one, the people had to be told that, indeed, they were substituting one for another — but it is a replacement of vacuous emptiness and transient shallowness with permanence and true reality, authenticity, and actuality. Avdei Hashem.
Yes, going out of Mitzrayim is the quintessential kabbalas ol malchus Shamayim. We state that we went out of Mitzrayim whenever we say Krias Shema, because one reflects the other. We went out of Mitzrayim going from one type of servitude to another — as different and as antithetical as two things can be. There was not, there can never be, “downtime.” You are either avdei Par’oh or avdei Hashem.
This is so basic that although it is a mitzvah to mention yetzias Mitzrayim twice daily, it is not counted by the Rambam as an independent mitzvah. For it is part and parcel of Krias Shema, of kabbalas ol malchus Shamayim, just as Bnei Yisroel were taught that very night.
The Chovos Halevavos (Shaar Cheshbon Hanefesh, Cheshbon 11), writes: “Be introspective about what you are doing with your life… whether you are occupying yourself with the service of Hashem, or of your yetzer hora. If a king were to give you money, and instruct you to spend it a particular way, and let you know that he would count it with you at the end of a specific time period, and you would have to give a reckoning of every misuse of the funds — certainly you would, yourself, count the money many, many times before the end of the time period, and you would be oh, so careful about the money. Contemplate this analogy every day of your life… Your days are like scrolls, and you yourself are recording on them the things you will be remembered for.”
And in Cheshbon 25, he writes, “Just as fire and water cannot exist together in one receptacle, love of this world and love of the world-to-come cannot exist together in one’s heart… This world and the next world are like two wives of the same husband — please one, and you displease and infuriate the other.”
What does all this mean to us? Can I never relax? Can I never unwind, cool down, hang loose, take a break?
It does NOT mean that. But it does mean that a person must choose which master he (or she) is serving. No, you cannot come home at night, go to the computer, and give (just!) an hour for the yetzer hora. You are either avdei Hashem or avdei Par’oh. When we went out of Mitzrayim, we underwent that metamorphosis, and we must live up to it. Sure, relax, unwind, cool down, hang loose, take a break — but be able to make that cheshbon hanefesh at the end of the day, or week, or month, and honestly be able to say, “I am doing this as an eved Hashem. I need this and it will enable me to serve Hashem better.” But if you cannot say that…
Next week’s parshah, Parshas Mishpatim, speaks of an eved Ivri. Isn’t that a weird way to refer to a Jew post-yetzias Mitzrayim? Moshe Rabbeinu told Par’oh again and again, “Elokai ha’Ivrim appeared to me, Elokai ha’Ivrim said to me…” But only before the Exodus, not afterwards!
Indeed, before the Am Hashem was formed, the Jews were a nation as all nations, in all likelihood called Ivrim. But once they left Mitzrayim, and became Am Hashem, avdei Hashem, we were Bnei Yisroel. And thus this slave who wishes to remain a slave, who in essence is in violation (at least in spirit) of avdei Hashem, they are MY servants, is in effect a throwback to the days when we were indeed Ivrim, and thus will be known as an eved Ivri!
Realize that you cannot play both ends. Live your life, choose your choices — but do so only as ‘avdei Hashem.’