And so we sit by the Seder and tell the story of how Hashem took us out of Mitzrayim. That’s terrific, wonderful, really nice.
But what do you answer Moshele or Sarale or Tamar or Shalom if they ask,”But Tatty, Abba, Mommy, Ima—I don’t get it. Didn’t Hashem put us in? What are we thanking Him for?”
Pretty good question, wouldn’t you say? Problem is—do we know what the answer is?
Hashem tells Avraham (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 which might ultimately be negatively reflected in his descendants (see Gevuros Hashem at great length), can we really feel a sense of gratitude at a freedom from a slavery imposed by the Emancipator?
Hashem clearly wants us to recall the slavery as well as our Exodus. The Gemara tells us, “We start the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim with our degradation,” and, according to one opinion, that’s the avadim hayinu statement—that we were slaves in Egypt.
And, curiously, the Torah speaks also 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 that true? In what way did it purify Bnei Yisroel? We are told that Bnei Yisroel worshipped avodah zara perhaps no less than the Egyptians by the end of their stay in Egypt, that they had sunk down to 49 levels of impurity. Is that the smelting furnace we speak of?
The meforshim speak of the slavery forcing in Bnei Yisroel into a refinement from a certain baseness that all human beings possess, animalistic tendencies and ta’avos, physical needs and. This is expressed in Malbim’s explanation of the kur habarzel concept, as well as in Kli Yakar on Shemos 13:16.
What’s the magic? How did the slavery in Egypt refine us? Was the slavery really spiritually beneficial, the way these meforshim make it sound?
One answer might be the idea as 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) 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 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 Shlah Hakadosh writes, “Hakadosh Bauch Hu’s will was that that Bnei Yisroel, on a national level, undergo and internalize the experience of submissiveness, of servitude, so that their essence of avdei Hashem be easier for them to absorb… and that is why we find that Eretz Yisroel is still sometimes referred to as Eretz Canaan, as Canaan is from the root of keni’ah (submissiveness), as Canaan is the quintessential eved… “
(This actually allows us to better understand the halachic concept that chazal teach us, that the Yetzias Mitzrayim experience creates a situation where “You (Bnei Yisroel) are my servants, and no longer are servants to servants (e. g, to Pharoh).” Yes, we have substituted one slavery for another, but they are as different and as far from each other as North is from South, as Heaven is from Earth.)
The real meaning of the Shlah Hakadosh is reflected in understanding the very core of Klal Yisroel’s existence. Tanya writes that the seat of our animalistic tendencies is in the heart—the seat of our emotions, our ego, our sense of self. That I 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—a kur habarzel had to be undergone 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 says 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 into the National consciousness the ability to self-negate, we were then taken out of Mitzrayim, freed from the servitude to Pharoh but retaining the ability to be avadim. Only now we would be avdei hashem.
Rabbosai, Ladies: Do we think of ourselves as truly avdei Hashem? Whose every move, action, and calculation has only the Master in mind? 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 from Mitzrayim while acknowledging that it was all part of His Master Plan—shibud and cheirus. For that process seared into our souls the ability to be avadim, 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.