“…In order that you remember the day you came out of Egypt all the days of your life” (Devarim 16: 3 )
When we think of leaving Egypt, our focus tends to be the great miracles which Hashem did to enable us to come out. Forty on land and two hundred on the sea; fifty on land and two hundred and fifty on the sea, according to the other version. One of the central parts of the Seder is our recounting of the ten plagues with which the Egyptians were punished. Children’s hagodos vie for the most vivid pictures of the Egyptians suffering from lice, frogs, boils and wild animals of every description. This reminder that Hashem is in complete control of ‘nature’ is indeed one of the most vital lessons of Pesach which we have to absorb and still apply today. But there are other vital aspects of Yetzias Mitzrayim which are sometimes sidelined or missed completely.
The first of the Aseres Hadibros tells us: Onochi Hashem Elokecho asher hotzeisicho m’eretz mitzrayim ufedisonu mibeis avodim. I am Hashem Elokecho who brought you out of Egypt and redeemed you from a house of bondage. We don’t only have to remember that Hashem brought us out of Egypt, a country where we were in exile, but from a house of bondage, a place where we were slaves. We were not merely forbidden to leave, not merely subservient, (dhimmies) but we were slaves. There were no trade unions, no rights, no arguing. We had to do constant backbreaking work, day in, day out. Let’s think of how excruciatingly difficult it must have been to carry huge stones on our backs in order to build Pisom and Raamses. We were even denied “job satisfaction” since, as is well known, what we built sank into the ground and we constantly had to begin again. The Medrash says that women were not spared, having to plough the Egyptians’ fields, mix cement and do other physical labour. After our day’s work we were then available for any Egyptian to demand that we worked for him or her. They could tell us to work without even telling us how long for, adding mental to physical anguish.
When do we need to think about all this? Seder night is, of course, a mitzva and a great opportunity. But the posuk says “Remember the day you came out of Egypt, all the days of your life. And the Hagodo expounds ‘kol yemei chayecho’ includes the nights. Every day and every night we have to remember not just our miraculous exodus from Egypt but what Hashem saved us from. We can consider this freedom from slavery every time we say the bracha – “…shelo asani goi” in the morning. In fact any time we have a few moments spare we can consider Hashem’s kindness in redeeming us from slavery in Egypt.
Thinking what Hashem saved us from will increase our gratitude to Him and increase our simcha. Especially during the week of Pesach these thoughts of gratitude and simcha should be constantly with us. Thank you, Hashem, for bringing us out of Egypt, the house of bondage.
However, this is not the end of the story. As we know, “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” The purpose of Yetzias Mitzrayim was not to free us from slavery to be an “am chofshi” but “to serve Hashem on that mountain,” to accept the Torah, to accept that Hashem should be our G-d. As we say in krias Shema “I am Hashem Elokeichem who brought you out of Egypt liheyos lochem l’Elokim…” Rashi comments, al menas kein pedisicho, it was for this reason that I redeemed you. We are no longer servants of Pharaoh but servants of Hashem.
What does being a servant of Hashem involve? The Ramban says on the posuk, “You shall fear and serve the L-rd your G-d’ (Devorim 6:13) that we have to serve Hashem just as a servant serves his master. In the same way as a loyal servant serves his master at all times, similarly we have to serve Him at all times. We do not have our “own time.” Every action we do should reflect our loyalty to Hashem. Even when we eat, drink or sleep, it is not just for our pleasure, but to give us strength to continue to serve Him later.
The Shloh says that we can learn about what serving Hashem entails from our experiences in Egypt. This could well be one the reasons why Hashem sent us into Egypt. We had to be slaves to Pharaoh before Hashem gave us the Torah, so that we would be willing to be His slaves with an understanding of what that entails. We cannot just leave our spiritual phones on automatic answering mode with a message, “Your call is very important to us but please ring back at 9 o’ clock on Monday morning.” “I am on holiday, relaxing, too busy” are similarly unacceptable. When our Master rings, there is only one answer,— Hineini —“Here I am.”
But now, having graphically explained what a commitment we have accepted upon ourselves by becoming servants of Hashem, we may ask why we should grateful to Hashem for taking us out of Egypt. And why we should be full of simcha? Have we not merely substituted one servitude for another?
The answer is that there are two essential differences between our servitude to Hashem and our subjugation to Pharaoh. Firstly, Pharaoh wanted the Jews to be slaves for his personal benefit. Hashem wants us to be ovdei Hashem for our good. The posuk says (Devarim 10:12) “What does Hashem Elokecho ask from you except to fear Him, to go in His ways, to love Him and to serve Him….for your good.”
The second great difference between our servitude to Pharaoh and to Hashem is the nature of the work. True, both require constant commitment but under Pharaoh it was backbreaking labour which embittered our lives, symbolised by eating moror on Seder night. Our service to Hashem is a zissa avoda—sweet work. The Ramban we quoted above which speaks about our constant commitment to Hashem says that this requires us to eat, drink and sleep etc. lesheim shomayim
Ramban does not say that we may not eat tasty foods or sleep in comfortable beds. In fact we are encouraged to eat foods that we enjoy in order to make it easier to thank Hashem with more enthusiasm. (Zohar, quoted by Pele Yo’eitz). A person may sleep as many hours as he needs, if his intention is to learn Torah better the following day.
We are instructed to eat and drink etc in order to enjoy Shabbos every week. The more we enjoy our Shabbos, the more we will be rewarded. (Shabbos 118a) Can there be a more pleasant avoda than this?
Let us imagine a servant who works for someone else, coming to us over a Shabbos. The conversation might go something like this: “ Hello, I heard that you are servants of Hashem. Tell me, what is your work today? We would reply, “ Our work today is not to work!” Our visitor can hardly believe his ears. “You have nothing to do all day?” he asks increduously. “Oh yes,” we reply, “we have to eat three sumptious meals.” His eyes pop out on seeing our beatiful Shabbos table with fish, meat, wine and other delicacies. He snaps his fingers as he announces that he has discovered our problem. “You’ll have to pay for it all yourselves. It must be very difficult to find all the money.” “Oh no,” we reply, “it’s on the house. The Boss covers all the costs.” (Beitza 16a) Our visitor practically faints with amazement. “I want to be a servant of Hashem,” he concludes.
“Remember the day you came out Egypt…” We must never forget that Hashem took us from bitter slavery into his very sweet service. We must be full of gratitude and simcha. “…all the days of our life.”