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Servitude and Freedom

Dec 30, 2010


In this week's Parsha we read of the plague of hailstones: "The flax and the barley were struck for the barley was ripe and the flax was in its stalk" (Shmot 9:31).  The flax and barley were damaged by the hailstones because they had ripened early and were thus already hard.  "The wheat and the spelt, however, were not struck 'ki afilot hena' for they ripen later ('afilot' - meaning later)" (ibid. 32).  Because the wheat and spelt had yet to ripen they were still soft when the hail fell, and were able to bend without breaking.  This is the simple meaning of the pasuk and this in fact is how Rashi explains it.  He adds, however: "there are those of our Sages who differ with this explanation, and interpreted 'afilot' to be from the word 'pilei plaot' - wonder of wonders.  'Wonder of wonders' was performed for them that they were not hit".

This latter interpretation is very difficult on three accounts: 1) Rashi's first explanation seems quite plausible - harder objects do break more easily than softer ones, as the Talmud teaches "a person should always be soft like a reed and not hard like a cedar (so as not to break)" (Taanit 20b), why do the Sages quoted need to explain the pasuk in a way other than its simple interpretation, 2) Throughout the Torah and Shas we find that the word "afilot" implies "later" (see Moed Katan 6b), why did they need to provide an additional definition, and 3) Once they are already explaining that "afilot" is from the word "plaot", wonders - why do they then add "pilei plaot" - wonder of wonders?

Allow me to offer the following explanation:  The Sages quoted by Rashi agree with his initial interpretation the flax and barley were struck because they had ripened early, while the wheat and spelt did not break because they were softer.  The laws of nature, however, are not sufficient to explain the events that transpired, for everything that occurred in Egypt defied the laws of nature.  Nature to us means that water is water and blood is blood.  In Egypt a Jew and non-Jew could drink from the same cup yet the Jew would drink water while the Egyptian got blood, this is contrary to our understanding of nature.  The plague of hailstones in itself was a miracle "and fire flaming amid the hail" (Shmot 9:24) - the water did not extinguish the fire.  The laws of nature did not work in Egypt, thus the fact that the wheat and spelt was not destroyed, because they had not yet ripened, while on the surface appearing to go by the order of nature was in actuality "pilei plaot" - a miracle within a miracle.  Within this great wonder of hail, there existed another miracle that the wheat and spelt, as per the laws of nature, were not destroyed, I would have thought that such a fierce storm would destroy them as well.  All the plagues in Egypt were what we refer to as "unnatural", therefore anything that remained loyal to the laws of nature was "a miracle within a miracle".


In his commentary at the conclusion of the ten plagues in Parshat Bo, the Ramban writes: "From the great and well-known miracles that occurred in Egypt, man acknowledges the hidden miracles.  Recognizing these less visible miracles is the foundation of our entire Torah.  Man can have no share in the Torah of Moshe Rabenu without believing that all that happens in our lives is miraculous there are no laws of nature or 'ways of the world' therein!".  The miracles that occurred in Egypt serve to teach us that everything in this world comes from Hashem, there are no laws of nature!  Anything that happens in this world only comes about because that is Hashem's will, if He desires then it will occur, if not it cannot happen.  One who lacks this basic belief does not believe in the Torah of Moshe Rabenu.

Does this mean that there are no laws of nature?  How then can I predict that if I place water on the stove it will boil, while if I leave it in the refrigerator it will cool down?  Do I not rely heavily on machines and tools to work as they should?  If there are no laws of nature who can guarantee that tomorrow the sun will rise in the East (and at the time recorded in Rav Tukochinsky's calendar), perhaps tomorrow it will rise in the West?  When the Ramban wrote, as we mentioned, "there are no laws of nature or 'ways of the world', he was obviously also aware of the existence of laws of nature.  These laws however, are not enough to explain WHY things happen.  The fact that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West and that the earth travels from West to East is only because that is the will of the A-lmighty.  If He wishes the opposite could take place.  During the seven days of the flood, the laws of nature were not in force.


When I wish to wait for the number one bus I look for a bus stop that displays that bus line number one stops there.  Does the bus stop there simply because the sign advertises that it does?  No!  It stops there because the Egged bus company decided that the route of bus number one will include a stop in that particular place.  The writing on the bus stop is simply an indicator that I should wait there if I wish to ride that bus line.  The same may be said for the laws of nature.  Nature does not explain WHY things happen.  I know that water will boil when placed on top of a fire, but the REASON this happens is because it is Hashem's will that water boils on the stove and not inside the refrigerator.  Nature is only an indicator and should Hashem desire, He can change this with or without informing us of the change.

Why does Hashem run His world in such a manner that His Providence is concealed from His creations?  Why does He not run the world in a way that makes His Providence clear to all?  Why should the refrigerator not at times boil the water and the fire sometimes freeze it?  Would it not then be clear to all that the fire and the refrigerator have no inherent abilities and that only Hashem boils and freezes the water?

I am sure Hashem has many reasons, I would like to discuss two possibilities that I can think of.


The straightforward answer is that ruling the world through a system of laws of nature is necessary in order to provide man with Free Choice.  If it would be obvious that Shabbat observers were healthy, strong, wealthy, and lived long lives, while desecration of the Shabbat meant instant death, who would dare violate the Shabbat?  Shabbat observance in this case, however, would not be out of fulfillment of the will of Hashem, but because desecration of Shabbat would be tantamount to eating poison.  Does one who refuses to eat poison deserve a reward?  Reward and punishment only make sense where Hashem's presence is hidden behind a facade of nature and is not clearly visible to man.

Nature, in other words, can serve as a test of faith.  The Torah tells us prior to its description of the splitting of the sea that there was an easterly wind.  Perhaps this wind was there for there to be a natural explanation - perhaps Moshe ran to take the people across the sea because he heard on the radio that there was going to be an easterly wind, while Pharaoh missed that broadcast.  Nature is a nisayon - whoever wishes to attribute matters to laws of nature and not acknowledge the Hand of Hashem has on what to base his opinion.

Perhaps we can offer an additional reason for the existence of laws of nature - they assist man to function in this world.  Imagine for a moment what would be if there were no orderly system of laws.  What would I do if I needed a cup of hot water?  Obviously I need to boil it.  How do I boil it, by placing it on the fire or in the refrigerator?  Who knows, perhaps today we boil water on the table.  Who says I should drink water at all, maybe today I should drink kerosene.  What would I do if there were no laws of nature?

Perhaps I should go and ask the prophet, he certainly knows.  How do I find the prophet?  Presumably he lives in Bnei Brak, but how do I get to Bnei Brak?  Let me see, I happened to have gone there yesterday on the 400 bus.  What is to guarantee that I take the 400 bus today, perhaps the number 9 bus?  Who says today's mode of transportation is a bus, perhaps it is a broomstick?  Without laws of nature life can be very difficult.  Hashem introduced a semblance of order in this world in order to make life easier for us.  Therefore if I took the 400 bus yesterday then I can presumably assume that if I board it today I will also arrive in Bnei Brak.  If yesterday it was healthy to drink water then I had better drink water today rather than kerosene.  It is much easier to function in a world with some semblance of order. 

We must at the same time remember that nature has no intrinsic power of its own and even after it has been set into motion it is only the will of Hashem which determines how the world will be run.   Just as when we witness a miracle the hand of Hashem is obvious, so too should it be clear to us even when everything neatly follows the laws of nature.  It was Hashem's will that His Guiding Hand be hidden by universal laws of nature.

When we keep the Torah then it is Hashem's wish that things be good for us, when we don't, chas veshalom, then the opposite may be the case.  This is what the Ramban means regarding our understanding of the plagues in Egypt - everything follows the will of Hashem and not laws of nature.


In the Haggadah the wise son asks: "What are the testimonies and the decrees and the ordinances that Hashem, our G-d, commanded you?" (Devarim 6:20).  The Haggadah dictates our response: "therefore explain to him the laws of the Pesach offering: 'that one may not eat dessert after the final taste of the Pesach offering' (Pesachim perek 10, Mishna 8)".  In what way does this Mishna answer the wise son's question?  On a simple level, the statement can be understood as meaning that a child who desires to know about all these laws must be taught every halacha of Pesach until the last Mishna of Massechet Pesachim: "one may not eat dessert after the final taste of the Pesach offering".  The difficulty with this explanation is that the Haggadah answer should have said: "explain to him the laws of the Pesach offering until (ad) 'ein maftirin achar haPesach afikoman'".  I would like to therefore offer an additional understanding.

What indeed is the wise son asking?  He wishes to know why Pesach contains so many detailed Mitzvot.  Not only do we not eat chametz, but we begin a thorough cleaning of the house approximately a month before Pesach - we clean, we scrub, we kasher the dishes, and we sell our chametz, and check the entire house for any vestiges of chametz.  Whatever we do find is burned.  Chametz on Pesach not only may not be eaten but we may not derive any benefit from it.  What about the laws relating to the Korban Pesach?  There are far more details here than regarding other offerings.  The sacrifice must be brought, slaughtered, and roasted (it cannot be raw or cooked), and we are forbidden to break any bones.  No other Korbanot have so many Mitzvot.  For seven days we eat only Matzah and are exceedingly careful to insure that not even the slightest drop of chametz be found.  We do not go to work for these seven days in order to properly celebrate the festival of Matzot, and during the days of the Beit HaMikdash we would partake of the appropriate sacrifices as well. 

Pesach is not the only commemoration of the Exodus.  Shabbat and Yom Tov too are each referred to as "zecher liyetziat Mitzrayim" "a memorial of the exodus from Egypt".  Regarding many other Mitzvot such as Tefillin and Tzitizit, the Torah states: "I am Hashem, your G-d, Who has removed you from the land of Egypt" (Bamidbar 15:41).  What do we need all this for?  Is spending a full night each year recalling every detail of the exodus not sufficient?  For those of us who need something tangible to aid our memory, we have the requirements to eat Matzah and Marror (in the words of the Chinuch "the heart follows the actions")!  This is the question of the wise son:  Do we really need constant reminders that Hashem took us out of Egypt?  Our answer is "one may not eat dessert after the final taste of the Pesach offering" - the Korban Pesach must be the last thing we eat on the night of Pesach.

What is the reason that we may not partake of any dessert following the Korban Pesach?  What would be so wrong if following the Korban Pesach I were to eat a bowl of ice cream, is this not a fulfillment of "Simchat Yom Tov"?  A possible answer is that the Torah demands that we eat the Korban Pesach when satiated in order that "one not leave the table of His Master hungry" (see Tosafot Pesachim 120a: "maftirin").  The difficulty with this explanation is that the requirement to eat from a sacrifice while satiated is not limited to Korban Pesach (see Tmurah 23a).  Why then does it not state anywhere that one may not eat after having partaken of the Korban Todah?  Furthermore, on the night of Pesach we eat from two offerings the Pesach and the Chagigah.  If the prohibition against eating the Korban Pesach was simply a means of insuring that we fulfill the requirement of eating Korbanot when satiated, why must we specifically eat the Korban Pesach last?  Why can we not first eat the

Korban Pesach and then the Chagiga?  The halacha clearly states that one eats the Chagiga prior to the Pesach (see Pesachim 70a).

The Yerushalmi (Pesachim perek 6, halacha 4) explains that the requirement for the Korban Pesach to be the last item of food consumed is to insure that we do not violate the prohibition: "and you shall not break a bone in it" (Shmot 12:46).  One who is hungry may be tempted to break the bone in order to suck out the marrow inside it.  Given that there is no prohibition against breaking the bones of a Chagiga, Chazal ruled that it must be eaten before the Korban Pesach as a means of insuring that one who eats the Korban Pesach is not even slightly hungry.


This explanation, however, is only relevant during the times of the Beit HaMikdash when the Pesach offering was brought.  Today we eat a symbolic piece of Matzah that we refer to as the Afikoman - what is wrong with breaking a piece of matzah?  In fact we break a piece off for afikoman.  Why are we not permitted to eat after that?  The Gemara (see Pesachim 119b) tells us that we wish for the taste of the Matzah to remain with us.  HaRav Schlesinger zt"l, founder of Kol Torah, explains this as fulfillment of the pasuk "you shall eat matzot so that you will remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt all the days of your life" (Devarim 15:3).  The Torah is telling us that through eating Matzah the night of Pesach, we will remember the exodus our entire lives that is the taste that must remain in our mouths forever.  Because as flesh and blood we are unable to go without eating until the next Pesach, at the very least on that same night when we have placed so much effort in telling the story of the exodus, we may not eat anything following the Afikoman.  That taste should at least remain with us the entire night.  Eating any food following the Afikoman serves to neutralize the taste of the Matzah, in fact, dessert is referred to as "kinuach haseuda"  "kinuach" implying to clean.  The ice cream we would otherwise conclude our meal with, would cleanse our mouth from the taste of any other food eaten during the meal and leave a different taste.

Just as the last taste we eat causes us to forget the first one, so the latest news item we hear causes us to forget the earlier one.  A person can spend the entire night praising the wonders of Hashem and declaring that it was The A-lmighty Who took us out of Egypt and it is only He Who guides the world, and suddenly wake up on Chol Hamoed to hear that Obama said this, Abu Mazen said that, and Netanyahu said something else. To learn that the Arabs have acted in a particular fashion while America too has to have an opinion.  We may reach the conclusion that there are many powers at work in this world.  We must remember and remind ourselves that there are no other forces that rule the world, only Hashem decides what the government will do, and He is not afraid of Abu Mazen or anyone else.  Listening to the news and witnessing events can cause us to forget this.  The Torah therefore gave us so many Mitzvot to insure that we do not forget.  We remind ourselves of this morning and night, we tie it to our arms, we wear it on our heads, and we have the Mitzvot of Shabbat, Yom Tov, and Tzitzit all because the world does its utmost to cause us to forget that Hashem is running the world.

"And it shall be for you a sign on your arm and a reminder between your eyes so that Hashem's Torah may be in your mouth for with a strong hand Hashem removed you from Egypt" (Shmot 13:9).  A person may wonder "why should I learn Torah, would it not be better to learn things that will be more beneficial for the world such as chemistry, physics, and other pursuits?  The answer is "with a strong hand Hashem removed you from Egypt" in Egypt we saw that chemistry is not chemistry and the laws of physics do not always apply, water can become blood and blood can become water.  We can thus understand that it is worthwhile to involve ourselves in Hashem's Torah it has far more value than the study of other pursuits.  There may be value in studying chemistry and physics, but we must remember that science is run in accordance with Hashem's Torah.  Chemistry and physics will be beneficial to us only if we observe the Torah.  The Tefillin serve to remind us that the best thing to study is the Torah.

The Torah commands us regarding the Tefillin: "And it shall be for you a sign on your arm and a reminder between your eyes - so that Hashem's Torah may be in your mouth for with a strong hand Hashem removed you from Egypt" (Shmot 13:9).  The Tefillin of the arm and of the head serve to remind us of the exodus from Egypt.  Why the need for two such signs, would one have not sufficed? Many commentaries have explained that we must enslave ourselves to serving Hashem with our minds as well as with our hearts.  The Tefillin placed on the head serve to enslave our minds to serving Hashem, while the Tefillin we don on the arm next to the heart serve to enslave our hearts to service of Hashem.

Perhaps we can offer an additional reason for the Torah's commandment to place the Tefillin both on our heads and next to our hearts: To allude to the fact that the exodus from Egypt, for which the Tefillin serves as a reminder, is a foundation of our faith from two perspectives - the intellectual and the emotional.  From an intellectual perspective, we saw in Egypt that Hashem is the Omnipresent - He turned water into blood, and blood back into water, light into darkness and darkness into light, as well as the myriad other great miracles we witnessed in Egypt.  Our intellect demands the realization that Hashem is ruler of this world and that nature plays no role. The Tefillin Shel Rosh serve as an intellectual reminder of the exodus from Egypt being a foundation of our faith.

The Tefillin Shel Yad are worn next to our hearts as a sign of this exodus being a foundation of our faith emotionally.  If Hashem freed us from the terrible bondage in Egypt, do we not owe Him Hakarat HaTov - a debt of gratitude?  Does recognizing the good He has done for us not obligate us to serve Him? It is not only being taken out of Egypt that necessitates this gratitude, but everything He has created and done for us.  Each cup of water we drink requires us to bless Him "shehakol nihye bidvaro" "through Whose word everything came to be", as does everything else we have benefited from.

Although we must have gratitude for everything He has done for us, the exodus from Egypt is at the foundation of this Hakarat HaTov.  We were wretched slaves, our children were thrown into the river and we were victims of whatever other atrocities they decided to bring upon us.  Hashem, in His mercy, protected us in Egypt as well and the Egyptians did not succeed in destroying all the children.  He took us out from there to "eternal freedom".  This is why the Torah commanded us don the Tefillin on our heads as well as on our arms, in order that intellectually we learn and remember the lessons of the exodus from Egypt, and emotionally we feel that we owe a debt of gratitude to the One Who took us out from slavery to freedom.  Both these signs are the solid foundation of our belief in Hashem and our serving Him.


We mentioned that Yetziat Mitzrayim brought us eternal freedom, and we recite nightly in the brachot of Kriat Shma: "Who struck with His anger at the firstborn of Egypt and removed His nation from their midst to eternal freedom".  In what way did we emerge from the bondage of Egypt to eternal freedom?  Hashem took us out of the bondage of Pharaoh and took us in as His servants (lehavdil)!  This implies that being a servant of Hashem is in fact "eternal freedom".

In what way is a servant of Hashem "free"?   Is this freedom?  Being enslaved to Hashem places many more demands on man than being a slave to Pharaoh.  We were only slaves to Pharaoh for six days a week (see Shmot Rabba 1:28), and we were given some semblance of freedom at night in order to sleep (ibid. 12).  One who serves Hashem is His servant day and night - twenty-four hours a day, seven days week he is subject to the laws of the Torah!  Halacha dictates how he must sleep at night (see Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim siman 239), how he must arise in the morning (see ibid. siman 1), how he must wash his hands (ibid. siman 4), how he must get dressed (ibid. siman 2), how and what he must eat, and much much more.  It is true that after all is said and done, it is far better to be a servant of Hashem than a servant of Pharaoh, but why is this referred to as "eternal freedom"?

The explanation is as follows: what is the true difference between a slave and a free man?  A slave is subordinate to the will of his master. Even if the master is kind and considerate and does not overburden the slave with hard labor the way Pharaoh did, in the final analysis it is the master who determines the course of the slave's life, not the slave himself.  A free man, on the other hand, dictates his own path in life, he does as he wishes and is not subjugated to the wishes of anyone else. 

How much more is this true when speaking of Pharaoh whose main desire was to kill us, while Hashem wishes to give us life - in this world and the Next World.  Serving Hashem is a fulfillment of our true desire - our soul wants to follow the ways of Hashem.  We do not know how to express this, so we needed Moshe Rabenu to bring the Torah down for us.  Our forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov were able to keep the Torah even without the benefit of Moshe Rabenu.  Our true desire is to serve Hashem and therefore being His servants is true eternal freedom.  Our soul, after much battle, descended to this world from heaven and wants to return (hopefully after a long life here) pure and clean the way it came.

R' Yehuda HaLevi said: "Slaves to their time - are truly enslaved, a slave to Hashem - he alone is free." There are those who are servants to their own time and their own nonsense.  These are slaves - a servant of Hashem is a free man because a free man does as he wishes and a person's true desire is to serve Hashem for this is the innermost desire of his soul.  It is for this that we must be thankful for having been taken out of Egypt.

Venue: Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh


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