And G-d said to Moses: “…Go to Pharaoh… and say to him: G-d, the G-d of the Hebrews, has sent me to you, saying: Let My people go, that they may serve Me.”
Our sages call Passover “The Season of Our Freedom.” For the Exodus from Egypt was more than one of the many salvations of Jewish history; it was the first and ultimate bestowal of freedom upon man. Before the Exodus, there was no true freedom; and having experienced the Exodus, the Jew is forever and invariably free, and no force on earth can enslave him.
“Freedom,” in the most basic sense of the word, is the removal of all constraints on a person’s development and self-expression. In other words, we assume that freedom is the natural state of man; that if we liberate a person of all external forces that limit and inhibit him, we have a free human being.
But if that were all there was to freedom, Passover would hardly qualify as “The Season of Our Freedom.” For while the Exodus freed us from Pharaoh and his taskmasters, it committed us to a greater, more embracing servitude. “When you take this nation out of Egypt,” G-d said to Moses from the burning bush at the foot of Mount Sinai when He first revealed Himself to him and commissioned him to redeem the people of Israel, “you shall serve G-d at this mountain.” Standing before Pharaoh, Moses did not merely demand in the name of G-d, “Let My people go,” but, “Let My people go, that they may serve Me.” The raison d’être of the Exodus was to bring us to Mount Sinai to be bound in a covenant with G-d as His “nation of priests and holy people”—a covenant delineated by the 613 commandments of the Torah.
(Thus, the festival of Shavuot, which marks the day on which we received the Torah at Sinai, is the only festival that has no calendar date: the Torah designates it not as a certain day of a certain month—as it does all other festivals—but as the 50th day after Passover. This is to emphasize that Shavuot is an extension and fulfillment of Passover, for the purpose of the Exodus was realized only on the day we stood at Sinai.)
Why, then, is freedom the defining quality of Passover? Granted, servitude to G-d is preferable to servitude to Pharaoh, and every moral person will insist that servitude to G-d is preferable to a hedonistic “freedom” in a lawless world. But servitude and freedom, by definition, are diametric opposites. So why is Passover the quintessential season of freedom? If anything, it should be called “The Season of Our Servitude”!
To understand the freedom achieved by the Exodus, we must examine the nature of Israel’s enslavement in Egypt.
Our sages state that “All galuyot (exiles and persecutions) are called by the name of Egypt.” The very name Mitzrayim (Hebrew for “Egypt”) means “boundaries” and “constraints.” Every time we are limited—by a foreign power, by a hostile or merely alien environment, by the corporeality of our bodies, the subjectivity of our minds or the shortcomings of our character—we are in Mitzrayim. If freedom means the absence of constraint, Mitzrayim is the limitation of man on all levels —physically, emotionally, intellectually, morally, or spiritually.
But there is more to galut than constraint and limitation. To refer to the Egyptian prototype, our galut in Egypt entailed more than an imprisonment of the body and a stifling of the spirit; we were slaves in Egypt, whose “lives were embittered with hard labor, with mortar and bricks and in all manner of work in the field—all the work to which they subjected them was crushing labor.”
The phrase “crushing labor” (avodat perech) appears repeatedly in the Torah’s account of the Egyptian galut, the text of the Passover Haggadah, and the symbolism of the seder observances. What is “crushing labor”? Maimonides defines it as “work that has no limit and no purpose.” Work—even most difficult work—that has a defined end-point and a defined objective is not as demoralizing as endless, futile work. The Egyptians, whose aim in enslaving the Jewish people was to break their spirit, refused to impart any schedule, logic, efficiency or utility to their work. They worked them at the most irrational hours, gave to each of them the task most ill-suited to his or her abilities, and repeatedly destroyed what they had built only to order them to rebuild it again and again.
Pharaoh had whip-wielding taskmasters to enforce his work-edict. Today, our world has “progressed” to the point that millions voluntarily subject themselves to “work that has no limit and no purpose”: work that spills over from its five-day, forty-hour framework to invade every moment and thought of the week; work that is dictated not by the capabilities and resources of the worker but by status, profitability and vogue; work that is not the means to an end but a self-perpetuating labor that becomes its own aim and objective.
Ultimately, the capacity for such labor can have only one source: the “spark of G-dliness” that is the essence of the human soul. The physical self is finite and pragmatic; how, then, is it capable of “work that has no limit and no purpose”? What can be the source of the drive to scale mountains because they are there or to search for centuries for a way to turn lead into gold? Only the infinite well of divinity at our core. From where stems the bottomless commitment to the ever-receding goal of material “success”? Only from a soul that possesses limitless vigor and fortitude, from a soul whose commitment to its Creator is not contingent upon envisionable goals and calculable objectives.
The soul of man is thus subjected to a galut within a galut: not only is it prevented from exressing its true self, but it is forced to express itself in ways that are completely opposed to its true desires. Not only is it constrained by a material self and world—it also suffers the usurpation of its quintessential powers to drive the material self’s mundane labors. Not only is the soul’s capacity for infinite and objectiveless commitment inhibited and repressed—it is distorted into an endless quest for material gain.
Reclaiming the Infinite in Man
The road out of Egypt passes through Sinai.
The Torah regulates our involvement with the material world. It commands that we may, and should, create, manufacture and do business six days a week, but that on the seventh day, not only must all work cease, but we should assume a state of mind in which “all your work is concluded.” On a daily basis, it tells us to set aside inviolable islands in time devoted to Torah study and prayer. And at all times, a multitude of Torah laws define the permissible and the forbidden in business and pleasure.
The Torah also enjoins us to “eat of the toil of your hands”—to invest only our marginal faculties in the business of earning a living, leaving our choicest talents free to pursue more spiritual goals. And it insists that all material pursuits should be but a means to an end, but a vessel to receive G-d’s blessings and a tool to aid us in our life’s work of bringing sanctity and G-dliness into our world.
In so restricting our physical lives, Torah liberates our souls. By limiting the extent and the nature of our material involvements, Torah extricates our capacity for infinite commitment from its material exile, freeing it to follow its natural course: to serve G-d in a manner of “no limit and no purpose”—in a manner that transcends the parameters of self, self-gain and our very conception of “achievement.”
Based on the Rebbe’s talks on Passover 5719 (1959) and 5720 (1960)
. Gevurot Hashem, chapter 61.
. Exodus 3:12.
. Ibid., 7:16, et al.
. Ibid., 19:6.
. Exodus 1:14.
. Karpas, the vegetable dipped in salt-water at the beginning of the seder, alludes to samech perech—”sixty myriads (600,000) enslaved by crushing labor.”
. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Servitude 1:6; see Hagahot Maimoniot, ibid.
. See Midrash Tanchuma, Vayeitzei 9; Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 1:14-15.
. Tanya, chapter 2; et al.
. Exodus 20:9 (as per Rashi’s commentary).
. Psalms 128:2.
. See Bread From Heaven, WIR, vol. VI, no. 20.
. Likkutei Sichot, vol. III, pp. 848-852.