Slavery, Redemption and Matzah
Pesach 2007 / 5767
Thoughts on Slavery, Redemption and Matzah
Based on teachings by the Freidiker Rebbe of Chabad
As formulated by A Still Small Voice
At a certain point on Avraham’s spiritual path, HaShem revealed to him some unpleasant details concerning the fate of his descendents:
Know for a certainty that your seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and shall be afflicted by them for four hundred years; And also that nation, whom they serve, will be judged by Me; and afterward [your descendents] shall come out with great wealth…(Gen. 15:13-14)
Midrashim note that this prophesy predicts a downward spiral of descent into slavery: first strangers, then servants, and finally afflicted ones. And the Torah reports that this last stage degenerated into a most perverse form of affliction called befarekh (בפרך). What distinguishes this extreme persecution? When does exploitation cross the line into perekh (פרך). The midrash teaches that eventually there was nothing further left to build, so the slavery took a cruel turn. With whips and insults the Egyptians drove their Jewish slaves in backbreaking labor to build structures that, at the end of the day, they would be forced to tear down. This brought a new agony of psychological torture into their ordeal. At least, on a chain gang, though the labor is crushing, the slave knows that he is contributing something of purpose to the universe. Though cruelly exploited, his labor has a value, and the slave can take some pride in that contribution. Here one sweats and toils and invests precious life juice for absolutely nothing. This pointless drudgery is existentially excruciating.
The Torah teaches that at some point this cruel affliction became so unbearable that the Israelites cried out in desperate prayer. In two verses the words for cry and groan appear four times.
… וַיָּמָת מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם וַיֵּאָנְחוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִן הָעֲבֹדָה וַיִּזְעָקוּ וַתַּעַל שַׁוְעָתָם אֶל ה’ מִן הָעֲבֹדָה: וַיִּשְׁמַע ה’ אֶת נַאֲקָתָם … וידע ה’:
…And the king of Egypt died and the children of Israel sighed from the bondage, and they cried, and their wail (for help) went up unto G-d from the bondage. And G-d heard their groaning and… took cognizance (of them). (Exodus 2:23-25)
This dramatic moment opened the gates to redemption, for in the very next passage, Moshe encountes the burning bush where he receives the prophesy which instructs him to confront Pharoah and demand that he release the Israelites NOW.
Rebbi Yosef Yitzchok Shneersohn (1880-1950) explains that this description of perek (פרך) has a spiritual counterpart that is ever-present in our lives today. It is the affliction of the neshama (Divine soul) in this world when its nefesh (vital/animal soul) opposes its vision and directs its precious life energy toward vain pursuits and immediate gratifications that bring no eternally enduring benefit to the soul. Each day the neshama is forced to spend its priceless life juice on acquiring, creating and enjoying things that are going to crumble and cease at the end of the day. These vain pursuits leave no eternal fruit of transformation on the soul. Anything that doesn’t endure beyond the grave is vanity from the neshama’s perspective.[i]
According to Rav Shneersohn, this is the meditation one should bring to eating the bread of affliction (i.e., matzah). The focus is to cry for one’s neshama that is forced to labor befarek by its cruel taskmaster (the pleasure-grabbing animal soul). The neshama holds the vision of our holy mission in the world and suffers whenever the nefesh grabs the wheel and steers us to yet another dead end. Yet the goal is not a coup, where the power flips and the neshama now dominates the nefesh. Religious coercion, though sometimes necessary, is not true freedom. Only when these two voices inside our soul (the nefesh and neshama) are perfectly aligned, only then are we truly free.
The Torah states (regarding the Ten Commandments), “And the writing was…engraven (חרות / charut) upon the tablets.” The rabbis read a deeper message into those words. “Don’t pronounce these Hebrew letters as charuth [which means engraven], rather read them as cheruth [which means freedom], for that is [paradoxically] the secret of freedom, to immerse oneself in studying the Law, i.e., Torah, [i.e. the commands etched into the Tablets.]
The goal, here, is for spiritual law to become so engraved into our nerve net that our instinctive and reflexive way of responding to the world is always in harmony with the highest truth of the moment. This is what it means to be free—when the nefesh and neshama are both doing exactly what they prefer, and there is no conflict or coercion, for they desire exactly the same thing.
A freedom prayer (and kavannah while eating matzah at the Passover sedar):
HaShem, please release me from all inappropriate and unproductive longings, fantasies, attachments, desires, needs, vulnerabilities, memories, fears, projections. Wash them through, burn them out. Let my deepest and most spontaneous desires always express your highest, simplest, and most joy-filled will for me.
Blessings for a joyful, kosher and truly liberating Pesach inside and out. Let our holy celebrations pull the lights of the final (and collective) redemption down into the world NOW.
[i] Sefer Maamarim-Kintrressimm vol. 1, p. קה – 214