From Degradation to Glory, Slavery to Freedom
Metehillah: In the Beginning Our Ancestors were Idol Worshippers
Now we begin once again to recite the story from a different perspective: the way Joshua, Moses’ assistant, retold the story when the Israelites entered the Land of Israel 40 years later.
Joshua opens the story with Abraham’s father, Terah, an idol worshipper in Mesopotamia. After recounting Moses’ journey with the people to the Promised Land, Joshua adjures them to forsake their idols and accept God alone. The people respond, “We will serve none but the Lord our God, and we will obey none but him.” (Joshua 24:24)
In the next paragraph the haggadah links us to the promise God made to Abraham in Genesis 15, the so-called Covenant of the Pieces, where God tells Abraham that his descendants will serve and suffer as slaves in a foreign land for 400 years. After 400 years the enslaving nation will be judged by God and Abraham’s descendants’ slavery will end, after plundering their enslavers.
Joshua’s history takes us from degradation to glory. But Genesis 15 demonstrates that God planned our Egyptian servitude from the very beginning of Abraham’s covenant. Why? Why would a benevolent God condemn his people to suffering at the hands of idolators?
Tradition teaches that once we, too, worshipped idols as the other nations did. We acted of our own volition, choosing idolatry! Indeed, as Joshua explains, we chose idolatries even after the exodus and God’s revelation at Sinai.
The paragraph V’hee She’amda, In Every Generation They Have Tried to Destroy Us, switches the focus from Egypt to the subsequent persecutions with which the nations of the world afflicted us. Not only in Egypt, but in seemingly every age a nation has risen to attempt to destroy God’s people. But in each case, God saved us. Thus, the redemption is limited to neither the Egyptian slave experience, nor to a future final messianic redemption. But in every generation Jews have experienced God’s mighty hand stretched out to prevent our destruction. This brings every generation, including our own, into the story of God’s salvation from persecution.
Our slavery and ongoing persecution, then, taught us essential lessons about choosing God, and therefore, occurred for our benefit both nationally and as individuals. We experienced and learned the lessons of idolatry and slavery in order that we would henceforth reject them and steadfastly live as God’s people, as Joshua admonished. The result is that we inherit Israel not because of God’s promise alone, but because of our worth as a people who understand the meaning of freedom, potentially superior in ethics and treatment of the other. It’s not that we are perfect, but without the experience of idolatry and slavery we would not comprehend the dangers of inflicting unmitigated sovereignty over other creatures of God who, although different in origin from us, nonetheless are created in God’s image. Indeed the most often quoted sentiment in the Torah is “You know the soul of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
This simple observation penetrates to the heart of the lesson of the seder, the lesson of slavery and freedom, for how can we deny to others what we so assiduously demand for ourselves? Having experienced God’s lesson of servitude to a human sovereign, by what right might we reject the lesson and inflict on others the very suffering from which God lifted us up for divine service? Our idolatry, slavery, freedom and devotion to God bind us as God’s servants, with not only a cerebral knowledge of the value of freedom, but the experience of the superiority of freedom over slavery to guide our lives.